I recently re-visited Serbia on a business trip. In Belgrade, as usual, the people live a modest life. The only pleasure which the Serbs have never denied themselves, and apparently will not give up, is a chat over a cup of coffee in the numerous and very cozy cafes . They are always crowded and noisy. Naturally, personal problems are often discussed, and they quietly criticize local politicians who have no idea how to lead the country out of the economic crisis. At the same time, everybody clearly understands that this all started not because of the Socialists or the Democrats. They have had fifteen years of trying to get Serbia out of the impasse into which it was driven by a powerful and strong Europe in March 1999.
Operation "Merciful Angel"
The NATO countries and the United States (which have a combined population of almost 600 million people) unleashed its military might against 10 million Serbs in the spring of 1999. My old friend Milovan Dretsun, a well known television journalist in Serbia, told me about how and why it happened. Before the dissolution of the Serbian Parliament in January this year, he was a member of and headed the Committee for Kosovo and Montenegro. For Milovan Dretsun, the start of the bombing of Yugoslavia came as no surprise. Two weeks before the beginning of the NATO operation "Merciful Angel", he was already in Kosovo, where he worked as a war correspondent for the country's state television agency. The military knew beforehand that an alliance was being prepared against Serbia.
We started our long conversation with Milovan Dretsun in the café of the "Hotel Majestic ", and my questions began about why, in the early days of the aggression, NATO aircraft destroyed all the main bridges in the city of Novi Sad.
Milovan Dretsun: “From a military standpoint, there was no reason for the destruction of the bridges in Novi Sad. I do not exclude the idea that NATO planned a ground operation against Serbia via Hungary. And so, apparently, it decided to sever the Yugoslavian Army from this part of our country. Yet I don’t believe that was the main purpose of the bombing in the city of Novi Sad. I'm absolutely certain it was aimed at instilling fear and terror on the civilian population of Vojvodina. Brussels planned to break the spirit of the civilian population, and the army of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia itself. Destroying the bridges on one of the main arteries of Europe’s Danube River made no sense. I want to state that there were no large concentrations of our army there. But NATO decided to destroy the bridges, and the oil refinery in Novi Sad. Most importantly, they found it necessary to inflict the greatest possible damage on the environment, to intimidate people and in perspective, to make the local population ill.”
“So why was it necessary to destroy the Freedom Bridge?”
Milovan Dretsun: “This bridge connects central Europe to the Balkans, with the southern part of the old continent. I repeat that the destruction of the bridge made no common sense. This bridge was not a military or strategic target. Still, it was very important, as they probably would cut us off from international transport connections. But at this time people were simply afraid to go there. The road to Hungary was deserted. It seems to me that the military in Brussels, wanted to make sure that it would take as long as possible for us to rebuild our bridges, so that the economic blockade of Serbia lasted as long as possible. In addition, what they thought, and what the Serbian people realized, was that it was impossible to fight against NATO’s power and might. Serbia would need to submit. And so apart from bridges, they destroyed our combined heat and power systems, water systems and other infrastructure.”
“Operation "Merciful Angel", in which the whole of Europe and the United States participated, gained momentum day by day. When was the flywheel for war in Brussels ever going to stop?”
Milovan Dretsun: “The aggression itself was illegal, and NATO used a huge amount of military technology against us. In March, only 370 aircraft bombed us, but during April - May, 1200 aircraft took part in raids. In such a small airspace, the planes simply didn’t know where to go. Over 26,000 air missions took place in just 78 days of the war. Of these, 19,000 were air raids. About 37,000 rockets and various bombs were used. All in all, 23,000 tons of highly dangerous explosives were dropped.”
“Mostly, civilian targets were bombed: two thousand air raids took place on 900 civilian targets. 370 industrial facilities were hit by the air raids. In Kosovo, NATO aircraft destroyed only seven Yugoslavian Army tanks, but "heroically" destroyed many industrial facilities. And that explains the main objective of this war: to cause enormous damage to the civilian populations of Serbia and Montenegro. They bombed factories, hospitals, civilian trains, and bridges, on which there were children, and even churches in which people were worshipping. Their reasoning was that it was necessary to destroy people’s morale.”
“The largest victims of this war were the children and young people. Their physical and mental health was seriously affected. The health of our nation was broken. The water, air, and forests, were all poisoned. Now 15 years later we are feeling the consequences. And yet, our morale never wavered, we are Serbs. We are no longer able to actively resist American influence, or the U.S. invasion of our lives.”
After talking with Milovan Dretsun about the bombed bridges in Novi Sad, I told him about how we in Russia worried about what was happening in Serbia during those dreadful days. During literally the first days of the aggression, I went on a mission to Yugoslavia on an assignment for the "Voice of Russia ". Belgrade had already been bombed every night, and I had to take a roundabout route to get there. Firstly I flew by plane to Budapest, and then by car through Hungary and Vojvodina. What I saw in the city of Novi Sad is impossible to forget. In March 1999 I had to go on air for the “Voice of Russia” 5 times a day. The developments in the Balkans were being closely followed in Russia and the rest of the world, and I needed to keep the audience aware of how little Serbia was defending itself during these 78 days and nights, for which it was being punished for Kosovo.
These days, Europe and the United States attempt to forget those earlier years and the uncharitable “Merciful Angel” operation. Serbia is not going to forget the NATO bombing. Indeed, to this day little is known about what specific weapons were used in the war against by the Alliance against Serbia and Montenegro. This information is nowhere to be found and is not spoken about in Brussels. The U.S. military never reported to the world community that for three months it dropped "Tomahawk" missiles, vacuum bombs and cluster bombs on people's heads, and industrial and strategic targets.
“Why have the Americans hidden the fact that they used banned weapons in the war against Serbia and Montenegro?”
Milovan Dretsun: “I know that during this war bombs with depleted uranium were often used. These weapons were deployed by "A 10" aircraft, and the bombs had a core weight of 210 grams. They are used to destroy armored vehicles. We also observed that cluster bombs were regularly deployed in Kosovo, which have a great striking effect when used against manpower. Direct chemical weapons were not used openly. NATO deliberately destroyed transformer substations, of which many contained Perylene. It is a banned chemical, according to EU regulations. So, after the NATO bombing, this Perylene ended up in our land and water. This caused tremendous damage to the country's ecology.”
“It's been 15 years since the NATO aggression. What data is there to assess the increase in illness and mortality in Serbia as a result of Operation Merciful Angel?”
Milovan Dretsun: “The use of depleted uranium has had consequences in the aftermath of the aggression. The percentage of cancers in children in Kosovo and Montenegro has soared. It was along the border with Albania (the towns of Prizren, Djakovica and Pec), where the "A10" planes flew the most. Then a group of Italian and American soldiers arrived who became sick with an "unknown" disease. All these troops were immediately withdrawn from Kosovo. I believe that there was a court case in the U.S. over this issue. A Group of KFOR soldiers sued the U.S. government. It was said that if the government lost this court case, that the authorities did not have enough money to pay for the physical damage suffered by their soldiers. So wrote the U.S. media. But then this thing was «covered up", and the parties came to an out of court settlement, and everything about it was safely forgotten. Our soldiers and officers, those who fought in the Pristina Corps, began dying a few years after the bombing from various diseases: cancer of the blood, lung cancer, and brain cancer. In the town of Aleksinac, where the civilian population has been severely affected, and civilian areas were specifically bombed, the percentage of cancers of the brain has increased several fold. Unfortunately, there is no specific analysis or statistics on such diseases in Serbia. With obvious cynicism, the former NATO Secretary General George Robertson, in responding to a question from Serbian journalists regarding the intention of the people of Serbia to sue NATO at The Hague Tribunal, replied with a smile: "But you have no medical evidence that this problem started after our operations in Serbia." I can definitely confirm that depleted uranium was used in Kosovo and Montenegro. I personally saw how civilians were attacked, and various buildings destroyed which housed hazardous chemicals. All the statements by the leadership of the alliance claim that nothing illegal was used against us in Serbia and no chemical warfare was conducted. I can tell you one thing - it's all a lie.”
“Were there any attempts in the US to tell the public about what really happened in the Balkans in the spring of 1999? Or did the Americans not want to tell the whole truth?”
Milovan Dretsun: “After the NATO aggression, the U.S. Congress created a special commission, which has been studying the environmental damage in Serbia. These documents stated that the most polluted cities are: Pancevo, Novi Sad, Belgrade, and Kragujevac. However, there were reports that the Pentagon refused to give accurate information to the Congressmen on this matter. This means that the situation was even more dramatic than we expected. Pancevo, where nitrogen is produced, was bombed repeatedly. So, for a long time after the war, acid rain fell on the city. In Kragujevac, which is our military center, Serbia’s military industrial complex, the environmental impacts are clearly visible. In the town of Vranje, which is close to Macedonia, the water has been considered contaminated since the bombings.”
“Could it be said that the missile attack on the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade was a "fatal mistake" on the part of the pilots and strategists of the Pentagon?”
Milovan Dretsun: “Judging by the explanations from the Pentagon, the missile attack on the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade was a mistake. The staff officers allegedly used old maps of Belgrade when planning this operation. But this is just an excuse. First of all, in1999, the Chinese embassy building was the only building in the area. There was nothing else around it. So, it could not have been on out of date maps. So it simply could not have been on the CIA. This was a creative fantasy on the part of American politicians. Secondly, in New Belgrade there were no military targets at the time, no military equipment or police stations. It is my belief that the PRC Embassy was selected in advance for specific purposes. Perhaps they thought that someone from the Serbian leadership could have been in the building at the time. But I think it was a deliberate action, which was to show the power of the U.S. and NATO to the world. This was a planned provocation, the meaning of which can be understood as the Chinese government should not intervene and protect the Serbs. It was to tell the PRC that it may also be subject to a series of strikes, if the Chinese leadership did not do as it was told. We must bear in mind that every embassy in the world has diplomatic protection and is the property of the country it represents. So it was a special warning to the Chinese, and approval for this operation was most likely taken at the highest level in Washington.”
“How long in the making in Brussels and Washington was the air war against Serbia and Montenegro? Was it was revenge for Slobodan Milosevic’s disobedience?”
Milovan Dretsun: “NATO's military objectives were defined at the Rambouillet talks in early 1999. At the time, Madeleine Albright tried to force us to sign an agreement under which NATO would take control of Kosovo. Belgrade was to withdraw its army and police force from Kosovo over three years, and give the Albanians the right to govern themselves. Then they were to hold a referendum on secession from Serbia and declare Kosovo as a sovereign state. But the delegation from the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia refused to sign the treaty in Rambouillet. Then they bombed the Serbs and thought about how to quickly incapacitate our army, especially in Kosovo and Montenegro. Then they tried to use the Albanian KLA, and were planning to enter Kosovo via Macedonia and take control. They attempted to kill as many of our soldiers and officers as possible. That’s why they used the cluster bombs, and depleted uranium shells. But it turned out that our army skillfully resisted this aggression and therefore the military (technical) losses were small. Our artillery, tanks, and planes suffered very little damage. However, they did cause considerable damage to our barracks. They destroyed hardly any moving targets. They also failed to discover our military that were at facilities outside the barracks - in the mountains, bunkers, and tunnels. There were 480 tanks of the Yugoslav People’s Army in Kosovo and Montenegro. We lost only seven tanks to NATO. Bombs and missiles hit several armored vehicles, six howitzers, and several dozen mortar units. As a result, in Kosovo we lost only 2 percent of our military hardware. This loss was replaceable. Actually, we were able to immediately able to repair some of the equipment. There were human casualties. The Pristina Corps lost 164 people to the bombings. In the ground operation against the KLA terrorists (Kosovo Liberation Army), we lost more than 500 people in total. NATO did not achieve its objectives – our military hardware remained intact, and casualties to the Pristina Corps were minimal. We prevented the main body of the KLA from entering into our territory via Albania. Once we had dealt a severe blow to the Albanian terrorists, NATO decided to go on a diplomatic offensive, and began negotiations with Milosevic. Then Ahtisaari and Chernomyrdin turned up in Belgrade.”
“What was the impact of the NATO aggression on your loved ones, your friends and acquaintances?”
Milovan Dretsun: We have a huge wound deep inside, a wound that our aggressors inflicted on our Slavic soul. Our allies in the Second World War, those with whom we fought together against Hitler, against fascism, bombed Serbia only for the fact that the country tried to defend its territory, its sovereignty, fighting against terrorism. The U.S. is one of the leading and most powerful countries in the world that is conducting war against terrorism around the world, and this time supported that very same terrorism. They bombed us without the consent of the UN. The orders were given in Brussels and Washington. I call it a crime that can’t be justified and never forgotten.”
Zoran Mladenovic: "NATO systematically and ruthlessly destroyed our country.”
Over the years I have made friends in Belgrade with Zoran Mladenovic’s wonderful family. He has a beautiful wife called Snezhana, a daughter called Jovana, and a son called Vuk. During the time in the spring of 1999 that the Alliance air force bombed Serbia and Montenegro, Zoran helped me in preparing materials for radio and television. Together with him we visited the "hot spots" and I saw with my own eyes what happened in Belgrade, Pristina, Novi Sad and other cities. On the eve of this "sad anniversary ", the 15th anniversary of the start of operation "Merciful Angel", I flew to Belgrade to meet with Zoran Mladenovic and to remember the tragic events of those days with him.
“Where was your family when, in March, the daily raids on Belgrade began?”
Zoran Mladenovic: “On March 24th 1999, the first bomb fell near our home. People began to run out of the adjoining buildings, shouting: "NATO is bombing Belgrade". Most of the missiles and bombs were fired at the "Strazhavitsa" area. There were divisions of our army there. They were situated underground and so NATO bombed the area without a break - day and night, but they did not succeed in their goal.”
“At this time my wife was pregnant. I was very worried for her. I was fortunate to take my wife to a village to stay with relatives, but the NATO aircraft even bombed there. So I had to smuggle Snezhana to Budapest. She did not want to leave Belgrade, but I still persuaded her to go to Hungary. My 8 year old daughter and wife left together for Budapest.”
“I returned to Belgrade and started working with correspondents from Russia. Every day I saw "civilized" Europe together with the United States systematically destroying my beautiful little country with "Tomahawks" and various other bombs. After the end of the bombing my wife and daughter returned to Serbia. And a few months later she gave birth to my son Vuk.”
“Zoran, as far as I am aware, NATO aircraft repeatedly used missiles with depleted uranium in southern Serbia and Montenegro. What happened to your neighbors who remained in Montenegro?”
Zoran Mladenovic: “Just before the war, bought 25 acres on the Montenegrin Adriatic coast. But it was on this particular area, a place called Lustica Bay in Montenegro, that they dropped depleted uranium bombs. All the soil became contaminated, and all the water is a threat to humans. NATO aircraft did this several times and the whole area was covered with depleted uranium powder. There is so much of it that it will last for several generations.”
“I know that after 1999, several of my neighbors who failed to sell their contaminated land, began to fall ill. My neighbor’s small son, who incidentally, is a Serb refugee from Croatia, fell ill with leukemia in the year 2000. The doctors were unable to save him. The toddler died. Some people suffer from bringing parts of these missiles into their homes. They contained a lot of uranium. Eventually they discovered what it really was, but it was too late. Sickness and death followed. There are victims among the military, who later decontaminated the area. Some of them are no longer alive.”
“After the NATO bombing, doctors began to carefully examine women who wished to have children. So, in early pregnancy, doctors closely inspect all expectant mothers. It is a very thorough examination and analysis.”
“Why did NATO aircraft bomb the Adriatic coast of Montenegro so mercilessly, and were there any military targets?”
Zoran Mladenovic: “There was only the forest, the mountains, the sea and the small and very clean beaches. Nothing more. Two A-10 aircraft just dumped their bomb load, cluster bombs, in this place. It is unclear why. Perhaps they decided not to fly further into danger and got rid of their ammunition, then returned to their bases.”
After our conversation with Zoran, we took a long walk in the center of Belgrade. He told me that on the site of the destroyed building of the General Staff of the Yugoslav People's Army, which in the spring of 1999 stood as a reminder of the barbaric bombing, the Americans had decided to build a modern hotel. The clearing of the site had already been underway for several months. Investors are willing to invest millions of dollars to erase traces of the crimes against the Serbs by the NATO air force. At the same time they are buying very expensive land near the complex of government buildings and the U.S. Embassy in Belgrade for “stupid money”.