‘Surrounded by the Fire of War’: Remembering NATO’s 1999 Aggression in Yugoslavia

NATO’s 1999 bombing of Belgrade are still visible in the Serbian city today.
Damages from NATO’s 1999 bombing of Belgrade are still visible in the Serbian city today.

By Greta Zarro, March 21, 2019

From The Progressive

“The burning city was abandoned by those who had means,” writes Ana Maria Gower. “Alone on the empty street, surrounded by the fire of war, I felt that death is seconds away. I closed my eyes and hugged my grandmother.” Gower, a Serbian-British artist, is a survivor of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s bombings of Belgrade in 1999, when she was eleven years old.

March 24 marks the 20th anniversary of NATO’s attack on Yugoslavia. Decades later, the region is still reeling from billions of dollars of damage, and an alleged outbreak of cancer-related illness caused by the ten tons of depleted uranium bombs dropped by NATO during its so-called “humanitarian intervention.”

In 2017, an international legal team formed by the Serbian Royal Academy of Scientists and Artists filed a lawsuit against NATO, calling for reparations to all citizens who died or fell sick as a result of the bombing. NATO admits that the use of depleted uranium bombs resulted in severe environmental contamination and radiation, exceeding internationally recommended standards.

NATO’s air strikes deliberately targeted civilians and city infrastructure including bridges, clinics, power plants, and, most infamously, the headquarters of Radio Television Serbia. NATO launched its attack without U.N. Security Council approval—not that this would have made the death and destruction any more justifiable. Amnesty International denounced NATO’s actions as war crimes, saying that “civilian deaths could have been significantly reduced if NATO forces had fully adhered to the rules of war.”

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization was founded in 1949. It is an intergovernmental military alliance between twenty-nine North American and European countries. As of 2019, NATO now accounts for three-quarters of all military spending and weapons dealing on the globe.

U.S. army veteran Jovanni Reyes, who was deployed to the Balkans in the 1990s for NATO’s first-ever military intervention, describes that war on Yugoslavia as just the tip of the iceberg for NATO aggression. It became a template for intervention and regime change wars, a model which the U.S. and NATO have since replicated in Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, and beyond, far outside the supposed “North Atlantic” territory of the alliance.

“NATO’s bombings killed over 4,000 people in Yugoslavia,” says Gower. “NATO’s war didn’t leave Yugoslavia any better off. It didn’t solve the country’s political instability. Instead, it tore apart families, ruined the city, and left the region straddled with debt, picking up the pieces.”

The U.S. military calls the intervention a success because no American troops were lost. In Gower’s opinion, “war is never the answer.”

War is a top contributor to the ever-growing global refugee and climate crises; and a leading cause of environmental degradation. And, as my group World BEYOND War has documented, even a small portion of the $2 trillion spent annually on wars and militarism could end world hunger, provide clean drinking water, housing, health care, education, and a myriad of other needs for everyone on the globe.

This April, NATO is coming to a center of war planning—Washington, D.C.—to celebrate its 70th anniversary. In protest, an international coalition of organizations and individuals are planning a series of events from March 30 to April 4, including a No to NATO Counter Summit for April 2, followed by a No to NATO – Yes to Peace Fest on April 3 and 4.

Ana Maria Gower will speak at the peace fest, along with comedian-activist Lee Camp, Brittany DeBarros of the Poor People’s Campaign, Karlene Griffiths Sekou of Black Lives Matter, former U.S. Marine officer Matthew Hoh, and more. Music will be supplied by Ryan Harvey, Eric Colville, and the hip-hop artist Megaciph.

“NATO should have been retired, not repurposed, after the Cold War,” says counter summit organizer Dr. Joseph Gerson of the Campaign for Peace, Disarmament, and Common Security.

“Too few people in the United States understand how NATO’s expansion to Russia’s borders became the primary cause for the new and very dangerous Cold War or how NATO became an aggressive global alliance,” he says.

Instead of celebrating seventy years of NATO’s existence, the alternative gathering will promote peace and commemorate Martin Luther King Jr.’s April 4, 1967, speech “Beyond Vietnam.”

“The triple evils of poverty, racism, and militarism are forms of violence that exist in a vicious cycle,” King said in this speech. “They are interrelated, all-inclusive, and stand as barriers to our living in the Beloved Community. When we work to remedy one evil, we affect all evils.”


Greta Zarro is the organizing director of World BEYOND War. Previously, she worked as New York organizer for Food & Water Watch on issues of fracking, pipelines, water privatization, and GMO labeling. She can be reached at greta@worldbeyondwar.org.

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