- Maggie O'Kanereporter for the British newspaper The Guardian, speaking to us from Belfast.
Smiling and waving to the cameras, about 120 Yugoslav troops left Kosovo yesterday in a convoy of buses and trucks, in what Western authorities said was an insignificant move. Meanwhile, Yugoslavia told the United Nations that more than 1,200 people have been killed and 5,000 hurt by NATO airstrikes over the past seven weeks. As foreign reporters saw the military convoy leave Kosovo, a Serb army officer there blamed constant NATO bombing for the “slow pace” of withdrawal since Yugoslavia announced a partial pullout. We speak with Maggie O’Kane, who was in Yugoslavia for the last five weeks covering the war, until this past week. She was thrown out by Yugoslav authorities. She is a reporter for the British newspaper The Guardian, speaking to us from Belfast.
AMY GOODMAN: You’re listening to Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman.
Smiling and waving to the cameras, about 120 Yugoslav troops left Kosovo yesterday in a convoy of buses and trucks, in what Western authorities said was an insignificant move. Meanwhile, Yugoslavia told the United Nations that more than 1,200 people have been killed and 5,000 hurt by NATO airstrikes over the past seven weeks. As foreign reporters saw the military convoy leave Kosovo, a Serb army officer there blamed constant NATO bombing for the, quote, “slow pace” of withdrawal since Yugoslavia announced a partial pullout.
We turn right now to Maggie O’Kane. She was in Yugoslavia for the last five weeks covering the war, until this past week. She was thrown out by Yugoslav authorities. Maggie O’Kane is a reporter for the British newspaper The Guardian. She is speaking to us from Belfast.
Maggie O’Kane, tell us what happened.
MAGGIE O’KANE: Well, I feel it reminded me a bit of when I was a child. My father used to come and pick me up at 10:00 from the Gaelic football pitch on a summer’s evening, and I had to go home early. And I must say, I felt a bit like that when I left Belgrade, a sense that I had to go home early.
AMY GOODMAN: What happened?
MAGGIE O’KANE: Well, what happened was that I was expelled from Belgrade after spending almost five weeks there working. The reason I was expelled, I don’t really know. I came back to my hotel, and there was a very gentlemanly policeman who accompanied me to my room, and we had a cup of tea, and he said that my services or my work was no longer required in Belgrade and that I — we should leave the country within 24 hours. And with that, he left. And they stamped in my passport that I had to be out of the country, and they disqualified my visa. So, that was it. I mean, why exactly I went, they wanted me to go, I don’t know. I certainly am not the first one to be expelled from Belgrade. There had been some criticism of my work before in Bosnia, but certainly it wasn’t made clear to me what they objected to. I suspect there had been a run of stories about opposition, about the fact that there was, that the voices of opposition were being raised within Belgrade against President Milosevic. And perhaps that made them uncomfortable, or perhaps they didn’t like the color of my shoes. I really don’t know.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about what some of your coverage has been over the last five years? What are, for example, the last stories that you were working on while you were in Belgrade?
MAGGIE O’KANE: Well, the last story I did was a story about — called “The Cleaner,” and it was a sort of — it was an interview with a volunteer Serb who had gone to Kosovo to “clean,” as he called it. And he discussed how they operated. He was part of, as they say, a sort of voluntary force, who I suspect weren’t as brutal as those that we’ve heard about. And that was the last interview I did. The other work was mainly looking at the sense that there was a rising voice from the opposition, which was very, very quickly quelled, but certainly there were people who were brave enough to say, “This can’t go on, and Milosevic must stand down,” which is extraordinary given the climate in the country.
AMY GOODMAN: I’m still focused on this cleaner. How did you find him? And what exactly did he say he did, and why did he volunteer to go to Kosovo?
MAGGIE O’KANE: Well, I found him — I ran into a Belgrade Buddhist, who — a very interesting man. He was a pacifist and also had been a protester. And he just mentioned that his next-door neighbor, that they had taken to calling him “the cleaner,” because after the NATO bombing started, a number of Belgrade men volunteered to go to fight for Kosovo. He would call himself a strong nationalist. He would believe, as he said, that he was fighting the Kosovo Liberation Army, who were extremists bent on taking Kosovo from the Serbs.
And how he described it, it was quite interesting. He said, “We were given very strict orders. There was to be no murder, no mutilation and no rape.” And those were the instructions that were issued in Nis by the deputy commander of the third force, and they were the words that he used to me. And he also drew the — made comparisons. He had been in the Croatian war, and he said that, “In a way, that was a lot dirtier. There was a lot more blood on our hands.” And I suspect, having covered Bosnia and Croatia, that it’s very hard to estimate the scale of, for example, rape, which was a big issue in Bosnia. I have no doubt that there was systematic rape as part of the process of ethnic cleansing. My sense about Kosovo is that, while I’m sure there have been cases of rape, it wasn’t carried out in a systematic way. And the interesting thing about the cleaner is, you know, he was, in his own kind of rather naive way, saying, “We weren’t allowed to rape them this time, if you know what I mean.” So I think that sort of said a lot about the way that the war has been conducted in Kosovo. I’m not saying it’s cleaner; I think it’s very brutal. But I think that there is less of the kind of sense of it being as out of control as it was in Bosnia. Certainly that was the case in the first couple of weeks, and that may change.
AMY GOODMAN: Maggie O’Kane, what about your coverage of the NATO bombing, the U.S.-British bombing, with NATO, of Yugoslavia? How were you covering that? And what were the effects you were seeing in Belgrade and the other cities that you visited?
MAGGIE O’KANE: Well, I think there’s two levels. I mean, there’s two levels in Belgrade. There’s a level of going downtown every morning at half past 9, when you’ve had your breakfast. We all stayed in the Hyatt hotel, which is the most luxurious place I’ve ever stayed. And the reason for that is that we were actually told that we had to stay together, and they wanted to monitor where the journalists were. I tried to book into another hotel, and they said no. So, you know, you go downtown, and what you would be confronted with was a city that, in a way, was very normal. People were walking around. The only sign, in those first few weeks, that anything was really wrong was that there was huge queues for cigarettes. But other than that, it was any comparatively affluent, although we know now that it’s not, because of the sanctions, but you have a sense of a kind of busy European, Eastern European capital and people going about their business.
And then, in the middle of all this, there was this surreal madness of going downtown — in the middle of the night, being woken up by the sound of missiles, and the sound of one in particular, which I remember, going across the roof of the hotel, which was like a rasp of like a wild cat — it was a very, very chilling, evil sound — before it hit the Communist Party headquarters. And there’s that kind of, as I say, very surreal madness.
And so, what do you do? You cover, you know, who the victims are, what happened, what the — why this was a target. And I think the debate over the TV station was very controversial. I think there was a lot of anger about that. And, you know, journalists called on to show their solidarity. But, I mean, I kind of feel that you also — if you’re going to show solidarity, then you have to show it with the workers of Aleksinac or the workers of the Hoover factory, but, I mean, I don’t think we’re in the business of solidarity; we’re in the business of reporting.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Maggie O’Kane, who is a foreign reporter for The Guardian. She was covering the bombing of Yugoslavia for the last five weeks and was just basically expelled from the country by the Yugoslav government of Slobodan Milosevic. She is now speaking to us from Belfast. Can you talk about the so-called collateral damage? In fact, it is words that Mary Robinson, the U.N. high commissioner of human rights, said should never be used, and she is extremely critical of the bombing and says that NATO, as well as NATO officials and Western officials, as well as Slobodan Milosevic, should be considered for indictments for war crimes, given that there are civilian targets.
MAGGIE O’KANE: Well, I don’t think there are civilian targets. I think, basically, I have a sense, and my impression is very, very strongly, that the civilian casualties have been a disaster, as far as NATO is concerned — I mean, the bombing of the convoy, the bombing of Aleksinac, the bombing of the civilians in the town of Slavinja, just south of the city — have been — you know, cause huge political problems for NATO. I mean, what you see is very much the aftermath of a smoldering building, of bodies being brought out. And we always arrive there within half an hour, an hour, and at that time most of the bodies are gone. So, it’s very difficult to talk about the — I think any of us who are covering it find a huge kind of difficult moral dilemma between wondering how you bring back those refugees and how you, in a sense, win against the evil of ethnic cleansing that we’ve seen in — that I’ve seen in Croatia, Bosnia and now in Serbia. And, you know, how does that square with actually getting things wrong and hitting civilian targets? It’s a hugely difficult moral question that I think we’re all very confused about.
AMY GOODMAN: But, as you describe yourself, there was, for example, the targeting of the TV station. It’s not as if the NATO bombers hit off the transmitters. And also, journalists, like from CNN, apparently had advance warning, but others inside were killed.
MAGGIE O’KANE: Well, everyone had advance warning. There was a press conference two days before that — at which the Ministry of Information said that we have been informed that the TV station is going to be a target. So, people were told that it was going to be a target. Why they didn’t, you know, ring up 10 minutes before and say, “The bomb’s on the way. Get out,” I don’t know. But I don’t think it was a question of CNN being told, whereas Yugoslavs were told — weren’t told anything. I mean, everyone knew that that was going to be targeted.
And I also feel sort of slightly ambivalent on this whole issue. I mean, I believe that the television station — not that I’m saying it should be blown up, but I had believed that the strongest pillar of Slobodan Milosevic’s power is TV, and it’s been a hugely successful — Serbian television had been hugely successful in allowing him to continue to perpetrate what he did in Bosnia and Croatia. And actually, this is the TV station that said that there were no Kosovar refugees, that the refugees are not being driven out by Serb forces, that it’s all Western propaganda. So, I mean, I think it’s not black-and-white. I think that it’s clear that this was a pillar of the regime. I’m not saying that you should kill journalists in there, but I am saying there was a very clear warning.
AMY GOODMAN: Maggie O’Kane, you’re known for going places and bringing out dissident voices, and there are many opposition voices in Belgrade and, overall, in the FRY, in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Can you talk about what’s happened to that opposition during the bombing?
MAGGIE O’KANE: Well, I mean, one of the things that they said, and they said quite clearly, is that it was — the bombing set back democracy in Serbia by 20 years. I mean, and in a way, I don’t know if it was as bad as that, but there was a sense, as I found in Iraq in 1991, that there was a sense of solidarity behind Slobodan Milosevic, a growing popularity that he hadn’t experienced since the early '80s. I think, though, that's worrying, quite so, and the opposition said, you know, “This is destroying us.”
But I think we’ve moved on to another stage now in which the people are beginning to be very, very angry and fed up as the electricity goes, as the oil supplies — as the oil goes into short supply, as there’s no sugar. You can’t get cigarettes. So I think that initial rallying of the great Serbian national spirit seemed almost to be diminishing day by day. In the first days of the war, we saw thousands of people gathered in Republic Square, you know, waving the flag, singing the national anthem. And then, within weeks, I suppose, that began to have a sort of hollow, weary sound, as people are just growing tired.
So, I think what happened, the opposition raised their voices, and they did so in a very sort of powerful and brave way. Vuk Obradovic, who was an opposition leader, said that Slobodan Milosovic must resign. Now, in Belgrade at this time, it’s almost tantamount to saying the same thing in Baghdad in 1991. And within two weeks of the war, Curuvija, a very outspoken critic of Milosevic, was shot dead in a crowded street on Saturday. So, there are brave voices, and maybe people are ready to listen to them. But at the moment, it’s hard to see how this is going to go.
AMY GOODMAN: You talk about the dilemma that many face of wanting the ethnic cleansing to end but also not liking to see the bombing. But do you think that the bombing perhaps sped up, escalated ethnic cleansing at the same time that it has rallied support for Slobodan Milosevic?
MAGGIE O’KANE: Yes, I think that the bombing — as soon as the bombing started, it gave the Serb forces, and perhaps some of the Serb people living there who felt so threatened by the growing Albanian population, the chance to say, “OK, now the — we’ll get rid of them now.” I mean, I think there was a huge fury and backlash as a result of the bombing, which has certainly escalated the ethnic cleansing.
AMY GOODMAN: And what about the effects on the environment of the bombing? You have the bombings of petrochemical factories. You have the toxins that are going into the Danube — what some countries at the United Nations are calling “ecocide.” Did you have a sense of that?
MAGGIE O’KANE: Well, there was a — what concerned me much, much more is depleted uranium. I did a lot of work in Iraq after the Gulf War. And during the Gulf War, depleted uranium, which is a very hard substance which is put on the tips of bullets, which literally pierces armor like butter, a nicely soft butter — it’s a very, very strong material. It’s very much experimental. The first war it was used in was the Gulf War in 1991. And the research that’s been done there, and work that I’ve done myself, as well, it’s clear that this is causing huge problems with the release of, albeit lay level, radioactivity into the atmosphere, and concerns about genetic disorders in children. I mean, there is really, really grave concern about depleted uranium. And it’s very worrying that we now sort of hear almost casually that the U.S. is saying, “Well, yes, we’re using it again.” But that worries me. I think it’s kind of terrifying, what the potential for that is.
AMY GOODMAN: You have investigated depleted uranium extensively in Iraq. The Pentagon has admitted, the U.S. Pentagon, that it is using depleted uranium in Yugoslavia. Could you just expand on what you’ve said?
MAGGIE O’KANE: Well, what they’ve said is that they’re using it on the DC-10s and that they’re using it as a — it’s basically an armor-piercing substance which is part of the armory of the U.S. And they have said that they don’t think that it causes a health threat. There are, however — there is, however, much controversy about that. [Inaudible] believe that it is very dangerous. And I am just — I’m stunned, really. I thought that after the Gulf War, they had learned their lesson, but clearly they haven’t.
AMY GOODMAN: Having been expelled from the country by Slobodan Milosevic’s men, will you try to go back?
MAGGIE O’KANE: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: Maggie O’Kane, speaking to us from Belfast. She’s a reporter with the British newspaper The Guardian. She was expelled from Yugoslavia just a few days ago.
And that does it for today’s program. Democracy Now! is produced by María Carrión and David Love. Our technical director is Errol Maitland. Michael Ede is our headlines editor. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for listening to another edition of Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now!