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Wanton destruction that solved nothing

The Scotsman; Edinburgh; Sep 16, 1999
Commentary by Tam Dalyell

I OUGHT to make clear to readers of The Scotsman the basis on which I am asked to write. I have just returned from an unofficial visit to Novi Sad, Belgrade and Zastava with Alice Mahon, MP; Tim Gopsill of the National Union of Journalists; and Bob Oram, of the north-west region of the trade union UNISON. We paid for the visit ourselves and are in no way beholden financially to the regime.

Pictures simply cannot convey the havoc caused by the NATO air strikes. I have no notion as to how Serbia, now the poorest country in Europe in terms of income per head, is expected to repair the great solid edifices of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, reduced in the boulevards of Belgrade to rubble and twisted metal or, the other more modern, less solid buildings of Belgrade, such as the TV station. After all, one bomb, far less powerful than NATO's armament, caused some GBP 60 million worth of damage to Bishopsgate and Canary Wharf - and the centre of Manchester after five years still bears the scars of just one hidden bomb.

On Saturday, my companions and I visited Novi Sad where the three bridges over the Danube were destroyed for hardly any reason at all which could be construed as having anything to do with the situation in Kosovo. Next week a pontoon bridge will open after hastily and inventively having been put together by Serbs. However, as Zoram Ilic, a senior engineer of the agency for country reconstruction, told us, they had not the facilities to restore the old bridges and furthermore were unwilling to clear the wreckage to free traffic on the Danube unless there was a package available of financial provision for the rebuilding.

"If we simply clear the river at the urgent behest of Germany, Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania, do you think that we will see our bridges restored? No, we have got to have a concrete undertaking that other countries help us rebuild the bridges if we open their river which is so vital to all of us."

The oil refinery in Novi Sad, on account of its location at the very bank of the Danube in the open Pannonian plain was quite irresponsibly destroyed, posing a particular threat to the environment. Professor Pavle Budakov, executive vice-president of the council of the province of Vojvodina and dean of the faculty of medicine in the University of Novi Sad, stressed the dangers which come from the release of extremely toxic pyralene transformer oils.

The problem is that tons of PCBs have leaked into the river and through the canal systems and will create contamination for a long time to come.

The pollution of underground waters is much more dangerous, since they have limited self-purification capacity. Many wells are in great danger because the pollutants reach underground waters from the surface and by infiltrating through the bank sediments of polluted rivers. It was pointed out to us that rivers, although they flow, are being self-purified by their bottom sediments mostly; therefore toxic substances accumulate, and if not degraded can be released again if there is a change in the physical and chemical properties of the water. The world has to make judgments on whether bombing oil refineries and chemical plants is acceptable as an instrument of modern war.

We had a long meeting with Dr Leposava Milicevic - the minister of health and a consultant on diseases of the bone. She was concerned about several badly damaged transformer stations that had released toxic pyralene transformer oils in the town of Kragujevac. We had been shown exactly what was involved by Ruzica Milosavzevec, the convener of shop stewards at the Zastava vehicle plant. My companions and I spent Sunday walking around the plant, which had received 22 missiles on the nights of the 9 and 12 April. Many Scotsman readers will have been inside the British Leyland plant at Bathgate, once the biggest concentration of industrial machine tools under one roof in Europe. Just imagine if all the machinery of a complex tractor assembly line was a tangle of metal! The complex employed over 50,000 people and was the source of bread and butter for at least 100,000 or more families. The car plant alone employed 15,500.

The health minister was again concerned by the harmful by-effects of oil combustion and chemicals in the refineries and chemical facilities at Pancevo. More than 100 tons of liquid ammonia had leaked from the nitrogen processing plant. A few thousand tons of sodium hyrdroxide and a few hundred tons of hydrocloric acid also leaked into the Danube. Concentrations of several grammes per litre of ethylene dichloride have also been found in the river. Polluted water has found its way into the Black Sea, the Aegean and the Adriatic. Pollution does not recognise international frontiers.

The Scotsman asked me to give a factual description of a visit which was not about politics per se but about the reconstruction, infrastructure, industry and environment of Serbia. But I should add two other matters. When we visited the Red Cross both their senior advisers on international humanitarian law, Professor Miodrag Starcevic, and the secretary general, Dr Rade Dubatic, emphasised that it is not only the physical damage but the trauma that has been inflicted on children that will be a problem for years to come. And secondly, allow me to say that not one of the many different people to whom Mrs Mahon, Mr Gopsill and Mr Oram spoke, politicians, officials, people in the media at the bombed television centre and elsewhere, trade unionists and ordinary people were of the same opinion. They would not be reconciled to the permanent loss of Kosovo. They weren't.

They insisted that the will of the United Nations be endorsed and that will was that there should be Serb sovereignty. Let us not imagine that the conflict is over and behind us.

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