Tuesday, May 18, 1999 FULL SHOW | HEADLINES | NEXT: A People’s History of the United States
1999-05-18

Jeremy Scahill Reports from Belgrade

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NATO air raids have increased once again in Yugoslavia after two days of cloudy weather, while political leaders and diplomats today press their search for a diplomatic solution to the war. NATO said its jets bombed an industrial zone, a main highway and an airport, among other sites across Yugoslavia. Serb media reported that the attacks hit bridges, a bus station, a cigarette factory and a printing plant, and also damaged dozens of residential buildings. China today demanded an end to the bombings, describing the air war as the worst human disaster since the Second World War. The Yugoslav Red Cross said it is getting an increasing number of calls on its SOS telephone line from panicked callers in Belgrade, particularly when air sirens begin to sound. The hotline was originally established for the elderly, who are unable to move to bomb shelters during the bombing raids and are left in their homes alone. Meanwhile, two members of a United Nations team in Yugoslavia to assess humanitarian needs from the war were injured today in a car accident during the mission’s first field visit outside Belgrade. They were visiting Pancevo, an industrial town divided in two after NATO bombs destroyed three bridges across the Danube River. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: NATO air raids have increased once again in Yugoslavia after two days of cloudy weather, while political leaders and diplomats today press their search for a diplomatic solution to the war. NATO said its jets bombed an industrial zone, a main highway and an airport, among other sites across Yugoslavia. Serb media reported that the attacks hit bridges, a bus station, a cigarette factory and a printing plant, and also damaged dozens of residential buildings. China today demanded an end to the bombings, describing the air war as the worst human disaster since the Second World War.

The Yugoslav Red Cross said it’s getting an increasing number of calls on its SOS telephone line from panic callers in Belgrade, particularly when air sirens begin to sound. The hotline was originally established for the elderly who are unable to move to bomb shelters during the bombing raids and are left in their homes alone.

Meanwhile, two members of a United Nations team in Yugoslavia, there to assess humanitarian needs from the war, were injured today in a car accident during the mission’s first field visit outside Belgrade. They were visiting Pancevo, an industrial town divided in two after NATO bombs destroyed three bridges across the Danube River.

Just a few minutes ago, I got a chance to speak with Pacifica Radio’s Jeremy Scahill, who has just made it to Belgrade and has had an opportunity to visit some of the areas bombed by NATO, and I welcomed him to Democracy Now!’s airwaves.

JEREMY SCAHILL: Thank you very much, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: So, describe what you’ve seen since you got there this weekend.

JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, I drove in through Budapest, and many of the bridges have been bombed out already by the U.S.-led NATO attacks, and so anyone coming into the country really has to go through backroads to get into Yugoslavia. And I entered in the north, and the first city that I visited was the city of Novi Sad, which is the second largest city in Yugoslavia. It’s been bombed very heavily by NATO forces. And that is, of course, the place where the oil refinery that we’ve been talking a lot about on Democracy Now! and on Pacifica—where that oil refinery had been bombed that lies along the Danube, which provides drinking water to 10 million people. Well, I visited that oil refinery, and it looked as though metal was just tied into knots like it was string. It was completely bombed out. It had a heavy toxic stench in the air. Gigantic oil drums had been completely bombed into nothing, and oil had spilled into the Danube.

Also along that site, not far from the oil refinery, were some of the bridges that NATO has bombed. NATO has bombed at least 33 bridges in Serbia alone. It’s difficult to estimate what the extent of the damage is right now in Kosovo, but in Serbia alone, 33 bridges have been bombed, and four of those have been bridges along the Danube. And people should just imagine if like the Brooklyn Bridge or the Golden Gate Bridge—I mean, gigantic bridges—just were bombed into the water. And, you know, you see people taking sort of pontoon boats across, because the bridges are no longer there.

The extent of the civilian damage in Yugoslavia is unimaginable. I mean, you see hospitals, schools that have been cluster-bombed, marketplaces, bridges, all sorts of buildings, individual homes, gas stations. And so, in Novi Sad, we visited this oil refinery, where the oil had spilled in, and talked with the people there about the environmental devastation and their fears of the future there, as well.

Then I drove into Belgrade, after spending a night in Novi Sad and talking with local residents there, and my first image of Belgrade actually happened when we were riding. It was raining outside, and we saw smoke and flames on the side of the road, and we pulled over. And it turns out that that is a place where NATO forces this week bombed a gas station. They bombed a petroleum station in a really rural area, and there were no military targets that I certainly could see. It was—it seemed like a sort of agricultural community about 10 miles to the north of Belgrade. And we got out of the car there and were able to talk to some of the people there about what had happened. Four missiles slammed into a field right next to this gas station. It would just be like a gas station along a rural road in the United States, and we talked with the workers there, and this is what they said.

STATION MANAGER: [translated] What else to say? This is not a military object. This is something we get our money from and we get our food. And so, this is the means to survive and to feed our families. What else to say? Just stop bombing us. Just stop these disastrous acts.

JEREMY SCAHILL: That was the manager of the station, which was destroyed by U.S.-led NATO bombings earlier this week just outside of Belgrade. There was also an attendant that worked at the station who I talked to, and he was very, very distraught.

STATION ATTENDANT: [translated] Yeah, mind the tears in the man’s eyes, and what he is saying is that it is actually disastrous, because he is left jobless, and he’s got family, and he’s got kids. And also, that the question is, what are the Americans looking for here? I mean, it’s so far from the States and no interest in this small country.

JEREMY SCAHILL: That was the attendant who worked at the gas station that was exploded. And that question is something that a lot of people here in Yugoslavia are asking: what is the United States looking for here? Antiwar sentiment is widespread here. You don’t meet anyone who’s in support of what NATO is doing, and you see target signs on everyone all over the city. They wear these buttons that say "target." You also see signs that have the Eiffel Tower exploded, and it says, "Imagine this. Stop the madness."

And as you drive around Belgrade and other cities here, you just see old buildings completely destroyed. In fact, as I look out the window here, I can see one of the largest buildings in Yugoslavia, which is a communications center that was bombed by NATO a few weeks ago, and it’s left standing as sort of a relic of the bombing, an image of the ruins and what has happened to some of these ancient cities in Yugoslavia.

I also visited New Belgrade, a city that was bombed heavily by the Nazis during World War II, and they rebuilt that city beginning in 1948, and NATO has now bombed it to the ground once again. And the mayor of that city was talking about how Germany bombed Yugoslavia during World War II, and now the United States and Germany are bombing it once again. He called them a neo-fascist force. And they’ve completely destroyed what was rebuilt after World War II.

When you travel around Belgrade, as well, you can see they have hit a number of so-called military targets, like the headquarters of the Yugoslav army, very heavily damaged, completely razed to the ground. The ministry of the interior, the defense ministry, all of these are destroyed, of course. And so, when NATO talks about hitting military targets, that is what they’re talking about.

But an overwhelming majority of what has been hit, from my view, have been civilian targets. Certainly in Belgrade, Novi Sad and then the city of Nis, places like a clinical center and a maternity ward, many bridges, a pharmaceutical plant, other schools and hospitals have taken a really heavy hit during this. And, in fact, I got a chance to visit a hospital here in Belgrade that has not been bombed, but it’s the largest neonatal facility in Yugoslavia, and I talked to the head doctor there, Dr. Kai Ilic [ phon. ], and she talked about how it’s not just the bombing that is a problem for the medical profession, but that the fuel shortages and the fact that the bridges are bombed also affect their work. Dr. Kai Ilic.

DR. KAI ILIC: And today we have the problem with transporting these babies, because roads are not secure. Then the roads are damaged. Bridges are damaged. We don’t have enough petrol. So these children cannot come to our institution. So they die in Kraljevo, in Kragujevac, Kosovo.

JEREMY SCAHILL: That was Doctor Kai Ilic, of a neonatal hospital here in Yugoslavia. That hospital is very near to some government buildings in the center of Belgrade, and they’re very concerned there, because they’re not able to take these babies into the bomb shelters at night, because they are in incubators, and they rely on those incubators to stay alive. And so, many of the doctors there have been staying with the babies even during bombing.

All of the windows on people’s home and on businesses are taped up on the streets of Belgrade. They tape them in sort of an X, with then another cross in between it, to try to prevent shards of glass when the bombing happens from shattering into the home and slicing people up. That has happened in several instances here since the bombing began. People call it "Windows 99," and you see it across the board, with the taped-up windows.

Another doctor in the hospital, I asked her to describe what it’s like when the bombs go off at night and, you know, what the scene is like in this hospital.

DOCTOR: Well, actually, it’s a horrible scene, because with the bombing somewhere here, you can hear everything, you can see flames and everything, and all the incubators and everything is shaking. And you’re never sure where exactly this bombing is, and you’re afraid for the children, because you’re responsible for them. You can’t move them anywhere, so we just stay here.

JEREMY SCAHILL: That was another doctor at the neonatal hospital here in Yugoslavia. Yesterday I actually traveled down to Nis, Amy, and as I crossed over a bridge there, it’s interesting to note that a lot of drivers put the pedal to the metal when they go across bridges, because so many bridges have been targeted. We learned yesterday that just 30 minutes after we crossed that bridge, it was bombed, so we just barely missed being hit ourselves as we went to Nis.

And Nis is a city that really is second only to Pristina in terms of the amount of bombs that has hit the city. It’s been hit heaviest with a great number of bombings taking place during daytime hours. I visited a large facility that provides heat to the people of Nis, and it had been bombed on three separate occasions. And in fact the mayor of the city there was taking an international delegation there last week, and they bombed while he was there, and he was hurled 30 feet into a tree. So, he’s injured. Two of his very close friends died. One of them died last night, as a matter of fact.

We also visited one of the largest factories in Europe, which was a tobacco factory in Nis. It had also been bombed three times. And while we were there, the director of the tobacco factory brought out a cluster bomb, and written on it was the phrase, "Are you still proud to be a Serb?" And also, "You need to learn how to run faster." So this is the sort of psychological operations that have been going on from the military along with the intensive bombing campaign. And, you know, you see shrapnel from these cluster bombs, and in fact in some places it’s fossilized into the ground. The epicenter of the blast leaves a little crater in the cement, and then you see almost like the rays of a sun going out from this epicenter, fossilized marks from where the shrapnel or smaller bombs from the cluster bomb spread out.

And another concern that people have here is that some of these haven’t exploded. It’s like land mines sitting in hospital compounds or outside of schools or along the road, and I actually saw some of the cluster bombs. And I know you’ve been talking about that on Democracy Now!, as well. But a lot of people here seem to be trying to move on with their lives, but it’s always in the back of their head that they could get bombed at any moment. It really is the fact that civilians feel here that they have been targeted, the civilian infrastructure has been targeted, and so they really are afraid. And in Nis, they are more afraid during the day than they are at night, because that’s really when NATO has hit them the heaviest.

Meanwhile, at the end of last week, of course, the Yugoslavian officials argued a case before The Hague, where they’re trying to bring war crime charges against the United States and nine other countries. And I actually had a chance to speak with the justice minister for Serbia, Justice Minister Jovakovic [ phon. ], and this was what he had to say about the accusations of war crimes against the United States.

JUSTICE MINISTER JOVAKOVIC: [translated] By daily bombing of civilian facilities and by killing civilians, the United States and other NATO countries are trying to destroy a whole nation and a whole country. When I say a whole nation, I mean all the ethnic groups living on the territory of Yugoslavia.

JEREMY SCAHILL: One of the main concerns here, as well, beyond just the fact that bombs are continuing to rain down on cities all across Yugoslavia, is the future impact of these bombings. People are very concerned about the environmental effects of the use of depleted uranium as well as the bombing of the petrochemical plants in Pancevo, just six miles away from where I’m sitting right now, as well as the oil refinery we talked about in Novi Sad. People here feel that even after the bombs stop falling, that the deaths are going to continue to occur as a result of the U.S.-led NATO bombing of places like these petrochemical plants and other facilities.

You know, it was interesting at that NATO press briefing this morning, the United States had a representative there from the State Department, Ambassador Scheffer, and he actually said something about the press that just shows the continuing coziness between the United States government and the corporate media. There are hundreds of reporters here, and the Pentagon continues to be, quote, "pleased" with what they’re hearing.

AMBASSADOR DAVID SCHEFFER: I do want to say that I learn a lot, and we all gain a tremendous amount, from the heroic work the journalists are doing in the Kosovo theater. It’s an enormous amount of information that comes in, from what we describe as open sources, and that’s the media included in that. And I think the entire international media must take great pride in the focus and the hard work that it’s undertaking to try to get the facts out. And we certainly take notice of that in Washington.

JEREMY SCAHILL: Ambassador Scheffer, speaking at this morning’s NATO briefing. Amy?

AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy, what is the attitude of the people of Belgrade and Novi Sad towards Slobodan Milosevic right now? And what is the understanding of what is happening to the Kosovar Albanians?

JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, on the question of Milosevic, I mean, I think people across the board feel that it has really increased his hold on power, the fact that the NATO bombing has been so intense and the fact that people across Yugoslavia are against this bombing, for obvious reasons. I mean, their homes are being destroyed, their hospitals, their schools. And, you know, people are sort of rallying around him. But there is an opposition here that has almost been forced underground. I was just talking this morning with an opposition activist, who was saying, "This has completely destroyed our hopes for opposing this regime, because the bombing has really united everyone around Slobodan Milosevic, with the exception of those that have been diligently opposing his regime for years." But really it is a situation where you have people rallying around the flag here and really trying to stand up against the United States-led NATO forces. And that means, you know, defending Slobodan Milosevic at this point, because he’s who’s in power.

I think, across the board, there is a real denial that anything is going on in Kosovo that is wrong by government officials, as well as people on the streets. People say, "There’s no problem there. We all live happily." And they also raise the point that if NATO and the United States are allegedly defending the Albanian population in Kosovo, then why are they bombing them? Why did they bomb and kill a hundred people just the other day? They raise those sorts of questions. But they really attribute a lot of the refugee crisis to the fact that NATO has been bombing very heavily in the area where the refugees are. They also point out, interestingly, that in order to get refugee status, they have to say that they’re fleeing some sort of persecution, and if they were to say that they were fleeing bombing, that wouldn’t necessarily qualify them for refugee status. So officials here point out that perhaps some of what has been shown on television is motivated by a desire to gain refugee status, but really it seems like people are uninformed or in denial about what is happening in Kosovo.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Jeremy, I want to thank you very much for being with us. Jeremy Scahill, talking to us from Belgrade, Yugoslavia.

JEREMY SCAHILL: Thank you, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: When we come back historian Howard Zinn. You’re listening to Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.

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