OPINION

Letter from Thessaloniki

One morning, back in 1999, on March 24 to be exact, NATO planes, led by the United States, began bombing Serbia. The air strikes were aimed at forcing Serb troops out of Kosovo, then a province of Serbia. At the time, I was directing a radio and TV station in Thessaloniki – Antenna – and, like most correspondents here, we visited former Yugoslavia and we were, I confess, very pro-Serb. As a matter of fact, and as far as I can recall, only Christos Tellidis, the head of Ethnos, a daily newspaper in northern Greece, dared to express himself openly, criticizing colleagues who were portraying Yugoslav Muslims as «infidel Turks» bent on destroying our Orthodox brethren. Not surprisingly, his position has been strongly condemned. Christos was a rare exception in the Greek media. And not only in that domain. Before, during, and after its 1994 European Union presidency, Greece was the only EU nation to back the position that Serbian forces had entered Bosnian territory in response to Bosnian provocations. Worse, in December 1994, after official talks with Slobodan Milosevic in Athens, then prime minister Andreas Papandreou reiterated that the positions of Greece and Serbia on the Bosnia issue were practically identical. Not long after, a Milosevic proposal for a confederation of Greece and Serbia with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) failed to gain support among any faction in Greece. Note that Serbia was an important trading partner with strong religious and historical ties to Greece. Plus, Serbia had supported the Greek position on the FYROM name issue. In northern Greece, it really took some nerve to be against Serbia 10 years ago. It’s not that we weren’t aware what was going on. But simply the more we knew, the less we wanted to know. As already noted, the 11-week bombing campaign was launched on March 24, 1999, after the collapse of Western-brokered peace talks between the regime of late Serbian president Milosevic and separatist Kosovo Albanians. These bombings solved nothing. Because, as James Bisset, former Canadian ambassador to Yugoslavia stated: «When NATO bombs fell on Yugoslavia, they caused more than just death and destruction in that country. The bombs also struck at the heart of international law and delivered a serious blow to the framework of global security that since the end of World War II has protected all of us from the horrors of a nuclear war.» Despite everything, the war in Yugoslavia in the 90s has left scars in this country as well. How can one forget incidents such as when «proud» Greek volunteers flew their flag at Srebrenica, after participating in Europe’s worst massacre since World War II, when 7,000 men, women and children died? Or when Milosevic enjoyed the hospitality of Greek politicians even after Bosnian Serb ethnic cleansers had torched villages? Or, the notorious phrase used by the indicted war criminal, Bosnian Serb Radovan Karadzic, in the early 90s: «We have only God and the Greeks on our side.» «No one, it is said, played such a pivotal role in the alliance between Athens and Belgrade during the 90s Balkan conflicts,» wrote Helena Smith for The Observer in 2003. The 10th anniversary last week was quite a grim event in Serbia, where tensions remain high, especially since Kosovo’s parliament formally seceded from Serbia in February 2008, a move that has been recognized by more than 50 nations, including the United States and most of the European Union, though not Greece. To commemorate the 10 years of pointless suffering, there were two conflicting TV-documentaries on Thursday of last week. Highlighting the «heroic resistance of the Serbian nation against NATO,» RT (Russian TV) aired an hour-long documentary. In it, one could see how Serb civilians defended their country by standing on bridges and creating human shields, while NATO planes were carrying out air strikes. The pro-NATO one came from Euronews and, as the channel advertises, was from a «European perspective.» In one of them, I saw a poster reading «Serbia is the World, World Against NATO.» At the same time, the documentary served as an invitation to a massive gathering in downtown Belgrade on March 24. The event has been modeled after the daily gatherings which were held in the same place during 78 days of NATO bombardments. Moreover, it was announced that participants in the music part of the program «will be the most prominent Serbian artists, who performed 10 years ago during daily anti-NATO rallies and concerts, as well as guests from Russia and Greece.» No, the omnipresent George Dalaras was not among them. Ten years ago, Western leaders supposedly saw the air war, the first of its kind in NATO’s history, as the only way to end the 1998-1999 violent crackdown by Milosevic’s forces on the Kosovo Liberation Army and their supporters. Accused of genocide in territories within Bosnia and Herzegovina, the former president of Serbia and of Yugoslavia, Milosevic was the most senior political figure to stand trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. He died during his trial on 11 March, 2006. No verdict was returned. Most certainly, he was not the only one to be accused of such serious crimes. Here is what Ramsey Clark, former attorney general of the United States, stated quite significantly after the war in former Yugoslavia: «Tens of thousands of Serbs, Roma and others have been ethnically cleansed from Kosovo, under the watchful eyes of the mighty occupation armies. This shows that NATO didn’t intervene there for humanitarian reasons and that this claim is hypocritical.»