One grieving villager uncovered the headless corpse of his 65-year-old brother. "Jesus Christ," exclaimed a distressed U.S. diplomat as he picked his way past blood-soaked massacre victims in Racak, a tiny village 18 miles southwest of Kosovo's capital of Pristina.

"At least let's give him the dignity of covering him up," said the diplomat, U.S. Ambassador William Walker. Beyond shock, the bespectacled diplomat, with thinning red hair and a wispy moustache, barely could contain his fury.

"I see bodies like this with their faces blown away at close range in execution fashion and it's obvious people with no value for human life have done this," Walker told journalists. "Unfortunately, I do not have the words to describe my personal revulsion at the site of what can only be described as an unspeakable atrocity."

Walker demanded that the Serb government supply the names of police officers and soldiers involved in the operation. He wanted the killers tracked down and delivered to the international war crimes tribunal at the Hague.

"From what I personally saw, I do not hesitate to describe the crime as a massacre, a crime against humanity," he said. "Nor do I hesitate to accuse the government security forces of responsibility."

Yet, as genuine as Walker's outrage appeared to be, there was a dark irony about his personal role in demanding that Serb authorities be held accountable for civilian massacres. During the 1980s, Walker was a key figure working with U.S.-backed military operations in three countries of Central America: Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador.

In all three violence-torn nations, U.S.-backed forces committed well-documented atrocities against unarmed civilians and enemy captives. Yet, the Reagan administration routinely ignored, disputed or minimized those slaughters.

Though tens of thousands of civilians died in the three countries at the hands of allied forces, no war crimes tribunal was convened or even seriously contemplated. No one was judged guilty of crimes against humanity: not the perpetrators, not their superior officers and not their political allies in Washington. Only a few -- mostly low-level soldiers -- were punished at all.

To make matters worse, President Reagan and his subordinates often tried to discredit journalists and human rights investigators who uncovered evidence of war crimes.

I had a personal taste of how this worked when I was on a reporting assignment for Newsweek magazine in El Salvador in 1983. I had been traveling with a patrol of leftist guerrillas who were engaged in hit-and-run fighting against the Salvadoran army near the Guazapa Volcano.

The guerrilla unit was in retreat, followed by peasants who feared retaliation from the Salvadoran army that was known for butchering guerrilla sympathizers. As we made our way through the mountainous terrain, the army caught up with some civilian stragglers who had lagged behind, slowed by the presence of children.

From a distance of about two miles, I watched through binoculars. Soldiers of the U.S.-trained Atlacatl Battalion used guns and machetes to execute two dozen men, women and children near the village of Tenango. A guerrilla who was closer to the scene radioed a detailed account of the massacre as it was underway.

About two weeks later, after the government offensive ended, the guerrillas made their way back to the village and heard reports that the army had killed a total of 68 civilians.

As I later wrote in Newsweek: "Outside Tenango, the signs of the slaughter were everywhere: charred and scattered bits of clothing, shoes and schoolbooks. ... When I saw the bodies of the victims, vultures had already picked their skeletons clean and village dogs had begun to carry away the bones."

The Reagan administration reacted to the Tenango reports as it had toward many other accounts of war crimes in El Salvador: deny and denounce.
Several years later, an American journalist read a U.S. embassy cable about my report. He summarized the cable as stating: "The alleged Tenango massacre described in Newsweek never happened. It is a fabrication. Reporter Don North is lying."

By 1983, deny-and-denounce had become the administration's habitual retort to nearly all reports about the Salvadoran government's "dirty war." To President Reagan, Central America was the front line of the Cold War and extreme actions were justified.

The pattern started just days after Reagan's election with comments by U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick and Secretary of State Al Haig suggesting that the rape-murder of four American churchwomen in El Salvador could be blamed on the women for their supposedly leftist political views and actions.

Perhaps, the best documented cover-up was the case of El Mozote, a village in northeastern El Salvador where the U.S.-trained Atlacatl Battalion rounded up and executed about 800 men, women and children in December 1981.

When the massacre was reported in the U.S. press, senior State Department officials, Thomas Enders and Elliott Abrams, went to Capitol Hill and ridiculed the massacre reports. Those denials were disproved a decade later when a United Nations forensic team dug up hundreds of skeletons in El Mozote.

During the 1980s, William Walker was regarded as a professional foreign service officer who saw his job as carrying out administration policy regardless of personal qualms. Friends and associates said Walker tried quietly to moderate Reagan’s support for right-wing elements, but he did not challenge those policies directly nor was he willing to put his career at serious risk.

Throughout the decade, this loyal diplomat often found himself at the front lines of Reagan’s most controversial strategies. In the early 1980s, Walker was assigned as the deputy chief of mission in Honduras, another country pulled into the region's political violence. The CIA was then collaborating with Argentine military advisors to build the Nicaraguan contra army into a force for attacking leftist-ruled Nicaragua from bases in Honduras.

The contras and the Argentines also were assisting hard-line elements of the Honduran army in forming death squads that "disappeared" about 200 politically suspect students and labor leaders. In a 1994 report, a Honduran truth commission corroborated those cases of political murders and blamed military officers who were participating in the CIA's covert war.

By 1985, Walker had advanced to the post of deputy assistant secretary of state for Central America, making him one of Elliott Abrams's top deputies. In that role, Walker continued aiding the contras as they expanded their unsavory reputation for brutality and corruption.

Walker popped up on the periphery of the Iran-contra scandal, but his diplomatic career kept advancing. In 1988, Walker became ambassador to El Salvador, where the army's brutality had grown more selective but had by no means ended.

On Nov. 16, 1989, uniformed soldiers from the notorious Atlacatl Battalion dragged six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her 15-year-old daughter from their beds. The soldiers forced the victims to the ground and then executed them with high-powered rifles at close range, literally blowing their brains out.

The evidence pointed to the Salvadoran army and implicated the high command. But Walker defended Col. Rene Emilio Ponce, the Salvadoran army chief of staff, a U.S. favorite. "Management control problems exist in a situation like this," Walker said at a news conference.

On the wider repression of Salvadoran dissidents, Walker stated that "I'm not condoning it, but in times like these of great emotion and great anger, things like this happen." [AP, Dec. 5, 1989] Observing Walker's mushy reaction to war crimes, a New York Times editorial chastised the ambassador for making only "a bureaucratic peep." [Dec. 25, 1989]

As criticism of the Jesuit murders mounted, Walker went to Washington to poke holes in the case against the army. "Anyone can get uniforms," Walker told Rep. Joseph Moakley, D-Mass., on Jan. 2, 1990. "The fact that they [the killers] were dressed in military uniforms was not proof that they were military." [Washington Post, March 21, 1993]

Walker was even more protective in internal cables to the State Department. He warned Secretary of State James A. Baker III that the United States should "not jeopardize" the progress in El Salvador "by what we do to solve past deaths, however heinous."

In a "secret" cable, Walker added that "I have reached the conclusion that the [U.S.] Embassy [in El Salvador] must cease the pursuit of unilateral overt information-gathering or face continued no-win decisions and criticism. I recommend that the Embassy be so instructed and that all further investigative effort be left to the GOES [government of El Salvador]." [Declassified State Department cables as compiled by the National Catholic Reporter, Sept. 23, 1994]

After the Salvadoran civil war ended, a United Nations report concluded that the Salvadoran army was guilty of widespread human rights violations. Declassified U.S. government records also confirmed that the Reagan administration knew of the army's responsibility for many of the war's worst atrocities, but hid the information from Congress and the public. [For more details, see NYT, March 21, 1993.]

In staking out a more pro-human rights position in Kosovo, Walker has referred both publicly and privately to his diplomatic performance in Central America. Referring to the cover-up of the Jesuit murders, Walker said he "would hate like hell to be accused of that again." [Washington Post, Jan. 23, 1999]

A State Department associate said Walker regretted his failure to condemn atrocities in Central America in the 1980s and hoped to make up for those mistakes in Kosovo. The associate noted that Walker was in mid-career at the time of the Central American wars and feared for his future.

Now in his early 60's, near the end of his career, Walker feels freer to condemn wrongdoing, even if his statements conflict with a U.S. policy that has been ambivalent about the best course in Kosovo, said the associate who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Currently, Walker is head of a 700-member observer team of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Their job is to monitor a truce reached last fall between the Serb-dominated government of Yugoslavia and ethnic Albanian separatists in Kosovo, a southwestern Yugoslav province.

Last spring and summer, the Serbs mounted a military offensive against the Albanian guerrillas known as the Kosovo Liberation Army, or KLA. The Serbs shocked the world with a scorched-earth campaign that killed scores of civilians and destroyed whole villages.

Under NATO pressure, the Serb campaign was halted last October. But NATO has been uncomfortable acting as the protector of the KLA, which some diplomats consider a terrorist organization. The KLA also has violated the truce and balked at serious peace negotiations.

During the new crisis, NATO has threatened air strikes against the Serbs as retaliation for Racak. But Western diplomats don’t want NATO, effectively, to serve as an air force for the KLA.

"The KLA ignore the cease-fire," one American diplomat complained in a recent Reuters dispatch. "They are rude, sneering and uncooperative. And they can be shockingly brutal, not just against Serbs, but against their own people."

Instead of hibernating for the winter -- as NATO had hoped -- the KLA quickly re-supplied, re-armed and renewed their struggle to gain control of strategic areas of Kosovo.

"I don't know who the hell they think they are," a Western diplomat told Reuters. "For guys who haven't done anything on the battlefield but embarrass themselves, they are incredibly arrogant."

Despite Western ambivalence about the KLA, Walker was not willing to play politics with the dead of Racak. His denunciation of the massacre sharpened the diplomatic dispute between NATO and Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

After the blunt words, the Serbs declared Walker persona non grata and demanded his departure. "You're acting as a prosecutor and a judge at the same time," complained Serb Prime Minister Milan Milutinovic in televised comments about Walker.

Like other Serb leaders, Milutinovic insisted that the Racak victims were not civilians but Albanian guerrillas killed in combat, an assertion that echoed a frequent claim made by the Reagan administration in defense of allied-sponsored massacres in Central America during the 1980s.

Walker refused to budge from his post. Then, faced with a possible NATO air strike, the Serbs backed down. But the Serbs continued to abuse the Muslim Albanians in Racak.

Defying a Muslim tradition that requires prompt burial of the dead, Serb police assaulted Racak again as the grieving village was preparing to bury the victims. The Serbs advanced behind a shield of mortar and machine-gun fire.
Terrified villagers, journalists and OSCE observers retreated. The police barged into the mosque where 40 shrouded bodies were lying in a row. The police carried the bodies to trucks and transported them back to Pristina for autopsies.

Skeptics suspect that the Serbs will use the autopsy findings to support a charge that the victims died in battle and that the Albanian guerrillas mutilated the corpses to discredit the Serbs. The OSCE observer group, however, has already concluded that Serb police were responsible for the atrocity.

Some foreign observers who have studied the blood feuds of the Balkans see the Serb brutality at Racak as another chapter in the ugly nationalistic conflicts that have roiled the region for centuries. There is even a word in the Serb language that captures the senselessness of the violence. The word is "inat," meaning "irrational, spiteful defiance, regardless of the consequences."

Still, many Serbs are in denial about their government's responsibility for many atrocities in recent years, including the 1996 massacre of 7,000 Muslims after the fall of Srebrenica in eastern Bosnia.

The Serb media often presents strained explanations for brutal actions that have been blamed on the Serb military. When Serb police bullets killed a three-month-old baby in Kosovo last fall, Serb TV insisted that the story was a hoax, a rubber doll planted by Albanians.

Though the propaganda arguments fall on deaf ears of foreign journalists, the rationalizations have proved effective with the Serb population. The Independent Media Center in Belgrade has estimated that up to 95 percent of Serbs accept state propaganda.

Serb leaders have enjoyed success, too, denouncing independent journalists who challenge the government’s line. The Milosevic government also accuses domestic opponents of treason when they criticize Serb military actions.

In another bitter irony, Walker and his colleagues in the Reagan administration employed similar tactics when denying evidence of war crimes in Central America. First, they would challenge the charges or rationalize the actions. Then, they would denounce American journalists and dispute the patriotism of critics.

Yet, some acts of war are so universally brutal that they stain the guilty even as the perpetrators seek to conceal the crimes. Racak has become the latest watchword for Serb brutality – just as El Mozote and the many killing fields in Central America were testaments to what New York Times reporter Raymond Bonner called the "weakness and deceit" of U.S. policy in the 1980s.

In loudly denouncing the brutality at Racak, Walker may be demonstrating regret for his mute support of the political slaughters in Central America. But I am reminded of the moral dilemma that Peter Marin described in Coming to Terms with Vietnam.

"All men like all nations are tested twice in the moral realm; first by what they do, then by what they make of what they do. A condition of guilt denotes a kind of second chance. Men are, as if by a kind of grace, given a chance to repay the living what it is they find themselves owing the dead."

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