Should justice ever prevail, and Nato's 1999 leaders find themselves lodging in The Hague Tribunal's guest-wing, Pančevo will head the list of Serbian cities whose bombing constituted indirect chemical warfare and was therefore criminal, according to the Geneva Conventions. Other severely poisoned towns were Kragujevac, Bor and Novi Sad. A report submitted to Kofi Annan by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the United Nations Centre for Human Settlements (UNCHS) emphasized how urgently clean-ups were needed because of the long-term environmental consequences. But Serbia, its state coffers grievously depleted by Milošević & Co., could not possibly afford thorough clean-ups.
Early morning clouds hung low and grey as I walked to meet Bogdan at the 108 bus terminal near Omladinski Stadium. He was there before me, a slim young man with jet black hair and large brown eyes in a long, thin, sallow face. As No.108 bus rattled slowly across dull flat land, he criticized Belgrade's Public Institute of Health, a Department of the Serbian Health Ministry, for making light of Natos's pollution legacy - though local doctors had warned all women who were in Pančevo 0n 18-19 April to avoid pregnancy for at least two years. And all who at that date had been in the first two months of pregnancy were advised to abort their babies. Vehemently Bogdan declared, 'The goverment won't admit Nato did so much damage. And it doesn't want to put off foreigners who might invest here when things get normal.'
Pančevo can never have been beautiful and post-bombing it looked like the Tenth Circle of Hell. First we walked by a reeking, litter-clogged canal linking the South Industrial Zone Industrial Complex to the Danube. Into it were released, on that April night, 300 tons of sodium hydroxide and 100 tons of carcinogenic vinyl chloride monomer from the Petrohemija factory. It had been estimated that to decontaminate the canal and its banks would cost at least DM43 million.
'Nato wasn't punishing only us,' said Bogdan. 'More than ten millions in different countries depend on the Danube for drinking water. Fish died all the way down to the Black Sea. On 19 April the sun never got through the the thick fog all over Pančevo - not a natural coloured fog (see header photo). Our ecotoxicologists tested it. They found concentrates of vinyl chloride, naptha, dioxins, ammonia - 10,600 times above human safety limits. That day thousands of people were falling around dizzy and vomitting. We were told to soak our scarves in sodium bicarbonate and use them for face masks. The vinyl chloride plant was bombed twice. Clouds of gas and smoke were sent up hundreds of meters and also held phosgene, hydrochloric acid and ethylene dichloride. And 250 tons of liquid ammonia were thrown into the air.'
By then we had left the canal and were passing the grotesquely twisted remains of one of Europe's biggest fertilizer factories. By chance Nato's bombers missed some of its gigantic warehouses. We paused and Bogdan pointed out the colossal storage tanks, holding 20,000 tons of ammonia. Had those been hit the scale of the disaster would have decisevely exposed Operation Allied Force's (Nato's bombing campaign against Serbia) 'humanitarian' label as counterfeit and abruptly ended the airwar. As we lunched in Bogdan's parent's flat his chemical engineer father mentioned an even narrower escape. Thirteen massive oil and petrol slicks on the Danube - one fifteen miles long and 400 yards wide - had threatened Europe's least reliable nuclear power plant at Kozloduy in Bulgaria. The workers had only thirty minutes to avert a meltdown caused by oily sludge thickening the cooling water.
Father's main personal concern was the eight tons of mercury saturating the soli around the petrochemical plant. Its employees were frantiacally attempting a clean-up with pumps, to prevent the mercury sinking deeper, into the underground water system. But in four months they had recovered little more than a ton.
Bogdan's mother, also a chemical engineer, described the widespread sense of shocked disbelief when Nato began to bomb indiscriminately - oil refineries, power plants, civilian factories, road and railway bridges. Then, all over Serbia, damage limitation became the priority; plants were closed, chemicals neutralized if possible. However in Pančevo and elsewhere more desperate remedies were sometimes needed - such as releasing 1,400 tons of carcinogenic ethylene dichloride into the Danube lest a bomb might cause it to explode. Apartment blocks stood less than 150 yards from its storage site. From the same petrochemical plant, 800 tons of hydrochloric acid, 3,000 tons of lye and large deposits of mercury also entered the river. Could there be any connection betwen those catastrophes and the case of the Lechevo babies? Between October 1999 and July 2000 ten babies were born in the Bulgarian village of Lechevo, near the Serbian border. Eight were 'imperfect' - very imperfect. Two died, mercifully, during their first month.
I well remember Nato's excuse for attacking Pančevo so relentlessly. Such 'strikes' were necessary to 'degrade' Milošević's 'war machine'. (Pliable - Echoes of Dresden). By then Nato's commanders were no longer 'protecting' Kosovars but tearing Serbia apart. And their degraded form of militarism, using cluster bombs, depleted uranium and indirect chemical warfare, means that for decades to come the Serbs, and their neighbours will continue to be punished for the crimes of the Milošević régime.
On our return journey I told Bogdan about a BBC World Service broadcast heard at 1 a.m. on 18 June, eight days after the end of the airwar. Three political commentators were considering how 'the Balkan war' had affected various alliance leaders' reputations. For President Clinton, after that initial trying controversy about ground troops, it had been 'a good war', casualty free and 'impressively projecting US power'. For Prime Minister Tony Blair it had been 'a very good war', he had stood out as the most resolute and inspiring Alliance leader. For Herr Schröder it had been 'a good and timely war', enabling him to prove himself 'master of the German Greens'.
'Where are we at,' I demanded despairingly of my companion, 'when "success" in international affairs is measured by the image-enhancement of natioan leaders, regardless of human suffering?'
'We're at somewhere very frightening,' Bogdan sombrely replied. Then he added,'Now only nuclear weapons can protect countries from the US. I thought before the bombing India and Pakistan were wrong to make those - after '89 I wanted nuclear disarmament. Now I know they were right. If we'd had even one small Hiroshima-sized bomb - the sort we could get to Rome or Munich - Nato would never have attacked us. '
The chilling account above is from Dervla Murphy's 2002 book Through the Embers of Chaos, Balkan Journeys (John Murray ISBN 0719565103). Not happy reading, but essential reading nevertheless. The 26 member countries of Nato are – Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Turkey, United Kingdom, and United States.
Now playing - Olivier Greif, Sonate de Requiem for cello and piano composed between 1979-1993. Grief was born into a Jewish family of Polish stock, and settled in Paris. He was truly cosmopolitan and his cultural influences ranged from the US to India. In 1976, Olivier Greif (below) embarked on a spiritual quest which was to last more than twenty years. He attached himself to an Indian guru living in New York, making frequent trips to the United States and other parts of the world as a consequence. In 1978 he was given the name 'Haridas' ('servant of God' in Sanskrit). This withdrawal into an inner life, in response to a profound spiritual aspiration, resulted in the suspension of his personal musical creativity for some 10 years, following the Sonate de Requiem, Le Livre du Pèlerin and the opera Nô. During these years he made numerous polyphonic arrangements of Indian devotional songs. The Sonate de Requiem is a deeply moving work which speaks eloquently of the humanitarian disasters of the late 20th century such as the Serbian conflict without resorting to serialism or electronic sounds to try and resolve them. Olivier Grief died in Paris in 2000 aged just 50.
Image credit - Pančevo skyline from Zoran Jovanovic Maccak. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and other errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk
For more on the dreadful consequences of modern warfare take An Overgrown Path to The Winter's Tale