But in the first meeting, he promised that he would live up to the commitments,
that he was responsible for my security, that he'd live up 200 percent to
anything that was in the agreement. But his definition of some of the terms of
the agreement were quite at variance with what Dick Holbrooke's understanding
was. So the first meeting was OK. |
The second meeting, a month or so later, was not as pleasant. I was instructed
to go back and tell him that there were some serious non-compliance issues. I
think I gave as good as I took. . . . My military assistant told me that he
couldn't believe I would talk to a chief of state with quite that tone, and
with quite that strength. But Milosevic understands tough words. He's not the
sort of person you yield to, or you let him get away with some of the things he
says. He takes that as a sign of weakness, of vacillation, and then he's all
over you. So I usually try to be at least as strong in my words as he was.
Did you get a sense that this was a man who was interested in peace?
Peace on his terms, yes, definitely. But his terms were that Kosovo was his,
and that 90 percent of the population had to do what he told them to do. He
did try to convince me that the stories that most of the people in Kosovo were
Albanians were not true. He had a set of figures proving that the gypsies, the
Egyptians, the Hungarians and the other minority groups, plus the Serbs,
actually made up more than 50 percent of the population. He also was very
insistent, in a statement reminiscent of other times, that some of his best
friends were Albanians. He said those friends told him that the KLA was a
bunch of terrorists who had no popular support, and that's what he was out to
pry out of Kosovo.
May I ask you to talk about your first impressions of who the KLA are, and
what they're about? At that point in time, what did you think they were
I went out there without much having been said to me about the KLA. There was
a negotiation process underway, trying to get a negotiated agreement between
the two sides. I went out there, and of course my first serious description of
the KLA was Mr. Milosevic's, which was somewhat negative, to say the least. I
didn't get out and about for the first few weeks. On my first trip outside, I
was impressed by passing through a roadblock that was manned by fellows in
black and camouflage fatigue uniforms. They were well armed, and looked a bit
rag-tag, with different types of uniforms, different combinations and such.
My first talks with KLA commanders were a bit tense. We met under
circumstances in which you weren't quite sure what was going on, or what they
were expecting. My first several meetings were in this town where they had
established themselves and were protecting the people. You go in, you sit on
the dirt floor, and you take off your shoes, as you always do in Albanian
homes. Hot tea is served. But you could tell that the fellows on the other
side of the room were really very suspicious of you, and didn't quite know what
to think of you. I was trying to talk some sense into them, saying, "Look,
you've made commitments to the international community. You've said you won't
break the cease-fire--don't." And they, of course, came back and said, "Well,
unless we're attacked, we will not. But you know if we're attacked, we'll
defend our people and ourselves."
I had several meetings with the KLA, and every time I met with them, it was
almost always a different commander, so you'd have to go through a certain
amount of touchy-feely. But I came to respect the guys I was meeting, for the
most part. I had been told that a lot of the KLA leaders were former bandits
or warlords, or engaged in contraband over the frontiers. And maybe they were,
in other parts of the KLA, but those weren't the guys I saw. The guys I dealt
with were regional military commanders, who had obviously achieved their
position of command by fighting, by being in the hills, by taking care of their
people, and by protecting villagers. We had a lot of talks about what they
were trying to do. I came away with a slightly different impression of the KLA
than most people who were involved in Kosovo have, because I was seeing them
every day up in the hills environment.
What did they want to do?
The KLA certainly wants independence. They want to protect their villagers.
They want to get the international community to come in there and get
independence for them. Even though they've committed some acts that were to be
condemned--kidnappings, killings, assassinations--I found that the KLA tried to
keep promises they made to me. When they gave me their word that they would do
something or not do something, they tried to live up to it, as opposed to
Milosevic, who made all sorts of promises and so help me God, lived up to none
of them. I also found when the KLA committed one of these offenses, it was
usually limited in scale. One, two, or three people might be targeted, usually
policemen, or military--there was some reason they could point to as to why
they had done it. On the other side, the Milosevic forces would go in and
destroy a whole village and its people to chase one KLA terrorist. There was
not a moral equivalency between what they were doing. I came to the conclusion
that most of them were, in fact, fighting for their beliefs.
Ambassador, on January 15, your life's about to change. You get a call.
What happens? How do you first hear about it?
. . . Late in the afternoon, January 15, my British deputy told me that he had
just been informed that a military clash had taken place out by a village
called Racak. Neither he nor I had ever heard of Racak. The Serbs reported
encountering a column of the KLA. They engaged them in fighting, and had
killed 15 of them. I asked if we'd been able to get any of our OSCE people to
Racak, and the general told me that we had gotten one of our little orange
vehicles into the village very late in the afternoon, and that they had found
one dead person in the village. I believe it was a woman, and three people
were wounded. It was getting dark, and our standing operating procedures were
to not have our vehicles on the road after dark in the outlying parts of the
province. Since they had three wounded people that they wanted to get to
medical attention, they came out of the village very quickly, just before it
got very dark.
So I went home that night with this report. We'd had other reports like that
before, in which the government informed us of a military encounter. Next
morning, on January 16, I went into the office fairly early. I asked my
British deputy if we'd followed up, and he said we had sent another patrol into
the village. He said, "I'm telling you, Mr. Ambassador, there's something
fishy here. Something doesn't smell right." And he suggested that I should
maybe go out to the village and take a look. So I said, "Sure, let's do it."
So my deputy, myself, my protective detail, my interpreter, and a whole bunch
of journalists who were in town formed a tail behind my little caravan. We
went out to Racak, which is about two hours away from Pristina. There's a lot
of snow, ice, cold, and frost. We entered the village, and there were a good
number of journalists there already, and there were a good number of my little
orange patrol cars. My Canadian regional representative in that part of the
country came over to tell me that this was really very fishy, and he wanted me
to see what they had found that morning when they went into the village. There
were a lot of women around in tears and crying. We came out of the village.
The village is down at the bottom of a couple of hills. There's a ravine, a
sort of empty riverbed going up the hill from the village. It was covered with
rocks, debris, and ice and snow. We started up this ravine. After about 500
yards, we came across the first body. A couple of journalists were there, and
a cameraman was taking some pictures. It was a man's body. There was a small
blanket over where his head should be. They lifted the blanket to show me that
his head was gone. You could tell just by looking at the body that his clothes
were the clothes of a peasant. He was obviously an old man. There were
bullets all through the body, and blood all on the ground. I was a little
shaken by this thing with the head gone.
We started up the hill again, and every 15 or 20 yards, there was another
body, all in sorts of grotesque postures. All the ones that I saw were older
men, and they were obviously peasants. There was no sign of uniforms or
weapons. They were killed where they lay, the way the bullets were in their
bodies, in their eyes, and in their tops of their heads, they had been killed
where they lay. There was no way this could have been faked. We saw about 10
bodies while going up the hill. We finally reached a pile of bodies, maybe 17,
18, 19 bodies just helter-skelter in a big pile, all with horrible wounds in
the head. All of them were in these clothes that peasants in that part of the
world wear when they're out in the fields doing their jobs. A good number of
them had lost control of their bodily functions, and so their clothes were
stained, and that sort of thing. This had not been concocted by anyone, even
though this was the later the claim of the government.
I talked to some of my people who'd been there, and to some of the
journalists. Then I talked to some of the villagers--a couple of men and some
women--who had been there the previous day. The men had gotten out of the
village before the troops moved in. All the stories were very consistent. The
day before, either in late morning or early afternoon, the village was
surrounded by the army, and they had lobbed shells in--a sort of artillery
barrage. That was followed by the special police coming in, including some
masked paramilitary guys with these hoods on. They herded the women and the
small children into the mosque, and rounded up the men and boys they could
find. In mid-afternoon, they marched the men and boys off. The villagers did
not assume they were being taken off to be killed. They assumed they were
being taken off for interrogation, which quite often happened. Our patrol came
into the village, and got some of these people out who were wounded in the
It got dark, and the villagers that were still there went to sleep. When they
woke up the next morning and went out of the village, the bodies were
You're on a ravine, and you've just seen a pile of bodies. What's that
If my memory is right, and it quite often isn't, I told a couple of the
interviewers that I'd seen massacres before. I'd seen people who'd been
executed. But I'd never seen anything like this. This exceeded anything I'd
seen before, especially that pile of bodies.
The bodies were so torn up by shots, by bullets. An awful lot of the shots
were to the top of the head, and the eyes blown out--this sort of thing. It
was just ghastly. It was absolutely horrible. All you could think is how
could one human being do this to another human being. It was very, very hard
to take. When I got back to the office again, a lot of the press followed us
back. A lot of them were filing this sort of thing, and they wanted a press
conference. I said to give me a half an hour to think of what I want to say.
I sat down at my typewriter or my computer, and knocked out a few words. Then
I went up and appeared before the press conference, which was a packed
What were you thinking as you sat down at the typewriter?
I would say what I saw and what I thought of it. . . . Nothing I saw on the
hill had anything in common with the government's first story, which was that
there was a clash with uniformed, armed KLA, and that 15 had been killed.
Everything I saw was consistent with what the villagers were telling me, less
than 24 hours after it had happened, which was that the government had come in
there and done this. The government was already putting out stories that
uniforms had been taken off, and other clothes put on. The stories got more
and more fanciful as the days progressed.
Were you angry when you sat down at the typewriter?
Oh, I was angry, yes, absolutely. I think the anger came through. My
statement wasn't exactly balanced, but I said, "Here's what I saw. It was
obviously a crime against humanity." I called it a massacre, and I said, "My
opinion is that those responsible are in the security services. We have to get
to the bottom of this. The international criminal tribunal in The Hague should
be invited to come in here with its investigators to do a real criminal
investigation. I would hope that the government would pursue those
responsible, and punish them." And as you say, that's when my life
When you went back to Pristina, you'd again gotten got a little time. Did
you get yourself together? Did you call anybody?
I think I called and reported the fact that I was holding a press conference.
But was after the fact. I didn't consult with anyone before that. I knew that
it takes forever to get permission to do something like that. And I really
didn't think anyone was going to question the motive behind my holding a press
conference. Later, there were people who questioned it.
Why did you want to have a press conference?
I thought the world should know that this sort of a thing was occurring. To
this day, I'm very glad I did it. It was a turning point. The
world--certainly Europe and North America--could not longer buy whatever excuse
the Belgrade government came up with for some of the things they were doing
there. I have yet to encounter a single person who actually was up on that
hill in that ravine who came to any other conclusion. And there were an awful
lot of cynical journalists there who would have poked holes in it, if that were
You made a decision that the world should know. Why then?
Why then? This was different. I'm sure other Racaks had occurred, but there
had been no outside witnesses or verification of what had occurred. This was
one in which we happened to get there before the government was able to
manufacture a good story, and make sure the evidence was minimally accepted to
back up that story. The British deputy was truly offended that the Serbs gave
a cock-and-bull story about a military encounter the night before. As the
days went on, the government stories got wilder and wilder. An official source
in Belgrade told the press that Walker was up in the hills with his KLA
buddies, and probably some people from the CIA, gathering bodies, so they could
change them into peasant clothes, and shoot them full of bullets, so they could
prove to the world that NATO should come in--that sort of a story. It's really
offensive when such idiotic stories are put out by a government that tells you
how they're going to cooperate, they're not responsible for violence. etc.
I've never regretted for a moment that I made that statement.
Tell me about you stepping up there and . . .
Our headquarters were in an old bank building. There was a fairly decent
assembly room, where we subsequently held press conferences. It was pretty
nice. It held close to 200 people if they jammed in, and it was packed for
this press conference. I gave my prepared words. I hesitated at points,
because I was still upset with what I had seen, and I wanted to convey that. I
took questions. Most of them were what I would call softballs, because most
people in the audience were in complete agreement with what I said, and they
wanted to make sure I repeated who I was blaming. "Did you say that you think
it was the security services?" "Yes, I did."
One thing that I said around that time did, in fact, get me in a little
trouble. One journalist asked me something like, "Ambassador Walker, you've
said what you've seen up there. But besides what you saw on the ground, was
there any other secondary evidence that you had?" I thought of my talks with
the villagers in which it all fit together. I said, "Yes, there was evidence,
not just what I saw." This journalist misinterpreted what I said. He later
claimed . . . that I was probably referring to intercepts--I must've heard from
intelligence services that we had intercepted Serb communications in which they
talked about what they had done in Racak. That was not true. But that story
that I had a lot of other evidence besides what I'd seen on the ground
circulated. Some people later asked me about it, and I had to say no.
Did you ever see those intercepts?
I don't think they existed. If they did, I was never a party to it. The sum
total of knowledge I had when I did the press conference, and for some time
thereafter, was what I saw on the ground, and what I got from people who were
witnesses to what had happened the day before, and my people's interpretations
of the evidence. A day or two after Racak, I said that I would like to see
Milosevic. There was a lot of stuff already appearing in the government press,
that I didn't know what I was talking about, and that I was an idiot. The
answer that came back was that Milosevic is very busy, and didn't know if he
could see me. So I said, "Well, I'm coming to Belgrade."
I went up to Belgrade, where we have an office, to wait for an answer about
seeing Milosevic. A couple of journalist friends came into the hotel late at
night, and asked me how I felt about the events of the day. I said that I was
still affected by what I saw at Racak but that I was hoping to see Milosevic,
and I'm up here to get on with the job. And they said, "No, we mean about your
being declared persona non grata." And I said, "What was that?" They said,
"The national radio was announcing that Milosevic has declared you persona non
grata. You've got 48 hours to leave the country." I said, "Are you sure? No
one told me. I'm waiting here for an appointment with the guy." They said,
"We don't think you're going to see Milosevic. They've given you 48 hours to
get out of the country."
So the next morning, I got up and drove back to Pristina, and that started a
real circus of activity. A lot of the world press came to Belgrade, and came
to Kosovo, initially, I think, to cover this story about the American diplomat
who was being thrown out. My theory is that Milosevic felt that this would
divert attention from Racak, from what I said or why I said it, and would get
people thinking about him throwing out the head of the OSCE mission. If that
was what he was trying to do, he badly miscalculated, because it had just the
opposite effect. . . . Pretty quickly, the journalists started asking me about
Racak, what was up there, what I saw, and have there been other Racaks. And
the story just went from there. In the meantime, I was receiving a lot of
calls from Dick Holbrooke. Madeleine Albright called me. Wes Clark was
What did they say?
There were different messages from different people. According to Ambassador
Holbrooke, Milosevic was going to back down. He said he was talking to people
in Belgrade around Milosevic, since Milosevic was not taking his calls. That
was ominous. But Holbrooke said he was talking to Milosevic's political
advisers, and telling them that they can't throw me out. The OSCE people were
calling me a lot, saying that the chairman in office, the Norwegian foreign
minister, was going to fly to Belgrade and get them to rescind the order. The
Russians sent a delegation to get them to rescind the order.
Did you talk to Secretary Albright?
Secretary Albright called me and said, "Bill, you're doing a great job. You
were right on as far as Racak is concerned. The contact group will not let
Milosevic throw you out." At the end of the 48 hours, someone in Belgrade, one
of these players, and Milosevic agreed to extend me for an extra 24 hours. In
the final 24 hours, it almost got funny. I couldn't leave the building,
because the various advisers in the capitals of Europe thought his people would
grab me and throw me over the border, and then I'd never be able to get back in
again. It became a real test of wills. Finally, the chairman in office went
to Belgrade just before the deadline. I slept in the office that night, and
the next morning he called me up, and said that he'd gotten Milosevic to freeze
But you had refused to leave. You not only refused to leave--didn't you
challenge the police at one point?
You do macho things when you're in a situation like that. In the first 48
hours, I actually went out and about and did my normal patrolling with my
orange vehicle, and that sort of thing. And every place I went, up to 200
media types followed me. I couldn't resist walking up to the microphones, and
when they asked me if I was going to leave, I'd always say, "No, I'm here to do
my job and OSCE tells me I'm to do it, so I'm out doing it." In the last 24
hours, when I was in the building and not willing to come out, I still talked
to the press who were outside, and made some of these macho statements about
how I wasn't leaving, that I was staying.
It's hard to reconstruct what was in my mind when I would make some of these
statements. But I wanted Milosevic to understand that he was dealing in a
different league than when he was pushing around Albanian peasants or his
opposition in Belgrade. Now he was dealing with an international organization
that had every right to be there, because they'd signed an agreement and I was
the head of that organization--he couldn't just unilaterally decide that I
didn't suit his needs. I was convinced that the whole Racak incident brought
home to President Milosevic that the OSCE mission actually represented
something of a danger to him. I think when he signed the agreement with
Holbrooke, he felt he could control it, manipulate it. He's very good at that.
He manipulates everything in his power in Yugoslavia. I just wanted to show
him that there were some things beyond his ability to absolutely control 100
percent. . . .
Did it also have an effect on the allies, on the United States, and on
It had consequences for them. I don't know if all of them said to themselves,
Walker has said he's staying, so I guess we all have to stay or do something.
I think the consequences derive more from the incredible press that covered
that story and described Racak. Read some of the stuff in the Washington
Post or in the New York Times. They had some very good
correspondents out there, and it was very graphic stuff. The European press
picked it up, big-time. I wish I had a scrapbook of all the clippings from the
front pages of the European papers covering Racak. It precipitated the talks
at Rambouillet. Everybody saw that our unarmed verification mission was making
a difference, but not the sort of difference that would push this peace process
So the contact group had a meeting in London. . . . Racak was mentioned over
and over again, that we've got to do something. So the idea come up to bring
them all together in Paris, put them in a pressure cooker, and force the two
sides to an agreement. So, I think it did precipitate a chain of events that
started with Racak.
Let me take you to the evacuation. The situation was worsening. Security
was getting worse, and the fighting was getting worse. You were more and more
concerned. At some point, you decide it's time to go, that the safety of your
people is in jeopardy. Tell me about that.
I don't want you to think that was my decision.
How did it happen?
Every time I saw the chairman in office, this question of security was of
great concern. As an American ambassador, I served in some tough places.
Obviously, as soon as we went into Kosovo, one of the first things we did was
put together an evacuation plan. in case we had to leave in a hurry. From
mid- January into February, there were a lot of calls from Washington, from
Norway, and from Vienna, asking about the situation. And almost every day,
there was another incident, another indication that things were getting
relatively unsafe, and more so with each passing day. It was also becoming
much more difficult, if not impossible, to do our verification. Our patrols
were being denied access to places. We were supposed to have total access
wherever we wanted to go, and all of a sudden we were running into roadblocks
of tanks, or armored personnel carriers, and they'd say we can't go through.
We're unarmed and they're armed, so you can't push it too hard. So it became
increasingly difficult for us to do the job.
And it became increasingly more dangerous for my people. This information was
going back to the capitals, and to the chairman in office. I was asked for my
recommendation, and I said that we should depart at some point, or someone's
going to get hurt. On March 19, the chairman called me up from Oslo and said
he had consulted with Madeleine Albright and everybody else, and he had made
the decision to pull us out. He asked me if our evacuation plan in place. I
said we'd rehearsed it a couple of times. He asked me how long would it take to
get out. I said, "We've got people all over the province. It's still winter,
and there's still a lot of snow, and rain, and a lot of fog. Our best guess is
that it'll take us between eight and 12 hours, if there is no impediment to
coming out. If anyone, for any reason, tries to stop us or any of our people,
we've got to get everyone out, then obviously it's problematic." He said the
decision had been made to pull us out.
That led to the most emotional moment of my time in Kosovo. You asked me
about my emotions at the Racak press conference, which were high, to say the
least. But I had to go before our local employees. We had 1,500, 1,600 local
employees--interpreters, clerks, security guards, and so on. I had to go down
and tell them we were leaving tonight. So again, I sat down and wrote a few
words. I called the ones that were in Pristina all together to our conference
room, and again it was a packed house. I told them that I'd been told that we
have to leave, and it's with great sadness that we leave--great sadness that
the decision was taken. I also said I could well understand if they felt
abandoned by us, because we couldn't take them with us when we all left. I
said I would understand if they felt abandoned and were somewhat bitter. I
also said that I was certain that things would get worse before they got
better, but that unless the mission left, the sort of dramatic things that
would have to happen to change the situation could not occur. I was thinking
obviously about NATO, and whatever it was going to do. NATO could not do
anything unless we got out.
I almost didn't make it through my talk. Young ladies were crying and other
people were just sitting there, catatonic, staring at me. I really choked up.
I really had a real tough time saying what I was saying.
Because we were abandoning these people. We were leaving them to suffer
whatever Mr. Milosevic and his forces might think of this OSCE mission with
some 1,600 locals, the vast majority of whom were Albanians. Most of them took
jobs with us because there were very few employment possibilities for anyone in
Kosovo. These people came on board to help us bring peace to their province,
but I was certain that this was not the way Milosevic would view it. So, it
was very tough. We'd formed a lot of very deep relationships with some of
What was your sense of the situation at that point in time?
What we quickly discovered, somewhat to our chagrin, was that the reason we
got out in six hours instead of eight or ten hours was that the security
services did everything to facilitate our exit. We started hearing about this
with our last people coming out. . . . Some of them were saying that right
behind us were the tanks and the armored personnel carriers. It was obvious
that the Yugoslav forces had a plan to move in right behind us. They wanted us
out of the way as soon as possible, so they could start doing what they were
going to do, and then did it.
And this is my reply to those people who said that the elements of the
holocaust began when NATO started bombing. My answer is absolutely not--it
started well before the bombing. I was never able to confirm that this
"Operation Horseshoe" actually existed. But there was obviously a plan ready
to execute, in which troops and equipment would move very quickly into Kosovo.
If it was already there, it would be deployed in areas where they thought they
could very quickly wipe out the KLA--and with the KLA, all resistance from the
Do you think if you had stayed it would've . . .
At the end of the day, no. Milosevic was not going to concede anything, and
he only conceded when faced with the actual bombs falling on his capital, as
well as on his troops and on some of his own personal possessions. It was only
when he realized that NATO was going to go through with this.
Sitting in Macedonia, did you have any idea that you'd ever see this kind
of refugee crisis?
None whatsoever. I don't think anyone had any idea. The experts in refugees
and refugee affairs at the UN . . . were taken totally by surprise when that
flood of refugees came out. One of the reasons was that many of them were not
refugees fleeing violence. They were being put on trains and sent into exile
by the government forces. These loaded trains reminded one of that movie
"Schindler's List." I can assure you that no one thought there would be that
sort of flood of people coming out of Kosovo. No one really thought that
Belgrade was be so brazen in the way it tried to cleanse Kosovo of
Did we misread them?
Yes, I think so. I told the local employees that things are going to get
worse before they get better. It never occurred to me they would get that much
worse. And the other thing was, of course, that a lot of people who were
certainly in a position to have such opinions felt that a mere threat of NATO
bombing would bring Milosevic to his senses. It didn't work out that way.
Returnign to Racak--a lot of people felt Bill Walker was going off on his
judgment, and the consequences that followed were significant.
It was not my judgment alone. It was the judgment of everyone who was up
there. The government story was ridiculous. The village story was dead-set
consistent with everything that was on the ground. It was a scene we saw
within hours of it taking place. It makes no sense to think that people up on
that hill in the middle of the night on that icy slope were changing clothes,
and painting people with blood, and shooting them. I can't imagine it.
We then get to the question of the government refusing to allow the
investigators to come in. If they really thought that I was blowing smoke, all
they had to do was let some serious investigators come in to look at the
situation, and determine that their story could've been accurate and truthful.
They refused. The chief prosecutor, Judge Arbour, went down. I sent one of my
deputies to meet her at the border, to try and bring her across. She was
denied entry. It all fit in with a very consistent picture that what happened
was the result of the security forces going into that village, taking the men
out, executing them, and thumbing their noses at the world.
And if Bill Walker hadn't stood up . . .
Another Racak would have occurred. If Racak had just slipped by the way,
there would have been another Racak, and eventually, we would've had to tell
the world what was happening. Racak just happened to present what I consider
to this day to be overwhelming evidence of the truth that I declared at the
press conference. Obviously, I'm glad it did it. But there are still people
who, over the years, have given Milosevic every benefit of the doubt--he wasn't
responsible for these horrors in Bosnia, or he wasn't protecting war criminals,
and so forth. If you want to believe those stories, you'll believe them. I
felt very strongly that I saw the evidence that his story was poppycock. I was
going to say that, and I did.
And started a war.
And started a war, yes.
how it was fought .
ethnic cleansing .
fighting for morals .
facts & figures .
tapes & transcripts .
web site copyright 1995-2014
WGBH educational foundation