Nato’s Dirty War

By targeting chemicals factories, Nato is waging war against civilians

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 22nd April 1999.

The Nato commanders trying to explain what happened to the refugee convoy they bombed sounded rather like the police at the Stephen Lawrence enquiry. They did their utmost to appear contrite, without actually apologising. Sorry, for the guardians of law and order, always seems to be the hardest word.

But even as the alliance tied itself in circumlocutory knots, it continued to engage in the slaughter of non-combatants. Slowly, largely silently, it is killing thousands of civilians. They are being neither bombed nor shot: the people of the former Yugoslavia are being poisoned.

Nato’s immediate war aim is to destroy the Serb economy, in order to restrict Milosevic’s capacity either to attack the Kosovo Albanians or to retaliate against Nato troops. This may or may not be working. But whatever its impact on the Yugoslav Republic’s economy might be, Nato is succeeding in wiping out its ecology.

The Nato press office claims that it has “no idea” how many chemical plants and oil installations its bombers have hit. But it concedes that there have been multiple raids on a vast oil refinery and chemicals complex in the suburbs of Belgrade, on another chemicals facility close to the capital and on an oil refinery at Novi Sad, in the north of the country.

Britain’s Ministry of Defence told me yesterday that the bombers are “keeping the risks of pollution to a minimum”, but it was unable to explain how, while blowing chemicals plants to pieces, they have achieved this commendable feat. Nato informed me that “the smoke from these fires is barely comparable to the smoke caused by the Yugoslav attacks on several hundred villages”. It’s clear that neither agency has the faintest idea what it’s talking about.

The chemical tanks ruptured by Nato bombers on the outskirts of Belgrade last week contained a number of lethal pollutants. Some held a complex mixture of hydrocarbons called “naphtha”, others housed phosgene and chlorine (both of which were used as chemical weapons in the First World War), and hydrochloric acid. As the factories burnt, a poisoned rain, containing hundreds of toxic combustion products, splattered Belgrade, its suburbs and the surrounding countryside. Broken tanks and burst pipes poured naphtha, chlorine, ethylene dichloride and transformer oil, all deadly poisons, into the Danube. Oil slicks up to twelve miles long wound their way towards Romania.

It could, it seems, have been worse. Scientists at the plant claimed that one of the bombs “grazed” a vast vat of liquid ammonia. If that had gone up, it would have poisoned most of the people of Belgrade.

These toxins are unlikely to kill people immediately. But they will have soaked the soil across hundreds of square miles and percolated into the aquifers. The people of the former Yugoslavia, as a result, will be repeatedly exposed to them. Many of the compounds released cause cancers, miscarriages and birth defects. Others are associated with fatal nerve and liver diseases. The effects of the bombing of Serbia’s economy equate, in other words, to low-intensity chemical warfare.

Nato might also be waging an undeclared, invisible nuclear war. During the Gulf War, the Allies deployed a new kind of munition: bullets and bombs tipped with depleted uranium, or DU. DU, being heavier than lead or steel, penetrates armour more effectively. In lump form it is only moderately harmful, but when the munitions explode they scatter thousands of particles, small enough to be inhaled. The Atomic Energy Authority predicted that if 50 tonnes of DU dust were released in Iraq, 500,000 people would die of cancer. In the event, according to the Campaign Against Depleted Uranium in Manchester, some 700-900 tonnes of DU were deployed. The result, the investigator Felicity Arbuthnot found, is a seven-fold increase in leukaemia and a massive rise in the incidence of certain rare cancers in Iraq. Thousands of Iraqi children have been born without eyes, limbs, brains and genitalia. DU has also been associated by some scientists with Gulf War Syndrome.

I asked the MoD whether DU is being deployed in the former Yugoslavia. “Certainly not”, the press office replied. I asked Nato. “It’s used in some American munitions”, I was told.

This, in environmental terms at least, is perhaps the dirtiest war the West has ever fought. Nato’s scorched earth policy, which seeks to destroy Milosevic’s armed capacity by destroying everything else, places the Alliance firmly on the wrong side of the Geneva Convention. For a war which targets chemical factories and oil installations, which deploys radioactive weapons in towns and cities, is a war against everyone: civilians as well as combatants, the unborn as well as the living. As such, it can never be a just one.