By Jasmina Sopova and Nevena Popovska
Years after the NATO bombings of Yugoslavia, the scale of the damage remains a taboo subject. The Atlantic Alliance officially recognized having used depleted uranium shells in Yugoslavia.
The Atlantic Alliance officially recognized, on March 21, 2000, having used depleted uranium projectiles in Yugoslavia. Kosovo and southern Serbia were severely affected by the use of these radioactive weapons, the peculiarity of which is that they release a cloud of uranium dust that contaminates water and the food chain. When entering the human body by inhalation or ingestion, the dust remains in the body for a period of two to three years, multiplying the risks of sterility, malformations in newborns and cancer by ten. This type of weaponry was used for the first time during the Gulf War, in early 1991.
From March 24 to June 10, 1999, NATO aviation carried out 31,000 sorties, bombing the territory of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (Serbia, Montenegro, Vojvodina, Kosovo). Thousands of projectiles were fired, some of which ended their trajectory in Bulgaria and Macedonia. Furthermore, numerous pilots, returning from missions, disposed of a hundred bombs by dropping them into the Adriatic, in Croatian, Slovenian and Italian territorial waters. According to NATO, 1,600 cluster bombs were dropped, releasing 200,000 mini-bombs. Thousands of these bombs, whose use against civilian populations is prohibited by the Geneva Convention of October 10, 1980, did not explode, transforming into as many antipersonnel mines. Almost 200 Kosovars have died from them.
One year after the air strikes, the exact extent of the damage suffered is still not known, but the information confirmed so far heralds a true ecological disaster.
According to the United Nations Task Force for the Balkans (ESB) 1, four sites have particularly suffered from the effects of pollution: Pancevo (20 km from Belgrade), Novi Sad (capital of Vojvodina), Kragujevac (in southern Serbia) and Bor (near the Bulgarian border).
The Pancevo petrochemical complex was attacked ten times. A statement from the mayor, Srdjan Mirkovic, published in the fall of 1999 by the Yugoslav magazine Petroleum Technology Quarterly, announced: “The direct attack on the deposit containing 1,500 tons of vinyl chloride monomer (CVM) caused a fire that lasted eight hours, destroying about 800 tons ”of this carcinogenic product. “When it burns,” explains a Belgrade doctor, “it releases, among other things, hydrochloric acid, which causes chronic bronchitis, dermatitis and gastritis, and dioxins, which are the most toxic organic pollutants in the world, and even phosgene, used in other times as a chemical warfare agent. "
Ammonia deposits, necessary for the manufacture of fertilizers, were also targeted. If they had not been emptied shortly before as a precaution, they would have exploded all life, including humans, within a radius of ten kilometers, since exposure to ammonia gases is fatal. The worst was avoided, but the fauna of the Danube, where this liquid was spilled, has been annihilated up to 30 km upstream. In addition, "more than 1,000 tons of sodium hydroxide (caustic soda) spilled on it", according to the report of the Eastern European Regional Center for the Environment (REC). Since then, fishing has totally disappeared and irrigation has become problematic. Heavy metals, toxic even at very low concentrations, have been trapped in the sandy bottoms of the river and will remain there for a long time.
The mayor of Pancevo specifies that "the soil was contaminated by about 100 tons of mercury", a highly toxic metal that enters the food chain and accumulates in the body, permanently damaging the liver, kidneys or nervous system . The ESB, which reduces the amount of polluting mercury to eight tons, also estimates that only in the attacks on the oil refinery "80,000 tons of hydrocarbons and petroleum products burned, releasing harmful substances into the atmosphere." The concentration of CVM in the air became 10,600 times higher than the tolerated norm, according to the Belgrade Institute for Public Health. At that time, the winds were blowing from the west, so Romania and Hungary were also affected.
A bleak picture
The other three "ecologically crucial points" suffered a comparable fate. Between April 5 and June 9, the Novi Sad refinery was bombed twelve times. Some 73,000 tonnes of crude oil and derived products burned or slid down the pipes. Contaminated groundwater infiltrated wells near the refinery, depriving the population of drinking water.
In Kragujevac, the bombings of the Zastava car factory “caused environmental pollution of great proportions, which affected soils, water and the atmosphere,” reports the ESB, which detected high levels of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Banned in the mid-1980s because of their toxicity, these substances are still present in old electrical equipment. Very persistent, they bind to sediments in the waters and only degrade after several years.
In Bor, contamination with PCBs and severe atmospheric pollution due to sulfur dioxide emissions (a very dangerous gas for asthmatics) were observed. The bombardments of the copper mines, the power station and the hydrocarbon deposit, located next to that city near the border with Bulgaria, also affected the neighboring country. The newspaper 24 Horas, from Sofia, reported that dead birds fell from the sky because of the toxic cloud, which also caused acid rains. Meanwhile, in Kosovo, the peasants saw how the trees were left bare in the middle of spring.
The negative effects were felt throughout the food chain. Cases of chronic bronchitis, asthma, eczema, diarrhea or thyroid complications have been diagnosed, but the Serbian authorities prefer to hide the facts. The most serious health problems are yet to come.
1. See the UNEP and UNCHS Report, published in 1999: Le conflit du Kosovo, ses conséquences sur l’environnement et les établissements humains.
* Jasmina Sopova and Nevena Popovska
Journalists from the UNESCO Courier and in Skopje, Republic of Macedonia, respectively.