Last week, the Salt Lake Tribune reported that the day before 18 year-old Sulejman Talovic killed Mormons in Utah, he told his girlfriend that

“something is going to happen tomorrow that you’ll never be able to forgive me about,'’ the 17-year-old remembers Talovic saying. “He said it was supposed to be the happiest day of his life and that it could only happen once in a lifetime.”

In case that doesn’t sound convincingly Islamic enough, consider that Sulejman’s favorite movie was “Malcolm X”. Or consider the lie he told his girlfriend:

Monika said Talovic described hiding in the woods over a period of three years, lying face down in the dirt to avoid watching as Serbs decapitated countrymen nearby. He told Monika of seeing people shot in the head or stomach. He did witness killings, his aunt said.

Hmm, Christians decapitating Muslims? It’s possible, but it could be projection: While the public has seen pictures and videos of people shot by Serbs, what has not been circulated to the public is any of the videos of beheadings, eye-gougings, disembowelment and other mutilations of Serbs by Bosniaks. So as usual, there is some projection going on. (On Passover every year, the Palestinian Authority broadcasts a movie in which a Jew slits an Arab boy’s throat to get the Christian blood he needs to make the matzo. Of course, we know who does the throat-slitting in reality.)

But that’s actually not the big lie here. The big lie concerns the fact that Talovic told his girlfriend that he and his family were hiding in the woods for three years when, according to all previous accounts by Talovic family members, the family left Talovici for Srebrenica in 1993 and arrived in Tuzla later the same year.

But lo and behold, it seems the selfsame family members are changing their stories to the more dramatic:

The aunt recalls hiding with the Talovic family in the woods. Eventually, the family left, walking hundreds of miles toward a free zone in Tuzla. On the way, they slept on the floor of schoolhouses without blankets. Talovic’s grandfather was fatally shot. An infant brother and sister died.

First, notice that the family is still playing around with the plotline that the grandfather was shot — as opposed to his dying from a mortar shell, as the Talovics originally were saying — and now the location scouting for Grandpa’s death has moved to the woods as opposed to Srebrenica. (Original post on Grandpa is here.)

Secondly, the family didn’t walk from Srebrenica to Tuzla, but got a ride on a UN convoy.

And the plot thickens still: If what Sulejman told his girlfriend was true, specifically the part about an infant brother and sister dying along the way, it means that the Talovics had six kids — as opposed to the three daughters and one son they’d had up until now. They got themselves another two kids to kill off in the storyline.

How can there have been six children when it was originally reported that “Young Sulejman, his three siblings, his mother Sabira and grandfather made the difficult journey on foot to Srebrenica…” Where are the other two siblings at this early point in the family’s war saga?

It could still be true, and Sulejman’s aunt Ajka Omerovic confirmed that the girl died before the war and the boy died during. But it’s strange that we’re only hearing about these two dead kids now that the family has had time to think — considering that this is exactly the kind of painful-history detail the family would have reached for early on, when they were pulling out all the sympathy stops as soon as they learned that their boy had killed five Americans.

There does, for now, seem to be a more forthcoming relative. Perhaps it’s because Sulejman kept assaulting this guy’s son, Sulejman’s cousin. Nasir Omerovic, who is separated from Sulejman’s aunt Ajka Omerovic,

disputes family members’ description of Talovic as a good child who rarely caused trouble…Omerovic said Talovic often tormented his son Safer, who was two years younger. Within the first few months of living on Edmonds Place, Omerovic said, Talovic grabbed Safer by the throat and choked him.

On another occasion, he said, Talovic packed a snowball with broken glass and threw it at Safer’s head, drawing blood. “For Sulejman, that was a game…All the trouble he was making, it was just a game.”

This is all in addition to pulling a knife on the landlord, throwing rocks at one girl, and swiping a knife at another one. But back to the Trib article:

Suljo Talovic was a kind father who was reluctant to acknowledge his son’s problems, Omerovic said. “He never punished his boy for his troubles,” he said. “Every time he blamed somebody else.”

Hmm, blaming someone else…that doesn’t sound too Muslimy either.

Something else that the media are gliding over is mentioned in passing in this item from Salt Lake Tribune. Apparently, several weeks before the shootings, Talovic had told his cousins that he got one of the guns from a member of the Crips gang, which he was allowed to join once he removed a SWASTIKA TATTOO from his arm.

Six weeks before his deadly rampage at Trolley Square mall, Sulejman Talovic proudly showed three young relatives the 12-gauge shotgun, .38-caliber revolver and black backpack of ammunition he had collected.

None of the three teenagers, skeptical of Talovic’s claim that he was “hustling” for a local gang, thought to alert Talovic’s parents or police.

[He told them] that he got the revolver from another member of the Crips gang; and that he used a knife to remove a swastika tattoo on his arm in order to join the gang. Talovic said he planned to sell the guns.

Like the weapons that the parents claimed to not know about, and the record of juvenile violence that they dismiss, did Sulejman’s parents not know about the swastika tattoo either? The one on his ARM? Even if Sulejman was lying about this tattoo to his cousins, the fact that he claimed to have had it is significant in itself.

On his blog, Salt Lake Tribune photographer Trent Nelson, who accompanied reporter Lisa Rosetta to an intimate interview with Monika, mentions the following tidbit from Monika’s mother:

She told how she was alone with her two children, and how men threatened to cut off her daughter’s head. She told how men put out their cigarettes on her 6-month-old baby’s neck. I had heard a lot of similar stories from the wars in Yugoslavia. After a trip to the Balkans in 2000, I read everything I could get my hands on. But hearing it in person is always more harrowing tha[n] you can imagine.

It’s tales like these and those of the Talovics that are the classic Muslim embellishments that were flying around the Balkans throughout the 90s and that thousands of reporters swallowed, then regurgitated for us to swallow. This is a microcosmic replay of what happened then: reporters dutifully taking down and printing every tall tale by Bosnian (and later Albanian) Muslims, no questions asked, while blocking out equally horrific tales from Serbs that would have given some context to the civil wars and the crackdowns.

But for the Balkans, all reporter skepticism and fact-checking were set aside, and there was no putting two and two together. Did this photographer even bother to ask to see the cigarette burn marks on the aforementioned child’s neck, before repeating it to us? I’d be floored if he did, as it would be a first for Balkans-related reporting.

Certainly some of the stories were true, but when only some are true, and the other side’s similarly horrific stories are dismissed wholesale because you were instructed ahead of time as to who the designated victim was, does it justify an intervention on behalf of one of those two sides? Oh what a different picture might emerge if we could be given a glimpse of the unprinted portions of reporters’ 1990s notebooks.

This is the reporting phenomenon that Peter Brock covers in his riveting book Media Cleansing: Dirty Reporting, in which he mentions that only a handful of journalists later admitted to feeling disillusioned about the Balkans conflict. To my knowledge, there is only one reporter who publicly stepped forward to admit having been a dupe for the Muslims — in this case the Albanian Muslims of Kosovo. Her name is Nancy Durham, and she was working for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation at the time. She wrote an article about it for the October, 1999 issue of Brill’s Content, titled “Casualties of War.” Below are excerpts from the breathtaking article, a snapshot of a conflict, which so far does the most to explain how the free world came to align itself with al Qaeda at a time when it was already our chief adversary. (All bolded emphasis is mine; the actual pages of the original Brill’s Content article are here, here, here and here.)

My experience in Kosovo over the last year and a half has introduced me to a type of propaganda that I have never encountered before, at least as far as I know. Because of that, I have learned a lesson: Taking time to get to know the people in your stories, and making a point of following up on stories, which I do, means you might actually find the truth–and discover that what came before it was a lie.

While I certainly wasn’t the only reporter in the place at the time [September, 1998], it was definitely not the story of the day. Monica was…While I wasn’t thinking about it at the time, my being there in those desperate days made me very attractive to the Albanian Kosovars, whose plight was far from the top of the news agenda.

On this journey, I traveled to Shale, in Drenica (a Kosovo Liberation Army stronghold), with an Albanian Kosovar doctor, Shpetim Robaj. He took me there to show me a KLA field hospital. One week after our visit, Shpetim was killed when a landmine exploded under his Red Cross vehicle…

Shale is where I first met Rajmonda Rreci, who was then 18. She was a patient in the KLA hospital at the time, pale and weak and attached to an intravenous drip. She told me she had just seen her eight-year-old sister Qendresa killed in a Serb attack on her village.

When we first met, Rajmonda and I only had a few minutes together. She told me in a voice filled with anger and conviction that she might join the KLA as a result of what had happened to her family…

The following week, I returned to London to assemble my story about Shpetim. My report was shown around the world in about a dozen countries that I know of, including Germany, Sweden, Italy the Netherlands, and Australia; in the United States, CBS Evening News used my pictures to tell Shpetim’s story. Kosovo was sneaking back into the news. Viewers were moved by Shpetim’s warmth and humor in the midst of adversity and distressed by his untimely death. Although Rajmonda made only a brief appearance, she too made an impact. People were struck by her conviction to avenge the murder of her sister. So three months later, in December, I returned to Shale to look for her.

After a harrowing search, I found Rajmonda at the KLA’s Drenica mountain headquarters. As twilight capped the summit, we stood together shivering in the forest while she gave a riveting interview. Here was a beautiful 18-year-old girl in a soldier’s uniform, cradling a Kalashnikov rifle that she described as being “just like one member of my family. This is for me everything…because he have the power that I don’t have.”

…Before I left, I said I’d like to see her little sister’s grave. “Even I don’t know where it is,” she said. I asked her what Qendresa’s death meat to her. Rajmonda replied, “It’s so really, really hard. But I am — sometimes, I am so lucky that my sister was only seven years old — six years old — and she had a chance to give her blood for this land.”

This is when the first faint feeling of doubt flickered through my brain. In September, Rajmonda had told me her sister was eight. Was it just her command of English that tripped her up? I made a note to check her age in my notes.

Since there was no grave to visit, I pursued the idea of going to her hometown. “Why not?” she cheerfully asked. A picture of her house — whether it was still standing or in ruins — would do. It didn’t even really matter if no one was home. I could talk to a neighbor, a teacher — anyone at all who could inform me about the life of a girl who had come to treat a Kalashnikov as a family member.

I asked Visar, my fixer — my translator, driver, and all-around guide — to ask Rajmonda for directions to Skenderaj. They talked for a bit, in Albanian of course, when suddenly Rajmonda had a change of heart. She now said it could endanger her family for me to go to them. I offered to skip the family interviews if that made her feel better, and just take pictures of the neighborhood, but she wouldn’t budge. Visar also insisted it was too dangerous. Once again, I felt slight pangs of suspicion. Why didn’t Rajmonda want me to see her hometown? Her insistence was puzzling.

For now, I would have to let it go. No grave, no village, no more Rajmonda for that visit.

I went back to London and told her story. It was a report about a gun-toting girl soldier who saw her small sister die. It was beamed around the world, just like the first installment. CBS news featured her. Stephanie Nolen of The Globe and Mail in Toronto saw Rajmonda on CBC and told me she found her “so real…she was such a child, and yet she had skills and ideas and plans and a sort of mission that’s utterly foreign to what I know of [teenage] girls….Was it her sister who was killed? What more primal reason would there be for picking up a gun?” After my report aired on Channel 4 News in Britain, the editor, Jim Gray, declared that the story was the “tastiest morsel” on the show that night.

In June, when the war ended, I returned to Kosovo to look once again for Rajmonda. I learned that she had indeed survived and was still at KLA headquarters on the mountain in Drenica. I found her on her day off at the logistics house. She was very warm and, I thought, happy to see me. She spoke about death and how she had thought it was coming to her in one particular battle; how the soldiers sang together to give themselves power; and how killing the enemy was hard at first, but then “you only want to kill, to kill him because you know what he done to your family.” She told me how she was committed to the struggle for complete independence for Kosovo, yet yearned to behave like a teenager while she still was one. And once again I asked her about her feelings for her sister, Qendresa. She said that sometimes “you have to lose something that you love, you really love, to have the freedom.”

The following day I found her in a university dorm in Prizren, a city in the south, that had been taken over by the KLA. She was dressed in the all-black uniform of the new KLA special-police unit…She told me that she had learned her family was alive and safe in Albania. She also offered me a surprise element to her story. She said she had in fact been an agent for the KLA in the summer of 1998 — before she met me — and she told me that as an agent, she had been used to spy on Serb policemen. She dressed up and flirted with them, speaking excellent Serbian, she said, adding that she wore a wireless microphone for these operations and had a code line like “it’s time to move” to let the KLA know when to pounce.

It was chilling listening to her describe her work. And it was unsettling, too, because her story was beginning to unravel. If she had lied to me about being a KLA agent, what else had she lied to me about? I blurted out, “Qendresa did really die, didn’t she?” “Oh, yes,” she said.

By now, I had more than a gnawing feeling about the whole story. Something wasn’t right, but I didn’t know what. I did know, however, that the Yugoslav army had just withdrawn from her hometown, and it was now finally safe to go there. So when Rajmonda and I parted, I made my plans to go to Skenderaj, to see for myself what I could find.

The next day, Donat, my fixer during this trip, and I drove from rubble house to rubble house until we were directed to Llaushe, a village on the edge of Skenderaj, where the Rreci clan was supposed to live…At the end of the road, we found a few members of the Rreci clan hanging around in a burned-out shell of a house. They knew Rajmonda and her family. No, they had not gone to Albania, as Rajmonda had said. We were sent on to a squat bungalow, slightly odd looking in that it appeared untouched by war.

Please, someone be home. We knocked. A child answered. A beautiful, dark-haired, sparkly-eyed little girl. I asked Donat to ask her her name.

“Qendresa,” she beamed.

Qendresa.

I found myself in the ludicrous position of having a sick, sinking feeling because a delightful nine-year-old child was alive. I was horrified, stupefied. Qendresa’s mother, Bahrije, came to the door. She recognized me — from my videotapes, I suppose. She spoke my name before I could introduce myself and she seemed a little nervous. We wasted no time in getting to the question: Uh, Qendresa, isn’t she supposed to be, uh, not here?

Bahrije quickly offered the explanation that Rajmonda had got her sister’s name wrong and that actually it was another sister, “Dafina,” who died in the war. But her story was sloppy and not even close to Rajmonda’s version. She said “Dafina” was killed in shelling in the woods, while Qendresa was supposed to have died in a fleeing convoy. The dates were wrong, the names were wrong. I could see there was no Dafina at all! It stunk. I had to admit I’d fallen victim to a lie. My story was no longer a true one, and the reports that had aired in cities around the world repeated the lie.

The next morning, Donat and I headed back to Rajmonda’s new headquarters at Prizren for a confrontation. I was a nervous wreck by the time she appeared. A teenage girl I thought I knew had my reputation in her hands. She’d lied to me — but why?

I found her and asked her that very question. She said that last summer, five days before we met, she was told that a girl who fit Qendresa’s description had been killed. She claimed that the doctors — both Shpetim and another doctor at the filed hospital — encouraged her to tell me her sister was dead as though it were fact. Rajmonda admitted that by December, she knew without doubt that Qendresa was alive…She says everyone told her the same thing, that lots of girls lost their little sisters and didn’t have the chance to give an interview, so she should do it for them.

I returned to London with a bag of tapes but in a complete fog as to how to use them. Initially, I thought I could salvage my story. I would just have to find a way to let viewers know a fundamental part of it was nonsense! But the more I looked at the tapes and attempted to work with them, the more I wondered who else had lied. I had completely lost heart. I turned to my colleagues, who saw much faster than I that I must return to Kosovo and approach the story afresh. Kelly Crichton, executive producer of CBC’s The National Magazine, listened quietly to my saga. When I was done, she told me I potentially had an even better story: If I could turn it into a story of war propaganda, I stood to be seen as an “older, wiser, more brave and honest reporter.”

It has taken me several weeks to begin to feel once again engaged as a journalist and to regain my interest in this troublesome story. I was helped by a visit to Shpetim’s sister Aferdita and her husband, Faton, Kosovar exiles in London. They were deeply sympathetic but honest enough, too, to admit that the lie probably did help their cause. Faton explained that my story came when “no one from the West believed our suffering. After the propaganda the world said, ‘Oh, the doctor died, and the sister died.’…Now everyone knows the suffering, a year ago they did not.” But the weakness of propaganda is not lost on Faton, either. “This story you tell now will be very good for Serbs. This is how Albanians are. They lie. But thanks God we have plenty of real tragedies and Rajmonda’s lie is going to be nothing.”

I often think of the human misery and suffering I witnessed in Kosovo last summer. The people hiding in the forests, the villages on fire. Why would anyone feel the need to make up or exaggerate death? And then I remember the very last time I saw Shpetim. He was crying. He wasn’t acting. He had seen terrible things. That September, there were few reporters around. The place really was on fire. I saw the smoke…

Yes, Nancy, they were suffering: they were suffering for their cause — one that they set in motion and were willing to sacrifice for: a nationalistic land grab that will be attached to Albania along with parts of Macedonia, Greece, southern Serbia, and Montenegro — all places that the Albanians moved on to terrorize, without skipping a beat after we helped them terrorize the Serbs.

Even though she was lied to by the Albanian side, and even though she heard the stories about how the KLA were assassinating Serb police and government officials, this reporter held to the program: the bad guys were the Serbs. Did she ever do that story about war propaganda? Perhaps if she had, we wouldn’t be looking at the very near possibility that we will once again be siding with al Qaeda against the Serbs this year so as to wash our hands of Kosovo.