Commentary. But it’s only possible to understand these events by rewinding back to an earlier stage of this story. We were firsthand witnesses to it on March 24, 1999, as bombs rained down on all of Little Yugoslavia.
written by Tommaso Di Francesco
June 5, 2023
The crisis in Kosovo is violently reigniting. It had never been truly extinguished; only silenced. But in the 24 years since NATO’s “humanitarian war” of 1999, there has been a systematic flouting of international law that is unparalleled in history and that has certainly played a part in all the wars that have followed.
The Serbs – the few who remain, in scattered enclaves and in the northern “ghetto” in four districts – are in the streets every day after the violent clashes of the past few days, with so many wounded among NATO soldiers and civilians, and are taking over their cities: they have been protesting for two years against the impositions and provocations coming from the Kosovo-Albanian government, starting with the mandatory change of license plates to those of a state they don’t recognize – same as many EU countries and half of those in the UN – the non-recognition of the Community of Serbian Municipalities, a body established by international agreements in 2013, and the massive presence for months of Kosovo-Albanian special military forces. For many months, the Serbs have been boycotting the elections and institutions, with mass resignations of officers, magistrates, deputies, mayors.
Then came the provocation by the premier in Pristina, Albin Kurti, who decided to hold by-elections in April in those municipalities where Serbs had decided not to take part in the process. The result was a sham, with only 3 percent voting, namely the few Albanians present in the still Serb-majority north.
The unilateral decision to install the winners of these elections did the rest – after even the “philosophical” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke out against this, with an eye on the Ukrainian crisis.
But it’s only possible to understand these events by rewinding back to an earlier stage of this story. We were firsthand witnesses to it on March 24, 1999, as bombs rained down on all of Little Yugoslavia (Serbia with Vojvodina, Kosovo and Montenegro). At night, in beautiful Novi Sad, the city’s three modern bridges, a delight to behold, were destroyed by bombers that left from the base at Aviano. But the real horror was running around for days to gather news and human remains, like in the Surdulica crater, among rural houses and full of the remains of old people and children. It’s hard to even convey it: among the tenements in Belgrade, we saw so many terrified families locked in shelters. All the while, the war now had information as its prime target: the official media hung on Jamie Shea’s every word.
He was the NATO spokesman, going on and on about “collateral damage” and “smart bombs.” Instead, we were discovering so much civilian carnage. To achieve these “results,” 1,200 aircraft were used for a total of 26,289 confirmed sorties, 10,000 cruise missiles and 2,900 missiles and bombs over 78 days of uninterrupted aerial bombardment. During 2,300 attacks, 21,700 tons of explosives – often with depleted uranium – including 152 containers with 35,450 cluster bombs were dropped on 995 targets, including institutions, schools, hospitals, trains, markets, buses, infrastructure. How can one tell such a story? Luigi Pintor came up with the idea of a blank front page for il manifesto, a gesture that was heard around the world. At the bottom there was the caption: “The children don’t see us.”
But there were all too many dark pages in Italy – such as those that tried to justify the bombing of the Belgrade TV station, with 16 casualties, hit by cruise missiles in the midst of people’s homes in Belgrade, with laundry spread out on terraces all around. Remains of cables rained down on the neighborhood in a kind of chemical snow.
Twenty-four years later, what did that war and those lies accomplish? Such as the Rambouillet diplomatic lie that required Yugoslavia to be manned by NATO troops? Or the Racak lie, the casus belli advocated by CIA man William Walker, who led the OSCE mission that was supposed to mediate between the parties? Because until March 24, there had been victims and refugees on both sides. This was proven by the earlier indictment of former premier Ramush Haradinay, head of the UCK – recognized as a terrorist organization by the U.S. until 1998 – in Drenica, who was prosecuted at The Hague for massacres of Roma and Serb civilians as early as 1998. And, as Carla Del Ponte denounced in her book (La Caccia, “The Hunt,” ed. Feltrinelli), and a Council of Europe report confirmed, in 1998 many Serb civilians were kidnapped by the UCK to fuel a barbaric organ harvesting market, for which Hashim Thaqi, the undisputed leader of the UCK and then Kosovo’s president, is now under indictment at The Hague.
Was it that they were trying to save the fleeing Albanian refugees with the air raids? They were fleeing not only out of fear of Serbian militias but, according to the Kosovo-Albanian Criminal Court that ruled in a 2001 trial, also because they were terrified of the NATO raids. And they were right to be, because hundreds of them were literally incinerated by the “smart” bombs.
But the results of that “wretched war” – as Claudio Magris called it – are right here, more than we realize. NATO went from being a defensive coalition to an offensive one, deployed all over the world from that point on. There was the ethnic counter-cleansing of 300,000 Serbs and Roma, driven out on NATO’s watch and who never returned, along with the destruction of 150 Orthodox monasteries. Also, Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo was built, the largest U.S. military base in Europe. Finally, there was the 2008 self-proclaimed independence of Kosovo, which still divides the UN Security Council and the EU and is recognized by only half of the 200 or so UN countries. It was done in disregard of international law, because the 78-day humanitarian raid war ended with the June 1999 Kumanovo Peace, a document that became UN Security Council Resolution 1244: it required Serbia to temporarily withdraw its army, allowed the temporary entry of NATO contingents, but recognized Belgrade’s sovereignty over Kosovo.
Now that agreement is a dead letter, together with international law itself – thanks in part to Italy, which in 2008 recognized this latest ethnic independence in the Balkans after all those we had previously recognized, aiding criminal nationalisms that devastated the Yugoslav federal structure. A unilateral independence that set a dangerous precedent, as demonstrated in that same year by the conflict between Georgia and Russia, which rushed to arms to defend “its Kosovo” in Ossetia and Abkhazia. And the war in Ukraine, with Russia’s aggression in February 2022, which, however, had begun in 2014 after the murky events of Majdan, as a civil war, with the secession of Donbass-Kosovo and the reannexation of Crimea by Russia, after its own referendum. So many wounds have been reopened – and they are all mirror images of each other. Because in 1999, in Kosovo, NATO was the protagonist, in disregard of the UN, of a war of aggression with a special operation of international policing that it called a “humanitarian war.”
What signals could this mad decision have sent – together with all the other wars, in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria – to Putin’s Russia, if not to show it can do this too, prove its mettle in warmongering, hypernationalism and military power? Now with a new war of aggression and crimes against civilians, which also amounts to impunity for Putin himself, lasting for a year and three months already. And what was the point if the crisis is blowing up once again, after 24 years buried under the cover of the Pax Atlantica? Now everyone is saying that “Russia is fanning the flames.” Of course, Putin is playing his dirty games and fanning the flames – but who lit the fire in Kosovo in the first place?
One thing is certain. The war of 1999 was the first post-modern war in Europe, in its southeast, in a conflict between the use of force against force and the imagery of Western power after ’89 and the implosion of the USSR – all managed by the governing Atlantic left, in search for both the new enemy and its own “constituent” legitimacy through armed conflict.
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Tommaso Di Francesco