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Nato's 'collateral damage' still takes toll in Kosovo

Richard Blystone

April 3, 2000


A year after the beginning of the 78-day NATO air war that drove Serb forces out of Kosovo, the lasting effects of the campaign include something NATO did not intend but could not avoid: 'Collateral damage' -- unintentional hits on civilian sites -- has shattered families and decimated trade.
To protect its pilots during the Kosovo attacks, NATO ordered them to stay three miles up and left it to high-tech weapons to find the right target. Often they did.
But sometimes, the bombings delivered terror and death to ordinary citizens.

Few targets didn't offer civilian risks
Political leaders said at the time that they were doing everything possible to avoid such tragedies. But, as Mark Almond, a professor at Oxford University, said, "An officer responsible for targeting told me before the war broke out that he only found three military targets that were immune to collateral damage."
NATO hoped to hit its targets with exacting skill, taking out the threat on the ground while not letting their warheads stray into civilian areas.
But, Almond said, "The tragedy is that when a precision bomb hits a gas station surrounded by cottages, you discover that you can't fight a humanitarian war in a humane way."
Analysts still debate whether the purge of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo by Serbs would have happened anyway or was touched off by the air attacks.

But there's no escaping the fact that it was NATO bombing, and bombing from high altitude, that resulted in scenes of horror:

  • On April 5, 1999, two large explosions tore through apartment blocks and what appeared to be civilian homes in the town of Aleksinac, about 100 miles south of Belgrade. At least four people were killed, and a medical clinic used by civilians was hit.
  • On April 12, 1999, missiles blasted apart a passenger train in southern Serbia, killing at least 10 people and wounding sixteen. NATO acknowledged it had targeted a rail bridge considered an important military supply line. But there was a train on the bridge at the time of the attack. "We certainly don't want to do collateral damage," said NATO Supreme Commander Gen. Wesley Clark after the attack. "The mission was to take out the bridge. He realized when it had happened that he had not hit the bridge, that what he hit was the train."
  • In the southern Serbian village of Surdulica, Serb officials said 16 civilians, including 11 children, were killed on Tuesday, April 27, 1999, in a NATO attack. NATO sources acknowledged that a U.S. F-15 fighter may have been responsible for the deaths when one of its 2,000-pound laser guided bombs missed its target by 500 yards. The alliance said in a statement that it "does not target civilians, but we cannot exclude harm to civilians or to civilian property during our air operations over Yugoslavia."
NATO estimated no more than 30 incidents in which innocent people were killed. But investigators from the international agency Human Rights Watch found three times that many -- and counted 500 dead, both Serbs and Albanians. Those, they said, were just the ones they could verify.
And when tactical bombing failed to stop Yugoslav forces, NATO decided to target the infrastructure. More than half the war's targets -- such as factories, power plants and a TV station -- were designated as civilian sites but were of use to the military.
Innocent Serbs are living with the results: Cold, poverty, massive unemployment, anxiety, apathy and hopelessness.
David Bull, the director of UNICEF in Britain, said, "Serbia is now facing very difficult circumstances. Children and young people are perhaps the most endangered anywhere in Europe. Two-thirds of the people in Serbia are living at or below the poverty line."
Bull added, "Whatever kinds of hatreds and guilt may be borne by the people on both sides of the conflict, it's not the fault of the children."

Civilians still face danger
Perhaps the most dangerous legacy of the NATO campaign is killing still: The NATO air strikes left behind thousands of unexploded bomblets from the 1,400 cluster bombs that were dropped in the early weeks of the campaign.
Richard Lloyd, of the U.K. Consulting Group on Landmines, estimates that more than 250,000 bomblets were ejected by the 1,400 cluster bombs seeded on the Yugoslav countryside. "If you assume that between 5 and 10 percent don't go off, that is a very sizable problem on the ground," he said.
The bomblets and Serb mines together have killed or injured more than 440 people in Kosovo since the bombing campaign ended.
The bomblets, some brightly colored and about the size of a soft drink can, are attractive to children. Each packs 30 times the explosive punch of an antipersonnel mine.
"While I was in Kosovo, a 50-year-old man was collecting firewood. He was in a forest (and) he stepped on a cluster bomblet. He was blown to pieces," Lloyd said.
"That's exactly the kind of threat that's going to continue as people go back to their farmland."

Loss of bridges spells ruin
But collateral damage doesn't stop at the borders of Kosovo or Serbia. For example, bridges dropped by NATO bombs into the Danube River clogged one of Europe's main waterways.
In normal times, the river carried 10 million tons of freight a year. Since last April, that route has been closed.
The blockage has cost the region hundreds of millions of dollars and spelled ruin for people whose livelihoods depended on the river traffic. Bulgarian and Romanian businesses now must ship goods to Western Europe some other way, and a Slovak shipyard located hundreds of kilometers upstream can't make its deliveries in the Black Sea.
So while the sound of the bombs has long faded, the painful effects of what the military calls 'collateral damage' continue to be felt across the Balkans and beyond.



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