Serbia still scarred by NATO strikes, a decade on

Agence France-Presse

Posted at Mar 22 2009 04:24 PM | Updated as of Mar 23 2009 12:25 AM

BELGRADE, Serbia - Ten years on, Serbia still bears the scars of NATO's air war over Kosovo but remains as dogged as ever in its opposition to the independence of the ethnic Albanian-majority territory.

The 11-week bombing campaign was launched on March 24, 1999, after the collapse of Western-brokered peace talks between the regime of late Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic and separatist Kosovo Albanians.

"Although everyone feared the bombings, nobody really believed it would happen and when I heard the first air raid sirens and saw the lights in the sky, I thought it was a test," recalled Igor Marovic, an anti-Milosevic student activist at the time.

Western leaders saw the air war, the first of its kind in NATO's history, as the only way to end the 1998-1999 violent crackdown by Milosevic's forces on the Kosovo Liberation Army and their supporters.

NATO set out to destroy several dozen military targets, but went on to strike infrastructure like bridges, railway junctions, the electricity grid and the Milosevic propaganda machine.

Its bombs and missiles took out many targets with precision, but the alliance came in for fierce criticism when some went astray, hitting homes, refugee convoys, a bus, train, hospital and the embassy of China.

By the time Milosevic eventually conceded 78 days later, the civilian death toll was put at around 500 by Human Rights Watch, five times less than the then Yugoslav government claimed.

The bombing campaign ousted Serbian forces from Kosovo and paved the way for NATO peacekeepers to lay the foundations for a UN mission to oversee the war-torn province.

Fearing ethnic Albanian reprisals, tens of thousands of Kosovo Serbs fled their homes for Serbia proper, with only a handful returning in the past decade.

Those who have remained -- an estimated 120,000 people -- live mostly in the northern region bordering Serbia, or in small enclaves mainly in southern areas.

Tensions have remained high, especially since Kosovo's parliament formally seceded from Serbia in February 2008, a move that has been recognised by more than 50 nations including the United States and most of the European Union.

But Serbia, backed by its traditional ally Russia, strongly opposes independence and has won UN backing to challenge it before the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

A year after the end of the bombings, Milosevic was overthrown in a popular uprising and pro-European authorities led by reformist prime minister Zoran Djindjic took power.

Djindjic was assassinated in March 2003 and desperately needed political and economic reforms were stalled until last year, when his allies returned to power.

"Kosovo is gone, Milosevic died in 2006 and we are still in the backyard of Europe, fighting already lost battles instead of turning towards the future," warned sociologist Vladanko Stosic.

Ten years after the bombings, Serbia's reformist government is still far from reaching its goal of integration into the European Union, frozen until two war crimes fugitives are handed over to a UN tribunal.

Remnants of the NATO campaign can still be seen throughout the country, and the anniversary of the air war has again brought to a head the deep divisions between nationalist and liberal forces.

Bombed-out buildings that were once symbols of Milosevic's power still stand in ruins along the central Belgrade avenue of Kneza Milosa, home to a number of foreign embassies and the Serbian government.

"They should stay like this forever, to remind us all of what happened no matter how painful it is," said liberal political activist Velja Ratkovic.

But nationalist groups, still a force in the country, see the NATO bombing as "the West's war on Serbia", and are calling on their supporters to gather on Tuesday for a rally to mark the anniversary.

"Serbia will never forget and will never forgive," say a series of posters in downtown Belgrade which urge citizens to attend the demonstration.

Health concerns still remain about the danger to civilians from weapons NATO used during the campaign.

Thousands risk life and limb from 2,500 cluster bomblets still scattered across Serbia, while the use of weapons with cancer-causing depleted uranium has killed dozens of Italian soldiers alone, according to European non-governmental groups.