Death of innocents

Sanja, a brilliant, romantic 15-year-old, went out walking one day on a little bridge in a little town in Yugoslavia. She had no reason to think she was in danger, but then the bombs fell. She was 'collateral damage,' one of hundreds of ordinary citizens killed as NATO expanded its targets to include heating plants, power stations -- and small bridges.


Saturday, March 11, 2000

Varvarin, Yugoslavia -- It was Day 68 of the bombing campaign against Serbia when Sanja Milenkovic set out from her house in Varvarin, a sleepy little market town on the banks of the Morava River.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization was stepping up its air attacks, striving to force a stubborn President Slobodan Milosevic to pull his forces out of Kosovo.

But Sanja wasn't worried. "Don't be silly, Mom," she said when her mother warned her to be careful. "No one is going to bomb this little place."

Those were the last words Vesna Milenkovic was to hear her daughter speak.

Mother and daughter were close. Vesna was just 21 when she gave birth to her first child. Fifteen years later, Sanja had grown into a beautiful and brilliant young woman.

An A student since Grade 1, she won top marks in district, national and federal mathematics competitions, as well as awards in chemistry and physics. She was studying at a special math school in Belgrade, the Yugoslav capital, and she hoped to study math one day at a leading U.S. university such as Harvard.

When Sanja had to stay up late studying, Vesna would crawl into her bed to keep her company. When Sanja solved a particularly hard problem, she would shake her mother awake and cry: "Look, Mom, I did it!"

When she wasn't studying, the two sometimes watched videos together. Sanja liked the dashing American actor Alec Baldwin, but she would watch anything romantic. One of her favourite movies was Ghost, the tearjerker starring Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze.

"She was like my little sister, my best friend," says Ms. Milenkovic, a well-dressed woman with gold earrings and a cellular phone who works as a commercial lawyer for a local furniture company.

When NATO started bombing last March 24, Sanja left school in Belgrade and came home to Varvarin. Ms. Milenkovic says she and her husband, Zoran, believed that "because there are no military targets around and we are such a small town, nothing would happen."

But by late spring, nowhere in Serbia was really safe.

Frustrated by their failure to force Mr. Milosevic out of Kosovo, NATO leaders had more than doubled the number of warplanes bombing targets in Serbia to a total of 1,000. By late May, those planes were flying an average of 585 sorties (individual flights) every day, up from 370 in March and April.

To tighten the screws still further, the Western alliance was widening its definition of what constituted a legitimate military target. In the early days, it hit air bases, military barracks, telecommunications towers and major bridges. By May, it was going after heating plants, electrical power stations, water supplies -- and small bridges.

Varvarin had such a bridge, an old iron structure next to the Orthodox church and the Sunday market. It was there that Sanja was heading on her morning walk.

By the time she set out from her house on May 30, stray bombs had already killed scores of non-combatants.

In an embarrassing series of accidents, NATO hit first a passenger train on a railway bridge (17 killed), then a group of refugees on a road in Kosovo (75), then a marketplace and the grounds of a hospital in the city of Nis (15), then the Chinese embassy in Belgrade (3). Among those killed was a woman in her seventh month of pregnancy on her way to the hospital and a three-year-old who died in an apartment bathroom when a cluster bomb went off outside her window.

The carnage peaked at the end of May, as the strikes were intensified in a last-ditch attempt to bring Mr. Milosevic to heel and avoid a costly ground attack. On May 31, the day after Sanja's walk to the bridge, missiles killed 20 people in a sanatorium in one town and 23 in an apartment block in another.

NATO officials insisted that they were doing their best to minimize "collateral damage," the military euphemism for unintended killings.

But they were also trying to limit the danger to their air crews, and the two objectives did not always match. To stay out of reach of anti-aircraft fire, pilots often dropped their sophisticated, precision-guided bombs from 15,000 feet, eight times the height of Toronto's CN Tower. Those on the ground seldom saw their attackers.

As a result, the people who gathered at the bridge in Varvarin on that sunny Sunday in May had no warning of what was to come; no idea that, somewhere up in the blue, a bombardier was staring at a video image of their town on his cockpit console, preparing to "lock on" to the bridge and send his missiles speeding toward their target.

Sanja wandered onto the bridge sometime after noon with two girlfriends. The market-day crowd was even bigger than usual because this was Pentecost, the seventh Sunday after Easter, a religious holiday.

At St. Bogorodica Church, just a few steps from the bridge, the local priest, Rev. Milivoje Ciric, was conducting a special service.

No one worried about an attack. It was well known that NATO usually struck at night if civilians might be in danger. Besides, Varvarin was no transportation hub. The 52-year-old bridge may have been the town's lifeline, but the road over it headed west to nowhere. The turmoil in Kosovo was a good three hours drive to the south.

Mr. and Ms. Milenkovic were preparing lunch for Sanja when they heard a loud explosion. It was 1:05 p.m. Ms. Milenkovic immediately picked up the telephone to see if it was working. She knew that the phone lines ran over the bridge. The phone was dead.

She jumped into her car and drove for town, searching the faces of everyone who walked by. When she got to the riverbank, she found it deserted. Everyone who could had run away, fearing another attack. Ms. Milenkovic stood alone on the bank, shouting her daughter's name. Then she saw Sanja.

The girl was lying on a broken slab of the bridge near the river's surface. The slab lay at a crazy angle, so Sanja's head pointed down toward the water and her feet were in the air. She was not moving.

Sanja's friends later told Ms. Milenkovic what had happened.

When the first missiles hit the bridge, the pedestrian section collapsed into the river and the three girls fell with it.

The two friends were injured, one with a broken leg and the other a broken arm. But, by some chance, Sanja remained unhurt. She could have done what many others did and climb up the wreckage off the bridge. Instead, she stayed to help her friends.

Ten minutes after the first attack, the NATO pilot came back to finish his job. The blast from his missiles broke the bridge in two. Four cars plunged into the Morava.

Father Ciric had stopped the church service to go help the wounded. He was decapitated by the blast. Seven others also were killed. The Yugoslav government later published photographs of their bodies in its two-volume White Book, which catalogues the damage caused by the NATO strikes. They make grisly viewing.

Vojkan Stankovic was disembowelled by the explosion. Both of Milan Savic's legs were severed at the knees. The right leg of Zoran Marinkovic was torn off. His mother, Milanka, picked it up when she found his body. The photograph in the White Book shows the leg lying on the stretcher beside his body, the foot, still in its black shoe, beside his head.

Sanja was not similarly disfigured. She was struck in the back by flying shrapnel, tiny pieces of twisted metal so hot that they left burn marks on her milky skin. Otherwise, her slender six-foot frame was intact.

When ambulances arrived at the scene, Ms. Milenkovic pleaded with them to help her daughter, but they went first to those who were moving and calling out.

Finally, they put Sanja in an ambulance. Ms. Milenkovic jumped in. Sanja's eyes were still open. Ms. Milenkovic told her to fight, to keep breathing. "It's all right," she said. "Your mother's here."

But after a few minutes, Sanja's eyes closed for the last time. "I knew that she was gone," Ms. Milenkovic says, "but I kept hoping."

At the hospital, where doctors fruitlessly injected Sanja's body with adrenalin in hopes of starting her heart, Ms. Milenkovic thought that she felt a pulse, but then realized she was only feeling her own.

Sanja lay still on the hospital gurney, wearing the white slacks and pink T-shirt she had put on for her walk that morning. She was exactly six months short of her 16th birthday.

A day later in faraway Brussels, NATO spokesman Jamie Shea faced reporters in the press room of the organization's modern headquarters.

Fred Colman of USA Today pointed out that the alliance had attacked the bridge in the middle of the day. "How does that square with your repeated assertions NATO does everything to avoid civilian casualties, since clearly you are going to take more civilian casualties in the middle of the day than you would in the middle of the night?"

Mr. Shea, a blunt-spoken Englishman who was the most combative public defender of the NATO bombing, gave a sharp reply. "Fred, I've got some civilian casualty figures for you this afternoon: 550 internally placed in Kosovo; 883,500 refugees in neighbouring countries . . . 225,000 men missing. . . . That is, I think, the vital casualty statistics as far as NATO is concerned."

These casualties, he said, were caused by "Milosevic's bullets, not NATO's bombs."

That response neatly summed up the alliance's line on civilian deaths. It went something like this: Yes, civilians are being killed, but we are doing our best to keep the number down. Besides, anything we are doing accidentally to Serbian civilians pales beside what Mr. Milosevic is doing deliberately to Kosovo Albanians.

There is some truth in that. Despite what many Serbs might think, NATO did not set out purposely to kill civilians. To the contrary, it took pains to keep "collateral damage" down. To that end, NATO commanders used a higher proportion of precision-guided weapons in this conflict than ever before.

But, as NATO ratcheted up its air strikes and widened the range of targets, it became less a campaign against the Serbian military machine and more a campaign against the Serbian people as a whole.

NATO commanders talked openly of bringing the war home to the Serbian public in hopes they would turn against Mr. Milosevic. Thus the strikes on heating plants and power grids. In such a campaign, it was inevitable that many civilians would die.

New York-based Human Rights Watch recently released an exhaustive report on the bombing. It concluded that NATO bombs killed about 500 civilians in 90 separate incidents, more than three times the number of incidents that the alliance has admitted.

Nine of those incidents resulted from attacks on non-military targets that Human Rights Watch called "illegitimate." These include the Radio Television of Serbia headquarters in Belgrade, a heating plant in the capital's suburbs and seven minor bridges with neither major transport or military function -- including the one at Varvarin.

As Human Rights Watch put it, "there is no evidence that the daylight timing of the attack at Varvarin (or on many other fixed targets) was critical to the destruction of the target -- the attack was not directed specifically against military traffic."

After Varvarin, the NATO air commander, Lieutenant-General Michael Short of the United States, directed his pilots not to attack bridges in daylight, on weekends, on market days or on holidays. But by then, the war was almost over. Sanja died just 10 days before the bombs stopped dropping.

Though they may not have ranked with Mr. Milosevic's crimes on the scale of barbarity, attacks such as the one on Varvarin undermined NATO's claim to moral superiority in the Kosovo war. This, remember, was billed as the first war fought for human rights. Its goal was to protect the long-suffering Albanians of Kosovo from the ravages of the Milosevic war machine.

But in the cause of saving the Albanians, NATO sacrificed innocents like Sanja.

It also pushed the limits of legality. The Geneva Conventions setting out the laws of war state that attackers must take all feasible precautions to avoid or minimize harm to civilians. Protocol 1, Article 51, Section 5b specifically prohibits "an attack which may be expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, damage to civilian objects, or a combination thereof, which would would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated."

That would seem to apply to an attack on a militarily insignificant bridge in broad daylight on a busy market day.

But NATO scorns any talk of war crimes, because of the precautions it took to avoid casualties. As Mr. Shea, the NATO spokesman, said during the war, this was "the most accurate, precise military campaign in the history of human conflict."

Ms. Milenkovic acknowledges that she knows little about the laws of war. "But I know one thing for sure: They had no right to bomb that bridge on that day. This was not a military target. It was a little bridge in a little town."

To help deal with her grief, she puts in long hours at her job. After work, she raises money for a scholarship fund for promising students that has been created in Sanja's name. "It's the nights I'm afraid of," she says, squeezing a tight ball of tissue between dabbing at her eyes.

She carries on, raising her son, 15-year-old Sasa, but doubts that she will ever get over the loss. "A child is an investment," she says. "You invest your time and your feeling and your self to make a grown-up person. Then, in just a moment, it is all taken away."

In her purse, she carries a lock of Sanja's blond hair, still held tight by girlish hair clips. The lock was severed neatly by a piece of shrapnel.

"Sanja was my pride," her mother says, replacing the hair in a heart-shaped box. "She always will be."

Down at the banks of the Morava, the sun beating down on the muddy ground holds a hint of spring. A modern new bridge spans the river, and at one end there is a little memorial to the victims with a message on a brass plaque: "To those who build, not destroy."

Marcus Gee, a foreign affairs writer for The Globe and Mail, reported from Belgrade during last year's bombing and returned to Serbia this month.

Original article