"Bombed because we refuse to be slaves."

Interview with Greg Elich


(Greg Elich just returned from a fact-finding trip to Yugoslavia. He is interviewed here by Jared Israel, editor of Emperors-clothes.com. Feel free to distribute this with the proviso that you include everything on the page, including this note. During the week of August 23rd we will be posting the second part of this interview.)

Jared: So how was Yugoslavia?

Greg: Overwhelming. The trip was overwhelming. In the positive sense, it is such a beautiful country and a beautiful people and you can see how much people care for each other. You get a feeling that's quite different from what I see here where people are isolated and they just work and they go home. In Yugoslavia social interaction is part of society; friends and family are very important. That was something I very much appreciated and felt comfortable with. It was very, very refreshing. Also, intelligent discourse from any ordinary citizen you run into. The people are definitely politically savvy. In the negative regard it was overwhelming in that the destruction that we saw was absolutely appalling. I had read about it, but reading about something and then seeing it, those are two different things.

Jared: It's shocking?

Greg: It is shocking and it affected my sleep. I had trouble sleeping. I still do. I can't get rid of these images. And talking with people, these interviews we conducted, if anything their stories are even more horrific than what we saw.

Jared: What did you see?

Residential streets, pockmarked

Greg: Initially in Belgrade we saw many destroyed buildings including homes, people's homes. We went to Panchevo. That's where they had all the chemical plants that were bombed and the massive poisoning of the environment - vinyl chloride monomers and hydrochloric acid. Hundreds of tons of these dangerous chemicals were released into the environment from the bombing.

We saw that and interviewed people. Went to Novi Sad and saw destroyed buildings - a bombed apartment building - a bombed elementary school - bombed bridges - a bombed petrol chemical plant - a bird soaked in oil that was near death. We went down to Nis and saw the neighborhood - just a regular residential street, or streets, I should say, where they dropped several cluster bombs.

Jared: Did they look like American streets?

Greg: No it's quite different. How to describe it - the whole style is different. The streets are more narrow and at the end of the street there's a market place and it was very busy the day they dropped those cluster bombs.

Jared: That was where they hit the market?

Greg: That's it. Actually these cluster bombs fell on about three or four streets in the area - they dropped them all over and you could see the walls everywhere pock-marked with literally thousands of holes from shrapnel. You could walk for blocks and blocks around and all you saw were people's homes. It was strictly a residential area. It was deliberate murder.

We saw autopsy photographs of the victims including a woman who was 7 months pregnant. She was killed along with the unborn baby. The autopsy photographs were absolutely horrific because when these cluster bombs went off thousands of pieces of shrapnel and metal were sent flying - they literally tore people to shreds. In Nis we also saw a hospital and a parking lot that had cluster bombs dropped on it and I think in this case they used the new kind of cluster bomb the Pentagon was anxious to introduce - the BLU-97 which not only sprays shrapnel but is super heated so that anything it hits not only gets torn to shreds it also burns. You had all these cars in the parking lot that were burnt.

Jared: The jagged pieces get that hot?

Greg: Yes. I don't know if you remember the Albanian refugees who were bombed in Djakovica? They were hit with these new cluster bombs too and the bodies were just burnt to black charcoal. We saw pictures of that too by the way. We saw another elementary school that was bombed, several factories that were bombed. We went to Aleksinac, a small mining town. They have a very strong Socialist Party government there. Actually we were surprised at how quickly they have started to rebuild. In this one whole neighborhood that was completely wiped out by bombs they had cleared all the rubble away and they were starting to build again already. It was remarkable. We went to Surdulica, another neighborhood that had been bombed and again they had cleared it away and they were starting to build already so the spirit of these people is incredible. They won't be defeated.

A bombed sanitarium

In Surdulica they also took us to a sanitarium that was off in the woods. There was nothing around it. They had buildings for elderly people, handicapped people and refugees were living there. Several NATO missiles struck the sanitarium. Twenty four people were killed, over 100 mutilated. The blast was so powerful that it literally sent body parts flying as far as 1 km away. They told us that body parts were hanging from trees all around and blood was dripping. By the time we got there they had cleaned up but you could still see clothes hanging in the trees. It was absolutely horrific. And bombs struck this building at midnight when people were sleeping. On top of one building was painted a large red cross.

Jared: They couldn't miss it?

Greg: No. We went inside. There was just utter destruction.

Jared: How far is it from there to anything that would be considered a military target?

Greg: I saw nothing as far as the eye could see. This was off in the woods. There was nothing; this stood alone, this sanitarium.

Jared: So the red cross was a bullseye.

Beautiful scenery.

Greg: We also stopped in Grdelica in southern Serbia where the scenery is absolutely gorgeous, breathtaking. You have these hills and mountains covered in lush green and deep ravines and beautiful villages and driving through this beauty all of a sudden we were confronted with the horror of this scene at Grdelica where they bombed this bridge and this passenger train.

Jared: That's where they hit the passenger train.and then they came back and hit it again, hit the rescuers?

Greg: Yes..

Jared: And they hit the ambulance, right?

Greg: Yes.exactly.You saw these passenger trains just burnt and you can imagine the horror in there because nothing could have survived.

When we arrived, an old man was walking nearby on a dirt road with a cane. The railroad track was on a slight hill and he walked up the hill even though it was difficult to do so with the cane. He wanted to know who we were and why we were there. "This was murder," he said. "40 bombs struck this place and 47 people were killed."

Western reports I read implied that, oh they intended to bomb the bridge and it was just an accident that the train was going across this bridge at the same time.

Jared: Right, they claimed they were blowing up the railroad bridge to prevent transport of troops and military supplies and the passenger train happened to be there.

Greg: It's a little confusing, so let me explain the layout. There is one train track and first it goes under a highway bridge and then later on it goes over a very short bridge, a railroad bridge over a small gully. That was what the newspaper pictures showed - that was the bombed railroad bridge.

But what we saw at Grdelica looked like only one bomb hit the railroad bridge out of 40 bombs total. And the entire length of the train was hit, stretching back from that one car that was hit on the railroad bridge and the train was bombed all along its length.

Jared: Many railroad cars?

Greg: Yes. I don't know exactly how many because they removed some but it was a hell of a lot.

Jared: The pictures that we saw in the media, of the front of the train that had reached the railroad bridge, made it look like they had just hit the one car. In which case it could of course have been a mistake - trying to knock out the bridge, and the train shows up, wrong place, wrong time.

Greg: Exactly.

Jared: Whereas in fact they bombed the whole length of a long passenger train the front of which happened to have reached a bridge?

Greg: Yes, and further back, they also bombed a highway bridge that went over the train. And in the newspaper reports they showed a picture of the railroad bridge in the front, but they seemed to describe the highway bridge and implied that the train had fallen off. Which of course it had not.

To us it looked as if they had deliberately bombed the highway bridge and the whole length of the train. The other bridge, the railroad bridge in front was really the only thing still standing.

Jared: The highway bridge in back was obliterated? Did they obliterate it?

Greg: Yes.

Jared: And the part they claimed was the real target - the railroad bridge up front - might well have been hit only because they were targeting the train? Unbeleivable. A passenger train.

Chinese Embassy Bombing

Greg: Going back to Belgrade, we saw the Hotel Yugoslavia, which NATO bombed, near the Chinese Embassy. That was horrific too. They not only bombed the hotel rooms but the Casino and you know how crowded casinos can be so I can imagine how many people died. Then we stopped at the Chinese Embassy. Before I went I had in the back of my mind the thought that maybe this was an accident.not that that would be excusable because to target any building would be a crime. But once I saw this I had not the slightest doubt. This Chinese embassy has a unique design. You could drive around that neighborhood for a week and you're not going to see a building that looks remotely like this. Furthermore this Chinese embassy is surrounded by a field, unlike any other building. I'm convinced it was deliberate.

Jared: And the missiles didn't hit anything but the building?

Greg: They targeted it very precisely. The destruction was appalling. I'm amazed that more people didn't die.

We went to a couple of refugee camps in Zemun Polje [North of Belgrade]. Talked to dozens of Roma ["Gypsy"] refugees, to the Egyptian member of the Yugoslav delegation [at the so-called peace talks] at Rambouillet.

Albanians forced out by the KLA

We talked to three Albanian refugees, including Faik Jasari, the head of an Albanian Political Party, the Kosovo Democratic Initiative, and also one of the two Albanian representatives in the Yugoslav delegation at Rambouillet. He mentioned that there were 150,000 Albanians driven out by the KLA because they were pro-Yugoslav. He was asked about the stories of Serbian atrocities and he said they were basically a lie. The Yugoslav Army was very disciplined. Romas also said the same thing. In fact some Romas said it was an honor to serve in the Yugoslav army for their multi-ethnic state.

These refugees were living in appalling conditions. You can imagine. Yugoslavia is burdened with a million refugees from various wars and is suffering under sanctions

Jared: Sanctions as harsh as those imposed on Iraq?

Greg: Yes. So the whole society in under a strain and the weakest point is these refugees. One Roma settlement was terribly overcrowded because they had a huge influx of refugees from Kosovo.

NATO's role in KLA terror

Jared: What about the reports that you hear that the Milosevic government has told policemen to turn the refugees back?

Greg: I don't know about that report. You know people are free wheeling in their conversation and nobody, and certainly no refugee ever mentioned anything about that. As far as I can see they are getting some food assistance and the government arranges places for these people to live. It does what it can but its resources are limited. We also went to a Serbian refugee camp south of Belgrade. These people were driven out by the KLA after KFOR [NATO troops] came in and like the Roma and the Albanians they all told the same story:

"We saw KFOR coming over the hill into our village with KLA troops right with them and the KLA troops started burning the houses and killing the people and KFOR did nothing and we just ran for our lives with just the clothes on our back."

Ran with the clothes they wore.

People would talk about how relatives were killed or tortured by the KLA. We have story after story. One person told how KFOR troops stood on top of a hill laughing while they watched KLA troops beating his uncle to death.

Beaten to death, tortured, just killed outright . Sometimes they went to KFOR and complained - "well my relative has been kidnapped, can you help me?" KFOR would not help. A couple of Romas said that when they went to KFOR for help, saying that KLA troops had threatened them that they better leave immediately or get killed - KFOR said, "then you should go."

Jared: So the KFOR was the bystander: always present, never active?

Greg: Yes. And in some ways even aiding.

Jared: In other words, NATO has been coordinating with the KLA but avoiding the appearance of active participation.

Greg: Right. We had one man show a photograph of his burned down home with "UCK," that's the Albanian acronym for KLA painted on the remainder of his home.a German armored car is in the background and in the foreground you can see a man plundering what was left...

Greg: There's a German armored car there, there's someone plundering the home, and they're not doing anything?

Greg: Right.

Jared: So KFOR is in charge and they let the KLA do the dirty work - the KLA is their dogs of war.

Greg: Story after story.

Silencing the voices of protest

Greg: We talked to Bajram Haliti, a very charming man who is a prominent Roma scholar and leader. He had a home in Kosovo. He's an expert on the WWII genocide against the Romas and he wrote a book on it and was kind enough to give us a copy. He had a personal library of 500 books on the topic. The KLA burned down his home and his library and research - he lost everything. He showed us a list with over 300 names that NATO countries have issued, of Yugoslav citizens who are not allowed a visa to travel abroad and he's on this list. He's just the head of a Roma social organization and edits a magazine on Roma social activities and non-violence.

Jared: They have him on the list because they don't want him to travel and tell his story?

Greg: Exactly. He showed us this list. It's not only every government official, also people from non-governmental and social organizations, basically anybody of prominence who is not in the right wing opposition. He heard that same day that the list has been expanded substantially. He felt, along with his associates, that if they do travel abroad, they'll be arrested. And probably he's right. A man who edits a magazine on non-violence, a brilliant scholar, a gentle man and if he travels abroad, he's likely to be arrested on trumped up charges. It's a political tool.

Serbian opposition: weak

Jared: You mentioned the opposition - a lot of the Serbs in America support it. They're very hostile to the Serbian government. How strongly is it backed in Yugoslavia?

Greg: In Yugoslavia it's completely the opposite. Virtually everybody rightly sees the leaders of this right wing opposition as opportunists out for personal gain. Even many who belong to these parties have no illusions about their leaders. Ordinary citizens who are in these parties give a different kind of argument than you might expect: "We realize that the united states is much more powerful than us so maybe if we give the United States what it wants it will leave us alone."

Jared: I don't think that argument is so unusual.

Greg: Over here?

Jared: Yes.that's the argument made by Serbian Americans who opposed the bombing and now say Serbia should give the US government what it wants because they can't win.

Greg: Of course that's na´ve because once they have what they want it's going to be far worse off..

Jared: The question is whether the United States government wants, in fact, to stop fighting or actually wants to continue fighting and the purpose of the US support for the opposition is to give KFOR an excuse to intervene again, this time in Belgrade. Just as they used the KLA as an excuse. The KLA would do something provocative, the Yugoslavs would counterattack and the NATO people could yell: Atrocities!

Some people are saying if we go with the opposition, they won't hurt us any more. But my own feeling, my own personal opinion, is that the Untied States government wants to hurt Serbia more.

Greg: I think they're just after control of the labor and the resources and they don't care how they get it.

Jared: I think they want more war - because they want to destroy the forces that exist there that could be trouble in the future.

Greg: Well they have more than one way they can do that.

Jared: That's true. They have more than one way they can do that. But getting back to the opposition, you call it a right wing opposition.

Greg: The right wing is far less powerful than Western newspapers would have you believe.

Jared: They don't have these demonstrations of thousands of people?

Greg: I never saw a demonstration of even one person. And we spent most of our time in Belgrade. [Note: this interview was conducted before the August 19th demonstration in Belgrade] We talked to hundreds and hundreds of ordinary citizens and it's clear to me that the government has tremendous support. People are firmly behind this government and the right wing is definitely a minority.

Free to roam

Jared: To what extent could your trip be described as staged?

Greg: We had meetings with government officials. That was the only time the government had any involvement. We were free to go where we wanted and talk to whomever we wanted. We did exactly that.

Jared: In other words you just talked to people you ran into?

Greg: Exactly. And we went off in separate ways many times too, so that multiplied our efforts. We had some people wandering around cities stopping people at random and talking.

Jared: Did you all speak Serbian?

Greg: We managed to get translators many times. Other times, you'd be surprised. Many people speak English.

Jared: And if you stop people who speak English you're more likely to be talking to someone who is pro-US government -

Greg: Exactly.

Jared: So you'd be getting a sample that might be more sympathetic to the opposition than the average?

Greg: Yes. What support there is for the right wing opposition is mainly lukewarm but there is very strong and firm support for the government and socialism. I ran into that over and over again. It was clear just in the way they frame their dialogue, that they're starting with assumptions based on a socialist society and a commitment...

Jared: You think that Yugoslavia is a socialist society?

Greg: Yes, yes - well you know it's a mixed economy, right?

Jared: Because the charge that's made is that's it's a thief-ocracy.

Greg: I'm sorry, what?

Jared: A kleptocracy - that the government is thieves. It's charged that Milosevic has amassed a huge fortune.

Greg: Has he?

Jared: I don't know. I'm just asking .I'm telling you what people say.

Greg: Oh yes in Western newspapers.

Jared: Not just Western newspapers - a lot of Serbian Americans say it ..

Greg: American Serbs are not the same as Serbs in Yugoslavia. You have to keep in mind that after WWII, most Chetniks [Serbian nationalists opposed to socialism] left Yugoslavia and went to the West and had a very heavy influence on the thinking of the population. And it's a completely different sampling you might say of the population. At Aleksinac we had lunch with officials of the local Socialist government and we talked about the economy in detail. Of course you have a lot of street vendors in the private sector. Small store owners in the private sector - large factories virtually 100% state owned - smaller factories and enterprises run as cooperatives - worker owned. Agriculture - large state farms are run as cooperatives but smaller ones are privately owned. It's kind of a mixed economy but there's a heavy emphasis on socialism still. Actually more than I expected after all these years. And there's still a lot of enthusiasm for that - we ran into that over and over.

Jared: Is that right?

Greg: Yes. People are determined not to give up what they have. The people know exactly what the United States is after and they say so openly and they know and they're determined to defend their country and their system. We talked to one worker in an Electrical Transformation plant that had been bombed and he said the reason we were bombed is because we refuse to be slaves. To me that sums it up.

(To be continued, Emperors-clothes.com, week of 8/23)

Greg Elich went to Yugoslavia as part of a group of 13 called the North American Solidarity With Yugoslavia Delegation, co-led by writer/educators Barry Lituchy and Michael Parenti. The trip's goals were to interview people, distribute humanitarian aid and collect documentation for Ramsey Clark's Independent Commission to Investigate US/NATO War Crimes Against Yugoslavia. Mr. Elich is a Contributing Editor to Emperors-clothes.com. See 'Elich' under 'Articles by Author'.

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