The Tragedy and Fallacy of NATO’s Balkan Experiment: 20 Years On

Photograph Source Darko Dozet – CC BY-SA 3.0

March 24, 1999 was an ordinary school day in Belgrademid-week (Wednesday). Suddenly, half of my high-school class quietly left for home early, citing relatives calling in from overseas saying that the NATO bombing campaign has started in the South, including an authorisation to hit Belgrade. My friends and I (for whom the satellite TV was an unimaginable luxury!) reluctantly left our interrupted class, each one of us buried deeply in our thoughts as to what the conflict might actually mean. We remembered well the convoys of refugees pouring across Serbia’s western border during the Croatian and Bosnian wars, with many refugee children attending our school too and eventually blending in with the locals. The state broadcaster RTS television was playing its usual program, heavily controlled by Milosevic’s cronies, with no sign of impaling events. Around 8.12pm, which was the time for widely popular Latin telenovelas, there was a loud bang in the neighbourhood and all of our apartment block’s windows shook. Is it firecrackers? A little while afterwards the air raid sirens began; the now famous commentator from the independent Studio B television channel Avram Izrael was about to start with his daily commentary about air raids. This was the first bomb that was dropped on Belgrade, a European capital during an offensive military operation, hitting very close to home. In our proximity there were several military facilities underneath Strazevica and Avala mountains, which became a daily target for NATO’s yet another failed Balkan experiment. The symbol of Belgrade and former Yugoslavia, the Avala Tower and a television transmitter, was destroyed during one of those raids, only six days after RTS headquarters were bombed killing a dozen journalists and which the Amnesty International declared a ‘war crime’.

We had no atomic bomb shelter in our building (throughout the old Yugoslavia, some of these can still be found), and one family built a home in our basement whose doors they generously opened to the children at night, including myself and my best friend who was often visiting us. Newer buildings had proper shelters from the days of the old Yugoslavia, but we could not go there as they were already full. Our neighbours were stocking petrol in the basement cages; if a bomb was to fall on our building, we would have become a giant firecracker ourselves. I remember stuffing all our major possessions (family jewellery and some money in the foreign currency) in a brown bear (a souvenir from Australia) with a large zip across its belly and holding our passports close by. Mine was different – it had a clear stamp from the Australian embassy and a 3 month tourist visa on it, unused. The embassies were shutting down along with the borders. Only the Hungarian one remained open, but NATO by then already targeted an Albanian refugee convoy citing collateral damage. One question was doing the rounds: Were we going to end up facing one ofthose ‘mistaken missiles’, adding to a rising civilian toll of this conflict? Bridges in Novi Sad were already destroyed as people were crossing them. The Chinese Embassy in Belgrade had been hit, killing three and wounding twenty embassy staff members. The bus had to go around and around to get to the northern border, while there were soldiers hiding in the bushes near the highway as I could see through a foggy window, with my mother accompanying me to our farewell in Budapestand short-stay there organised by a relative. There is a sizeable Serbian community in Hungary (once a large ethnic group within the Austro-Hungarian empire) and a Romaniorchestra played a famous song for us at the dinner table with ominous words “Adio for now, and who knows when and where we will meet again”.

This was a fortnight after the raids began. My memory of that era is still vivid, stark and unspoiled. The feeling of weird, dangerous excitement when listening to the anti-aircraft fire and observing the capital city covered in spring darkness as the electricity was cut. People were unsure whether the light would attract any attention from the invisible killing machines which we could ominously hear above our heads; as a result everybody was reluctant to even put candles on. There was the lingering sound of dogs howling on the streets. There were numerous scenes of people in the city centre protesting with music and song against the bombing while defiantly stationed on the main bridges in Belgrade, defending them from NATO bombs. Thousands of people each day gathered. It was an inspiration to live each day as it came. People were greeting bombs with humour and song.

For public servants it was compulsory to attend work, putting citizens in harm’s way. My mother’s company, the famous Sava Centar Convention Centre (it was originally built to host by Yugoslavia the first Non-Alignment Movement conferencetherein 1961)was on the NATO’starget hit list as it hosted one of three major television channels. It was a stroke of luck that it was not hitduring the NATO bombing spree in the heart of Southeast Europe.

Surreal times for surreal people, with neighbours greeting each other with real smiles for the first time in years, or even decades. Some sending their children to the countryside, only for some areas there also to be hit with even more collateral damage. What was reallyhappening in Kosovo went underreportedlocally, just like what was happening in the rest of Serbia and Montenegro internationally. For me then came a one-way ticket to Australia and a wonderful Australian family with whom I lived while attending a prestigious Anglican college in Perth. I didn’t look back but part of my heart was forever left behind. Custody was transferred to my father from Australia so that my status could be made permanent. Less than a decade later I worked, ironically, as aparliamentary servant in Canberra advising the Australian parliamentarians on NATO!

It all came back to me with a jolting reminderlast month; the 20thanniversary since the brutal, unprovoked and extraordinary attack by 19 NATO Alliance members against a sovereign nation in Europe, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, composed of Serbia and Montenegro. As a living teenage witness of that pan-European tragedy, the 24th March will be remembered as a black day for many peoples living in the heart of the Balkans and their children who now reside in the West as a result of that conflict. For 78 days they had to re-live some of the experiences of their ancestors who were carpet bombed during the Second World War first, in a case of bitter historical irony, the Nazis in Operation Retribution in 1941, then by the Allied forces which was, by many accounts, even worse and in which some of my family members lost their young lives.  The Kosovo War was a dramatic turning point for international politics, suggesting the limits, and hypocrisy, of humanitarian intervention.  Even long-standing defenders of such rights, including Vaclav Havel, felt it necessary to attack the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia without explicitUNSCapproval, despite having a mere 35 percent of the population supportingit.With unjustified optimism, he argued that this had been the first war not waged “in the name of ‘national interests’.”

The NATO bombing attack on Serbian and Montenegrin territory, initiated with evangelical zeal by President Bill Clinton of the United States (who was on the mend from his Monica Lewinsky scandal) and UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, brought the world close to another dangerous crisis with Western and Russian forces. A deeper conflict was probably averted thanks to the swift thinking by a British Lieutenant-General Sir Mike Jackson, who resisted the military confrontation with Moscow that was ardently advocated by his boss, NATO chief Wesley Clark with now famous words: “No, I’m not going to do that. It’s not worth starting World War III”. NATO, however, bombed hospitals, schools, children’s playgrounds, petrol stations, trains, factories, all in the name of ‘peace’ and ‘conflict prevention’. Hundreds of thousands were reallocated because of this conflict.

Carving out the Kosovo territory from a sovereign nation in Europe ran against all international law principles the world has known, causing a turning point in the West’s relations with Russia and ushering a new, politicised principle of the so-called ‘humanitarian intervention’. NATO’s military operation was, ironically, named ‘Merciful Angel’, giving precedent to regime-change scenarios from Iraq in 2003 to Libyain 2011. It also caused another mass migration in the Balkans, with hundreds of thousands of people being firstly internally displaced across the region, then over the next couple of years emigrating from the Balkans into Western Europe and further across the seas all the way to Australia and New Zealand. The intervention perpetrated the very thing it was meant to halt: mass displacement and disruption.

The Balkans is now living with the legacy of that humanitarian impulse initiated by NATO countries, one heavily contaminated with depleted uranium from the NATO bombs, with dire consequences for human, animal and environmental health still being heavily debated. There is currently a move by Serbs to initiate a lawsuit against NATO for the contamination and damage done. The bombings destroyed much of Serbian industry as the targets were not only military: schools, hospitals, factories, petrol stations, TV stations and other civilian infrastructure suffered terribly from the NATO bombing. Serbia and its break-away Kosovo province turned semi-independent state (with international assistance) are now among the poorest areas of Europe, with massive brain-drain, youth unemployment and widening social inequality as well as reliance on foreign remittances. Yet it remains highly popular as the sought-after travel destination, famous for its nightlife and defiance through music and humour which at display daily during NATO bombing and media campaign against Serbs and rump Yugoslavia in 1999.

I went on to do extraordinary things in Australia, finishing four degrees and working as both public and parliamentary servant. All of my studies also dealt with the issue of Kosovo war in different ways, all invariably finding it debilitating to the European landscape: myHonours thesis saw the Kosovo war as the catalyst for change in German and Italian foreign policies after the Cold War; in my Master’s thesisconsidered itan obstacle to democratisation in the Balkans, and in my PhD found it to bea lingering legacy which has delayed Serbia’s EU accession prospects to this day. I provided tailored and independent advice to the Federal Parliament’s Presiding Officers, who often took me along to their meetings with international dignitaries. I took a parliamentary delegation overseas and facilitated the visits of many international visitors to the Parliament, including from NATO and a prominent lobbyist for the Kosovo war whom I found quite pleasant on a personal level. As I raisea young family in Sydney, the conflict still exists in my dreams and the feeling of displacement that they occasionally bring, along with the feeling that crimes were committed during those 78 daysby 19 members of NATO Alliance which went on to build the largest military base in Kosovo for Southeast Europe.