78 Days of Fear: Remembering NATO’s Bombing of Yugoslavia

Twenty years after the start of NATO’s air strikes to force Slobodan Milosevic’s troops to withdraw from Kosovo, reporters who covered the bombing campaign recall the 78 days of violence, terror and destruction that changed the course of Yugoslavia’s history.

This article is also available in: Македонски Bos/Hrv/Srp

The army statement said that over 20 buildings had already been hit and that the air campaign was continuing, but insisted that the military’s operational and combat readiness was at the highest possible level. It also declared that the mood among the country’s soldiers and officers was “unusually high”.

The news continued with a press release from the man who was Serbia’s information minister at the time, and who is now the country’s president, Aleksandar Vucic.

“The evil, terrible, subversive, cowardly attack by the NATO army on Serbia and Yugoslavia is proof of the neo-Nazi policies of the USA and its satellites. Serbia will defend itself against the aggressor and will defeat the enemy,” Vucic was quoted as saying by RTS.

NATO launched its air campaign against Yugoslavia in an attempt to force President Milosevic to accept the terms of an agreement to end his military campaign against the Kosovo Liberation Army, which involved widespread ethnic cleansing and killings of Kosovo Albanian civilians.

The peace deal had been discussed for most of the previous month at the Chateau de Rambouillet, near Paris in France. The international pressure that led to the talks was triggered by a massacre in January 1999, when Serbian forces killed 44 ethnic Albanians in the Kosovo village of Recak/Racak.

The Kosovo delegation, led by the Kosovo Liberation Army’s political director Hashim Thaci – who is now Kosovo’s president – accepted the terms of the proposed agreement, which offered the chance to the violence and gave Kosovo Albanians substantial autonomy, although preserving Yugoslav sovereignty over the territory.

Avni Zogiani, who was a journalist for Kosovo newspaper Koha Ditore at the time, said that because the situation on the ground in Kosovo was so grave, most ordinary people didn’t care much about the outcome of the Rambouillet talks.

“What they wanted was the end of the war and an agreement that would drive out Serbian forces. What people were hoping for was an end to the tragedy that was putting their survival at stake,” Zogiani told BIRN.

Rade Maroevic, a Serbian journalist who was working for Beta news agency in Belgrade at the time, said he didn’t think the Rambouillet talks were doomed in advance, but argued that “the Americans just scheduled the conference way too soon and with both sides too far apart on the top issues”.

Milosevic refused to sign the Rambouillet agreement because he didn’t want international forces to be deployed in Yugoslavia, and then rebuffed a final ultimatum delivered by US envoy Richard Holbrooke to end Belgrade’s use of military force in Kosovo.

In Serbia, the mood was fatalistic. “Pretty much everyone knew that bombing was about to start, especially after Richard Holbrooke left Belgrade without a deal with Milosevic,” Maroevic recalled.

Without the backing of the UN Security Council, NATO struck, launching its war planes on March 24, justifying its intervention by saying it had to act to end a humanitarian crisis.

Milosevic insisted the air strikes were illegal, and his forces struck back against the Kosovo Albanians.

Surreal life in Serbia


Jacky Rowland, who was the BBC’s correspondent in Belgrade when the NATO strikes started, said that while the bombing, the deaths and the destruction were very real indeed, it nevertheless felt like there was something surreal about the idea of a war in Europe at the end of the 20th Century.

Ordinary life continued somehow despite the daily attacks from the air. Rowland recalled how, in the middle of NATO’s 78-day air campaign, her local producer/translator decided to get married.

“We spent the afternoon and evening before her wedding day at Restaurant Reka.  Between the eating and drinking, I had to file radio reports by telephone to the BBC in London.  The restaurant was noisy, so I went outside to file my reports,” Rowland told BIRN.

At around 11pm, plainclothes police officers arrived to arrest them because someone at the restaurant had reported “suspicious” behaviour by a foreigner.  “Maybe I had been making phone calls to guide in NATO bombers?” Rowland quipped.

She and her friends were taken to a police station where they were interrogated for a couple of hours, but the wedding went ahead the following day. The bride wore the white dress she had finally retrieved from the dressmaker at about 2am, after being released from the police station.

“Outside the municipality building, workers were sweeping up broken glass from the bombing the night before. My producer’s father was present, but her mother and sister missed the big day because they had taken refuge in Macedonia,” Rowland recalled.


Some of the most controversial strikes during the bombing of Belgrade were the attack on the RTS television building, and the strike that hit the Chinese embassy on May 7, 1999. NATO insisted the embassy was bombed by accident.

“It seemed inconceivable that this could be an accidental target,” Rowland said. “But what could NATO hope to gain – and how could it justify – targeting an embassy?”

One image stuck in her mind: “A dazed Chinese diplomat emerging from the building in his stocking feet, his hair and his glasses covered in dust from the explosion.”

Steven Erlanger, who was bureau chief for Central Europe and the Balkans at the New York Times during the NATO campaign, recalled a series of impressions from the bombing campaign that have stayed with him ever since, including “arriving at Grdelica just after a train was bombed; watching a cruise missile go down the street; travelling through Kosovo during the war itself, with permission from the army and 150 litres of gasoline in my rental car; seeing the impact of the cleansing and flight of Kosovars and later, the Roma”.

Deadly days in Kosovo

Watching the war at close range in Kosovo, Avni Zogiani feared for the lives of his ethnic Albanian compatriots.

A few days before the NATO bombing started, he was coming back from the Drenica valley, where he was covering the fighting between the Kosovo Liberation Army and Belgrade’s forces.

“A roughly 20-kilometre road was covered by a stream of [Yugoslav] military vehicles traveling toward Drenica. I was horrified by what I saw. I remember myself thinking that no one will survive,” he said.

For an entire year, he was reporting on killings by Serbian forces, and people were living in constant fear of death or expulsion, he recalled.

“I went to Pristina, where I saw a beleaguered city. People were locked in [their homes] due to the fear that they might encounter Serb forces. In the days that followed, one by one, houses were emptied and people were driven to the train station, where they were sent to Macedonia in railway coaches,” he said.

During the NATO military campaign, the Serbian government estimates that at least 2,500 people died and 12,500 were injured, but the exact death toll remains unclear.

It also estimated that the bombing damaged 25,000 houses and apartment buildings and destroyed 470 kilometres of roads and 600 kilometres of railway.

The overall civilian death toll from the bombing campaign was put at around 500 by Human Rights Watch.

Jamie Shea, who was the spokesperson for NATO during the air strikes, told BIRN Kosovo’s TV programme ‘Jeta Ne Kosove’ in February that he was certain that NATO was doing the right thing by striking at Milosevic’s regime, and had justice on its side.

“I was satisfied that we tried diplomacy, we were using force in the minimum way to avoid casualties to achieve our objectives. I totally believed in what we were doing,” Shea said.

Milosevic defeated and deposed

The NATO campaign ended on June 10, 1999, after the signing of the Kumanovo Agreement and the adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 1244, which was followed by the withdrawal of all Yugoslav military forces from Kosovo and the arrival of 36,000 international peacekeepers.

Milosevic was ousted in an uprising the following year, and sent to the Hague Tribunal to stand trial in 2002 for crimes including the ones committed in Kosovo, although he died in custody before his verdict was delivered.

Asked about the lessons that could be drawn from the NATO intervention, the New York Times’ Steven Erlanger said that the answers “depend on your politics, I suppose”.

“Intervening in a civil war is complicated, a lesson learned in Kosovo, then forgotten, and now learned again, one hopes, in Libya. And so is ‘nation building,’ adding Bosnia to the mix,” Erlanger said.

But he argued that Milosevic was going to fall sooner or later, and it was always going to be impossible to hold Yugoslavia together after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

“There are limits to the power of internal repression when the tide turns – a regular lesson that authoritarians never seem to learn,” he said.

For Kosovo Albanians, the NATO campaign brought hope after “desperate times”, said Avni Zogiani.


“The bombing was coming after a year of intensive military campaigns. Although everyone knew the bombing would enrage the Serbs and they might become even more brutal, the first bombings were celebrated,” he recalled.

It was “the light at the end of the tunnel”, Zogiani added: “Hope was returned in the middle of desperation.”

“The NATO intervention stopped Milosevic’s crackdown on Albanian rebels, and created a new reality in Kosovo,” said Rade Maroevic.

Jacky Rowland argued that one tangible outcome of the NATO campaign was that Kosovo declared independence “and, as of now, more than 100 countries recognise it as a sovereign nation”.

But Maroevic pointed out that “NATO turned the tables in Kosovo, so instead of Serbian domination we now have an Albanian one”.

While the Western military alliance’s intervention helped realise Kosovo Albanians’ dreams of independence from Belgrade’s rule, it remains a deeply troubling issue for Serbia, where the bombing campaign is widely described as the “NATO aggression”.

Graffiti declaring that “Kosovo is Serbia” is also widespread in the country, where the loss of the province remains deeply felt.

Montenegro, which was also bombed in 1999, joined NATO last year, but membership of the alliance remains deeply unpopular in Serbia.

In an opinion poll published late last year by the Belgrade-based Centre for Free Elections and Democracy, 60 per cent of those polled said they supported Serbia’s military neutrality; just seven per cent were in favour of closer relations with the US and NATO.

Shea said optimistically that he hoped that the majority of Serbs now know that NATO quarrel’s was not with the people, but with the Milosevic regime.

“And I believe and hope that particularly among the younger generation of Serbs… they realise that Milosevic was their adversary… because he isolated them from Europe and created a very difficult situation for their country,” he explained.

He also pointed out that despite what happened in 1999, Serbia and NATO are now working together.

Serbia is part of NATO’s Partnership for Peace programme and concluded an Individual Partnership Action Plan with the alliance in March 2015, considered the highest level of cooperation with NATO for any non-member. However, Serbian officials insist the country will never join NATO and will instead remain militarily neutral.

The question of the impact of the bombing on public health has also continued to be a live issue in Serbian politics.

The authorities have formed a parliamentary commission to examine the impact of NATO’s use of depleted uranium ammunition during the air campaign, and Serbian media have continued to blame an alleged increase in tumour patients on the bombing, while ignoring the fact that depleted uranium was used almost exclusively in Kosovo.

The anniversary of the bombing will be marked in Serbia on March 24 with an Orthodox church service and senior state officials commemorating the victims of NATO’s air strikes. The slogan of the event is “Do not forget the crime”.

In Kosovo, which is now governing its own affairs, no official events to mark the anniversary have yet been announced.