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British Helsinki Human Rights Group

22 May 1999 BHHRG analysts

NATO targets Yugoslavia: Report of a visit to Belgrade, 10th-13th May,
1999 by The British Helsinki Human Rights Group

While NATO's air campaign against Serbia continued into its second month
three members of the British Helsinki Human Rights Group with a French
colleague visited Belgrade. Understandably, perhaps, in a time of war
both parties to the conflict are accused of using propaganda. For
example, the UK news media regularly refers to Serbia as a dictatorship
which brooks no opposition; where there is no media freedom enabling
people to know what is really going on in the beleaguered province of
Kosovo and where people cower, hungry and frightened, at the mercy of
what British Defense Secretary, George Robertson, calls Milosevic's
"murder machine". It was to investigate these and other claims that the
BHHRG embarked upon its mission.

Allegations of Dictatorship

Members of the BHHRG monitored the parliamentary and presidential
elections held in Serbia in Autumn 1997. Their report, published on the
Group's web page, reached the following conclusions:

- After serving two consecutive terms as president of Serbia Slobodan
Milosevic observed the Yugoslav Federation's constitution by not
altering (or ignoring) its provisions to seek a third term in office. He
next stood for election as president of Yugoslavia itself. Such respect
for constitutional propriety has not been observed by everyone in the
region: Slovenia's president, Milan Kucan, has served three terms in
office in spite of the country's constitutional requirement that the
state president should only be elected twice. In other post-communist
countries (Georgia, for example) the terms of the constitution have been
strained to allow the incumbent to continue holding office.

- Although BHHRG observers found many shortcomings in the Serbian
election process these were no more serious than those observed in other
places - the Yugoslav republic of Montenegro, for example, which was
hailed as exemplary by other international monitoring groups. ...

- Allegations have always been made that there is no media pluralism in
Serbia. Before the war there were several opposition newspapers as well
as radio and TV outlets. Numerous anti-Milosevic foreign-funded NGOs
also operated in the country. By May 1999 much of the opposition media
had been closed down. However, large numbers of people receive foreign
television programmes via cable and satellite and, contrary to the
received wisdom, are aware of the situation of the Kosovan Albanians.

Members of the BHHRG failed to detect signs of the sort of behaviour
associated with a classic dictatorship while in Belgrade. People openly
criticize Milosevic - but not for the war. Many say they never voted for
his party the SPS but while the country is under attack they must stand
together whatever their political persuasion. Some, like Vuk Draskovic,
[interviewed by the BHHRG] criticize the Kosovan Albanians for
boycotting elections and thus giving the SPS a free rein. The 40 or so
seats allocated to them in the Serb parliament might have been won by
the opposition which would have severely reduced - or eliminated - the
SPS's hold on power. He also pointed out that opposition politicians
favoured by the West, like Zoran Djindjic, had forfeited any further
chance of gaining public support by leaving the country - Djindjic is
in Montenegro with the West's other favourite, President Milo Djukanovic.
"He [Djindjic] will only be able to come to power on the top of an American
tank" says Draskovic who has stayed in the country throughout the war.

Considering that a war is on, police presence in the city is minimal.
Even the police who asked to examine the BHHRG's cameras were courteous
and unthreatening. Ordinary people were friendly and keen to point out
that they did not blame ordinary British citizens for the bombs that
were falling on their country every day. In both Bulgaria and Romania
members of the Group were followed by local police; crossing the
Romanian border took three times as long as crossing into and out of
Serbia proper.

Will the Serbs Bend? Public Perceptions

Nearly everyone we spoke to had endured some aspect of the bombing.
People talked about being thrown out of bed [after the bombing of the
Socialist Party headquarters, for example]; of the powerful winds that
blow through a building after a particularly heavy raid pulling the
person into a vortex and seemingly towards the epicentre of the attack.
Door and window frames break loose and the building shakes. One day
there was even an earthquake in Belgrade after an air raid on the city.

Marija S. a Belgrade housewife is typical. She lives in a small,
three-room apartment with her husband, two children, younger brother and
elderly parents. Her father has Alzheimer's disease but she had to move
him and her mother away from their home in the vicinity of some of the
heaviest bombing. Marija and her husband have not worked since before
the war and live on meagre savings. Pensions for elderly people are paid
late and not in full. Children all over Serbia have not been to school
for the past two months.

The worst time for the family was when the first graphite bombs were
used and the electricity failed. Not only power but also water pumping
facilities are affected when this occurs. Nevertheless, they are not
giving in nor do they expect the government to bend on their behalf.
Anyway, the authorities have become better organized than ever before
and the electricity problems are sorted out quite quickly and

There is no shortage of food. Unlike many people in the West, Serbs do
not live on a diet of fast-food. The country's fields are properly
husbanded and fresh produce is widely available from peasant markets.
Cars and buses are running, no doubt fuelled by the large amount of
illegal petrol that is reaching the country.

The BHHRG also visited the Mufti of Belgrade who lives next to the
city's only mosque. Despite the fact that the war is (ostensibly) being
fought on behalf of Muslim Albanians the Mufti thinks it an attack on
all Muslims as well as Serbs: "We understand American politics from what
went on in Sudan, Afghanistan and Somalia. We understand now better than
before". Like many people he also attacked Clinton as an "immoral

People are fully aware of what is happening in Kosovo but would argue
about the causes of the tragedy there. This means that they are
criticized by Western commentators for being heartless. However, the
remorseless nature of the bombing (sirens warning of an attack wail
twice a day) and the unpredictable way the bombs fall mean that people's
minds are, understandably, directed towards their own plight. Although
Serbs have often displayed a tendency to self-pity they have a case when
they point out that c.200,000 Serbs were expelled from the Krajina in
1995 without a similar outpouring of indignation. Bitterness about the
treatment of the Krajina Serbs often flares up. A hard-working
representative from the Yugoslav Red Cross pointed out that Kosovan
refugees in Montenegro were receiving aid to the value of 300DM per
month last year whereas neighbouring Krajina Serbs got c.30DM worth of

Report on the Humanitarain Situation by the Yugoslav Red Cross

On 8/5/99 the Yugoslav Red Cross reported that since the bombing started
on 24th March more than 700 civilians have been killed and 6400 have
been injured. Obviously, this does not take into account what has
happened since including the dreadful casualities that resulted from the
NATO bombing at Korisha on 13th May.

The largest number killed or wounded are from Aleksinac, Surdulica,
Dakovica-Prizren, Orahovac, Cacak, Grdelica gorge, Kragujevac, Koris,
Valjevo, Nis, Kragujevac and Belgrade. Many of the wounded will be
invalids for the rest of their lives. An inevitable consequence of the
bombing is that a large number of people have lost their homes. The
largest number of private apartments destroyed are in Aleksinac,
Surdulica, Nis, Novi Sad, Cacak, Cuprija, Prokuplje, Kursumlija,
Kraljevo and Belgrade

The destruction of factories and places of work has left 500,000 people
without jobs. If their families are included, this means that c.2m
people will be affected by this economic catastrophe for the forseeable

In Novi Sad more than 90,000 people are without running water as pipes
were destroyed when the bridges were bombed. Added to this are the
difficulties of transport and communication. The destruction of the
heating plant in Novi Belgrade will leave that part of the city without
heat in the winter if it cannot be repaired (or reconstructed) before

Hospitals have been hit and patients killed; health clinics are
destroyed in the bombing. The clinic in Aleksinac, for example, which
served over 60,000 people was wiped out. Disruption of electricity means
that high-tech. equipment (scanners etc.) in hospitals are unusable.
Medicines are in short supply.

Children gave not gone to school since the war began and many schools
have been bombed. Children are also among the victims some dying in
horrific circumstances.

500,000 live below the subsistence level, mostly pensioners. The Red
Cross fears that their means to operate soup kitchens will not stretch
to the numbers they fear will be in need of them, particularly when
winter comes. Pensions are paid late.

There are large numbers of internally displaced people both in Serbia
proper and Kosovo _ the Red Cross says there are c. 1.2m. Fear of
bombing has caused over one million people to relocate to the country or
to be with friends. Added to which are the existing 500,000 refugees
from Krajina some of whom (11,500) went to Kosovo and have endured
displacement twice now. Within Kosovo itself the Red Cross estimates that
250,000 people are internally displaced.

Yet, politicans and NATO spokesmen repeatedly deny that the war is
directed at civilians. The opposite is true: this is a war directed 7
rumours abounded that the KLA a shadowy organization with ties to
Albanian leftist groups in Switzerland and Germany was preparing to
launch an armed struggle. The US was rumoured to be promoting and
financing it from an early stage. Many, including the moderate Albanian
leader, Ibrahim Rugova, (and some Western journalists) speculated that
this was Milosevic-inspired disinformation. Others saw it as the natural
response to the Ghandi-esque policies of Rugova which had failed to
deliver full independence.

- During 1998 the violence worsened. Policemen, Serb officials and even
Albanian "collaborators" were killed by KLA snipers and, according to
the UNHCR, 90 Serbian villages were ethnically cleansed in the course of
the year. Reprisals were taken against those considered to be members of
the organization. This involved the use of scorched earth tactics
whereby houses (in the case of Kosovo this often turned out to be large
compounds) were burned down to flush out the terrorists. However,
compared with Bosnia, where thousands were killed in a week during the
early part of the war in 1992 only 1700 Albanians (mainly fighters) 180
Serb policemen and 120 Serb soldiers were killed in Kosovo last year.
The regime in Belgrade has not been stupid: it knew that it was being
provoked into massive retaliation and refused to respond in the required

- The killings in Kosovo were still the West's best hope of provoking
the fall of the Milosevic regime even though the conflict was of low
intensity compared with many other places in the world. By February the
parties gathered at the chateau of Rambouillet in France to discuss
peace. At the last moment, when it looked as though some agreement might
be reached the Americans handed the Serb delegation an annex to the
final document demanding freedom of movement (and much else) to NATO
troops and personnel not only in Kosovo but throughout the whole of
Yugoslavia. No sovereign state would have accepted such terms.
Naturally, they were rejected not just by Milosevic but by a vote in the
Serbian parliament. The scene was set for the air campaign to begin.

- Perhaps the diplomatic players believed their own propaganda.
Christopher Hill, the US ambassador to Macedonia, was confident that
Milosevic would cave in before the first bombs fell despite being told
by well-informed Serbs that this was not going to happen. It is
unsurprising in these circumstances that the NATO allies were unprepared
for what followed.

With such confusion and a cavalier belief in the likelihood of Serb
capitulation at the last minute, NATO went to war. Despite attempts by
CNN among others to talk up the conflict by showing what purported to be
the large movement of refugees from Kosovo in the preceding months few
appeared to have moved out of the province before March 24th. There were
no camps before then. After the bombing began huge numbers of refugees
flooded out of the province. The rest is history.

The South East European Federation

The dissolution of Yugoslavia in 1991 displeased the West as did the
emergence of little nations with their motley collection of individual
ethnic minorities. Officials at the US Department of State began to
envisage a renewed federation - something more ambitious than the former
Yugoslavia because it would include countries like Romania, Albania and
Bulgaria. In fact, it would resemble something very similar to the
Stalin Dimitrov Plan scotched by Tito in 1948.

According to the idea's proponents, such a Federation would work more
effectively if it was composed of ethnically pure units. So, Bosnia
itself was destroyed as a multi-ethnic state and put together again as
an uneasy federation of ethnically-based groups. Croatia still has Serbs
in Eastern Slavonia but complaints about the treatment of this minority
persist - even if they have been put on the 'back-burner' while Croat
cooperation is sought in the Kosovo war. Anyway, Croatian nationalism
has been even less popular with the international community than the
Serb variety. Although the Milosevic regime was responsible for waging
war on these two countries during the early nineteen nineties the West
never tried convincingly to stop this happening.

Further south, multi-ethnic Macedonia weighed down by the influx of
ethnic Albanians into its territory is threatened with disintegration
and there are signs that the Macedonian minority in Bulgaria is flexing
its muscles. Watch for a possible change of borders there. Both Romania
and Albania have minorities that could secede from the central

The fomentors of such a policy need to deal with weak and pliable
states. This Serbia has failed to be. Although the Serbs will often
resort to elaborate historical myths and tiresome nationalistic rhetoric
they are less likely to be pushed around, as has been amply proved. In
fact, the West's bullying has actually toughened Belgrade's stance on
Kosovo. Whereas before 24th March 1999 many people would have abandoned
the province they now see it is as being inextricably tied up with their
own survival.

Of course, the US desire to reinvent the former Yugoslavia is also tied
to economic considerations including the ambition to control oil and gas
pipelines from Central Asia and the Caucasus region via the Black Sea.
Whether the Russians, who have been somewhat supine in the Kosovo
conflict, will also accept such acts of economic imperialism remains to
be seen.


Hundreds of thousands of people have been rendered homeless and many
others maimed and killed as a result of the West's political
machinations and military blunders since 24th March 1999. NATO leaders'
pronouncements that this conflict is about human rights seems to be a
cruel and dishonest fig leaf put forward to hide strategic ambitions in
the Balkans.

Unhappily, the Hague War Crimes Tribunal is unlikely to be a forum for
objective justice, as presently composed. Far from promoting the rule of
law the Tribunal is controlled by NATO countries: the chief judge is
American, the chief prosecutor Canadian. Until NATO took sides in this
conflict this was not necessarily a flaw of the Tribunal but now its
impartiality must be questioned.

This means that no one from a NATO country is likely to face prosecution
for war crimes - such as alleged breaches of the Geneva Convention.
However, the words of Major-General Curtis LeMay who spearheaded the
bombing of Japan in World War 11, including the dropping of the first
atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki could be prophetic: "I wasn't
particularly worried about getting the job done. I suppose if I had lost
the war, I would have been tried as a war criminal". It remains to be
seen who will win this war and what the response of countries like China
will be to the.outcome.

Even if the conflict stops with a carefully crafted NATO 'victory' the
region will remain unstable with more wars - between Albanian and
Albanian, for example - possible. The followers of Ibrahim Rugova and
those of the KLA are already deeply distrustful of one another - the
former are alleged to control large sums of money collected as taxes
from the Albanian diaspora over the past few years. The KLA, according to
the Wall Street Journal (20/5/99) would dearly like to gain access to these
funds. Either side could be joined by Albanians from Albania proper who
support one side or the other as well as different political formations in
Albania itself. And, far from having their hands burnt, it is also likely
that the period of reconstruction that will, inevitably, follow the conflict
will offer Western governments fresh opportunities for meddling in the
internal politics of Serbia and the rest of the Balkans. Large numbers of
consultants, analysts and experts will descend to 'rebuild' the country -
and its neighbours. There will be rich rewards for those who do what the
donors want. A major sticking point for Western politicians in the past has
been Serbia's failure to enter into the right kind of business deals; all
these issues will be on the table again.

In other words, there is little optimism that much good will come out of
the tragic war over Kosovo. Other places have been watching events in
the Balkans with interest. For example, a Polish diplomat publicly
stated that neighbouring Belarus 'met all the conditions' for a similar
invasion by the West. And during the recent presidential campaign in
Slovakia, people have been told by state and private media that if they
vote for Vladimir Meciar the country will meet the same fate as
Yugoslavia. In the Caucasus region there is unease about the future of
disputed regions like Nagorno Karabakh.

The question is: will the United States and its allies have the stomach
for taking on any more adventures of this kind? If they do, the world
could face the nightmare predicted in George Orwell's 1984 with small,
low-grade wars going on all the time while people become dehumanized,
impoverished and ultimately reduced to meaninglessness.