When seeing is believing but only half the story

By Annika Sandlund
Kukes, Albania, 26 August 1999

The first thing I noticed when driving into Kosovo from Albania when the border finally opened in mid-June was that most of the houses still had their windows in place. Having travelled through Bosnia during and after the Bosnian war this seemed incredible.

The second thing I noticed was the hotel and the private gasoline station by the road which were surrounded by barbed wire. This was where the Serb refugees had hidden themselves, protected and escorted out of the country by NATO. By then the paramilitary, the army and most of the perpetrators of violence had already left. Now nearly all the Serbs are gone, but the barbed wire is still there, protecting the tents and the houses where the Roma people live.

They say truth is the first victim of every war. Driving through some parts of Kosovo you can really doubt that there ever was a war.

This must be the most widely-covered conflict of the 1990s. Still there were no journalists in the area. And after the first month, there were hardly any other people around. Half a million expelled in just a few weeks. In the villages of Kudha Mahde, where my friends used to live, and which was totally burned down during the war, only two old women and one old man had managed to stay alive, hiding in the potato cellar. The rest had left, or are buried in one of the mass graves surrounding the town. The ones who left walked over the border, and turned to the cameras that were waiting for them. They told their story, again and again and again. We saw Bosnia's horrors mirrored in their eyes and chose to believe them. They were not lying.

Although the independent western journalists left Kosovo in March 1999, save for a few like Jon Swain (The Sunday Times) and Paul Watson (Los Angeles Times), the reports of what was happening came solely from the victims. Natural, humane. Sad stories to make you feel ethically capable of sound moral judgements. Of course it is wrong to kill.

Of course the media was controlled. That was really not the problem, although it was extremely frustrating for the media to have to cover the war from the sidelines. Were there any Serb refugees during the war - people fleeing north, fleeing the KLA and the NATO bombs, the same way the Albanians fled south over the Morini border crossing to relative safety and international aid? People tell me the Serb refugees never made it, killed by their own for being cowards and traitors, or killed by the KLA they met on the road. I don’t know - I can’t recall anybody any asking that question. Why didn’t the Roma leave? The discrimination directed towards them is equally harsh whether it is exercised by Serbs or Albanians. They were the ones truly trapped.

To hear the sad stories from the Albanian Kosovars was in everybody’s interest. It was absolutely necessary for the West in order to ensure public support for the war and essential for Milosevic who wanted to show his people how well his army could fight the whole world. So they were interviewed again and again, ad nauseam. I remember a TV reporter promising his viewers yet another refugee - just as long as you stay with us on this channel. And we all did. In the end we all believed that this was really what the war was about - about getting this people home.

But the refugees were not the root problem, they were the logical by-product of the way we chose to fight the war, high up in the air, unable to control the slaughter, the human rights abuses, the ethnic cleansing, the hell created by ruthless political leadership. Now the refugees are back, but the root causes are all still there. So the West managed to correct it’s own mistake without any blood on the boots of our own soldiers, but that’s it. Making the refugees the sole focus of attention might have been a necessity, but it was, however, a mistake.

This of course, is not only the fault of the media. As a journalist, I know journalists are aware of the mistakes made. Iraq, Bosnia, Rwanda, Kosovo. Ten years of hell, spread over several continents. In all these places, the people are dead but their leaders are still alive, happily leading their countries into new catastrophes. In most cases the refugee population has shifted from one ethnicity to another, and sometimes also crossed over a different border, but the 136,000 Serb and Roma refugees in Serbia (according to the UNHCR) are refugees nonetheless. The paramilitaries do not become refugees, they just go home. All around the world, journalists report what they see, even when they see very little. Truth is the victim only because we, as readers, choose to believe that there is one understandable, logical, reasonable truth out there somewhere. That a war in a foreign country is explainable on the front page of a newspaper. That war is explainable. And that it is all about the things you can see, about the reality you can catch with a camera. That’s never more than half the story.

 Annika Sandlund participated in the Kosovo seminar at the Finnish Institute. She is currently working as a monitor for the European Commission's Humanitarian Office. She is stationed in Albania, on the border of Kosovo. During 1991-1995 she was working as a journalist in Croatia, Serbia and Bosnia.

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