How to spot a fake atrocity

In the mid 1990s I worked in the former Soviet Union, covering various republics as they disintegrated into civil war. And I occasionally came across war crimes and atrocities, which I tried to report to the best of my ability. But, more often, I found fake atrocities. And, occasionally, I reported those as well.

Learning how to uncover war crimes is a difficult process, and I refer you to the many wonderful works that already exist on the subject.

It is much easier to avoid covering fake atrocities – and almost as important. Why? Because when a conflict is gearing up, false accusations of atrocities can spur otherwise peaceful people to pick up arms and go to war. This is not limited to struggling, third world countries: during the first Gulf War, the US public was incensed by a report that Iraqis in Kuwait had pulled babies out of incubators – a report which later proved false, albeit convenient.

Here are a few warning signs that the refugee, soldier or other witness may not be telling the complete truth and you should investigate before putting it into print:

IT’S TOO CONVENIENT

Does the atrocity come at just the right time for the warring side that’s telling the story? For example, is the side telling the story also gearing up for a major offensive? A good atrocity story could motivate its population for battle – especially if the Western press picks up the story. The Kuwaiti incubator story falls squarely in this category.

CONSIDER THE SOURCE

Is the story told by someone who works in public relations? Or were you introduced to the witness by the press office? This is not to say that witnesses that you find on your own are all 100 percent credible, but if the warring side’s public relations arm is involved, it’s a major red flag. Sometimes military personnel will also round up witnesses to atrocities. Keep in mind that these witnesses may well be speaking under duress, in that they may find themselves in trouble with the new regime if they don’t mouth the party line. I’ve even been shown photographs of allegedly tortured civilians. Since these photographs came from public relations people, I checked with alternate sources first, then didn’t file the story.

CHANGING STORIES

Does the witness change the story as you ask for more details? For example, did she start out by explaining that the atrocity was something she personally witnessed happening to her sister, and end with explaining that her neighbor saw it, instead? When the sister finally does show up, safe and sound, nobody is going to track you down so that you can publish a correction. I once ran a story about refugees fleeing from torture in one of the wars in the Georgian republic, but later, after checking with local representatives of the International Red Cross, found that no cases had been substantiated at that time.

NO BACKUP

Are you hearing the same story, told in the first person, from a number of different witnesses, but impartial observers in the area saw nothing? The more atrocities took place, the more likely it is that someone else saw some evidence. I once covered an alleged massacre in the formerly Georgian city of Gagra, on the Black Sea Coast. There were a few bodies, some drifting in from the sea, but all were men of military age and there was no evidence of a reported mass execution in the town’s sports stadium. However, reports of this and other atrocities in Gagra are still being promulgated.

DON’T TRUST YOUR EYES

Unless you’re a trained medical professional, be careful not to jump to conclusions when you see a dead body. It can be hard to tell if a wound came from an accidental shell fragment or deliberate torture. If doctors of the International Red Cross or Doctors Without Borders have examined bodies and determined them to be victims of torture, this is an important story. If, on the other hand, they have examined bodies and specifically said they were not victims of torture, but of accidental shelling or stray bullets, then it’s a different story altogether. Even some obvious signs can be very misleading. For example, if you’re shown a mutilated corpse with tied wrists and ankles, it can be easy to assume the worst. However, there’s also a possibility that local officials, noticing that a Western reporter was present, had the quick wits to tie the hands and feet of someone who had died under less tragic, or even completely unrelated, circumstances.

TOO HORRIBLE TO BE TRUE

I frequently heard accounts about soldiers who split open the bellies of pregnant women. In fact, I heard these stories so often, without any corroboration, that I quickly began discounting them. Western doctors present in the conflicts supported my view – they hadn’t seen any evidence of this kind of atrocity. That’s not to say that it doesn’t happen, especially if a soldier has just lost a close friend or relative, and has seen numerous accounts that the enemy has done that very thing. But at the time I was covering those wars, those stories were just a particularly nasty breed of urban legend.

THEY WANT SOMETHING FROM YOU

Press officers aren’t the only ones who want something from a reporter. I once interviewed a woman – at length – in the Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, who recounted a tale of gruesome torture at the hands of Azeri soldiers. To support her account, she did have visible scars and disfigurements. This was only my second trip to a front line, and I was ready to accept her story at face value until she asked me for money. I checked with other locals, and found out that this woman had her disfigurements for years, and they were unrelated to the war. In fact, she was making a quick business telling her story to foreign correspondents and hitting them up for money. In my experience, real refugees rarely ask journalists for money. Instead, they look to government, to their extended families and to aid organizations for help. At most, they’ll ask a journalist to pass along a message, or use the media to request support from the international community.

In fact, the refugees I met – arguably, better off than refugees in many other places in the world – usually offered me tea, and frequently food as well. It’s a very uncomfortable situation when a family cooks its last chicken for you. Do you turn it down and insult them, or eat it and take food out of the mouths of their children? One solution is to bring food of your own to share. I’ve successfully given small jars of peanut butter to hosts’ children. Other alternatives include candy bars and cigarettes

CHECK IT OUT

Finally, if a story rings true to you, go and check it out. It might be easier than you think. If a story is true, then witnesses should be able to provide you with concrete information about location and perpetrators. Go to the other side of the conflict, and follow up. You might have to travel to a neutral nation first, but what you find may well surprise you. For example, a number of refugees once told me that their village had been the scene of heavy fighting, many houses razed or burned to the ground, and many residents killed. The area was now dotted with makeshift graves, they said. However, the refugees were remarkably well provisioned, and had no wounded with them even though they had come on wagons and could have brought them along. A few weeks later, I had the opportunity to visit that same village. There were, in fact, dings in some walls that could have been caused by bullets. But no houses had burned down, there were no fresh graves, and there were even some people still living in their houses. My theory? The residents of that village had been organized and shipped off to the capital to put political pressure on the party then in power. And that was a story I should have followed up on, but didn’t.

This article originally appeared at Journalism.com, which has since ceased publication.