NATO'S "HUMANITARIAN" WAR.
Anyone in the United States seeking to hop a plane to Belgrade, Yugoslavia, discovers that it cannot be done. The international sanctions imposed against Yugoslavia ended all air travel to what remains of that beleaguered country. This past August, I joined a group of other North Americans endeavoring to bring medicines to the Yugoslav Red Cross and glean a firsthand impression of the country. We had to fly to Budapest, Hungary, then endure a seven-hour bus ride (counting the long delay at the border) to reach Belgrade.
Belgrade is a city with a beauty all its own--its cobblestone malls, elaborate monuments, parks, and elegantly aging edifices sporting a distinctly Old World patina. Despite the severity of the sanctions and the massive inflow of refugees from the other republics of the former Yugoslavia, there are no beggars or derelicts to be seen, no one in tatters, no one asleep in doorways or rummaging through garbage cans, no cadres of prostitutes plying their trade. The free market has not yet taken complete hold. A welfare state of some sort still exists, which, in the eyes of some neoliberal Western leaders, may be Yugoslavia's biggest crime. The state-supported economy has prevented the kind of mass social misery witnessed in some other eastern European countries.
To the organizer of our delegation--Barry Lituchy, a historian who teaches at the City University of New York's Kings-borough Community College--Belgrade appeared noticeably poorer and more worn than it had on his visit four years earlier. One new sign of hard times is the overabundance of street vendors with their paltry offerings of recycled knickknacks, clothing, compact discs, tapes, books, magazines, cosmetics, and bootlegged cigarettes and liquor.
All over the city one still sees graffiti denouncing the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the United States, and Bill Clinton in the most bitter terms. NATO is repeatedly represented with the N in the form of a swastika. More than once I saw "Free Texas" sprayed across walls. As one citizen explained, Texas is heavily populated by Mexicans or persons of Mexican descent, many of whom suffer more serious cultural discrimination and economic adversity than did Kosovo Albanians; shouldn't Yugoslavia and other nations do whatever they can to make Texas into a separate polity for oppressed Mexicans? The same logic applied to the "Free Corsica" graffiti sprayed across the French cultural center, which had been gutted, along with the U.S. and British cultural centers, by outraged Yugoslavs during the NATO bombings.
We visited the Chinese embassy, an architecturally distinct edifice standing on a broad lot with only some housing projects in the background, much of its interior pulverized by three missiles. The CIA's claim that the attack was a case of mistaken identity seemed less credible than ever to us. Even a cursory inspection makes one wonder how the CIA could have mistaken the embassy for the Federal Directorate of Supply, an office building two blocks away. The U.S. ambassador had dined at the Chinese embassy and many U.S. journalists had visited it in its better days. If NATO attackers really did rely on "old maps" (why in this instance and not in any other?), such maps would have shown an empty lot.
More plausible is the view that the embassy was deliberately targeted because the Chinese were giving such strong support to Belgrade, and possibly because the embassy was being used to gather electronic intelligence on NATO aerial flights over Yugoslavia. On the embassy gate, under the pictures of the three employees who perished in the bombing, Yugoslav citizens had left candies, flowers, and condolence cards.
Our Serbian hosts tried to describe the NATO war--the deafening noise, flames, and smoke that made the bombings a terrifying experience. The aerial attacks came every evening and frequently went on all night (rarely during the day in Belgrade). Five hundred meters from where we were staying, a private home had been hit and some of its residents killed. The survivors put up a sign on the damaged facade bitterly announcing: "Sorry, we are still alive."
For some it was so strange, all this death coming from the skies. Even stranger was the way everything now appeared back to normal, with much of the wreckage cleared away. "It seems as if it never happened, like it was a bad dream," remarked one man. Still, there are plenty of reminders.
Displayed in various police stations around the city are dozens of photos of officers killed while performing rescue operations or other duties during the aerial attacks. Casualties among rescue workers were high. NATO had devised the malicious technique of bombing a site, then waiting fifteen minutes to a half hour--just time enough for rescue teams to arrive and get working--before hitting the target a second time, killing many of the would-be rescuers and making it extremely dangerous for teams to dig for survivors. This method of delayed follow-up attack on a civilian target had never been tried before in modern warfare. It was one of NATO's more innovative war crimes.
The facilities destroyed by air attacks were mostly publicly owned. The high-rise containing the headquarters of both Slobodan Milosevic's Socialist Party and the Yugoslav United Left, a coalition of twenty-three communist and left parties closely allied with the Socialist Party, was hit by several missiles. Various ministry offices were demolished. The huge, state-run Hotel Yugoslavia was made uninhabitable by NATO missiles while the corporate-owned Hyatt Hotel, with its even more imposing, all-glass facade--as inviting a target as any mad bomber might want--suffered not a scratched windowpane. Buildings that displayed highly visible rooftop advertising that read "Panasonic," "Coca-Cola," "Diners Club International," and "McDonald's" survived perfectly intact--right down to the latter's immense golden arches.
The destruction in other cities and towns was far greater than anything inflicted upon Belgrade. Several neighborhoods in the small mining town of Aleksinac were entirely wiped out. Production facilities in Nis and Cuprija were reduced to rubble. Kragujevac, an industrial city in central Serbia, suffered immense damage. Its huge, state-run Zastava factory was thoroughly demolished, causing huge amounts of toxic chemicals to spill from the factory's generators. Zastava had employed tens of thousands of workers who produced cars, trucks, and tractors sold domestically and abroad. NATO attacks left some 80 percent of its workforce without a means of livelihood. Publicly owned Zastava factories exist all over Yugoslavia. The attackers knew their locations and destroyed most of them. Those not bombed are now out of production for want of crucial materials or a recipient for their products.
In Nis, cruise missiles pulverized the tobacco and cigarette production plant, one of the most successful in Europe. State-run food processing sites were leveled. And, we were told, one worker-managed factory was contaminated with depleted uranium. The city of Aleksinac and additional socialist strongholds in southern Serbia were bombed especially heavily, with many civilian deaths. Leaders from Aleksinac and several other cities in Serbia's "Red Belt" were convinced that they were pounded so mercilessly primarily because they were socialist--a suspicion reinforced by the fact that the region contained almost no industry.
NATO bombed historic sites, cultural monuments, museums, and churches. "Not even Hitler did that," remarked Federal Minister for Refugees Bratislava Morina. In Novi Sad, worker-managed factories, which had somehow survived the pitiless years of sanctions, were reduced to ruins, along with bus and train depots. Major bridges were knocked down, blocking all shipping on the Danube, cluttering the river's bottom with heavy metal, and severing most of Serbia from the rest of Europe. Because of its depth, the Danube was judged impossible to clean--but millions of people are still drinking its water.
Yugoslav electrical and construction firms used to be competitive with Western firms, winning contracts abroad on a regular basis. The NATO bombing eliminated that competition quite nicely. Heating plants and the country's entire oil processing industry were badly crippled. The chief engineer at an electrical power station on the outskirts of Zemun showed us transformers that had been knocked out by a variety of weaponry, including tomahawk cruise missiles, phosphorus bombs, and air-to-surface missiles. Other missiles, designed for subterranean targets (such as people hiding in underground bunkers), exploded beneath the earth's surface, ripping apart transmitter cables.
There was little hope of repair since international sanctions deprived the Yugoslavs of replacement parts made by Westinghouse. The inability to rebuild their electrical power systems has left many towns and cities throughout Serbia without heat and sufficient means of supplying water to certain urban populations. There is no shortage of water in Yugoslavia, especially after the summer rains that caused serious floods, but water distribution and purification systems in places like Novi Sad are badly damaged and not easy to repair. Whole sectors of the city are without drinking water, although water is available for washing clothes and waste elimination.
The destruction of fertilizer and nitrogen plants has created difficulties for this spring's planting. One official told us that agricultural crops were mysteriously dying. The situation was being investigated and there was much fear of hunger ahead. At one oil refinery site, we saw burnt-out cars, shattered storage tanks, and acres blackened with crude oil, leaving the groundwater toxified. We saw a bird about the size of a robin completely drenched in black crude and bleeding from the burning effect of the oil. It was unable to do anything except flutter its wings and stagger about the road.
Sometimes the NATO attackers carefully selected their targets; other times they seemingly unloaded at random. Generally they hit sites "in a way that would be most painful for us," Minister Morina maintained. We saw one housing project of some seventy units destroyed. The occupants had lost all their possessions and most were without money to pay for new residences. We were told that many of the housing project's survivors had sustained injuries and many were suffering psychological shock and depression. An adjacent elementary school named after Svetozar Markovich, identified to us as the founder of socialism in the Balkans, was seriously damaged but undergoing reconstruction.
We visited a village outside Novi Sad containing nothing that remotely resembled a military or infrastructure target. Yet ten homes had been hit. Some of them, still occupied with Serb refugees from Croatia, looked like stage-set homes with front walls and rooftops missing. The occupants had no jobs and no funds to buy the materials needed to rebuild, nor were building materials readily available. Plastic sheets over shattered windows and an outdoor cooking stove were all the comforts they had for facing winter.
In Nis, Surdulica, and Aleksinac there was evidence of deliberate attacks on residential neighborhoods. On one street in Nis fifteen residents were killed by cluster bombs. Members of our delegation met people who still shook with fear when talking about the attacks. Most had no hope of rebuilding. In Rakovica and elsewhere NATO bombs smashed hospitals and maternity wards.
Not long after the bombing ended, NATO officials announced that "only" a few hundred people had been killed by the aerial attacks. How they arrived at this figure from afar is hard to understand. According to Yugoslav sources, over 500 military personnel and some 2,000 civilians perished in what was less a war than a one-sided slaughter. Large numbers of individuals are still listed as missing. "Who will be charged with these war crimes?" one citizen asked angrily.
After the war, health workers began seeing a dramatic increase in chronic ailments, including cardiovascular, respiratory, and mental health problems. Officials thought the seventy-eight days of bombings Would be the worst of it but have since concluded that the sanctions continue to inflict massive attrition. Indeed, because of the sanctions, Yugoslav health services suffer severe shortages of medicines, surgical materials, oncology drugs, diabetic medications, and other supplies. The Yugoslav Red Cross has no problem recruiting blood donors but it faces a drastic dearth of blood bags, which aren't manufactured in Yugoslavia. The Red Cross has issued an urgent appeal for baby food, powdered milk, canned and preserved foods, cooking oil, detergents, tents, bedding, oil lamps, and water purification supplies. Also needed are a whole range of medical supplies -- everything from test strips for blood and urine analysis to dialysis machines and medications for respiratory ailments.
Prevented from going into the autonomous province of Kosovo, the Yugoslav Red Cross is unable to trace hundreds of missing persons (Serbs, nonseparatist Albanians, and others) in areas guarded by Western occupation forces. Some 130 humanitarian organizations are pouring aid into Kosovo, including Red Cross societies from participating NATO countries. However, most national Red Cross societies have ignored the Yugoslavian government's appeals for help. Only the Bulgarian, Rumanian, and Scandinavian Red Cross organizations have sent aid, and other assistance has come from Red Cross organizations in China and, surprisingly, Germany.
Zivorad Smiljanic, the president of Vojvodina, Serbia's other autonomous province, met with our delegation when we visited Novi Sad. Being a gynecologist and obstetrician by profession, he had occasion to observe the remains of eleven children killed in one town by the aerial attack. He noted bitterly:
Your leaders talk about human rights but the rights of children to live is among the highest of human rights. Was it democracy in action when NATO bombs destroyed schools, daycare centers, and hospitals with patients in their beds? Your leaders talk of freedom of information, yet they kill journalists. They talk of responsible government and accountable rule, yet nineteen NATO countries engaged in hostilities against Yugoslavia without consent of any of their own parliaments and against mass protests in their countries.
When asked what were Vojvodina's most urgent needs, Smiljanic boomed, "We wish most of all that the international community would leave us alone, lift the sanctions, and stop giving us the benefit of their `guidance' and `aid.'" Despite ten years of sanctions, he believes his compatriots live better than do most people in Hungary, Rumania, Poland, and Bulgaria. And now that those nations are joining NATO, Smiljanic warns, they will plunge still deeper into debt, each borrowing tens of billions of dollars to upgrade their military forces to NATO standards. "Clinton and [Madeleine] Albright have destroyed us," Smiljanic says, "and now we will have to rebuild--on their terms. The only god worshipped in the New World Order is the dollar. The war was good only for business and arms dealers."
On the van I took for the long night's trip back to Budapest, I met my first Serbian yuppie: a young broker who worked via computer with the New York Stock Exchange. He was of the opinion that Milosevic was not a war criminal but still should hand himself over to the International War Crimes Tribunal at The Hague, just so the rest of the country could get some peace (although it's arguable whether Milosevic's head would cause Western leaders to leave Yugoslavia in peace). He Went on to tell me what a wonderful place Belgrade is to live in, with its remarkable abundance of beautiful women and its low prices. The ample income he was currently making went twice as far in the economically depressed city. His comments reminded me that hard times are not hard for everyone, especially not for people with money.
The van made one additional stop in Belgrade--to pick up an attractive but unhappy looking young woman who, once seated, began crying as she told us she was going to Spain for a long and indefinite period, leaving home and family because things were so difficult in Yugoslavia. War victimizes all sorts of people who are never included in the final toll. It was not long before the broker, displaying a most sympathetic demeanor, was making his moves on the woman, as if encircling a prey. Again I was reminded of how hard times for the many bring new opportunities for the privileged few.
Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth to battle--be Thou near them! With them--in spirit--we also go forth from the sweet peace of our beloved firesides to smite the foe. O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames of summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring Thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it--for our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet! We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him Who is the Source of Love, and Who is the ever-faithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset and seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts. Amen.
--from "The War Prayer" by Mark Twain
Michael Parenti is a journalist and social critic. His most recent books are American Besieged and History As Mystery, both published by City Lights Books.
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|Date:||Mar 1, 2000|
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