September 18, 2000
"It is now 10 pm. An hour ago they declared a war emergency in our country. The first wave of bombing is expected tonight. I hope that I'll be able to write to you tomorrow. In the hope that this night will pass quietly, good night…."
I received this email from my sister on 23 March 1999. Hours later she and her two small children were on a refugee bus out of Yugoslavia, the first of some 400 000 unreported women and children, refugees, who fled the fury of NATO bombs that rained down on their country. Seventy eight days of nightmare had begun.
On evidence that was flimsy or non-existent, on evidence that in any Western court would allow a defendant to walk away not only with no conviction but with serious doubt that the actions he had been accused of had in fact been committed, 19 of the biggest, strongest, most affluent countries in the world threw their armoured might against a single country of less than 11 million people, breaking a staggering number of international canons of law including the founding charter of the very organisation under whose auspices the 'war' was waged - "we had," UK Prime Minister Tony Blair was quoted as saying later, "to protect the credibility of NATO." And in order to protect the credibility of NATO an entire nation was sacrificed; and would continue to be sacrificed at any cost. The president of the United States of America, Bill Clinton, was on record as saying, "We must not lose".
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright is quoted as saying, "This will only take a few days". The days lengthened, and it became apparent that her quarry would not surrender that easily. The party line changed. "We never," Ms Albright said in May, "expected this to be a short-term campaign."
And the campaign's lies and losses mounted. NATO would hit refugee convoys, and then deny its planes had been involved until someone would produce shattered pieces of American ordnance picked up next to the carbonised remains of the victims. A rail bridge was hit as a train was coming onto it, and then hit again; and NATO produced speeded up films to prove that the pilot had "bombed in good faith". A missile fell 300m short and destroyed civilian houses in Aleksinac; another destroyed a medical complex in Surdulica; hospitals were hit in Belgrade; through the grace of God, a couple of Cruise missiles meant to destroy an army which had never made an aggressive move against its attackers and which found their way into the cloister of a 14th century monastery failed to explode. A rain of cluster bombs rained onto a civilian marketplace in Nis. A tiny back-country bridge was attacked on a market-day Sunday, packed with civilians, and attacked again just as help arrived to clear the bridge of its dead and wounded. And by the end of the first week in April not a single bridge over the Danube was left standing in Novi Sad. The three shattered bridges still stand in the river, blocking traffic, wrecking economies of countries downstream whose lifeline the great European river was. (A Romanian official, somewhat hysterically, demanded to know why - if NATO had had such pinpoint-accurate missiles - they had not aimed at the places where the bridges met the banks, in order to avoid them breaking and falling into the river; it made no difference, apparently, that the banks were heavily populated with civilian population. )
The town of Pancevo, with its concentration of chemical and petrochemical industries, was pulverised, releasing into water, air and soil such poisons that people's skin blistered, breathing masks were required downwind, and no fish were to be eaten from the river. In Novi Sad the refinery was attacked again and again and again - 40 missiles for this alone.
Pipes buried three meters underground were left lying twisted and wrecked in craters in which a tall man could stand upright and not see over the rim Petrol and diesel leaked from holed containers and caught fire as they dripped out, producing "firefalls" of superheated chemicals. Overwhelmed by the scale of the disaster, with only two protection suits between fifteen overworked men, people reported for medical attention with their hands cooked up to their elbows.
Two days after the carpet bombing the refinery still belched out acrid smoke over the town. At noon the next day the sunlit cathedral tower looked like it had been transferred into hell. At 3 pm that same day a nearby street, deserted, looked like something apocalyptic.
For days afterwards, the smoke hung around the town.
For weeks afterwards the air tasted sulphurous, tainted and gritty.
For months afterwards water tasted oily. Children who had refugeed from the falling bombs now returned to air they could not breathe, water they could not drink.
For those that had remained behind, it was a hell that had to be endured.
A YEAR LATER, and Yugoslavia is still in the news.
Shattered by sanctions, destroyed by bombs, and now evicted from the land which had birthed and nurtured their cultural and historical being, the Serbs are concentrated into ghettos in places like Orahovac, and still cling with one last remaining neighbourhood in the northern Kosovo town of Kosovska Mitrovica. The ethnic cleansing of the rest of Kosovo is pretty much complete - the population, some quarter million or more, have been driven from Kosovo into Serbia, whose population was already almost one-tenth refugees from other Balkan wars. 80 churches and monasteries have been looted, levelled or damaged beyond repair during the NATO/UN mandate in Kosovo; even the very traces of Serb life in Kosovo are being systematically cleared from the land. An American colonel was overheard to utter the telling sentence that, if the "old" church (a 14th century one) was too badly damaged, then it should be cleared away to "make room for something new". With no jobs, no money, and no prospects, Yugoslavia's population is sitting back and watching hollowly as a new Albanian separatist movements lays claim to three towns in southern Serbia which, in the media, has somehow been metamorphosed into "Eastern Kosovo". More stories of atrocities and ethnic cleansing are paving the way for yet another land grab - the Albanian population in this area appears not to have been harassed by anybody until it became convenient for them to start becoming the new poster-children of the refugee cult. It is remarkably similar to the events that led up to the first attack on Serbia 12 months ago.
Much has been said, told, shown, revealed in the year since NATO came in with guns blazing. For example, their stated resolve that "these refugees will go home" appears to apply only to those of Albanian ethnicity because thousands upon thousands of Serb, Roma, and other ethnic origins have been driven out of Kosovo with no hope of returning. For them, it is "too dangerous" to return and the KFOR forces cannot "guarantee their safety".
The "humanitarian" war was fought on the pretext of genocide. The first shameful thing that the invading foreign forces did upon entering Kosovo was stage a stampede to see who would be the first to discover the mass graves of the hundred thousand dead which the war had been fought to avenge. Shortly afterwards a Spanish forensic team went home in disgust. Only some 2000 bodies had been found, some of them of indeterminate ethnicity, others having died of indeterminate causes, in other words - no evidence of the atrocities that had been put forward as a pretext for the war. The "massacre" that started the whole ball rolling, at Racak, has been analysed by French, Finnish and other foreign media. The available evidence points to a stage managed event of which any PR firm would be proud - it was set up to bring in the swell of public opinion necessary to support a war, and it did its job admirably. The fact that it was largely fabrication is now irrelevant.
Pensioners are slowly starving in Yugoslavia, living on incomes which the average Western household would not consider sufficient to feed the household pet. Recently a system of vouchers by which pensioners could pay electricity bills was introduced, and these were issued instead of the pension one month; the pensioners received no actual money. They could be used to pay the electricity, and passed onto the electricity producing companies in lieu of cash. So the Government didn't pay the pensioners, and the pensioners didn't actually pay for their electricity, and God alone knows who is paying for these services to continue running. Medical care is suffering. Contaminated water necessitates drinking expensive bottled water. Heating plants don't. Harvests have been disrupted; last year's fruit crop was badly affected, this year who knows what will be planted, and how, in the poisoned earth full of chemicals and depleted uranium, it will grow. We still have to see the long-term effects on birth rates and cancers from what was done to Pancevo.
There is plenty about which mainstream media do not write, do not wish to know. There is a nation and a people whose past is being rewritten to suit the victors in an unequal war, whose present is an unending struggle for survival and for redemption, and whose futures have been savagely ripped apart.
In a 1980 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica Yugoslavia is called "an important country" whose future is linked with that of Europe.
In the latest edition of that august publication, the name "Yugoslavia" does not appear.
A long time ago an English king who went to do battle for a foreign throne on which he had a claim of sorts rose to urge his armies on to glory on the morning of a battle that would become known as Agincourt. For him, for his people, it was considered acceptable to be proud of their lineage and heritage and history, even when fighting on foreign soil whose language they did not speak. But the words that a playwright by the name of Shakespeare put into the mouth of King Henry V serve just as well today to apply to a Serbian nation which still, somehow, refuses to die:
This story shall the good man teach his son;
[And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by]
From this day to the ending of the world
But we in it shall be rememberéd.
For me, for the people of my blood, 23 March 1999 is Saint Crispian's day forever more.
Alma Hromic, the author with R. A. Deckert of Letters from the Fire, was born in Novi Sad, Yugoslavia. However she has lived outside her native country for much of her life: Zambia, Swaziland, South Africa, the UK and New Zealand. Trained as a microbiologist, she spent some years running a scientific journal, and later worked as an editor for an international educational publisher. Her own publishing record includes her autobiography, Houses in Africa, The Dolphin's Daughter and Other Stories, a bestselling book of three fables published by Longman UK in 1995, as well as numerous pieces of short fiction and non-fiction.
Published with the written permission of the author. Please, DO NOT steal, scavenge or repost this work without the expressed written authorization of Swans, which will seek permission from the author. This material is copyrighted, © Alma A. Hromic 2000. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.
This article was first published in the spring of 2000. It can be viewed with a series of sad and dramatic pictures at http://www.keep-in-touch.org/anniversary/
Letters from the Fire can be ordered on the authors' Web site.
Sadness in Novi Sad, Serbia - by Alma Hromic
Smiles Amid the Sadness: A Response - by Alex Jay Berman
Poem: She Was Bridge-Killed - by Pedja Zoric
Subject: Into Myth - by Alma Hromic
My reading of Letters from the Fire and More... - by Jan Baughman