BELGRADE - Ten years after the NATO bombing of Serbia, concern is rising over
a rise in the number of reported cases of cancer.
Some 15 tons of ammunition fortified with depleted uranium was dropped by
way of more than 50,000 bombs and missiles in the 11 weeks of bombing of Serbia
in 1999. The targets of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) bombing
were 116 locations, mostly in southern part of Serbia and the Kosovo region.
The bulk of the 120,000-strong Serbian army was stationed in the south. The
NATO campaign, dubbed Merciful Angel, was carried out to end the oppression
of about 2 million ethnic Albanians by the Serb regime. After nine years under
UN administration, Kosovo declared independence in February last year.
Depleted uranium (DU) is placed at the tip of bombs for piercing the armor
of tanks and heavy military vehicles. Although weakened in the production process,
the uranium remains highly toxic.
Experts disagree on the impact of depleted uranium on health. Some say that
the aerosol produced on impact and combustion of DU ammunition can cause cancer
and affect the kidneys, brain, liver, and heart. But some studies have found
no significant impact on health or the environment.
The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) sent a mission only in 2000,
which focused on 11 spots in Kosovo and concluded that there was "no detectable
widespread contamination of the ground surface by DU. A number of contamination
points were identified by the mission but most of these were found to be only
A report by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2001 came to a similar
conclusion. However, British expert Keith Bavestock who was a part of the WHO
team told Belgrade daily Politika that "not all data available
to the WHO was included in the report." This, he said, "does not
mean that the report is false; it is incomplete."
Local doctors have their own reports.
Nebojsa Srbljak, a physician from the Kosovan town Mitrovica, which still
has a large Serb population, has spoken of a tenfold rise in leukemia cases.
"Leukemia among children in Kosovo was at the rate of one per thousand
before 1999," he told media representatives. "Since 1999, it rose
to 1 percent."
Dr. Srbljak who is cooperating with an oncology clinic in the Kosovan capital
Pristina, said that Albanian doctors too had told him there was "a significant
rise" in the number of cancer patients since 1999. In the whole of Kosovo
the cancer rate before 1999 was 10 among 300,000 people, and "today it
stands at 20 among 60,000," he said.
"It's one tumor each day we're discovering now," radiologist Vlastimir
Cvetkovic told IPS. "Prior to 1999 it was one in three months. And this
is not just due to better diagnostics, as our working conditions were and remain
modest. Besides, it's now younger and younger people, and children we're having
An alarming rise in cancer cases has been recorded also in neighboring Bosnia-Herzegovina,
where DU was used by NATO against Bosnian Serb forces earlier in 1995. According
to official figures, more than 300 people from the Sarajevo neighborhoods Hadzici
and Han Pijesak in eastern Bosnia died of cancer from 1996 until 2000. Hadzici
was inhabited and held by Bosnian Serbs during the war. It later came under
the jurisdiction of the central Muslim-Croat government in Sarajevo.
"It's a pretty high number," local doctor Slavica Jovanovic told
IPS. "But this seems to be a subject no one is willing to tackle. People
from Hadzici have resettled elsewhere, and at the level of Bosnia-Herzegovina
there's no will to go into it."
DU-related health problems have been reported among Italian soldiers who served
as peacekeepers in Bosnia and in Kosovo. Several have died of cancer, and their
families are now in a battle to prove that working and living next to DU-contaminated
areas had proved fatal.
For Serbian authorities, DU problems seem as far away as Kosovo now, despite
the fact that some 100,000 Serbs still live there, most of them near the divided
"Some 4,000 veterans have been under constant scrutiny as they were up
to 50 meters from the point of impact of DU ammunition," Milan Misovic,
head of the Working Medicine Department of the Military Medical Academy, told
Serbian media. "So far, there is no increase in cancer among them. However,
some changes can be expected in the next 10 to 15 years."