The BOOKPRESS May 1999

Slavonic Dances

Cara Ben-Yaacov & Jack Goldman

As the war in Yugoslavia continues to escalate it is becoming increasingly apparent that the United States and NATO are putting their own interests ahead of even the Kosovars they are claiming to help. Last Saturday, NATO missiles destroyed a bus in central Kosovo, killing more than 20 civilians. This latest NATO misstep provides a macabre counterpoint to the unexpected release by the Serbs of three captured American servicemen. U.S. officials rejected the request of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who helped to free the soldiers, to stop the bombing for even one night as a reciprocal gesture.

The manner in which U.S. diplomats continue to dance around every proposal for serious negotiations raises the question of whether NATO would rather continue to sacrifice innocent lives than settle for less than unconditional surrender by the Serbs.

In an interview with United Press International on April 30, Serbian President Slobodon Milosevic offered the following in exchange for a cessation of bombing and withdrawal of NATO troops from Albania and Macedonia:

—Immediate return of all refugees to their homes in Kosovo.

—Withdrawal of 90 percent of Serbian troops "within a week."

—Permission for the United Nations to establish "a huge presence" of peacekeepers who could be armed for self defense.

—Wide autonomy for Kosovo, but not total independence.

At a news conference in Washington, Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright reponded, "I think we are not anywhere near a serious proposal." Apparently, the U.S. will accept nothing less than a NATO-led army of occupation, that may have to fight its way into Kosovo.

Even if one remains skeptical of Milosevic’s promises, would not "a huge" U.N. presence be adequate to maintain a peace agreement? Does it make sense to reject this offer—even as a basis for further negotiations—in order to continue the bombing campaign with its attendant civilian casualties and further displacements of refugees?

In an earlier incidence of NATO's multiplying miscalculations, The New York Times carried a front-page photograph of destroyed tractors. The metal carts behind them were buckled and twisted like unmade beds. In the foreground, two mutilated corpses lay in stocking feet. For several days, NATO spokesmen could not decide if the casualties were Serb soldiers who had been hit and then dressed to look like civilians, or ethnic Albanians killed by the Serbs. Finally, it was admitted that an "errant" NATO missile had indeed struck the convoy of farm vehicles. It was simply a "mistake" like NATO's "unintentional" firing pass that demolished a train full of Serbian civilians in early April.

The most recent mistake in NATO’s strategic strikes happened when missiles targeting a Serbian military training site went off course. NATO claims there was only one "errant missile,’’ but two separate neighborhoods in southern Serbia were hit. One of the missiles caused, according to National Public Radio, "a crater thirty feet wide," and "swallowed up a three-story building, killing at least twenty civilians, six of them children.’’ ABC radio news reported that the wreckage was so severe that the civilians in the building had been reduced to "bones and melted flesh sticking to sheets." They also reported that "seven legs have been found, but so far no bodies."

When NATO strikes kill innocent civilians, the vocabulary employed to describe these events is replete with words like "mistake," "accident," and "collateral damage." What is generally left unsaid is that such attacks are the entirely predictable consequence of a deliberate strategy which is willing to accept civilian casualties in order to avoid politically unpalatable military losses of our own.

The skillfully executed media campaign on the war in Kosovo has made massive air strikes on civilian facilities synonymous with the word "humanitarian," rather than violations of international law. This word "humanitarian" provides us with more than just a rationale for our "accidents," it becomes a mission and, like all good media campaigns, makes us want more. As Thomas Friedman put it in his New York Times column, "Twelve days of surgical bombing was never going to turn Serbia around. Let’s see what twelve weeks of less than surgical bombing does. Give war a chance."

Shortly after pictures of civilian dead began to be released, The New York Times printed an article on bombed civilian convoy with a pull-quote that read, "Nothing like a parade of corpses to sour support for the war." These corpses, of course, were once Kosovars, the same Kosovar corpses that we were horrified to see when Serbian forces were the perpetrators. But now they had been cynically transformed into a "parade" staged by the Serbs to manipulate us. It was the beginning of the end for Yugoslav media. Not a week later, NATO began its attacks on Serbian television stations, radio stations, and print media which were used, according to President Clinton, to "spew hatred and to basically spread disinformation."

Mirko Mandrino, a telecommunications specialist and democratic activist who lives in Pancevo, recalls the destruction of Earth Station Yugoslavia 1, saying, "This night bombs and missiles smashed totally satellite communication stations in Ivanjica. It was our pride, our ears and connection to Intelstat and Eutelstat communication systems, for purely civilian use. Dozens of technicians are heavily injured which means they will die or are already dead. The highest amount of traffic on this station was with the USA, Australia and Israel. Not with Cuba, Libya, Iraq. Not even with Russia or Belarus."

As for the presumption of objectivity in the U.S. media, there has been scant coverage of worldwide demonstrations against the bombing. Even European newspapers in NATO countries have done a better job reporting very large protest marches in London (April 11), Athens (April 13), and Rome (April 10). It remains to be seen if demonstrations planned in Washington D.C. will be noticed in such newspapers of record as The New York Times.

We still do not know the whole story of why the Rambouillet negotiations were aborted, presumably over the single issue of the Serbian refusal to accept NATO forces in Kosovo. We do know that the Serbian government was willing to sign on to most significant political provisions of the agreement.

Writing in The Nation (May 10), William D. Hartung notes,

The Clinton Administration never really gave diplomacy a chance in Kosovo. Last August US ambassador to NATO Alexander Vershbow was pressing a proposal that would have engaged Russia in the development of a plan for a settlement that would have been brought to the UN Security Council jointly by the United States and Russia, but the Clinton foreign policy team ignored his advice. Instead, according to Robert Hayden, a Balkans expert at the University of Pittsburgh, the Administration's proposal at Rambouillet would have given NATO forces free rein to roam unmolested throughout the entire territory of the former Yugoslavia, a concession that no sovereign nation would ever accept.

Equally disturbing has been the instantaneous rewriting of recent events, leading people to believe that our only choice was to start bombing in order to stop a massive Serbian assault on the Kosovars.

Yet, according to an offical report by a U.N. team of observers (The New York Times, 4/1/99), from October 1998 to February 1999, fewer than 100 civilian deaths (including Serbs killed by the KLA) could be accounted for in Kosovo. It is true that both sides had violated a previous agreement negotiated by Ambasador Richard Holbrooke, but Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe observers were still in place and could have provided the nucleus for a much larger monitoring force. Instead, when the decision was made to begin bombing, the OSCE had no alternative but to hastily withdraw its personnel.

Even though, at the time, U.S. officials acknowledged that "the bombings would increase violence towards ethnic Albanians," it is remarkable that the U.S. and NATO seem to have been totally unprepared for what happened as soon as the air strikes began: a systematic campaign by the Serbs to root out the armed KLA opposition and to expel hundreds of thousands of Kosovars into neighboring Albania, Montenegro, and Macedonia. The number of Albanians killed is not known, but it is assumed to be more than 2,000. By now the media have largely succeeded in obscuring the fact that NATO policies have made the situation in Kosovo far worse than before the start of the air campaign.

The bombing has also had a catastrophic effect on the internal democratic opposition to Milosevic. Zoren Dijindjc, a leader in the Serbian Democratic Party is quoted as saying, "Bombs have marginalized any dissenters here. Washington has spent more on one day’s bombs than it ever spent helping the democracy movement." Many members of the opposition have begun supporting the government since the bombing began, thereby strengthening Milosevic’s hold on power.

In addition to the chaos and misery in and around Kosovo, in Serbia the air campaign has destroyed scores of homes, office buildings, factories, roads and bridges, and water and electrical power facilities. As Senator John McCain told Newsweek, "We have to drop the bridges and turn out the lights."

As for the legality of the NATO intervention, U.S. media rarely concern themselves with Article 53 of the UN Charter which states that "no enforcement action shall be taken under regional arrangements or by regional agencies without the authorization of the Security Council."

Recently, Amnesty International has raised objections to the intentional destruction of Serbian television stations, pointing out that these attacks are in violation of Article 1 of the Geneva Convention on War which prohibits the deliberate targeting of such predominantly civilian facilities, even when they may serve some military purposes.

According to Amnesty International, "International law prohibits attacks on civilians and civilian sites. It also requires stringent safeguards when carrying out attacks against military objectives, including giving effective advance warnings of attacks which may affect civilian populations."

When the Serbs indiscriminately kill civilians in their efforts to eradicate the KLA, the U.S. press does not hesitate to register its dismay at such "atrocities." But when NATO planes at altitudes of 15,000 feet commit equally unspeakable acts, all we hear are hypocritical expressions of regret amid explanations that in war "accidents" are bound to happen.

What is happening in Kosovo is undoubtedly a humanitarian crisis, but it is far from clear that our intervention is motivated by humanitarian concerns. Throughout the eighties and nineties, our government aided and abetted the murders of hundreds of thousands of people in Central and South America, yet the United States still operates the School of the Americas in Georgia, whose graduates perpetrated massacres in villages like El Mozote in Guatemala, where almost every man, woman and child was slaughtered by government forces, many of whose officers had received their counter-insurgency training from Americans. At the time, the U.S. media never used the term "ethnic cleansing" to describe the war of extermination against the Guatemalan Mayan population. In fact, it took years before our government admitted what had happened at El Mozote.

In the past few decades, many bodies in civilian clothes have piled up around the world and many refugees, like the one million Palestinians in Gaza, live lives of destitution and political persecution. Yet Israel is one of our most valued allies, just as was the former apartheid regime in South Africa.

More recently, independent medical observers estimate that our current embargo against Iraq is costing the lives of over 4,000 children every month due to malnutrition and disease. But we have yet to see adequate coverage of the destruction of Iraq, though numerous humanitarian and religious organization in the world are calling for an end to the sanctions.

Clearly, humanitarian concerns alone have never determined American policy. On Yugoslavia, our refusal to abide by international law as embodied in the United Nations, and our transformation of NATO from a defensive organization to a tool of military intervention bear the distinctive mark of realpolitik.

To quote once more from Hartung's article in The Nation:

While the desire to do something—anything—to stop Milosevic is understandable, bombing Kosovo in order to save it is both immoral and ineffectual. Not only is bombing the wrong tactic for achieving humanitarian ends but NATO is the wrong institution for the task at hand.

In an op-ed piece for The New York Times (5/1/99), Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko said,

The shame of the Balkan situation lies with some political cynics, Russian, Western and Yugoslav, who play the Kosovo card, not on behalf of the Serbian or Albanian people but only for their own prestige, preservation of power or demonstration of hegemony.

Cara Ben-Yaacov is a writer who lives in Ithaca. She studied documentary and media studies at the University of Buffalo.

Jack Goldman is the editor-in-chief of The Bookpress.

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