NATO’s 78-Day Bombing of Yugoslavia


On March 24, 1999, NATO began an aerial bombing campaign against what was then the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. For 78 days, bombs rained down on military targets and civilian infrastructure under the guise of ‘humanitarian intervention.’ Operation Allied Force precipitated the displacement of over one million people and directly resulted in the deaths of over 2000 civilians of a range nationalities (a number that gets much larger if we include indirect deaths as a result of the intervention and post-intervention period, as well as those killed in the resulting escalation of the military conflict between the Yugoslav army and the KLA). Ten years later, Kosovo’s ‘independence’ has resulted in a quasi-colonial entity of ‘ethnic’ enclaves and an all-pervasive security apparatus, a new client state for the Western powers that led the bombing campaign. Meanwhile, Serbia and Montenegro remain stalled on a ‘transition’ to neo-liberal democracy marked by a brutal mass privatization, increasing poverty, and the rapid dispossession and continued marginalization of workers, students, refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs), Roma communities, and others casualties of economic restructuring.

GLOBAL BALKANS is a small network of anti-authoritarian, anti-capitalist activists of diverse backgrounds in the ex-Yugoslav diaspora and allies. Many of us have witnessed and experienced first-hand the devastation that continues to be felt as a result of the events and ripple effects emanating from the NATO intervention of 1999. We have talked to and continue to dialogue with people from many communities throughout the former Yugoslav Balkan region whose lives have been deeply and permanently turned upside down by the upheaval of the NATO bombing, the wars of the 1990s, and the neoliberal transition of Yugoslavia’s various successor states.

Whether they be…

workers massively laid off from factories that were first bombed and then later sold off at fire sale prices or questionable privatization deals to local tycoons or foreign investors; refugees and displaced people caught between the prospect of no return and a lack of resources and political and social will for local integration; the families and loved ones of the missing, those who disappeared and were never accounted for during and after the violent chaos of 1999; minorities trapped in enclaves in Kosovo who go to sleep every night in fear of attack and who have not seen the main town or city 10 km away for over 10 years; internally displaced people living in the shipping containers, makeshift shelters, and run down collective housing provided to them by international aid agencies ten years ago as a “temporary solution”, for whom aid was cut off in 2004 and who live in them year round whether it is -15 or + 40°C; those communities facing strange illnesses or high cancer rates who are unable to get proper medical care or answers as to their causes in a system that seems bent on hushing up any talk of depleted uranium or the health effects of the bombing that would displease NATO countries; displaced people who are among the more than 100,000 who have been or are under threat of deportation back to Serbia from EU countries, many of them, particularly Roma, born abroad and unable to speak the language of the country they are dumped back into; the erased of Slovenia, non-Slovenian minorities from the ex-Yugoslav region who woke up one day to find that their citizenship had been erased by the state, and who have been fighting for status under extremely precarious conditions ever since; women, Roma, ethnic and sexual minorities who have been disproportionately affected by mass layoffs, particularly in the former self-managing social property sector of the economy (where the majority were employed) that was the first to be privatized, and who face disproportionate violence in the toxic transitional climate of militarism and deprivation that produces social scape-goating; our own families, friends, and loved ones who bear many of the hidden and not so hidden marks and scars of those times;

…we have been inspired by their struggles and persistence against difficult odds in difficult conditions. They are the erased, the ignored, the missing and the forgotten of the NATO military campaign, the post-Yugoslav transition, and the intervention of the international community, and we name their situations and think of them today, and invite those who read this to join us in doing so.

Ten years later, we remember those ordinary people of all nationalities who lost their lives in the wars of the ‘90s, the NATO bombing, and the neoliberal transition. We reject the nationalist lenses through which these conflicts have been portrayed in the Western media as well as in the region, ones that only recognize or canonize the victims of a preferred side and refuse to see those whose lives have been destroyed on the “other” enemy side. We also reject the cynical pro-imperialist lens that legitimizes military intervention by NATO as a “humanitarian” necessity borne of goodwill and the need for benevolent imperial oversight. As if the millions of dollars in bombs (79,000 tons), cruise missiles (10,000 launched), radiation, and cluster bombs (35,000 bomblets) costing $30 billion USD in damage to the local economy and raining down death and ecological devastation on hospitals, schools, factories, bridges, and refineries are the same as teddy bears, food supplies, or medical aid. We stand in solidarity with all the victims of the many layers of violence that have and continue to be enacted in the region, the kind that the mainstream media are unable and unwilling to depict or recognize. We ask our comrades and allies to aim for a more informed perspective on the legacy of those times than that which much of the Western left has seemingly adopted from the simplistic scenarios of the mainstream media.

Ten years later, we are working to support and actively extend our solidarity to the former Yugoslav region’s slowly (re)emerging social movements fighting struggles of survival, persistence, and liberation and to our activist comrades who are tirelessly fighting to make these fragile and beleaguered, yet resolute and courageous  movements still stronger, more visible, and even more effective. They are an inspiration. We also encourage the North American/Western left and other progressives to overcome the common cycle of momentary and opportunistic interest based on partial understandings followed by long periods of indifference to the conditions, constraints, and complexities faced by ordinary people and social movements in the region.

Ten years on, the NATO bombing of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia has been eclipsed on the global stage by a series of intensifying imperialist military interventions, most notably in Afghanistan and Iraq. We see each of these military adventures and the mass devastation they have wrought as of a piece, as part of a troubling and dangerous progression, one that will not be resolved by a Democratic president or a kinder, gentler imperialism. We understand and underline the extent to which the NATO bombing in 1999 set many dangerous precedents for these later imperialist wars, and ask those in anti-war movements to remember, talk about, and make those often neglected links. We also see the 1999 NATO intervention as inscribed in a lineage of earlier destructive political measures taken by the “international community”, starting with the economic ‘shock therapy’ program imposed on the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1990.

It remains to be seen how much of the world and the media will remember or mark this 10th anniversary of the NATO intervention. We expect there to be little recognition of this date that does not recapitulate the standard nationalist, pro-neoliberal and pro-NATO perspectives we reject. We remember. We refuse to let it be ignored, glossed over or forgotten, and we stand strong with all those who are still daily living the effects and devastation of those 78 days in 1999 and their aftermath – living, struggling, persisting, fighting back and moving forward towards a different Balkans and a different world as well, one where none of this will be possible or even fathomable.

GLOBAL BALKANS is an activist research, media, and organizing network that works both locally and in solidarity with Balkan social movements to investigate, publicize and impact political, social and economic struggles in the former Yugoslav and wider Balkan region. We are working to build a transnational, anti-nationalist, anti-capitalist, and anti-authoritarian network with a pan-Balkan and internationalist outlook (currently based in San Francisco, Toronto, and Montreal). They can be reached at globalbalkans@yahoo.ca and globalbalkans@gmail.com.

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