Serbs rewrite history of Racak massacre

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"THE STRUGGLE of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting." So wrote the Czech novelist Milan Kundera. People want to change the past, so they fight "for access to the laboratories where photographs are retouched and... history's rewritten."

In Kosovo's capital, Pristina, access to the main forensic laboratory is blocked by armed guards from Serbia's special police. Inside, Serbia is attempting to rewrite history.

Exactly one week ago yesterday, history kicked down the door of the tiny village of Racak. Just before dawn several hundred Serbian police attacked with mortars and machine- guns. By nightfall more than 40 villagers were dead. The following day I saw their bodies scattered all over Racak - 17 of them in a heap on the stony hill above the village.

The Serbs now claim there was no massacre. Their pathologist says there is no sign that the victims were executed. A government minister suggests that the dead were rebels whose uniforms were stripped off and replaced with civilian clothes. Serbian television news gives extensive coverage to two French newspaper articles that cast doubt on the villagers' account of the killings. No massacre.

To assist in the struggle of memory against forgetting, walk with me through the village and up the hill above Racak on a frosty Saturday morning. The first six bodies are of men in their sixties: not the typical recruits of the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army. They have all been shot more than once, most in the head, although one has no head. They have been killed near their homes; three brothers together on a path leading away from the Serb attack. A Swedish monitor notes that the dead are all in civilian clothes and unarmed and that there are no signs of a battle.

A few hundred yards away are three more bodies on the hillside. Each has been shot. Then in a gully, strung out like a hideous necklace, are six old men fatally and terribly injured, the line of their bodies ending in the heap of corpses. Many in this pile are teenagers and young men. Many have been shot in the head, several directly between the eyes.

Moving around them, taking photographs and notes, and speaking into small cassette recorders, are half a dozen international monitors. After working for two hours one monitor, a London police officer, tells me he believes many of the victims have been shot at close range.

After viewing the scene, the chief monitor, William Walker, says: "As a layman, it looks to me like executions." Mr Walker is no mere layman. He was an American diplomat and ambassador in Central America during the murderous Eighties and is no stranger to state-sponsored killing. His feisty British right-hand man, John Drewienkiewicz, says of the dead: "These were old men, most of them, in their work clothes."

I look carefully to try to match the bullet holes in the clothing of the men with the wounds on their bodies. I witnessed an incident in October when the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) removed clothing from two of their wounded men to protect them from attack in hospital. So my eyes are open, but in this case it does not appear to me that any clothing has been removed. Only one man wears black boots like those I have seen worn by KLA rebels. But in Kosovo there is not a wide range of black boots. One experienced monitor later said he was convinced the bullet holes and the wounds matched.

The villagers I talk to are quite adamant about what happened. The men in this group were separated by Serb police from the women and children, and were told they would taken to a nearby police station. Instead they were ordered up the hill to their deaths.

Two days later, the Serbs shelled Racak and took away the bodies. They had the evidence. After just one day of post-mortem examinations, after completing the autopsies on just five bodies, the chief pathologist said: "Not a single body bears any sign of execution." As if execution requires the victim's hands to be tightly bound and their eyes covered with black cloth. "There was no massacre," he announced. It is safe to assume that his eventual report will provide the scientific back-up for this grotesque verdict.

On Thursday, two French journalists raised questions about the massacre. The KLA, they alleged, may have fabricated some of the evidence and moved some of the bodies. A television cameraman's footage of the attack, they pointed out, did not tally with the villagers' account.

I have seen the footage shot by the Serbian cameraman. It shows the Serbian police attacking, then moving from house to house. The fact that it does not show the Serbs killing villagers does not mean that such killings did not take place.

The monitors concede that some of the bodies may have been moved. They suspect that a bullet wound to the head of one victim was inflicted after death. This does not prove, however, that evidence was fabricated. For example, it does not rule out the possibility that the head wound was a coup de grace inflicted by a Serb police officer in the mistaken belief that the victim was still alive. The French articles have been seized upon by the Serb authorities desperate to muddy the waters of Racak.

There is no doubt that the KLA was in Racak when the Serbs attacked. A KLA commander told me eight of his men had been killed but he insisted that none of them was among the dead in the hillside gully. Of course, he may be lying. But even if he is, surely that does not justify the killing of the other 32 villagers.

I believe the villagers did not lie when they described the Serb attack. I believe 15-year-old Hasbe Azemi was telling the truth when he described how his father was led away by the police. His father is now dead.

The monitors are adamant: this was a massacre. I found the evidence compelling. I then witnessed days of brutal shelling by the Serbs to seize the evidence. So far, the Serb investigators have not interviewed a single villager about what happened. The chief prosecutor of the War Crimes Tribunal has been refused access to the country. Access to the site has been mined.

The world has to be clear about what the Serbian police did in Racak last Saturday and what they are trying to do now.

Because, as Kundera said: "The bloody massacre in Bangladesh quickly covered over the memory of the bloody invasion of Czechoslovakia, the assassination of Allende drowned out the groans of Bangladesh, the war in the Sinai desert made people forget Allende, the Cambodian massacre made people forget Sinai, and so on and so forth until ultimately everyone lets everything be forgotten."

We must not forget Racak. I never will.

Bill Neely is ITN's Europe Correspondent