Michael Parenti in Yugoslavia
Source Louis Proyect
Date 99/11/13/10:23

Yugoslav Sojourn: Notes from the Other Side
by Michael Parenti

Anyone in the United States seeking to hop a plane to Belgrade discovers
that it cannot be done. The international sanctions imposed against
Yugoslavia ended all air travel to and from what remains of that
beleaguered country. This past August, I and a group North Americans,
endeavoring to bring medicines to the Yugoslav Red Cross and glean a
first-hand impression of the country, had to fly to Budapest, Hungary, then
endure a seven-hour bus ride (counting the long delay at the border) to
reach Belgrade.

Downtown Belgrade has a funky beauty of its own, with cobblestone malls,
elaborate monuments, parks, and elegantly aging edifices sporting a
distinctly Old World patina. There are more cars than one would have
expected in a country suffering from sanctions. The people do not appear
haggard, hungry, depressed, or unhealthy. There are no beggars or derelicts
to be seen; no one in tatters; no one asleep in a doorway or rummaging
through garbage cans; no cadres of prostitutes plying their trade. In this
respect, Yugoslavia differs from post-communist countries like Russia,
Bulgaria, and Rumania. The free market has not yet taken complete hold. A
welfare state of sorts still exists-which, in the eyes of some neoliberal
western leaders, may be Yugoslavia's biggest crime. Speaking of crime,
there seems to be little fear of it in Belgrade. We strolled for hours
around the city and could see women walking alone or together well past
midnight, displaying not a trace of apprehension. The parks are crowded
with people in the evenings, unlike parks in some U.S. cities that are left
unvisited after sundown. To the organizer of our group, Barry Lituchy, a
historian at Kingsborough Community College, Brooklyn N.Y., and an expert
on Yugoslavia, the city seemed noticeably poorer and more worn than on his
visit several years earlier. One sure sign of hard times is the
overabundance of street vendors with their paltry offerings of recycled
knickknacks, articles of used clothing, CDs and tapes, books and magazines,
cosmetics, and bootlegged cigarettes and liquor.

All over the city one sees graffiti denouncing NATO, the United States, and
Bill Clinton in the most bitter terms. "NATO" is repeatedly represented
with the "N" in the form of a swastika. More than once I saw "Free Texas"
sprayed across walls. As one citizen explained, Texas is heavily populated
by Mexicans or persons of Mexican descent, many of whom suffer more serious
discrimination and economic adversity than did Kosovo Albanians; should not
Yugoslavia and other nations do whatever they can to separate Texas from
the Union and give the oppressed Mexicans an autonomous region of their
own? The same logic applied to the "Free Corsica" graffiti sprayed across
the French cultural center, gutted during the bombing by outraged
Yugoslavs, as were the US and British cultural centers.

We passed a billboard displaying a large image of a beautifully colored
Easter egg, with the saying (in English) "They believe in bombs. We believe
in God." Along with its many churches, Belgrade reveals remnants of its
Communist past. One major thoroughfare is "Boulevard of the Revolution,"
another is "Lenin Boulevard," and another is "Brotherhood and Unity
Highway." Surely, I thought, U.S. leaders will not leave this country alone
until those names are changed to "IMF Avenue" and "Morgan Trust Way," or at
least renamed after some orthodox saints or reactionary military heroes of

We visited the Chinese embassy, an architecturally distinctive edifice
standing on a broad lot with only some housing projects in the background,
most of its interior pulverized by three missiles. The CIA's claim that the
attack was a case of mistaken identity seems less credible than ever to us.
Even a cursory inspection indicates that it would be difficult to mistake
the embassy for the Federal Directorate of Supply, an office building that
the CIA supposedly mistook it for, that, in any case was several blocks
away. The U.S. ambassador had dined at the embassy and many U.S.
journalists visited it in its better days. If NATO attackers really did
rely on "old maps" (why in this instance and not in any other?), such maps
would have shown an empty lot. More plausible is the view that the embassy
was deliberately targeted because the Chinese were giving such strong
support to Belgrade, and possibly because the embassy was being used to
gather electronic intelligence on U.S. aerial flights over Yugoslavia. On
the embassy gate, under the pictures of the three employees who perished in
the bombing, Yugoslav citizens had left candles, flowers and condolence

The Serbs I spoke to sometimes downplayed the damage they had suffered from
NATO's attacks, out of a sense of pride, as if to tell the NATO bully, "You
haven't hurt us all that much." At the same time, they wanted to educate
foreign visitors about the destruction and injustice perpetrated against
them. Our Serbian hosts tried to describe the deafening noise, flames, and
smoke that made the bombings a terrifying experience. The aerial attacks
came every evening and frequently went on all night (rarely during the day
in Belgrade). Five hundred meters from where we were staying, a private
home had been hit and some of its residents killed. The survivors put up a
sign on the damaged facade bitterly announcing: "Sorry, we are still
alive." For some, it was so strange, all this death coming from the skies.
Even stranger was the way everything now appeared back to normal, with much
of the wreckage cleared away. "It seems as if it never happened, like it
was a bad dream," remarked one man.

Still there are plenty of reminders. Displayed in various police stations
around the city are dozens of photos of officers killed while performing
rescue operations or other duties during the aerial attacks. Casualties
among rescue workers were high. NATO had devised the devilish technique of
bombing a site, then waiting fifteen minutes to a half hour--just time
enough for rescue teams to arrive and get working--then hitting the target
a second time, killing many of the would-be rescuers, and making it
extremely dangerous for teams to dig for survivors. This method of delayed
follow-up attack on a civilian target had never been tried before in modern
warfare. It is one of NATO's innovative war crimes. The facilities
destroyed by air attacks were mostly publicly owned. The Uzce business
center was hit by several missiles. This high-rise contained the
headquarters of Slobodan Milosevic's Socialist Party, and also housed the
headquarters of JUL (Yugoslav United Left), a coalition of 23 communist and
left parties, closely allied with the Socialist Party. Various ministry
offices were demolished. The huge, state-run Hotel Yugoslavia was made
uninhabitable by NATO missiles, while the corporate owned Hyatt Hotel, an
even more imposing, all-glass structure--as inviting a target as any mad
bomber might want--suffered not even a scratched windowpane. Buildings that
displayed highly visible rooftop advertising signs that read "Panasonic,"
"Coca-Cola," "Diners Club International," and "McDonald's," the latter
replete with immense golden arches, survived perfectly intact.

The destruction in other cities and towns was far greater than anything
inflicted upon Belgrade. Several neighborhoods in the small mining town of
Aleksinac were entirely wiped out. Production facilities in Nis and Cuprija
were reduced to rubble. Kragujevac, an industrial city in Central Serbia,
suffered significant damage. Its huge, efficiently state-run Zastava
factory was thoroughly demolished. Zastava had employed tens of thousands
of workers who produced cars, trucks, and tractors sold domestically and
abroad. NATO attacks left some 80 percent of its workforce without a means
of livelihood. Publicly owned Zastava factories exist all over Yugoslavia.
The attackers knew their locations, and hit a great many of them. And those
not bombed are out of production, because they are left without crucial
materials or a recipient for their products. In Nis, cruise missiles
pulverized the tobacco and cigarette production plant, one of the most
successful in Europe. State-run food processing sites were leveled. And, we
were told, one worker-managed factory was contaminated with depleted
uranium. The city of Aleksinac and additional socialist strongholds in
southern Serbia were bombed especially heavily, with many civilian deaths.

Leaders from Aleksinac and several other cities in Serbia's "Red Belt" were
convinced that they were pounded so mercilessly primarily because they were
socialist, a suspicion reinforced by the fact that the region contained
little heavy industry, consisting mostly of small businesses. NATO bombed
historic sites, cultural monuments, museums, and churches. "Not even Hitler
did that," remarked Federal Minister for Refugees Bratislava Morina. In
Novi Sad, worker-managed factories that somehow had survived the pitiless
years of sanctions were reduced to ruins, along with bus and train depots.
Major bridges were knocked down, blocking all shipping on the Danube and
cluttering the river's bottom with heavy metal. Because of its depth, the
Danube was judged impossible to clean, but millions of people are still
drinking its water. Yugoslav electrical and construction firms used to be
competitive with western ones, winning contracts abroad on a regular basis.
The NATO bombing eliminated that competition quite nicely. Heating plants
and the entire oil processing industry were badly crippled. The director at
an electrical power transformer station on the outskirts of Zemun showed us
the transformer that had been knocked out by tomahawk missiles. Other
missiles, designed for subterranean targets, exploded beneath the earth's
surface, ripping apart underground transmitter cables. There was little
hope of repair since the sanctions deprived the Yugoslavs of replacement
parts, which happened to be made by Westinghouse.

The inability to rebuild their electrical power systems leaves many towns
and cities throughout Serbia without any prospect of heat in the winter
ahead, and without sufficient means of supplying water to certain urban
populations. There is no shortage of water in Yugoslavia, especially after
the rains that recently caused serious floods. But the water distribution
and purification systems in places like Novi Sad are badly damaged and not
easy to repair. Whole sectors of the city are without drinking water, but
water is available for washing clothes and waste elimination. The
destruction of fertilizer and nitrogen plants has created difficulties for
next year's planting. One official told us that agricultural crops were
mysteriously dying. The situation was being investigated, and there was
much fear of hunger ahead. At one oil refinery site we saw burnt out cars,
shattered storage tanks, and acres blackened with crude oil, leaving the
groundwater toxified. We saw a bird about the size of a robin, completely
drenched in black crude, struggling up to the driveway, unable to do
anything except weakly flutter its wings and stagger about the asphalt.

Sometimes the NATO attackers carefully selected their targets; other times
they seemingly unloaded at random. Generally, Minister Morina maintained,
they hit sites "in a way that would be most painful to us." We saw one
housing project of some seventy units destroyed. The occupants had lost all
their possessions, and most were without money to pay for new residences.
We were told that many of the housing project's survivors had sustained
injuries, and many were suffering psychological shock and depression. An
adjacent elementary school, named after Svetozar Markovich, identified to
us as "the founder of socialism in the Balkans," was seriously damaged.

We visited a village outside Novi Sad, containing nothing that remotely
resembled a military or infrastructure target. Yet, ten homes had been
destroyed entirely or in part. Some of them remained occupied with Serb
refugees from Croatia, looking like stage-set homes with whole walls and
rooftops missing. The occupants had no jobs and no funds to buy the
materials needed to rebuild, nor were building materials readily available.
Plastic sheets over shattered windows and an outdoor cooking stove were all
the comforts they had. They had no idea what they would do when winter came.

In Nis, there were deliberate attacks on residential neighborhoods. On one
street alone, fifteen residents were killed by cluster bombs. In the towns
of Surdulica and Aleksinac, individual homes were directly and precisely
hit, with not a missile going astray. Members of our delegation met people
who still shook with fear when talking about the attacks. Most had no hope
of rebuilding.

In Rakovica and elsewhere, NATO bombs smashed hospitals and maternity
wards, in some instances killing women and children. Not long after the
bombing ended, NATO officials announced that only a few hundred people had
been killed by the aerial attacks. How they know this from afar is hard to
understand. According to Yugoslav sources, Over five hundred military
personnel and some two thousand civilians perished in what was less a war
than a one-sided slaughter. Scores of individuals listed as missing may
still be buried under the wreckage. As one citizen asked angrily, who will
be charged with these war crimes? After the war, health workers began
seeing a dramatic increase in chronic ailments, including cardiovascular,
respiratory, and mental health problems. Officials thought the 78-days of
bombings would be the worst of it, but they have since concluded that the
sanctions would continue to inflict massive attrition. Because of the
sanctions, Yugoslav health services face severe shortages of medicines,
surgical materials, oncology drugs, diabetic medications, and other supplies.

The Yugoslav Red Cross has no problem recruiting blood donors, but it faces
a drastic shortage of blood bags, which are not manufactured in Yugoslavia.
It has issued an urgent appeal for baby food, powdered milk, canned foods,
cooking oil, rice, beans, pasta, preserved vegetables, detergents, soaps,
tents, beds, bedding, sleeping bags, towels, candles, and oil lamps. Also
much needed are plaster bandages, compress gauze, elastic net and tubular
bandages, disposable diapers, disinfectants, water purification supplies,
test strips for blood and urine, dialysis machines, antibiotics,
medications for respiratory ailments and blood diseases, and various
diagnostic tests. Prevented from going into Kosovo, the Yugoslav Red Cross
is unable to trace hundreds of missing persons (Serbs, nonseparatist
Albanians, and others) in areas occupied by KFOR, the NATO occupation
force. Some 130 humanitarian organizations are pouring aid into Kosovo,
including Red Cross societies from KFOR states. The operating rules of the
International Red Cross stipulate that member organizations entering a
country must work in cooperation with the Red Cross of that host country,
something not done in this case by most of them. Letters of protest from
the Yugoslav Red Cross to these member organizations have gone unanswered.
Relatively few national Red Cross societies have responded well to
Yugoslavia's appeal for help: the Bulgarian, Rumanian, and all the
Scandinavian Red Cross organizations have sent aid. The biggest assistance
efforts have come from Red Cross organizations in China and, surprisingly,

Yugoslavia faces a refugee crisis of daunting magnitude. It now hosts more
displaced persons per capita than just about any other nation. Most of the
ethnic cleansing throughout the former Yugoslavia has been directed against
the Serbs, a fact seldom if ever mentioned in the U.S. media. NATO and its
secessionist allies drove more than 700,000 Serbs from their ancestral
homes in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. In addition, over 180,000 Serbs,
Roma (gypsies), Turks, Gorani, and thousands of Albanians who would not
cooperate with the KLA have fled Kosovo and flooded into what remains of
Yugoslavia. Some refugees have been triply displaced, fleeing Croatia for
Bosnia, then to Kosovo, and now to what remains of unoccupied Serbia. Three
well-constructed refugee settlements built several years ago by the Serbian
Republic, intended as permanent homes, were destroyed by NATO attacks, as
was the headquarters of the Serbian Socialist party agency that dealt with
refugee problems.

One of the hardest hit groups in the KLA cleansing of Kosovo was the Roma.
Driven out of homes they had lived in for generations, many fled to
Montenegro--only to find that the refugee camps there were run by KLA. In
order to gain entry, they had to pay 500 German marks and declare Albanian
nationality, according to the refugees interviewed by Sani Rifati,
president of Voice of Roma, an educational and humanitarian aid
organization based in California. Rifati traveled to Italy to deliver aid
and interview Romany refugees arriving in Brindisi. They told of being
surrounded by police upon arrival, then approached by Albanian
interpreters, who informed them that in order to procure food they would
have to present themselves as Albanians fleeing from Serbs--instead of what
they really were, Roma fleeing from Albanian KLA militia. Unlike ethnically
cleansed Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo, Yugoslavia remains a multi-ethnic
society, with some twenty-six nationality groups, including Serbs and
hundreds of thousands of Hungarians, Croats, Rumanians, Czechs, and Slovaks.

Yugoslavia is the only country in the world to give official standing to
19,000 Rutanians, a national group of western Ukrainian origin situated in
Vojvodina, Serbia's other autonomous province (besides Kosovo). Vojvodina
officials claim that all these various nationalities have education in
their own tongue from nursery school to high school. Hungarians in
Vojvodina can go through medical school studying in Hungarian. Minister
Morina claimed that before the NATO war, there had been some fifty
Albanian-language publications in Yugoslavia, including even a Playboy type
magazine. (But she neglected to mention that Albanian radio and television
stations had been shut down some years ago.) She said that in earlier times
Albanians had occupied such prominent offices as the presidency of
Yugoslavia, the presidency of the national youth organization, and of the
trade union association. Albanians would still have prominent political
positions in the society, she maintained, had they not chosen to withdraw
from the political process. Morina's own husband was director of security
and an Albanian, and her children identified themselves as Albanian.

The proceedings of Vojvodina's provincial parliament were simultaneously
translated into six languages, according to its president Zivorad
Smiljanic, a gynecologist and obstetrician by profession, who met with our
group when we visited Novi Sad. At present, U.S. leaders are busily
funneling money to Hungarian separatist elements in Vojvodina and calling
for putting the province under Hungary's suzerainty. Smiljanic pointed out
that two million Hungarians in Rumania and 600,000 in Slovakia enjoyed few
of the national rights extended to the 300,000 Hungarian ethnics in
Vojvodina, yet the United States and even Hungary seemed not too concerned
about them. The Hungarians living in Vojvodina are not concentrated in any
one region. In 1991 some of them went to Hungary but did not fare too well,
Smiljanic said. In 1999, facing the NATO war, almost no Hungarians departed
and 90 percent responded to the military call. Indeed, he claimed, all
national minorities remain loyal and feel this is their country.

Smiljanic held forth on a number of other subjects: As an obstetrician he
had occasion to observe the remains of eleven children killed in one town
by the aerial attack. Your leaders talk about human rights, he noted
bitterly, but the right of children to live is among the highest of human
rights. Was it democracy in action when NATO bombs destroyed schools,
daycare centers, and hospitals with patients in their beds? Your leaders
talk of freedom of information, yet they kill journalists. They talk of
responsible government and accountable rule, yet nineteen Nato countries
engaged in hostilities against Yugoslavia without consent of any of their
own parliaments and against public protests in their countries. All the
government parties in the NATO countries that partook of the war lost seats
in the subsequent elections to the European parliament, said Smiljanic.

When asked what were Vojvodina's most urgent needs, Smiljanic boomed, "We
wish most of all that the international community would leave us alone,
lift the sanctions, and stop giving us the benefit of their 'guidance' and
'aid.'" Despite ten years of sanctions, he went on, his compatriots live
better than do most people in Hungary, Rumania, Poland, and Bulgaria. And
now that those nations are joining NATO they will plunge still deeper into
debt, each borrowing tens of billions of dollars to upgrade their military
forces to NATO standards. "Clinton and Albright have destroyed us and now
we will have to rebuild--on their terms. The only god worshipped in the New
World Order is the Dollar. The war was good only for business and arms
dealers," concluded Smiljanic.

A founding member of the United Nations and of the Nonaligned Nations
Conference, and once a regular participant in UN peacekeeping missions,
Yugoslavia today has been reduced to a pariah, the only country to have
been expelled from the United Nations. It is also proudly one of the few
nations in Europe that never asked to join NATO.

Western leaders and media have tirelessly portrayed the Milosevic
government as a bloodthirsty dictatorship. The Yugoslavs argue that this
"dictatorship" has a democratically elected coalition government with a
parliament containing representation from seven different parties,
including vocal opposition ones. The various parties have their own
newspapers, which are sold at newsstands around Belgrade. Indeed, there are
only two state-owned dailies but numerous opposition publications, some of
which are well financed from abroad. I saw no anti-government activity
during my visit, but if reports in the western press are to be believed, in
September and again in November, thousands engaged in demonstrations to
register their disapproval of the existing government-apparently without
fear of being gunned down in the streets or visited by death squads or
incarcerated for long periods-which is the risk demonstrators run in any
number of US-backed regimes. I did see opposition posters in Belgrade,
including glass encased ones on the walls of buildings along main
thoroughfares, damning Milosevic in the harshest terms, with the address of
the sponsoring organization provided at the bottom of the poster--hardly an
advisable way to operate when living under the heel of a ruthless dictator.
For a police state, Yugoslavia appears to suffer from a notable scarcity of
police on the streets.

Not until my third evening in Belgrade did I see two cops strolling along
without benefit of nightsticks--in marked contrast to the omnipresent and
heavily armed security police and military personnel one sees in any number
of U.S. client-state "democracies" in Latin America and elsewhere. In
addition, Yugoslav citizens are free to travel anywhere in the world-which
is not true of U.S. citizens. Milosevic recently did one thing that must
have convinced western capitalist leaders of his inhumanity. The ICN
pharmaceutical plant in Yugoslavia began as a joint venture with state and
private capital. Much of the latter was provided by Milan Panic, a rich
Serbian businessman who had been living in the United States. Panic began
paying a private staff to take over complete ownership of ICN. He is also
said to have tried to organize a strike against the Yugoslav government
after losing his bid for the presidency in 1992. In February 1999, in
response to Panic's maneuvers, Milosevic sent in troops to occupy ICN, then
handed it over to worker-management. U.S. media called the takeover a
violation of "human rights."

U.S. officials and press pundits repeatedly claim that Yugoslavs do not
have the benefit of an objective news source, by which they mean the
western corporate-owned mainstream media that faithfully propagate the
US-NATO line on all matters of war and peace. In fact, as of summer's end,
western or pro-western media were just about the only major news source one
could access in Belgrade. The three government television channels 1, 2,
and 3, and all public radio stations-most of which offered a critical view
of NATO's policy of dismembering, privatizing, and deindustrializing
Yugoslavia--had been bombed out of existence. "They destroyed everything,"
exclaimed our boarding-house host Nikola Moraca, "We get no Milosevic
government station, only opposition programs and sports."

Yugoslavs could also get CNN, BBC, Discovery, and German television. If
they had satellite dishes, as many did, they could receive all the American
networks. Not surprisingly, the Yugoslav opposition television channel,
Studio B, survived untouched by NATO bombs. It presents mostly opposition
programming and entertainment. Other Yugoslav TV stations did offer "TV
Politika" (a pro-government program) and what Nikola called "neutral
programs" along with sitcoms, fashion shows, and other such puffery. In
sum, the Yugoslavs had access to more pro-western media than to any that
might represent a critical view of western policy. In this, they resemble
most of the world.

On the van I took for the long night's trip back to Budapest, I met my
first Serbian yuppie: a young broker who worked via computer with the New
York Stock Exchange. He was of the opinion that Milosevic was not a war
criminal but should hand himself over to the Hague Tribunal in any case,
just so the rest of the country could get some peace (as if having
Milosevis's head would cause them to leave Yugoslavia in peace). He went on
to tell me what a wonderful place Belgrade was to live in, with its
remarkable abundance of beautiful women and its low prices. The ample
income he made went twice as far in the economically depressed city. His
comments reminded me that hard times are not hard for everyone, especially
not for people with money.

The van made an additional stop in Belgrade to pick up an attractive but
unhappy looking young woman who, once seated, began crying as she told us
that she was going to Spain for a long and indefinite period, leaving home
and family because things were so difficult in Yugoslavia. War victimizes
all sorts of people who are never included in the final toll.

It was not long before the stockbroker, displaying a most sympathetic
demeanor, was making his moves on the young lady, as if encircling a prey.
Again, I was reminded of how hard times for the many bring new
opportunities for the privileged few.
Michael Parenti's most recent books are American Besieged and History as
Mystery (both published by City Lights Books).

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