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Synthesis/Regeneration 20   (Fall, 1999)

Not On the News:

Ecological Catastrophe Hits Yugoslavia

by Mitchel Cohen, Red Balloon Collective,
& Brooklyn Greens, Green Party of New York

"We must do more to reach out to our children and teach them to express their anger and to resolve their conflicts with words, not weapons."
—President William Jefferson Clinton, leading by example at Columbine High Sshool, Colorado, while directing NATO forces to bomb Belgrade.

Nato Endangers Water Supply

Early in April, a leader of the Yugoslavian Green Party warned that NATO missiles were beginning to contaminate the water supply for much of Eastern Europe. "I warn you that Serbia is one of the greatest sources of underground waters in Europe and that the contamination will be felt in the whole surrounding area all the way to the Black Sea," Branka Jovanovic reported from Belgrade.

Her worst fears have apparently come true.

On the first day of the NATO air strikes, March 24, the municipality of Grocka was hit where the Vinca nuclear reactor is situated. The site contains a great stockpile of nuclear waste. No US media reported this.

The municipality of Pancevo was hit, in which the petrochemical factory and a factory for the production of artificial fertilizers are situated. They were bombed again numerous times during April and May.

"Among the cocktail of chemicals billowing over hundreds of thousands of homes were the toxic gas phosgene, chlorine and hydrochloric acid."

The municipality of Baric was also hit. Baric houses a large complex for the production of chloride, using Bhopal technology. "It is not necessary for me to explain what the blowing up of one of such factories would represent," Jovanovic says. "Not only Belgrade, which is situated at a distance of 10 kilometers, but the rest of Europe would be endangered."

On the second day of bombings, a chemical factory in the Belgrade suburb of Sremcica was bombed. Also hit was a rocket fuel storage area, causing releases into the surrounding area and water. Branka also reports that four national parks were bombed, and that the depleted uranium weaponry first used against Iraq, responsible for thousands of cases of leukemia and other cancers in children, is now being used against Yugoslavia.

Poison Cloud Engulfs Belgrade

In the US the news is well scrubbed so that no blood leaks: NATO bombers, we're told, continue to hit and cripple Yugoslavia's oil refineries. Compare that to the detailed story filed by Tom Walker, reporting from Belgrade for the London Times on April 19:

"A towering cloud of toxic gases looms over Belgrade after warplanes, on the 25th night of the NATO onslaught, hit a petrochemicals plant in the northern outskirts of the city.

"An ecological disaster was unfolding yesterday after NATO bombed a combined petrochemicals, fertilizer and refinery complex on the banks of the Danube in the northern outskirts of Belgrade. "A series of detonations that shook the whole city early yesterday sent a toxic cloud of smoke and gas hundreds of feet into the night sky. In the dawn the choking cloud could be seen spreading over the entire northern skyline.

"Among the cocktail of chemicals billowing over hundreds of thousands of homes were the toxic gas phosgene, chlorine and hydrochloric acid. Workers at the industrial complex in Pancevo panicked and released tons of ethylene dichloride, a carcinogen, into the Danube, rather than risk seeing it blown up.

"At least three missile strikes left large areas of the plant crippled and oil and petrol from the damaged refinery area flowed into the river, forming slicks up to 12 miles long. Temperatures in the collapsing plant were said to have risen to more than 1,000 degrees centigrade. Asked about the hazard from chemical smoke, NATO said there was 'a lot more smoke coming from burning villages in Kosovo.'"

The Health Ministry could not find enough gas masks to distribute.

Meanwhile, in Pancevo, dozens of people reported suffering from poisoning due to the bombings of refineries, fertilizer facilities and a vinyl chloride and ethylene plant. Huge quantities of toxic matter such as chlorine, ethylene dichloride and vinyl chloride monomer were released. Transformer stations were also heavily damaged and toxic transformer oil flowed out. The Health Ministry could not find enough gas masks to distribute. Residents were told to breathe through scarves soaked in sodium bicarbonate as a precaution against showers of nitric acid.

"By burning down enormous quantities of naphtha and its derivatives, more than a hundred highly toxic chemical compounds that pollute water, air and soil are released" endangering the entire Balkan ecosystem, said New Green Party scientist Luka Radoja. Dr. Radoja pointed out that the NATO bombing is happening just as many crops vital for survival are supposed to be planted: corn, sunflower, soy, sugar beets and vegetables. As a result, the planting of 2.5 million hectares of land has been halted. In Kosovo, tractors built to plow the land were mostly used by farmers to tow their villages towards the border and, hopefully, to safety.

"As an expert who has spent his entire work age on the fields of this up until now ecologically pure part of Europe, I am a witness to the disappearing of the most beautiful garden of Europe," Radoja said, sadly.

"This is our worst nightmare," said Miralem Dzindo. "By taking away our fertilizer they stop us growing food, and then they try to poison us as well."

With the bombing of petrochemical facilities, NATO's air strikes have come perilously close to hitting tanks containing tens of thousands of tons of explosive chemicals. NATO missiles grazed one such tank containing 20,000 tons of liquid ammonia. "If that had gone up in flames much of Belgrade would have been poisoned. The pollution in the Danube and in the atmosphere over Belgrade knows no frontiers." Dzindo warned neighboring countries "the poison clouds could soon be with them." (London Times, April 19, 1999)

Indeed, the chief inspector of the Macedonian Ministry of Environment, Miroslav Balaburski, said that furans and dioxins released by bomb explosions are being carried long distances. The pollution is entering Macedonia by air and by the river Lepenec that crosses the border between Macedonia and Yugoslavia, according to Zoran Bozinovski, a speaker for the Center for Radioisotopes, a Macedonian government institution based in Skopje. And Ivan Grozdanov, a chemist at the center, made the further point that the burning aircraft fuel is the primary source of stratospheric nitrogen oxides, which are severely damaging the ozone layer.

Because of the poisoned environment, doctors have been advising pregnant Yugoslav women to have abortions rather than risk bringing genetically damaged babies into the world.

Perhaps German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, leader of the German Greens, and Daniel Cohn-Bendit, leader of the French Greens; both of whom were major factors in mobilizing their governments to support the bombardment, believe that bombing a civilian population, destroying their water supply, poisoning their crops is a moral and appropriate response—a "Green alternative"—to the alleged or even proven crimes of Yugoslavian officials.

In the days after a peace treaty was signed, NATO bombed the city of Pancevo again. A number of civilians were killed. Thick black clouds of toxic smoke billowed out over the region and were washed to the ground by heavy rains. Farmers just north of Pancevo reported that their crops are completely ruined, and that even walnuts and other fruit have been decimated overnight.

Because of the poisoned environment, doctors have been advising pregnant Yugoslav women to have abortions rather than risk bringing genetically damaged babies into the world. In addition to the once clean water system having been completely polluted by the bombings and air polluted by toxic clouds regularly passing over large areas, doctors are especially concerned with the effects of depleted uranium shells on the fetus. Taking their doctors' advice, women have been aborting fetuses at an alarming rate over the last few weeks.

NATO's bombing campaign against Yugoslavia has polluted the surrounding countries as well. Scientists in Romania are concerned over the long term impact of pollution on the Black Sea and the Danube, which forms Romania's southern border with Yugoslavia and Bulgaria for more than 1,075 km (670 miles), and then forks into a delta before flowing into the Black Sea. Local officials report high concentrations of heavy metals in the Danube, which carries the pollution into Romania and Bulgaria.

Long range transboundary transfer of ash and benzo-pyrene from Yugoslavia to a number of other countries, including Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, and Moldova is also occurring. Just one liter of naptha and its derivatives can pollute one million liters of water.

Acid rains in May in areas on the Yugoslav border were the direct consequence of air pollution caused by fires set off by the bombings, the Romanian environment ministry said. The resulting large-scale emissions of sulfur and nitrogen oxides are responsible for causing the acid rain, which destroys agriculture and forestry throughout the region.

"It will take at least two years to size up the full impact, especially on the Danube and the Black Sea fauna and flora. We fear there may be long term effects," the Romanian report continued. The Romanian government, which officially backs the NATO campaign, only released the report when ecologists and media accused officials of covering up the environmental consequences of NATO's air strikes.

Bulgaria's asparagus crop, which it exports for much needed funds, has been banned throughout Europe due to contamination.

Report from the Belgrade Zoo

Perhaps nothing exposes the inarticulable terror of NATO's bombardment more than its effect on animals, as expressed so poignantly in this letter received from Vuk Bojovic, the Director of the Belgrade zoo:

Belgrade Zoo Animals Provide Early Bombing Warning
May 30, 1999

"The noise starts around half an hour before the bombs fall as the animals in Belgrade zoo pick up the sound of approaching planes and missiles. It's one of the strangest and most disturbing concerts you can hear anywhere.

"It builds up in intensity as the planes approach. Only they can hear them, we can't, and when the bombs start falling it's like a choir of the insane. Peacocks screaming, wolves howling, dogs barking, chimpanzees rattling their cages.

"I have made a record every hour of each day of when the animals start acting up. One day, when this craziness is over, I'd like to check it with reliable data on when the planes were flying. Someone could make a scientific study out of it.

"I had 1,000 eggs of rare and endangered species incubating, some of them ready to hatch in a couple of days. They were all ruined. That's 1,000 lives lost.

"The zoo's freezer defrosted and went off, making the meat in it suitable only to scavengers like hyenas and vultures. Belgrade people donated meat out of their home freezers when the power went down, but most of it wasn't even fit for animals.

"The lack of water meant that some animals, particularly the hippos, were literally swimming in their excrement.

"We had to give dirty drinking water to a lot of pretty delicate animals. We won't know the effects of that for two or three months."

The nightly air strikes, with their accompaniment of heavy anti-aircraft fire lighting up the sky, has had other, possibly longer lasting effects on many of the animals, the director said. Many of them aborted their young in the latter stages of pregnancy. Many birds abandoned their nests, leaving eggs to grow cold. "If they ever lay again, I just wonder what they will do with them," he said.

The worst night the zoo can remember was when NATO hit an army headquarters only 600 meters away, with a huge detonation. "The next day we found that some of the animals had killed their young," Bojuvic said. "A female tiger killed 2 of her 4 three-day-old cubs, and the other 2 were so badly injured we couldn't save them."

"She had been a terrific mother until then, raising several litters without any problems. I can't say whether it was the detonation or the awful smell that accompanied the bombing. I personally think it was the detonation," he added.

On the same night, an eagle owl killed all of its five young, and ate the smallest of them. "It wasn't because she was hungry. I can only think it was fear."

The most disturbing case was of the huge Bengal tiger, which began to chew his own paws. "He was practically raised in my office. He trusted humans."

The grimmest spin-off of the war, according to Reuters, is the sight of armed guards patrolling the zoo.

"They're not there to keep people from harming or stealing the animals," Bojovic said. "Their job is to shoot the animals if the zoo gets bombed and some of them try and break out."

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