Chapter 5. NATO’s Destruction of the Environment in Yugoslavia

By Sergei Alschen

According to a report released by the U.N. Environmental Program and the U.N. Commission on Human Settlement across Yugoslavia "81 civilian industrial facilities were attacked and/or destroyed in the bombings by NATO forces." (1) In all, over 1,000 targets of no military significance were attacked throughout Serbia. (2) Among the targets NATO hit were oil refineries, petrochemical plants, chemical fertilizer factories, fuel storage tanks, and power plants.

The strikes against these industries, which has caused a severe environmental crisis in Yugoslavia as well as the rest of the Balkans and other parts of Europe, was justified by NATO commanders as necessary to cut off supplies to the Yugoslav military. Many of these industries were considered "dual use" by the Alliance, in other words, both useful for civilian and military purposes. NATO’s actions in Yugoslavia clearly violated a whole range of international laws, in general, and tens of international laws in the field of the environment in particular. Among them: the UN Charter, the Convention on the Cooperation in the Field of the Protection and Sustainable Use of the Danube River, and the Rio Declaration. (3) The following report will summarize the extensive environmental damage caused to Yugoslavia, as well as the Balkans and other parts of Europe.


Thousands of tons of explosives were dropped by NATO warplanes on Yugoslavia, equaling the yield of several (Hiroshima-type) A-bombs. (4)   Among those were internationally outlawed cluster bombs, gravity and graphite bombs. The United States and Great Britain continued a practice in Operation Allied Force which they began in the Gulf War, that is, the use of bullets, missiles and bombs tipped with depleted uranium or DU. DU is 1.7 times as dense as lead. (5) Weapons made with DU are used to penetrate armor and steel more effectively. According to Dr. Rosalie Bertell, It is one of the largest categories of radiocative waste produced for the nuclear weapons and nuclear reactor industry and is extremely toxic to humans.  (7) She goes on to describe DU:

It can travel in air tens of kilometers from the point of release, or be stirred up in dust and resuspended in air with wind or human movement. It is very small and can be breathed in by anyone: a baby, pregnant woman, the elderly, the sick.

This radioactive ceramic can stay can stay deep in the lungs for years, irradiating the tissue with powerful alpha particles within about a 30 micron sphere, causing emphysema and/or fibrosis. The ceramic can also be swallowed and do damage to the gastro-intestinal tract. In time, it penetrates the lung tissue and enters into the blood stream. It can be stored in liver, kidney, bone or other tissues located near its storage place. It can effect the blood, which is the basis of our immune system, and do damage to the renal system as it is eventually excreted in the urine. It can also initiate cancer or promote cancers which have been initiated by other carcinogens.(8)


Other sources also testify to the hazards of DU. The US Army’s Environmental Policy Institute reported in 1995: "If DU enters the body, it has the potential to generate significant medical consequences." (9) A 1990 study prepared for the army by Science Applications International Corps said depleted uranium was :linked to cancer when exposures are internal [and} chemical toxicity causing kidney damage." (10) The world need only look to Iraq about the legacy of DU on the population. The Atomic Agency Authority in England predicted that if 50 tons of DU dust were released in Iraq, 500,000 would die of cancer. Between 700-900 tons were actually dropped, leading to a seven-fold increase in leukemia and a massive rise in the incidence of certain rare cancers  (11) according to an investigator, Felicity Arbuthnot.

NATO’s targeting of factories producing chemicals, fertilizers, and oil refineries was the most severe in Pancevo, 12 miles from the capital , Belgrade. With a population of 120,000-140,000, Pancevo’s economy was dominated by the petrochemical and fertilizer complex located there. According to the town’s mayor, Srdjan Mikovic who kept a log of the bombing of his municipality, NATO hit the chemical complex on 23 separate days with a total of at least 56 missiles or bombs. ( 12) The first attack occurred on the night of April 15 when air strikes hit the production divisions of HIP - AZOTARA Fertilizer Company and other plants in the petrochemical complex. At the AZOTARA complex, NATO completely destroyed the Ammonia and Power Supply Divisions.  (13)  Installations and equipment of the Vinyl Chlorid Monomer plant and Ethylene plant were directly hit. Nearby explosions damaged the Chloralkall plant and the Polyvinilchlorid plant. (14) One of the plants hit produced a highly toxic vinyl-chloride compound used to make plastic bags. According to Mayor Mikovic, "about 1,400 tons of ethylene dichloride poured out through the drainage into the Danube." (15)   Directors of both facilities in their statements after the bombings stated the civilian nature of the complex and accused NATO of "genocidal intentions."   (16)

Two days later, on April 17 and 18th, NATO bombed similar poly(vinyl chloride (PVC) and vinyl chloride monomer (VCM) plants in the town. The Pancevo Institute for Health Protection reported that the atmospheric concentrations of these substances was 10,600 times higher than allowed in the vicinity of the VCM plant. (17)  All day Sunday the VCM storage tank was emptied by controlled burning to prevent a larger ecological catastrophe. This caused huge quantities of the "greenhouse" gas, carbon, dioxide, and the acid gas, hydrogen chloride to be released into the atmosphere. VCM is a colorless, odorless and tasteless gas which is extremely carcinogenic. (18)  On April 18th , NATO targeted and destroyed a refinery and an American-built petrochemical complex that released a toxic cloud so dense the sun never shone the next day. (19)  Mark Fineman wrote in the Los Angeles Times,

"A thick, grayish-white fog containing concentrations of carcinogenic vinyl chloride monomer that were 10,600 times above human-safety limits had settled over the city at dawn and finally cleared only at nightfall...(20)

In the same area according to a Washington Post article, officials reported "black rain" falling in nearby regions.  (21)

Mayor Mikovic spoke of fires that burned for up to 12 hours and nearly a third of the toxic chemicals went up in smoke. (22)  The facilities that were hit held 1,500 tons of vinyl-chloride monomer, 250 tons of chlorine, 1,800 tons of ethylene dichloride and 15,000 tons of ammonia. To avoid being hit by more NATO bombs, workers dumped 9,500 tons of ammonia  (23) into the Danube from storage tanks located within the complex.  (24)

NATO most certainly knew ahead of time the environmental catastrophe it would cause by targeting Pancevo as thoroughly as it did. Pancevo is known throughout Yugoslavia as the center of the chemical producing industry in the country and one of the largest in the Balkans. The city’s chemical complex was built in consultation with engineers from the United States and Europe. (25)  Besides this, statements to the press made by the General Manager and General Director of the fertilizer and petrochemical complex fell on deaf ears as did Mayor Mikovic’s own appeal to humanitarian and environmental organizations about the cost in human and ecological terms of bombing the city’s petrochemical plants. "What was done against Pancevo was a crime against humanity. I never thought NATO or the Americans would bomb the petrochemical plant. I thought they were more civilized."  (26) 

The health risks caused by NATO’s ferocious assault against Yugoslavia in general, and Pancevo in particular are so great that doctors in the Belgrade suburb recommend that all women who were in the town the night of the 18th avoid pregnancy for at least the next two years. Women who were less than nine weeks pregnant in mid-April were advised to get abortions.  (27)  After the April 17th and 18th bombings, thousands of people fled the city, coughing and complaining of burning eyes, stomach pain and choking. Residents fear that highly toxic mercury seeped into the ground around the petrochemical complex and into the underground water supply. Roland Wiederkehr, a member of the Swiss parliament and of FOCUS, an environmental agency composed of technicians and inspectors from Greece, Russia, Austria and Switzerland, confirmed this fear. FOCUS was in Yugoslavia in mid July to inspect the environmental situation. Wiederkehr saw "droplets of mercury spattered around the complex." The transport canals beside one of the plants were filled with crude oil. In the inspectors words, "It was just amazing to see."  (28)  Branka Jovanovic, president of the Council of the Yugoslavian New Green Party warned that Serbia is "one of the largest sources of underground water in Europe and that the contamination will be felt in the whole surrounding area all the way to the Black Sea." She added that four national parks were bombed - all members of the International Association of the National Reservations.  (29)

Belgrade’s inspector for the protection of the human environment Simon Bancov warned against eating vegetables produced in the Pancevo area. He also issued a temporary ban on fishing in the nearby Danube because of the potentially large quantities of toxic chemicals that continue to seep into the river.  (30)   Indeed, according to one fisherman along the Tamis River in the city, the fish are "sluggish and sickly, with protruding bones and bulging eyes."  (31)   Analyzing the reports of the damage done throughout the country Dr. Slobodan Tosovic, chief ecotoxicologist at Belgrade’s Public Institute for Health believed "the Americans and NATO were making a biochemical experiment with us.(Serbs)" (32)

Pancevo was by far not the only industrial area that came under NATO attacks. Novi Sad, located along the banks of the Danube River in northern Serbia is Yugoslavia’s second largest city. An oil refinery was hit there causing "several hundred tons of oil and petroleum products" to empty out into the Danube. Monitors from the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) and the UN Center for Human Settlements (UNCHS) conducting investigations in Yugoslavia between May 16 and 27 said they saw dead birds around the river.  (33 )   In Belgrade, following an attack on a major transformer station, 150 tons of special oil was leaked.   (34 )  In the Belgrade suburb of Sremcica, a factory which produced chemicals and a rocket fuel storage site was hit causing toxins to be released into the air. Municipal officials in the southern city of Kragujevac were seeking permission from authorities to flush out a lagoon poisoned by PCB’s, which were released from a power plant that NATO bombed towards the end of the war.  (35)   A chemical factory near Baric was also severely damaged. (36)

The preliminary studies undertaken to determine the environmental effects of NATO’s war against Yugoslavia will not be able to uncover the full extent of the damage caused for many years to come. The findings thus far have been alarming. This is what Klaus Toepfer, a former German environment minister who now heads UNEP predicted what might be the outcome:

"In the long term, water supplies for entire regions both in and downstream from Yugoslavia could become carcinogenic cesspools if pollutants produced in the firestorms that engulfed bombed oil refineries and chemical plants are not quickly detected and removed."  (37)

In its report titled "United Nations Inter-Agency Needs Assessment Mission to Yugoslavia - Environment and Human Settlements Aspects," the mission concluded that:

"toxic smoke from huge fires and leakage of harmful chemicals into the soil and the water table have contributed to as yet unassessed levels of environmental pollution which will have a negative impact on health and ecological systems."  (38)

During its visit, the mission also assessed the infamous bombing of the petrochemical plant in Pancevo on April 18th:

"The destruction…resulted in the release of various chemical fluids into the atmosphere, water and soil. This poses a serious threat to health in the region. Many of the compounds released…can cause cancer, miscarriages, and birth defects. Others are associated with fatal nerve and liver diseases."  (39)

Finally, the environmental damage caused by the bombings will affect where villages will be rebuilt and also the economic development of the province of Kosovo. Jim Sniffen, a UNEP spokesman said locations have to be found where water supplies are safe and sustainable:

"We would have problems of water scarcity if sites were chosen that are so badly contaminated that local water could not be consumed. Having to bring in water from other sources would have a serious impact on the economic development of a community."  (40)

Not surprisingly, NATO has not been very forthcoming with detailed information showing the its list of targeted sites. Pekka Haavisto, Finland’s former environmental minister and head of a UN team investigating the environmental damage in Yugoslavia revealed that "all the material provided by the Serbian and Yugoslav authorities has been very alarming." He made it clear that investigating the damage is not only a question of politics. "This is also a question of people who are very concerned about their health in the area. They are afraid of radioactivity. They are afraid of toxic materials." (41)  The damage to Yugoslavia is tremendous. But it is not only limited to that country but also to all of the Balkans and a good portion of south-eastern Europe.



One of the ironies of the war in Yugoslavia is the potential environmental damage caused to countries recently accepted into NATO as well as countries who are striving to become members. I am speaking specifically of Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania, Macedonia. Greece and Italy, both long-standing members may also experience some negative long-term effects Operation Allied Force. Finally, countries bordering the Black Sea - Russia, Ukraine, Turkey, and Georgia - will also undoubtedly feel the aftermath of the war since the heavily polluted Danube empties out into it.

A large number of chemical plants and oil refineries bombed by NATO in Yugoslavia lie on the banks of the Danube River or its tributaries. This is particularly disturbing when considering the fact that the river is the source of drinking water for 10 million people in the region.  (42)    The result is that contaminants have entered the regional river system and been carried downstream to Romania, Bulgaria, Moldova, and Ukraine before emptying in the Black Sea.

Hungary, which was accepted into NATO about a month before the war, permitted the alliance to use its air bases and airspace to bomb neighboring Yugoslavia. Rarely mentioned was that at times, NATO pilots who feared being shot out of the air would lighten their flight load by emptying excess fuel onto land or water below. Also, Hungarian ecologists are aware of American midair refueling planes that dumped 43 tons of fuel over the Haydu-Bihar region.  (43)   One witness confirmed that a plane scattered kerosene on a 700 hectare field which is a national wildlife park. (44)

Aside from Yugoslavia, Romania and Bulgaria seemed to be the most severely affected. In Romania according to the UNEP-UNCHS report,

"the Ministry of Waters Forests, and Environmental Protection issued a report stating it feared fish stocks in the Danube may be reduced after monitoring devices recorded abnormally high concentrations of toxic heavy metals in the river. On April 23, zinc levels peaked at 55 times the maximum admitted level while levels of heavy metals such as copper, chrome, cadmium and lead had also exceeded acceptable norms. (45)

The Environmental News Service reported that according to the Romanian Environmental Ministry, large-scale fires from Yugoslav bombing targets caused acid rain to fall in Romania. Near Mehedinti and Timisoara the leaves of trees and some crops withered.  ( 46)  For nine days at the end of April, up to ten times the level of sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and ammonia were monitored in rains that fell in southwestern Romania. On May 15, a 10-15 kilometer-long smoke cloud floated for several hours over the country following NATO’s bombing of the Prahovo oil terminal.   (47)  Aside from Romania, during the war, acid rainfall was reported in neighboring to Yugoslavia "wind-ward" countries such as Hungary , Bulgaria, Macedonia, Slovakia, Greece, Poland and Austria. (48)

Some of the environmental after effects of NATO’s bombings are being compared to another catastrophy thirteen years ago. Marian Ianculescu, an ecologist from the Romanian Academy of Agricultural Sciences reported that in the Turnu Magurele region "dead bees were shoveled up daily, a phenomenon that has only occurred once before, after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster" in the Ukraine in 1986.   (49)   NATO’s bombings of Kriveli, Maidanpec, and Mosna where copper, gold, silver and uranium mines are located dispersed radioactive dust throughout the region. As a result, all of the fruit was reported to have dried up and fallen from the trees, particularly in the Banat region which borders Serbia. (50)

Down the Danube in Bulgaria, authorities were forced to fight a reportedly 14 km long and 400 meter wide oil slick on April 7 after NATO bombed a refinery upstream. This forced authorities to close water intakes that normally provide backup supplies of drinking water to local communities.  (51)   In the last week of May, Bulgarian authorities reported an oil slick some eight kilometers long and 400 meters wide in the northern region of Vidin.  (52)   As of late June, farmers weren’t using water from the Danube to water their gardens and fields.   (53)   In all, a reported eighteen oil slicks were seen in the Bulgarian Danube.  (54)

The ozone layer above Bulgaria has not been spared either. According to Lidia Asenova, an environmental expert from the Ministry of the Environment, the integrity of the ozone layer became affected when NATO bombs destroyed factories and oil refineries in Serbia. The subsequent fires caused the emission of chlorine which triggers a reaction with molecules of the ozone layer. In Asenova’s opinion, "the exact size of the damage which was inflicted on the ozone layer by the bombing will become more clear after a more detailed study."  (55)   Bulgarian environmentalists have also reported black soot particles in the air and on the ground as NATO bombed petrochemical plants near the Bulgarian border. (56)



  1. Yugoslav Rivers, U.N. Says," Yomiuri (Japan), June 28, 1999. The name of the report is : "The United Nations Inter-Agency Needs Assessment Mission to the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia - Environment and Human Settlements Aspects." The research was conducted between May 16-27.
  2. Captain Vladislav Shurigin, "To Survive Until the Rusbat," Zavtra, Num. 24, June, 1999, pg.4.
  3. "Appeal by Professor Jagos Zelenovic, Ph. D., Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Federal Ministry for Development, Science, and Environment.
  4. Lev Pakhomov, Valery Spektor, "Europe Faces Major Environmental Disaster - The Aftermath of NATO Airstrikes Threatens Millions," Nezavisimaya Gazeta, abridged, June 23, 1999.
  5. Felicity Arbuthnot and Darran Gardner, "NATO Using Depleted Uranium Weapons," Sunday Herald (Glasgow), Online edition, April 4, 1999; "Pentagon Confirms Depleted Uranium Use," BBC Online Network, May 7, 1999; George Monbiot, "Consigning Their Future to Death," The Guardian (Manchester), Online edition, April 22, 1999.
  6. "Pentagon Confirms Depleted Uranium Use," BBC Online Network, May 7, 1999.
  7. Statement from Dr. Rosalie Bertell, Ph. D. GSNH, Flora Community Web, , March 31, 1999.
  8. Ibid.
  9. BBC Online, May 7, 1999.
  10. Ibid.
  11. The Guardian, Online edition, April 22, 1999.
  12. Uli Schmetzer, "Serbs Allege NATO Raids Caused Toxic Catastrophe," Chicago Tribune, Internet Edition, July 8, 1999.
  13. Statement for the Press, General Manager, HIP - AZOTARA Fertilizer Co., Miralem Dzindo, April 16, 1999.
  14. Announcement of the General Director of the Petrohemija Pancevo - Slobodan Tresac, April 16, 1999.
  15. Chicago Tribune, July 8, 1999.
  16. Statement, Miralem Dzindo, April 16, 1999.
  17. Press Release, Department of Organic Chemical Technology and Polymers, Faculty of Technology and Metallurgy, Belgrade University, Belgrade Yugoslavia, April 21, 1999; William Booth, "NATO Bombs Left a Toxic Slough," Washington Post, Online Edition, July 21, 1999, pg. A15.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Mark Fineman, NATO Blitz Leaves Toxic Nightmare," Los Angeles Times, Online edition, July 7, 1999.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Washington Post, Online Edition, July 21, 1999, pg.A15.
  22. Chicago Tribune, Online edition, July 8, 1999
  23. .Ibid.
  24. Ibid.
  25. Washington Post, Online Edition, July 21, 1999, pg. A15.
  26. Chicago Tribune, Online Edition, July 8, 1999.
  27. Los Angeles Times, Online edition, July 7, 1999.
  28. Washington Post, Online Edition, July 21, 1999, pg.A15.
  29. "Environment at Risk from NATO Bombing," The Environmental News Service, April 7, 1999, http//
  30. Washington Post, Online Edition, July 21, 1999, pg.A15.
  31. Chicago Tribune, Online Edition, July 8, 1999.
  32. Los Angeles Times, Online Edition, July 7, 1999.
  33. Yomiuri (Japan), June 28, 1999.
  34. Ibid.
  35. Los Angeles Times, Online Edition, July 7, 1999.
  36. Nezavisimaya Gazeta, June 23, 1999.
  37. Steven Edwards, "A Balkan Nightmare: Toxic Food and Water," National Post Online, June 23, 1999.
  38. Yomiuri (Japan), June 28, 1999; National Post Online, June 23, 1999..
  39. National Post Online, June 23, 1999.
  40. Ibid.
  41. "UN Environmental Team Asks NATO About Kosovo Targets," Reuters, Central Europe Online, July 8, 1999.
  42. Christopher Walker, The Environmental Impact of the NATO Campaign," Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Newsline Vol. 3, No. 108, Part II, Online edition, June 3, 1999
  43. "America is Destroying Europe," Russkii Vestnik, June, 1999.
  44. Ibid.
  45. National Post Online, June 23, 1999.
  46. Herve Kempf, "NATO Bombs Take Toll on Environment," Le Monde,, June 2, 1999.
  47. National Post Online, June 23, 1999.
  48. Nezavisimaya Gazeta, June 23, 1999.
  49. "Bombardment of Yugoslavia Creates Ecological Disaster," World Socialist Web Site,
  50. Ibid..
  51. National Post Online, June 23, 1999.
  52. Sonya Yee, "NATO Air Strikes Likely to Produce Widespread Eco-Damage in Balkans," Earth Times News Service, June 2, 1999, u n2_99.html.
  53. Nezavisimaya Gazeta, June 23, 1999.
  54. Le Monde, June 2, 1999.
  55. Vladimir Abrosimov, "NATO;s Bombing of Yugoslavia Destroyed the Integrity of the Ozone Layer Above the Balkans According to a Bulgarian Expert," ITAR-TASS, June 26, 1999.
  56. Earth Times News Service, June 2, 1999.




Commission of Inquiry
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Table of Contents: Selected Research Findings