The truth is crueller than fiction

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The Independent Online
BELGRADE - No sooner had the Yugoslav civil war broken out last summer than all sides accused the others of the most horrific atrocities - pregnant women disembowelled in one village, children mutilated in a second, men castrated in a third, writes Tony Barber.

Among the most serious allegations was a report last week by the Belgrade-based news agency Tanjug that Serbian forces had found the remains of 1,000 Serbs in a mass grave at a sports stadium in the northern Bosnian town of Odzak. Tanjug said the Serbs were residents of three nearby villages - Novi Grad, Donja Dubica and Krnjak - who had died during three months of captivity by Croatian forces. The story came from one of Tanjug's reporters, who quoted eyewitness accounts.

On Tuesday, however, Tanjug - which takes a pro-Serbian stance in the war - withdrew its report. It quoted commanders of the Bosnian-Serb army as saying that they had found no evidence of mass graves in Odzak.

Tanjug added that its reporter, whom it described as a part-time correspondent, had not made clear that he had simply picked up the claim from Glas, a newspaper published in the Bosnian- Serb stronghold of Banja Luka. He had not verified the claim, and as a result of his 'professional oversights' Tanjug's editorial board had 'voted to suspend co- operation' with him.

The retraction was a rare example of one side in the war willingly admitting that one of its allegations had turned out to be false. The official press, radio and television of each side have shown few qualms about accusing the other of enormous crimes, and the few independent media - often blackened as 'traitors' - have come under heavy pressure to toe the line.

Tanjug may have withdrawn the story not just because it was wrong but because, as all parties to the war have discovered, to allege an atrocity falsely is often to provoke a real atrocity in retaliation and then a second in retaliation for that.

Many fighters and civilians, whether Serb, Croat or Muslim, have personal experience of the war's brutality, and each side believes there are no barbarities of which their enemies are incapable. The war hysteria is fuelled by memories of the gruesome slaughters that took place during the civil war of the 1940s.

Unfortunately, Tanjug's retraction may have little effect. Month by month, well-documented cases of genuine atrocities emerge, meaning that each side has more reason than ever to hate the other.