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Commentary | PERSPECTIVE ON KOSOVO

Genocide by Mass Starvation

NATO strategy makes sense on one level. But, in humanitarian terms, it's a fatal miscalculation.

April 25, 1999|BILL FRELICK | Bill Frelick is a senior policy analyst at the U.S. Committee for Refugees

President Slobodan Milosevic's ability to stop and start massive refugee flows out of Kosovo is a chilling sign of his power and intent. From the Nazis to the Khmer Rouge, closed borders have been a serious sign that genocide is occurring. Genocide does not require gas chambers or even mass graves. A favored tactic is calculated mass starvation. That is what is happening in Kosovo.

Serb forces used food as a weapon during the war in Bosnia. They rarely engaged in battle, preferring to surround and besiege an area, subject it to shelling and cut it off from food.

Long before the bombing began, Milosevic began a systematic campaign to deplete Kosovo of its food resources. Beginning last summer, Serb forces:

* restricted importation of basic items into Kosovo, including wheat, rice, cooking oil, sugar, salt, meat, milk, livestock, heating fuel and gasoline;

* looted warehouses and burned fields, haystacks, winter food stocks and firewood.

* killed livestock and often dropped their carcasses into wells to contaminate the water;

* shot at ethnic Albanian farmers trying to harvest or plant;

* Harassed, persecuted and sometimes killed local humanitarian aid workers;

* created nearly 300,000 internally displaced people, most of whom stayed with private families, eating what private stores of food they had managed to save.

In the best of times, Kosovo is not a self-sufficient food producer. By early this year, with planting and harvesting brought to a halt and with food stocks consumed or destroyed, there were no food reserves outside Serbian government shops. Most of the population was dependent on humanitarian aid delivered through a network of U.N. agencies and local and international nongovernmental organizations. That network is gone. The International Committee of the Red Cross, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and the World Food Program are out of Kosovo. International nongovernmental groups have been expelled and are now working with refugees outside Kosovo. Local nongovernment groups have been decimated, their staff members lucky to become refugees themselves.

In the meantime, the U.S. government has been uncovering increasing evidence of mass graves and gathering other information indicating that mass killings might be taking place. If NATO takes seriously its own evidence of genocide and is serious about suppressing it and not simply in punishing its perpetrators after the fact, the military needs to secure territory and deliver food and other relief aid over land.

In purely military terms, NATO's war of attrition makes perfect sense: Use superior technology and armaments to degrade the enemy's capacity to wage war. In humanitarian terms, however, this is a fatal miscalculation.

Before NATO's military objectives can be achieved, Milosevic will already have accomplished his objective: Grinding down Kosovo's 1.8 million ethnic Albanians. One rule of war is this: Men with guns do not starve; civilians do. NATO is not going to beat the Yugoslav military by starving them out, and if it did, the civilians would perish long before them.

As hunger and disease loom, various interim steps have been suggested: internal safe havens, food air drops, humanitarian corridors. Each is flawed, largely because each requires cooperation from Milosevic that in all likelihood will never come to be. Milosevic could achieve his aims simply by dragging his feet.

Everyone is concerned about the lives of NATO servicemen, but the people on the executioner's block cannot wait for a risk-free, soldier-friendly environment for their rescue. They can't wait for the amassing of 200,000 troops, if that will take months of buildup and field support. They can't wait for a "permissive environment."

NATO has clearly stated its objectives, which are the withdrawal of Milosevic's police and army from Kosovo and the return of refugees. It needs to add another objective: the rescue of civilians who are trapped inside Kosovo and in danger of being starved out.

This is a race against time. It is a race we are losing. If NATO is not able to fulfill this rescue mission, its eventual victory will be hollow indeed.

Can the military respond quickly enough? If we take them at their word, the answer is no. We will only find out if they are ordered, not asked.

President Clinton, in his role as a NATO leader, needs to give clear, unambiguous orders for a rapid deployment of ground troops in Kosovo. Bolstered by the evidence of genocide that the U.S. government itself has collected, he has no choice. Knowing what is going on, his failure to suppress genocide would be unforgivable.

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