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Toxic Aftermath of War
Bombed by NATO Fears Effects of Toxic Chemicals
By Chris Hedges, New York
Comment by Petar Makara, Emperor's Clothes
Cloud of toxic gas rolling in
over Pancevo in Yugoslavia after NATO bombed
Contributing Editor Petar Makara grew up in Pancevo in Serbia; he now works as a computer scientist in the US.
wrote the following comments about Chris Hedges' article on the NATO's
toxic pollution of his home town:
- #1: The Pancevo chemical industry was built by
companies from NATO countries. They had all the plans; they knew exactly what they were
- #2: It is clear from the NATO spokeswoman quoted
below that this war crime was deliberate and well
calculated: "There were tactical and
strategic targets. The oil refinery in Pancevo
was considered a strategic target..."
And she adds: "When targeting is done we
take into account all possible collateral damage,"
she said, "be it environmental, human or to
the civilian infrastructure..."
Look at the picture above. What is the meaning of
collateral damage when NATO deliberately blows up storage tanks full of
As someone who was born and lived in Pancevo for 33
years I must add that even though the bombing of my home town
happened 8,000 miles away what has been done to Pancevo has caused me to
have some of the
same symptoms as my Pancevo neighbours. Those symptoms are
vomiting and stomach cramps.
Mr. Hedges' article is below.
- Petar Makara
Serbian Town Bombed by NATO Fears Effects of Toxic
By Chris Hedges
The New York
July 14, 1999, Wednesday, Late Edition - Final
Section A; Page 1; Column 5; Foreign Desk
Pancevo, Serbia, July 12, 1999
On the edge of town, in a sprawling industrial park that
held an oil refinery, a petrochemical plant and a
fertilizer factory, lie the twisted pipes, scorched
storage tanks, crumbled roofs and jagged detritus left by
Yet it is not these ruined factories that are the worst
scourges of war in this river town, many people here say,
but the tons of toxic material that poured out of them.
Farm workers, plunging their fingers into the earth, say
they come away with rashes that burn and blister. Those
who eat the river fish and vegetables or drink the tap
water, which trickles out of faucets because of the
damage to the purification plant, come down with
diarrhea, vomiting and stomach cramps.
Children, many of whom were sent away to Slovakia by
local Red Cross officials for several weeks to escape the
clouds of noxious gasses that hovered for days over
Pancevo, still suffer headaches and dizziness. The war's
lingering, ghoulish touch could be affecting even the
unborn. There are twice as many miscarriages as there
were during the comparable period last year, doctors here
There is no independent assessment of the medical effects
of the exposure to chemicals that the bombing caused. The
scientific studies conducted by the Yugoslavs in Pancevo,
by their own admission, have been carried out with
outdated methods and inferior, antiquated equipment.
The results of such testing, said Dr. Predrag S. Polic,
the chemist who conducted many of the tests, are three or
four weeks away.
The United Nations Environment Program has formed a
Balkans Task Force, headed by Pakka Haavisto, who was the
Environment Minister of Finland.
The task force will send a team of international experts
to Pancevo, and about half a dozen other damaged
industrial sites, next Tuesday to take air, water and
soil samples for three or four weeks. It expects to
publish its findings and make recommendations in
"The most dangerous moment probably occurred during
the fires, when the smoke was in the air," said Mr.
Haavisto, who briefly visited Pancevo two weeks ago and
was reached by phone in Geneva. "A large amount of
chemicals burned during this time. It remains unclear how
much is in the soil, but when you walk in Pancevo you can
smell chemical substances.
"The biggest danger now is that the ground water and
the Danube have been directly polluted, something that
will affect the drinking water. There are towns in
Romania and Bulgaria that use the Danube for drinking
water. In my estimation the most damaged sites will need
a cleaning process, as in places where the soil and water
have been contaminated with toxic materials, before we
can talk about rebuilding."
Government officials, doctors and residents in the town
report a surge of unexplained symptoms.
"The effects of the bombing on these industrial
sites have been enormous," said Simon Bancov, the
Government health inspector for the region. "More
than 100,000 tons of carcinogenics were unleashed into
the air, the water and the soil. The produce is not safe
to eat. The long-term damage to the water table and
riverbeds is severe. People complain constantly of
stomach pain but have no viral or bacterial symptoms. We
have all been poisoned."
The repeated air strikes on the industrial complex, which
covers several acres, culminated in three huge hits at 1
A.M. on April 18. The bombs sent fireballs into the air
and enveloped Pancevo in clouds of black smoke and milky
white gases. Flames leapt from the site for 10 days.
The air strikes unleashed tons of chemicals into the air
An estimated 1,500 tons of vinyl chloride, the building
block of a type of plastic, 3,000 times higher than
permitted levels, burned into the air or poured into the
soil and river, said municipal officials in Pancevo,
which is controlled by opposition parties hostile to
President Slobodan Milosevic.
The chemical, which has left the banks of the river edged
with white foam, still clogs the canals around the town.
Huge quantities of other noxious chemicals burned or
gushed out of storage tanks, said town officials and
Those chemicals included an estimated 15,000 tons of
ammonia, used to make fertilizer; 800 tons of
hydrochloric acid and 250 tons of liquid chlorine, used
for several industrial products; vast quantities of
dioxin, a component of Agent Orange and other defoliants,
and 100 tons of mercury, the officials said.
By dawn after the night of the attack, dozens of people
were hospitalized gasping for air, struggling to see and
unable to digest food, witnesses said.
The sun was blotted out for nearly a day as people moved
with rags over their noses and mouths through the fog.
NATO officials, reached by phone in Mons, Belgium, said
the industrial site had been a key target in the drive to
deny fuel and other resources to the Yugoslav Army.
"NATO had two types of targets," said a NATO
spokeswoman. "There were tactical and strategic
targets. The oil refinery in Pancevo was considered a
strategic target. It was a key installation that provided
petrol and other elements to support the Yugoslav Army.
By cutting off these supplies we denied crucial material
to the Serbian forces fighting in Kosovo."
The official said the environmental damage caused by the
attack had been taken into consideration.
"When targeting is done we take into account all
possible collateral damage," she said, "be it
environmental, human or to the civilian infrastructure.
Pancevo was considered to be a very, very important
refinery and strategic target, as important as tactical
targets inside Kosovo."
Three months later, anxious families are coping with
illnesses no one seems able to explain. Mothers,
clutching the hands of small children, along with people
whose bodies are covered in rashes, clog the small
waiting rooms of local doctors hoping for explanations
The doctors say there is little they can do but wait to
see if the exposure leads to cancer, blood contamination
and serious respiratory ailments.
Chemical exposure can produce immediate and longer-term
effects, causing different kinds of damage to the body,
experts say. Some may be clear to the eye and painful,
but other effects could be silent and only show up years
It is difficult to pinpoint the cause of the symptoms
that people in Pancevo report without scientific tests.
Neither Dr. Polic nor officials of the United Nations
Environment Program said they were ready to speculate on
the possible health risks.
"What can we tell people?" said Dr. Dobrosav
Pavlovic, a gynecologist. "We have not advised
expectant mothers to have abortions, but we are seeing
more and more miscarriages.
"I can't say how much the bombing has contributed to
this increase. I can't say what the results of the
bombing will be over the long term. It will be over a
year, when we can begin to look for birth defects and can
detect serious illnesses, that we will start to
understand what has happened."
The bombing left most of the 8,761 people who worked in
the plants, 10 miles northwest of Belgrade, out of work.
The Government, which was months late with salaries
before the bombing, has reduced incomes from $100 to $15
a month until the factories are repaired, something
workers say will never happen without foreign investment.
The damage is estimated in the hundreds of millions of
Three United States companies and a German company built
the petrochemical plant, used to make plastics, in 1978.
Two American corporations and a French concern
constructed the oil refinery in 1969. The fertilizer
plant, which began operation in 1958, was a joint venture
by companies from the United States, Spain and the
The loss of income in the town has made it difficult for
those who would like to move or take precautions against
the pollutants. There is now 70 percent unemployment.
"My son and I have constant headaches," said
Radmila Vukelic, 52. "We feel dizzy, as if we were
going to faint. No one has told us anything. We have no
information about what has happened or what we should do.
"I do not eat the fish from the river. I am afraid.
We would like to eat frozen or canned vegetables, but we
do not have this kind of money. We must eat what is in
Srdjan Mikovic, 38, the Mayor of Pancevo, said he was
bewildered by the extent of the air strikes, especially
since his town of 130,000, with a mixture of people of
Hungarian and Croatian ancestry, has long been one of the
centers of the opposition.
It is one of the few places in Serbia where the radio and
television stations are free from party control, either
by Mr. Milosevic's ruling Socialists or the parties that
"We have heard nothing from the Government,"
the Mayor said. "We have never supported the regime,
and for this reason I fear we will be sacrificed.
"NATO had to understand what they were doing to us,
because these factories were built by American and
European firms. They could not have been ignorant of the
environmental damage. I have given up. I eat the fish.
How much more can I be poisoned after living in clouds of
Pancevo was once a frontier town, manned by Hungarian,
Serbian and Austrian soldiers in the Austro-Hungarian
empire. The pink facade of the former imperial army
barracks lies in the center of Pancevo. It was from here
that the European troops faced the Ottoman Turks across
the river from 1716, when Vienna captured Pancevo, until
the end of World War I.
The buildings, although in bad repair, look as if they
were lifted from Austria, with stuccoed block exteriors,
onion domed towers, arched windows and delicate wrought
This part of Serbia has never embraced Mr. Milosevic's
Pancevo played host to a women's water polo tournament
last year, and the American swimmers won. The spectators
cheered the athletes as "The Star-Spangled Banner"
was played during the awards ceremony.
"The bombing has changed how we feel about the
outside world," Mr. Mikovic said. "People have
lost their desire to fight, to reach out. They only want
to survive. The Americans can come back, but they will
not have any applause from us."
(c) NY Times
* Reprinted for Fair Use Only
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