By Neil Clark
1 Apr, 2019
To mark the 20th anniversary of the start of NATO’s illegal 78-day bombardment of Yugoslavia, over 200 distinguished guests from all over the world gathered for a conference of the Belgrade Forum of the World of Equals.
The gathering titled “Never to Forget: Peace and Progress instead of Wars and Poverty” promoted genuine internationalism. Participants came from Israel AND Palestine. From Iran and Japan. From Britain, Germany, Italy, France and other NATO countries which had taken part in the bombing. From Venezuela, Cuba, Bulgaria, Greece, Brazil, Croatia, Canada and South Africa. India and Nepal, Austria and Switzerland, Ireland, Portugal, Turkey and Lebanon. From the US AND Russia. This was the real ‘international community’ on display.
Speaker after speaker denounced NATO’s unlawful aggression, and stressed the wider significance of the military action of 20 years ago, which not only lacked a mandate from the United Nations Security Council, but was also in breach of NATO’s own charter.
Eva-Maria Follmer-Mueller, president of the Mut zur Ethik Association in Switzerland, described it as “a historic turning point.”
Momir Bulatovic, the prime minister of Yugoslavia in March 1999, called the bombing “a crime which only grows in significance”. He pointed out that it was the first step in a still ongoing war against other countries. He and subsequent speakers, (myself included), noted that since 1999 we’ve had US-led attacks on a series of independently-minded, strategically important and resource-rich sovereign states, including Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria, while others, such as Iran and Venezuela have been subject to intense economic warfare. Each time we’re encouraged to see these conflicts as ‘stand-alones’ with the leader of the target state demonized, usually as the ‘New Hitler,’ and someone who ‘must be stopped’, but actually they are all part of the same war. A war for empire and the global hegemony of the US and rapacious international finance capital.
From Brazil, Socorro Gomes, the president of the World Peace Council, reminded delegates that Yugoslavia was a peaceful country that had not invaded anyone. To get round this, Kosovo was referred to in the US and depicted on maps on the television as if it was a separate country, not as a part of Yugoslavia. The media war on Yugoslavia began long before the bombing.
In Belgrade’s Tasmajdan Park, there’s a very poignant memorial to the 89 children killed in the bombing, entitled ‘We were just children.’ Among the victims was a brilliant 15-year-old maths prodigy called Sanja Milenkovic, who died along with eight others, when the bridge in Varvarin was bombed at Pentecost. Marina Colic read out a very moving tribute to Sanja from the German politician Willy Wimmer. Sanja’s last words were “Don’t be crazy Mum, who’s going to drop bombs on a small town”. Answer: NATO. That’s who.
An exhibition outside the main hall in the Serbian Army House graphically illustrated the horrors of the bombing. Anyone seeing the pictures of dismembered, blood-spattered people being pulled out from debris following a NATO air-raid would ask the same question that I did: How on earth could any of this be justified as a ‘humanitarian’ action?
The line that “there was no alternative” is simply not true. Had Western powers been genuinely concerned over resolving differences between Pristina and Belgrade they could have brokered a deal between Rugova, the Kosovo Albanian leader, and Milosevic, the leader of Yugoslavia, which would have allowed international peacekeepers (but not NATO forces) into Kosovo to protect ALL of its citizens, and at the same time disarm the KLA. But they deliberately chose to bomb.
Speakers recalled that at the Rambouillet Conference Milosevic was presented with an ultimatum to which he could not possibly consent. This is backed up by the testimony of the late Lord Gilbert, a British Minister of State for Defence Procurement, who, in 2000, admitted, “I think certain people were spoiling for a fight in NATO at that time. I think the terms put to Milosevic at Rambouillet were absolutely intolerable: how could he possibly accept them? It was quite deliberate.”
NATO got its war and the direct material damage to Yugoslavia resulting from it has been put at $100 billion. The country’s infrastructure was targeted for destruction and you can still see the ruins from some attacks, such as the one on RTS (Serbian television), which killed 16 people, in Belgrade today. One of the most shocking aspects of the NATO ‘humanitarianism’ was its widespread use of depleted uranium. Slobodan Petkovic, a member of the Serbian government’s commission for determining the consequences of the use of D.U., stressed there was no military need for NATO to use it. So why did they?
In a really powerful oration, Liz Payne of the British Peace Council, said the bombing of Yugoslavia was a ‘deadly experiment’ and a blueprint for further aggressions across the world. “We recall with horror the orchestrated terror and devastation inflicted purposefully and mercilessly on the people of Serbia by the US and its allies, including by the right-wing Labour government of Britain and the neoliberal Establishment in whose interests it acted”. She finished with the words “While imperialism continues there can be no world of equals.”
Linking the events of 1999 with today, Professor Zahari Zahariev from Bulgaria said that the whole continent of Europe is ready for a new Helsinki process, a reference to the 1975 accords which were the high-water mark of post-war detente between East and West.
In a thought-provoking address, he distinguished between globalization, which is a technical process, and globalism, which he called “the ideology of imperialism”and it was this ideology which was behind the attack on Yugoslavia and the other wars. While many speakers lambasted the EU, Zahariev said the idea of European unity is not imperialistic per se and that what we really need is to emancipate the EU from neoliberal capitalism.
The question is: is this really feasible given the strong links the EU has to corporate power and finance capital?
Some of the loudest applause at the entire conference came after Dia Nader de El-Andari, the Charge d’Affaires of the Embassy of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela in Serbia, declared “No pasaran!” after a stirring address. In 1999, it was Yugoslavia in the crosshairs of the imperialists, now it’s Venezuela, with the US having the temerity to warn Russia, Venezuela’s ally, to get out.
Cross-continent solidarity was also expressed by Chris Matlhako, of the South African Communist Party. He called for the dismantling of US military bases, NATO and their allies in Africa and elsewhere on the globe, and detailed the disastrous impact of the NATO assault on Libya, which has been a big boon to terrorist groups. “We must work hard to block the US and its allies unilateralism in the world today,” he declared.
President of the Serbian Generals and Admirals Club, Milomir Miladinovic, reminded delegates that despite the 78-days of bombing, Yugoslavia was not defeated militarily in 1999. “We fought a glorious victory against the aggressor, these were heroic days in the face of the much bigger enemy”, he said.
According to Miladinovic, the JNA (Yugoslav National Army), lost just 17 tanks and 30 artillery pieces and withdrew from Kosovo practically intact. And the aggression from NATO didn’t come cost-free with the Yugoslav forces and their “obsolete” equipment successfully taking down a US F-117 Nighthawk stealth bomber, appropriately enough called ‘Something Wicked’. That was a great moment for those who always support David against Goliath and love it when the underdog lands a blow. In a nice postscript, the retired army officer whose unit shot down the plane is now friends with the US pilot.
The conference ended with me reading out the Belgrade Declaration. “The history will note the fact that in 1999, blindly following alien geopolitical interests, Europe fought itself.” Never forget the great crime NATO committed twenty years ago, and what it led to.
* Neil Clark is a journalist, writer, broadcaster and blogger. He has written for many newspapers and magazines in the UK and other countries including The Guardian, Morning Star, Daily and Sunday Express, Mail on Sunday, Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph, New Statesman, The Spectator, The Week, and The American Conservative. He is a regular pundit on RT and has also appeared on BBC TV and radio, Sky News, Press TV and the Voice of Russia. He is the co-founder of the Campaign For Public Ownership @PublicOwnership. His award winning blog can be found at www.neilclark66.blogspot.com. He tweets on politics and world affairs @NeilClark66