In 1990, Yugoslavia was a country comprising six republics. By the beginning of 2008, it had splintered into six independent countries, with Kosovo remaining a southern province of Serbia. Kosovo’s independence, declared on February 18, continues to divide the international community, with the United States and nearly all European Union states supporting the declaration and Russia, China and Serbia refusing to recognize it.
Drawing on overlooked or forgotten reportage from mainstream and underground news sources, this essay will re-examine the causes and effects of NATO’s 78-day “humanitarian” bombing of Serbia in 1999 - which resulted in at least 1,500 civilian causalities, 10 years of international sanctions, 20 percent unemployment and more than $12 billion of debt, according to Z Magazine.
President Clinton worked to ensure the use of NATO military force immediately before the conflict in the Balkans:
President Clinton said Friday, ”if we and our allies do not have the will to act, there will be more massacres. In dealing with aggressors in the Balkans, hesitation is a license to kill. But action and resolve can stop armies and save lives.” Clinton spoke as ominous signs spread across Europe that NATO military strikes against Serbian targets could begin within days.
(“Time to Attack Serbs? President Makes Case for Force,” by John M. Broder, New York Times, March 20, 1999.)
I am convinced that the dangers of acting are far outweighed by the dangers of not acting,” Clinton said in a televised address from the Oval Office on Wednesday night. “This is to protect thousands of innocent people from a mounting military offensive.” He said that the NATO attacks on Yugoslav targets were designed both to avert a humanitarian disaster and to serve American geopolitical interests.
(“Clinton: ‘We Act to Prevent a Wider War,’” by John M. Broder, New York Times, March 25, 1999.)
Clinton conjured images of Balkan atrocities that threatened American values and interests. But he added that American and NATO credibility were at stake, and even alluded to an American economic interest in a stable and prosperous Europe.
Bill Clinton: “If we’re going to have a strong economic relationship that includes our ability to sell around the world, Europe has got to be a key. That’s what this Kosovo thing is all about.”
(“The Case Against Intervention in Kosovo,” by Benjamin Schwartz and Christopher Lane, The Nation, April 19, 1999.)
Clinton’s emphasis on economic gain contradicts his previous statement that NATO action was intended to stop Serbian aggression.
In the buildup to NATO’s military action, Serbia was branded an evil state, analogous to Nazi-era Germany.
The NATO attack had to be presented as morally urgent, since it was manifestly illegal. For this purpose, allusion to the “Holocaust” and the “absolute evil” of its perpetrators, was the most obvious and effective instrument. Thus, on May 13, in a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Bill Clinton explicitly compared the alleged “ethnic cleansing” of the Kosovo Albanians by Yugoslav forces to the “ethnic extermination of the Holocaust.”
(“Kosovo and ‘The Jewish Question,” by John Rosenthal, <>i>The Monthly Review, February 2000.)
The Milosevic/Hitler and Albanian Kosovars/Jews paradigms effectively served to undermine the possibility of dispassionate discussion of NATO policy.
In an online op-ed for Z Magazine, Robert Jensen discusses how even progressives supported NATO action in Serbia:
The war may have lasted only 78 days, but the split in the progressive movement still hangs over many of us, as we ponder why so many left/liberal folks decided to back the latest U.S. imperial adventure. There are no doubt many reasons, but one contributing factor was the way in which the mainstream media blanketed the public with a stream of mis-, dis-, and non-information about the facts on the ground in Kosovo and the reasons that NATO bombers took to the skies.”
(article for Foreign Affairs, Chris Hedges states that during World War II, Albanian Kosovars voluntarily manned the Nazi 21st Division, which massacred thousands of Serbs in Kosovo, and forced many to flee the province.
But this was not called “ethnic cleansing.” That phrase was constructed in the 1980s when the New York Times and other newspapers reported Albanian aggression toward Serbians in Kosovo.The New York Times returned to the Kosovo issue in 1986, when the paper’s Henry Kamm (4÷28÷86) reported that Slavic Yugoslavians “blame ethnic Albanians…for continuing assaults, rape and vandalism. They believe their aim is to drive non-Albanians out of the province.” All of the half-dozen references in Nexis to “ethnically clean” or “ethnic cleansing” in the 80’s attribute the phrase to actions by Albanian nationalists.
By 1987, the Times [portrayed] a dire situation in Kosovo. David Binder reported (11÷1÷87): “Ethnic Albanians in the Government have manipulated public funds and regulations to take over land belonging to Serbs.… Slavic Orthodox churches have been attacked, and flags have been torn down. Wells have been poisoned and crops burned. As Slavs flee the protracted violence, Kosovo is becoming what ethnic Albanian nationalists have been demanding for years--an ”ethnically pure” Albanian region, a ”Republic of Kosovo” in all but name.” This is the situation that led to Milosevic’s 1987 speech promising protection of Serbs. Despite being easily available on Nexis, virtually none of this material has found its way into contemporary coverage of Kosovo, in the New York Times or anywhere else.
(“Rescued From the Memory Hole: The Forgotten Background of the Serb/Albanian Conflict,” by Jim Naureckas, Extra!, May/June 1999.)
During the 1990s and beyond, ethnic Albanian violence against Serbs, Roma and other non-Albanians continued in Kosovo.
Matthew Rothschild of The Progressive points to shifting language in NATO’s charter as evidence of their encroachment on the duties of the United Nations.The old strategic concept, which was approved in London in July 1990, stated: “The Alliance is purely defensive in purpose: None of its weapons will ever be used except in self-defense.”
In the new strategic concept, adopted on April 23 and April 24 (1999), NATO quietly dropped this clear and encumbering language. In its place, the ministers agreed to language that basically will allow NATO to intervene anywhere in the world at any time… There is one little problem, though. The new strategic concept states that these “crisis response operations” have to be “in conformity with Article 7 of the Washington Treaty” of 1949, which recognizes “the primary responsibility of the Security Council for the maintenance of international peace and security.” Alas, NATO’s war against Yugoslavia already violates this provision, since the Security Council never granted NATO permission to bomb Belgrade.
(“Future of a Delusion,” by Matthew Rothschild, The Progressive, June 1999.)A number of European countries were not convinced that NATO should embark on adventures without UN sanction. Clinton, backed by his sanctimonious English factotum, Toady Blair decided to bounce the Germans, Italians, and Greeks into a war they did not want. In Germany, Finance Minister Oskar Lafontaine walked out of the government in protest. The decision to bomb Belgrade was made by Madeleine Albright and her advisers. Albright wanted a quick NATO victory to show the world that NATO, under U.S. leadership, was much more effective than the United Nations.
(“NATO’s Balkan Adventure,” by Tariq Ali, The Monthly Review, June 1999.)
Richard Holbrooke, Asst. Secretary of State, was a big player in the dismemberment of Yugoslavia and getting NATO to expand. In an op-ed in Foreign Affairs (“America, a European Power,” March/April 1995) he emphasized the necessity of expanding NATO. He was a principal player in the Dayton Accords of 1995 that agreed to end the fighting in Bosnia. It was almost identical to two previous agreements made in March 1992 and May 1993, which the U.S. opposed, except that the Dayton Accords were to be implemented by NATO.
Dangers of Cluster Bombs
The arsenal used by NATO included cluster bombs, weapons that do not necessarily detonate upon impact, and can, like land mines, indiscriminately kill for years later.
The U.S. has used cluster bombs in every conflict since World War II, which have mostly harmed the civilian, rather than military, population. The proliferation of cluster bombs around the world has an American imprint.Ninety-eight percent of those killed or injured by cluster bombs are civilians. And yet international efforts to restrict the use of cluster bombs — modeled after landmine treaties of previous years — are being undermined by lack of U.S. participation. Worse, instead of destroying old cluster bomb stockpiles, the United States is exporting them to allies around the world.
(“What We Leave Behind: From Kosovo to Lebanon, Cluster Bomb Casualities Continue to Mount,” Frida Berrigan, In These Times, December 2006.)
The Pentagon estimates that roughly 11,000 live bomblets remain, in addition to an unknown number dropped by British aircraft, according to a 1999 article in The Progressive. Unexploded bomblets from cluster bombs are just one of the many hazards left behind by NATO’s two-month bombing.
The Human and Environmental Impact
A report by the United Nations Environment Program after the war shows the detrimental impact on the environment and the massive refugee crisis created by NATO’s bombing. The hazards did not respect borders or ethnicity.
When the Rambouillet accord failed and NATO air strikes started on 24 March 1999, alarming reports began to appear about the environmental damage caused by the bombing. Images of Pancevo and Novi Sad oil refineries on fire, toxic chemicals leaking into the River Danube, and bomb craters in protected areas were competing with those of tens of thousands of refugees fleeting their homes in Kosovo…
Albania and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia had to receive huge numbers of refugees from Kosovo although they were unprepared for the scale of the influx. Other neighbouring countries, especially Bulgaria and Romania, downstream along the Danube, feared the effects of transboundary pollution from targeted industrial facilities… In Kosovo, Serbian forces systemically emptied and destroyed many towns and villages. The damage to living quarters, infrastructure, clean drinking water supply and waste systems was obvious. When the Kosovan Albanians fled their homes, much of the documentation setting out legal ownership of land and property was lost or taken by force, in turn complicating the return of the refugees to their home areas. Although addressed largely by other UN bodies, environmental problems caused by the stream of refugees also became an issue, with sanitation and drinking water services under enormous pressure in the overcrowded refugee camps.
(The Kosovo Conflict: Consequences for the Environment Human Settlements, by the United Nations Environment Program, 1999.)
However, the bombings’ overt dangers did not receive attention until NATO soldiers were affected.Unfortunately, it wasn’t until soldiers from Western countries began dying of cancer and getting sick that depleted uranium in the Balkans became an international issue for the corporate media. A fact not lost on people here.
While leading scientists and environmentalists in Serbia are indeed concerned about the effects of DU munitions, they say it is just the tip of the toxic iceberg. “Depleted uranium is just one page in a very thick book of the ecological and health catastrophe caused by the NATO bombing,” says Vukasin Pavlovic, Director of the Belgrade-based ECO Center.
One of the stunning revelations in the report is the sheer quantity of toxins released into the Danube, the source of drinking water for 10 million Europeans. The report highlights NATO’s April 14-15th strikes on the Petrochemical Industrial Complex in Pancevo, which lies on the banks of the Danube, 10 miles outside of Belgrade. Within moments of the bombings, a devastating toxic cocktail poured into the river. This included some 3,000 tons of alkalis, 1,400 tons of vinyl-chloride monomers (VCMs), 1,000 tons of ethylene dichloride and 800 tons of 33% hydrochloric acid, according to the report. Attacks on the plant also resulted in an estimated 20 tons of highly carcinogenic VCMs entering the atmosphere. In 78 days of attacks, the petrochemical plant was bombed 9 times.
“NATO didn’t use chemical weapons during the bombing,” says Dr. Zorka Vukmirovic, a leading environmental physicist and one of the authors of the report. “But indirectly it caused the effects of chemical weapons use. If you release so many hazardous substances, major air pollutants and carcinogens in the vicinity of big cities like Belgrade and Nis, it is obviously a deliberate action against the civilian population.”
(“Depleted Uranium, Just the Tip of the Iceberg in Serbia,” by Jeremy Schaill, Common Dreams, Jan. 31, 2001.)
Effectiveness of NATO Action on Serbia
For all the destruction on civilian populations and the environment addressed, the attention now turns to the result of the NATO action in Serbia.In a story that…went virtually unmentioned in the United States, the London Daily Telegraph reported in its July 22, 1999, edition that a private preliminary review by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s own experts found that the 78-day bombing of Yugoslavia had “almost no military effect.”
NATO’s own experts privately conclude that the NATO bombing campaign “failed to damage the Yugoslav army, and that the war ended primarily because Russia pressed Serbia to sign the Chernomyrdin-Ahtisaari accord.” Equally unreported is the fact that the Chernomyrdin-Ahtisaari agreement – which led to the current ceasefire – when compared to NATO’s “non-negotiable” proposal, represents several major NATO concessions regarding the key terms of occupation. For all of these terms, the current agreement much more closely resembles Belgrade’s pre-war negotiating position than NATO’s.
(“From NATO’s Own Experts: Bombing of Yugoslavia was a Failure,” by Bob Harris, The Humanist, November 1999.)
In The Humanist, Michael Parenti describes how production facilities, transportation centers, museums and churches were destroyed, robbing the civilian population of any chance of leading productive lives.
According to Parenti, NATO sorties were spread apart by 15 to 30 minutes over the same target. This allowed rescue operations enough time to arrive and start working before the bombing started again. This led to a high rate of causalities among rescue workers. (See “NATO’s ‘Humanitarian’ War,” The Humanist, March/April 2000.)
Failed Framework for Peace
Under the June 10, 1999 peace agreement between NATO and Serbia, UNSC 1244, the United Nations Security Council specified a number of conditions:
1. The Kosovo Liberation Army and other armed Albanian Kosovar groups were to be demilitarized.
2. Serbs and other minorities in Kosovo were to be protected and given substantial autonomy.
3. All UN member states were committed “to the sovereignty and territorial integrity” of Serbia.
Forging a New KosovoBy the end of August, about ten weeks after NATO stopped bombing Yugoslavia and the NATO-led Kosovo Force (KFOR) took charge of Kosovo, only about 20,000 Serbs remained in Kosovo out of a prewar population of 200,000 (AP, 8/30/99). In other words, 90 percent of Kosovar Serbs had fled their homes and become refugees since the peace agreement went into effect. Curiously, given the acceptance by much of the press that NATO had fought and won a war against ethnic cleansing, few reporters raised the question of whether in the aftermath of that war, Kosovar Serbs weren’t being ethnically cleansed right before KFOR’s eyes.
Superficial coverage like this underscored the impression that the flight of 180,000 Serbs was the natural, if regrettable, result of “centuries-old hatred in a region that has known violence for far too long.” (ABC World News This Morning, 8/10/99) Rarely mentioned on the three networks was the possibility--which seems obvious, given the history of the region--that the exodus might be the outcome of a coordinated campaign to create an exclusively Albanian Kosovo. This suggestion did slip into an August 30 Good Morning America news item about Ambassador to the U.N. Richard Holbrooke, who had recently “urged Albanian leaders to stop a campaign of revenge against Serbs.”
Questions about exactly why KFOR was having such “a tough time stopping the violence” were virtually never raised.
(“After the ‘Humanitarian’ War: TV Learns to Accept Ethnic Cleansing in Kosovo,” by Rachel Coen, Extra!, December 1999.)
In 1998, Albanian paramilitary groups were being supplemented by well-equipped guerrilla groups brought in from outside Kosovo. U.S. tax dollars went to the funding the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA).Multiphoton Resonance Ionization (MPRI) is one of a handful of Pentagon contractors known as private military companies providing support to the KLA, according to retired Army Colonel David Hackworth… Some of the military leadership of the KLA includes veterans of MPRI-planned Operations Storm and Strike, 1995 Croatian military offensives that resulted in the ethnic cleansing of Serbs from eastern Croatia.
(“Mercenaries in Kosovo: The U.S. connection to the KLA,” by Wayne Madsen, The Progressive, August 1999.)The KPC is slated as a “civilian emergency service agency.” Its tasks: providing disaster response services, search and rescue missions, and assistance in rebuilding infrastructure and communities.”
The reality is that the KPC, consisting almost entirely of “demilitarized” KLA members, has become a US/UN funded 5,000-man terror squad in uniform with the not so subtle aim of creating an ethnically pure Kosovo. And the US and UN know it. An internal UN report prepared for Kofi Annan and leaked to journalists earlier this year accuses the KPC of “criminal activities, killings, ill-treatment/torture, illegal policing, abuse of authority, intimidation, breaches of political neutrality and hate speech.” It details KPC officers using torture to obtain confessions, making death threats, demanding so-called protection “contributions” from ethnic minorities and business owners, kidnapping, etc.
At nearly every turn in the UN/NATO negotiations with the KLA over their role in the “new” Kosovo, American officials swooped in to appease Gen. Ceku and his KLA cronies by making changes to key principles to agreements. In one instance, then-State Department spokesperson James Rubin came to the group’s rescue, adding a clause that said, “special consideration should be given to current KLA members in exchange for the help the KLA provided to NATO during its air campaign.”
(“Washington’s Men in Kosovo: A Year After the NATO Occupation, Terror Reigns,” by Jeremy Scahill, Common Dreams, July 19, 2000.)
In his ongoing reporting for In These Times, Scahill reported that the Albanian Kosovar soldiers used children as human shields in order to protect themselves from Serbian police. Scahill also reported that the UCPMB, an offshoot of the KLA, were illegally patrolling the demilitarized zone between Kosovo and the rest of Serbia. This was in direct violation of an agreement between NATO and Belgrade that permitted only lightly armed Serbian police to patrol the zone.
Schaill also reported on the military campaigns of the KLA against Serbia and Macedonia.The Albanian rebels’ regular attacks on Yugoslavian security forces and Serb villages, which have forced some 180,000 Serbs from Kosovo, received scant media attention and only mild concern from the international community, as they were categorized as part of the ongoing conflict between Serbs and Albanians.
(“Back to the Brink: Albanian Attacks on Macedonia and Serbia Could Lead to Another Balkan War,” by Jeremy Scahill, In These Times, April 30, 2001.)
Continuing Ethnic Cleansing
On July 26, 2004, Human Rights Watch released a 66-page report, “Failure to Protect: Anti-Minority Violence in Kosovo, March 2004,” which documented the widespread attacks against non-Albanians and assailed the protection provided by security forces to minority populations.On March 17 and 18, 2004, violent rioting by ethnic Albanians took place throughout Kosovo, spurred by sensational and ultimately inaccurate reports that Serbs had been responsible for the drowning of three young Albanian children. For nearly forty-eight hours, the security structures in Kosovo – the NATO-led Kosovo Force (KFOR), the international U.N. (UNMIK) police… – almost completely lost control, as at least thirty-three major riots broke out across Kosovo, involving an estimated 51,000 participants.
The violence across Kosovo represents the most serious setback since 1999 in the international community’s efforts to create a multi-ethnic Kosovo in which both the government and civil society respect human rights. From the capital Pristina/Prishtine, to cities like Prizren and Djakovica/Gjakove, to small villages like Slatina/Sllatine and Belo Polje/Bellopoje, large ethnic Albanian crowds acted with ferocious efficiency to rid their areas of all remaining vestiges of a Serb presence, and also targeted other minorities such as Roma, including Ashkali who are Albanian-speaking Roma. In many of the communities affected by violence, in attacks both spontaneous and organized, every single Serb, Roma, or Ashkali home was burned…
Although NATO-led KFOR troops and UNMIK international civilian police are specifically mandated to provide security for minorities in Kosovo, they both failed to protect minorities during the rioting, often leaving besieged Serbs and others at the mercy of large ethnic Albanian crowds for hours before responding. In the village of Svinjare/Frasher, all 137 Serb homes were burned, but ethnic Albanian homes were left untouched. KFOR failed to come to the assistance of the Serbs, even though Svinjare is located just a few hundred meters from the base…
The March violence forced out the entire Serb population from dozens of locations – including the capital Pristina – and equally affected Roma and Ashkali communities. After two days of rioting, at least 550 homes and twenty-seven Orthodox churches and monasteries were burned, leaving approximately 4,100 Serbs, Roma, Ashkali, and other non-Albanian minorities displaced. Some 2,000 persons still remain displaced months later, living in crowded and unsanitary conditions – including in unheated and unfinished apartments, crowded schools, tent camps on KFOR military bases, and even metal trucking containers. The future of minorities in Kosovo has never looked bleaker.
(“Failure to Protect: Anti-Minority Violence in Kosovo, March 2004,” Human Rights Watch.)
Kosovo’s Grim Outlook
David Binder, former Balkans correspondent for the New York Times, assessed Kosovo’s condition in an op-ed for The Washington Times six months before the province’s February 2008 declaration of independence.The near-term outlook for Kosovo is unalterably grim: An economy stuck in misery; a bursting population of young people with “criminality as the sole career choice;” an insupportably high birthrate; a society imbued with corruption and a state dominated by organized crime figures.
These are the conclusions of “Operationalizing of the Security Sector Reform in the Western Balkans,” a 124-page investigation by the Institute for European Policy commissioned by the German Bundeswehr and issued in January 2007…
The authors point out a “grotesque denial of reality by the international community” about Kosovo, coupling that with the warning of “a new wave of unrest that could greatly exceed the level of escalation seen up to now.”…
“It is a Mafia society” based on “capture of the state” by criminal elements. (“State capture” is a term coined in 2000 by a group of World Bank analysts to describe countries where government structures have been seized by corrupt financial oligarchies.
In the authors’ definition, Kosovan organized crime “consists of multimillion-Euro organizations with guerrilla experience and espionage expertise.” They quote a German intelligence service report of “closest ties between leading political decision makers and the dominant criminal class” and name Ramush Haradinaj, Hashim Thachi(Thaqi or Thaci) and Xhavit Haliti as compromised leaders who are “internally protected by parliamentary immunity and abroad by international law…”
[The study also] notes “secret CIA detention centers” at Camp Bondsteel [in Kosovo] and assails American military training for Kosovo (Albanian) police authorized by the Pentagon.
(“Kosovo’s Grim Future,” by David Binder, Washington Times, August 29, 2007.)
In this new book, longtime organizers and movement educators Mariame Kaba and Kelly Hayes examine the political lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath, including the convergence of mass protest and mass formations of mutual aid. Let This Radicalize You answers the urgent question: What fuels and sustains activism and organizing when it feels like our worlds are collapsing?
We've partnered with the publisher, Haymarket Books, and 100% of your donation will go towards supporting In These Times.