The Trail of a Bullet
New evidence emerges of radioactive contamination in Kosovo. The
DJAKOVICA, YUGOSLAVIA — Rexh Himaj didn't think twice about salvaging parts from destroyed Serbian vehicles.
As a mechanic in Kosovo, Mr. Himaj lost most of his tools and equipment during the Kosovo conflict. Like thousands of other returning ethnic Albanian refugees, he was just glad to be back home and getting ready to return to work.
But what Himaj didn't know was that the American aircraft that chased Serbian forces from Kosovo and paved the way for his return had attacked these Serbian vehicles with depleted uranium (DU) bullets.
The concrete surface of this motor pool, part of a Serbian military base on the west side of Djakovica, is pockmarked by DU hits - as is the nearby road. And the ground is littered with spent aluminum shell casings that are unique to 30-mm DU bullets.
How much DU ammunition was fired at Serbian forces has not been made public: The Pentagon isn't talking. DU bullets, made of low-level nuclear waste material, are controversial because they leave toxic and radioactive debris in their wake.
DU ammunition was first used in combat by the US against Iraqi tanks in 1991. But that was in the desert. Evidence of DU in Djakovica indicates that for the first time this munition has been used in populated areas.
"There is a [health] risk to people. We chase children from [the targeted compound], and we try to persuade people to stop cutting up those vehicles," says Chris North, a 20-year veteran of the British Army's Royal Engineers bomb disposal unit. "But the message about DU is not getting around," he warns.
"You can't say it's everywhere [in Kosovo], but you don't have to go far to find it," says Mr. North, who now trains local deminers in Djakovica for the Lyon, France-based charity Handicapped International.
DU bullets were designed in the 1970s to defeat top-of-the-line Soviet tanks. The 30-mm bullets are fired by the A-10 "tank-buster" aircraft, a plane designed around the seven-barreled Gatling gun that almost exclusively uses DU. It is the most effective tool in the US arsenal for destroying tanks. When a DU bullet makes contact, it burns so hotly that it ignites fumes and ammunition inside a tank, causing a powerful blast. Half again as dense as lead, these bullets were used spectacularly against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's armored divisions during the Gulf War.
Pentagon officials point out one other benefit: The US has a stockpile of 1.2 billion pounds of the radioactive waste left from making bombs and gives it away for free to weapons manufacturers to make DU bullets.
In the United States, the military requires a license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to handle the smallest amount of DU. The NRC restricts test firing, and troops within 50 yards of any vehicle struck with DU bullets must wear respirators and protective suits to avoid contamination.
British troops sent to Kosovo were issued such gear and were instructed to use it "if contact with targets damaged by DU ammunition is unavoidable."
But no warning of the potential risk of DU - or details about where and how many bullets were used - has been issued to the people who live in Kosovo.
"Residual depleted uranium from battlefield engagements in Kosovo does not pose a significant risk to human health," says US Department of Defense spokesman Lt. Col. Victor Warzinski.
But other experts say it's not so. Unlike chemical or biological weapons that dissipate within minutes or days, DU dust and fragments remain "hot," losing just half their radioactivity in 4.5 billion years - the age of the solar system.
American nuclear physicists have found that DU dust can travel at least 26 miles. Scientists of the National Institute for Health Protection in Macedonia, south of Kosovo, detected eight times higher than normal levels of alpha radiation - the primary type emitted by DU - in the air in April, during the conflict.
When the 16 de-mining groups working in Kosovo under the United Nations umbrella asked for clarification in July of the DU risks, NATO produced a two-line warning: "Exercise caution" and "do not climb upon or into destroyed armored vehicles."
The British National Radiation Protection Board was more explicit, however. It warned in July that the "most likely risk" in Kosovo is where DU was used. "If the areas are contaminated by insoluble uranium oxides [DU dust], then any hazard would
arise from disturbing the contamination and inhaling the dust."
Specialist US military radiation teams in Iraq and Kuwait during the Gulf War tested Iraqi tanks that had been hit by DU. They found them to be a "substantial [health] risk." Six "hot" American vehicles were buried by the US Army in the desert in Saudi Arabia. The US Army custom-built a decontamination facility in Snelling, S.C., but of the 16 US vehicles brought back from the war zone for salvage - all of them hit accidentally by American pilots with DU bullets - six had to be buried in a low-level radioactive waste dump.
The soil is also difficult to clean. One US Defense Department report lists eight soil decontamination techniques - including multiple nitric-acid washes - but "in no case did the achieved separation suffice to allow unrestricted disposal."
"I am surprised that as a matter of policy, in light of what happened after Iraq, no one thought whether this was a good idea [in Kosovo]," says Colin King, editor of Jane's Mines and Mine Clearance Yearbook. He puts DU and cluster bombs - both of which were also used in the Gulf War and presented after-battle risks to civilians - in the same category.
"A lot of the people who make policy on these things don't understand the nuts and bolts of what's involved in the clean-up afterward," says Mr. King. "They're just not issues that they grapple with unless they are forced to."
East of Belgrade, at Yugoslavia's Institute of Nuclear Sciences at Vinca - where Josip Broz Tito tried to develop nuclear weapons in the 1950s - radiation officials are testing for DU.
Tests at 100 sites in Serbia, mostly around Belgrade, found no trace of radiation. But in southern Serbia, Yugoslav soldiers found DU rounds in Bujanovac, and a Swiss-led international team found "serious radioactivity" when it dug up many rounds at a radio tower near Vranje.
Physicist Snezana Pavlovic holds a few scrapings in a sealed dish from a DU bullet found at Bujanovac. The meter on the hand-held German radiation detector - which can be calibrated for alpha, beta, and gamma radiation - surges across the scale when the probe nears the dish.
"That's high activity," Mrs. Pavlovic says. To handle this substance requires a specialist laboratory, with ventilation, for dealing with "hot" radioactive substances.
She has seen dozens of the bullets, collected in Kosovo and Serbia. Yugoslav scientists first tested them in 1995, when American planes used a relatively small amount of DU against Serbian forces in Bosnia. "If you leave the battlefield without cleaning it, then even children can find particles," she says. "It should be removed as soon as possible, regardless of who is living there."
Back at the contaminated motor pool in Kosovo, a boy climbs on a burned-out armored vehicle, then jumps off and kicks at a shell casing.
"Now I know it's dangerous, but that is a risk I've got to take," says mechanic Himaj, when the telltale casings and the implications are explained. His hands are greasy black with work. "If [the Americans] didn't use this stuff, then we might still have Serbs here. On the other hand ... I hope they clean it up."
*Scott Peterson's two-part series on the effects of DU use in Iraq ran April 29 and 30. You can view it on our Web site (www.csmonitor.com)
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society