Families of NATO bomb victims demand accounting

On June 2, UN ruled airstrikes were not war crimes. Human rights groupdisagrees.

Unable to sleep, Vlasta Bankovic was up at 2 a.m. on the morning of April 23, 1999, watching Radio Television Serbia (RTS), when suddenly the screen turned to snow.

He says he knew instantly what had happened. "NATO bombed the television station and my daughter Ksenija is dead."

On today's first anniversary of United Nations oversight of Kosovo, the 78-day NATO bombing campaign that resulted in Yugoslavia's withdrawal from the province of its dominant republic, Serbia, remains a contentious issue at home and abroad.

For NATO, few other single bombings during Operation Allied Force, which ended on June 10, 1999, have proven as controversial. For families of the 16 victims, the bombing has brought deep sorrow, a feeling of manipulation, and a thirst for justice.

"Our kids died as the cynical victims of NATO and our own government. Their deaths were unnecessary and are still wrapped in a veil of secrecy. Nobody has accepted responsibility for this act. This crime has been ignored by NATO and our government, and now we're living for a day of justice," says Zanka Stojanovic, who lost her youngest son Nebojsa in the RTS attack.

The families were crestfallen on June 2, when Carla del Ponte, the UN's chief war crimes prosecutor at The Hague ruled there was no basis for an investigation into allegations of NATO war crimes. According to the Yugoslav government, the bombings resulted in 400 to 600 civilian deaths. No NATO forces were killed in hostile action during the air campaign.

But in a report published last week by Amnesty International, the human rights group charged that NATO violated the rules of war in not taking sufficient measures to protect civilian lives. The report singles out the RTS bombing as "a war crime."

The 1977 Protocol I, an addition to the 1949 Geneva Convention on rules of war, prohibits attacks on civilian objects and says that the risk of civilian deaths must be proportional to direct military objectives.

"NATO deliberately attacked a civilian object ... for the purpose of disrupting Serbian television broadcasts in the middle of the night for approximately three hours. It is hard to see how this can be consistent with the rule of proportionality," the Amnesty report states.

Thirteen of the television station victims were technical or production staff, three were security guards. The Yugoslav government depicted them as dedicated journalists and lauded them as heroes. But when the government sent the families certificates of valor for their deceased relatives, nine sent them back.

"Our kids weren't heroic journalists. They were technical staff working in a television station in the middle of the night. They made $50 a month. Nobody important was around," says Beba Stoimenovski, who lost her son, Darko. Two monuments pay homage to the perished: one raised by the government, the other by the families, near a children's theater that was severely damaged by airstrikes.

The Western military alliance justified the attack by saying it had to "degrade ... Yugoslavia's propaganda apparatus." British Prime Minister Tony Blair suggested in a BBC documentary that RTS footage was undermining Western public support for the war. Some news reports said the British refused to take part in the TV-station attack due to a disagreement on the legality of the target. The New York-based group Human Rights Watch reported that 11 days earlier, an attack on the TV station was delayed due to "French disapproval."

While conceding it made mistakes, NATO rejected Amnesty's charges of war crimes, noting that mistakes "must be weighed against the atrocities that NATO's action stopped."

The report was the first international recognition supporting the families' view that the bombing amounted to a war crime. "The Amnesty report meant a lot to us. It gave us hope that someone might be held accountable," says Mrs. Stojanovic.

This week, the mothers of the victims are sending a letter to Ms. del Ponte, asking her to reconsider her decision. Some of the families also suspect, but have no direct evidence to prove, that television station directors knew of the impending attack but let their relatives perish to win sympathy in the international arena.

NATO publicly announced days in advance that the TV station was a target. Some families believe a direct warning also was sent. But Amnesty International said it was told in February that a direct warning would have endangered NATO pilots.

This week, some of the families also will ask the Belgrade public prosecutor to press charges against the government. "The television station should have been evacuated when the air-raid siren sounded, more than an hour before the bombing," says Slobodan Sisic, a lawyer representing the families. "As this is presently a country without real laws, we don't have much hope in this action, but we have to do what we can," says Stojanovic.

For now, the three most active families continue to press their case both at home and abroad. A trial began last week in the Netherlands, holding individual government ministers accountable in the deaths of 39 NATO bombing victims, 13 of whom died in the RTS bombing.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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