Yugoslavia’s NATO Bombing Victims: Official Death Toll Unclear, 25 Years Later

Twenty-five years after the start of NATO’s air strikes on Yugoslavia, no exact casualty figures have ever been established and no official comprehensive list of all the civilian victims’ names exists – allowing the death toll to be manipulated by politicians.

On March 24 last year, in his speech at the main state event marking the Remembrance Day for the Victims of the NATO Bombing in 1999, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic declared that “[NATO] tore off parts of our territory [Kosovo], killed 79 children, 2,500 people, and not only civilians, but also soldiers and policemen”.

In previous years, Vucic has used similar but not always identical figures for the number of people killed during the Western military alliance’s 78-day campaign of air strikes against Yugoslavia, which was launched to compel Belgrade to end its violent repression of Kosovo Albanians and withdraw its military and police forces from Kosovo.

In his 2021 speech, Vucic spoke of “2,500 civilians killed, but also soldiers and policemen”; in 2019, he also talked about “the death of 2,500 civilians”. But in 2017, he said that “we lost more than 2,000 civilian lives and almost 1,000 soldiers and policemen during three months of bombing and killing”.

Every year on March 24, the anniversary of the start of the NATO bombing, both officials and media cite casualty figures ranging from 1,200 to 2,500 people, without specifying whether they were civilians or members of the armed forces.

At the Serbian national commemorative event in 2021, it was stated during an audiovisual presentation that “around 4,000 civilians” died during the NATO air campaign.

The vagueness about the exact number of casualties highlights the fact that the death toll remains an estimate, leaving it subject to manipulation by political leaders for propaganda purposes. No definitive casualty figures have ever been established, and the victims have never been comprehensively listed by name.

Figures cited by the Yugoslav authorities back in 2000 were much lower than those claimed by Vucic – hundreds of deaths rather than thousands.

Professor Susan Breau, Interim Director Research Students at Institute of Advanced Legal Studies in Britain, argued that lack of precise information about the casualty figures or the exaggeration of the death toll “fuels conflict, it fuels resentment”.

“What it does is it doesn’t allow reconciliation, it doesn’t allow for transitional justice,” Breau told BIRN.

“I’ve always said you need to identify people by name – you know, who are these people? Don’t give me a number of 2,500, tell me who they are,” she said.

No comprehensive list of names exists, however.

No court-confirmed data

As well as speeches by Vucic, Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik and the head of the Serbian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Porfirije, the annual Serbian state commemorations of the NATO bombing anniversary feature dramatised interludes with actors playing war victims and audiovisual montages of archive footage from 1999.

During the last couple of years, photographs of military personnel who died at the time have also been shown during the audiovisual section of the event.

In 2023, one of the speakers was a daughter of a military official who was killed in the bombing, while in 2022, a women who was injured as a child spoke at the commemoration. But in general, the names of the civilian victims are rarely mentioned.

There has been no court case, either international or domestic, that has established the number of civilian victims.

NATO did not respond to BIRN’s questions about its data on civilian casualties of the alliance’s bombing campaign. The alliance has not conducted any kind of internal investigation into the deaths of civilians.

Karolina MacLachan, senior advocacy and policy adviser at the Centre for Civilians in Conflict told BIRN that coalition operations, like the 1999 NATO campaign, are “sort of notorious for releasing less information around civilian casualties and for making it quite difficult to achieve any kind of accountability”.

“And that is because most of the time if you want accountability, you have to go after a specific state, and if it’s a coalition operation, then it’s quite difficult to ascertain who’s done what and who’s responsible,” MacLachan explained.

“And that might be either because there’s very little transparency and there’s very little data released about who was operating when and where within a coalition. Or it’s because, for example, one nation could have dropped a bomb, but acting on intelligence from another nation. And then the question is, OK, who’s responsible?” she added.

The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, ICTY in The Hague established a committee to examine allegations that NATO personnel and leaders may have committed war crimes during the air campaign. The committee published its report in June 2000, saying that it “recommends that no investigation be commenced”. However, it did not seek to establish the number of civilian casualties and only used previously published data.

It quoted a Human Rights Watch report published in 2000, which concluded between that 488 and 527 “Yugoslav civilians” were killed as a result of the NATO bombing.

The Human Rights Watch report also said that it found a Yugoslav Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ publication called ‘The White Book: NATO War Crimes in Yugoslavia’ to be “largely credible on the basis of its own filed research and correlation with other sources”.

The Yugoslav ministry’s publication “provides an estimated total of approximately 495 civilians killed and 820 civilians wounded in specific documented instances”, according to Human Rights Watch.

The ICTY committee’s report cites data from the Yugoslav ministry and Human Rights Watch, concluding that the casualty figures were “in the range of 500 civilians killed” – much fewer than the 2,500 deaths later claimed by the Serbian government.

Yugoslavia’s initial casualty figures lower

In April 1999, Yugoslavia filed cases before the International Court of Justice against Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, the United Kingdom and United States, alleging that during the NATO campaign, they violated their obligation not to use force against another state.

In some of these cases, Yugoslavia submitted a document to the International Court of Justice in January 2000 that included details about NATO attacks on its territory and the damage caused to non-military buildings.

The document also included a list of attacks that left civilians dead, saying that in 59 incidents involving violations of the rules relative to the protection of civilian persons in international armed conflicts”, the total number of civilian deaths was 463.

Annexes to the Yugoslav dossier included documents from the police and courts at the time confirming people’s deaths or establishing what exactly led to their deaths.

Also in 2000, the Yugoslav federal Defence Ministry issued its ‘White Book’ publication, which included similar data.

The same year, Human Rights Watch issued its report about civilian victims of the NATO campaign. The watchdog organisation identified 90 incidents and said that “in 69 of 90 incidents, the precise number of victims and the names of the victims are known”.

According to Human Rights Watch, in another seven incidents, the number of victims was known and some of the names had been confirmed. In 11 incidents, the number of victims was known but the names were unknown. In three incidents, the names and precise numbers of victims were both unknown.

“Human Rights Watch concludes on the basis of evidence available on these ninety incidents that as few as 488 and as many as 527 Yugoslav civilians were killed as a result of NATO bombing,” the report said.

The only other attempt to count and name all the casualties was made in 2014, when the Humanitarian Law Centre NGOs in Serbia and Kosovo published a list with the names of all victims they had been able to confirm. According to the NGO’s data, a total of 454 civilians were killed in Serbia, Montenegro and Kosovo.

Monuments but no names

During the NATO bombing, there were at least 11 confirmed attacks with large-scale civilian casualties. Two of them were attacks on columns of ethnic Albanian refugees fleeing Kosovo on April 14 and May 13, 1999.

The others were attacks on the southern Serbian town of Aleksinac (April 5), a train in Grdelica Gorge (April 12), state broadcaster Radio-Television Serbia in Belgrade (April 23), a bus near Podujevo (May 1), a bus on the Peja/Pec-Rozaje road (May 3), the city of Nis (May 7), a bridge in Varvarin (May 30) a hospital in Surdulica and a residential area in Novi Pazar (May 31).

The only major discrepancy between Yugoslav data and the conclusions of international and domestic NGOs concern the deaths at Dubrava prison in Kosovo.

The Dubrava prison, near Istok/Istoq, was hit by NATO twice, on May 19 and May 21, 1999. Yugoslav-era data says that 95 people were killed in total. However, this claim was contested in the years that followed, and it was suggested that most of the people who died at the prison were actually killed by Serbian paramilitary forces, not NATO air strikes.

Another death toll was suggested in an indictment filed in November 2023 by Kosovo’s Special Prosecution, charging a Serb who has dual citizenship of Kosovo and Serbia with participation in the Dubrava killings.

“The defendant is accused of participating in the murder of 109 prisoners and the injuring of 108 other prisoners, all of Albanian nationality [ethnicity], on May 22, 1999 [in what is known as] the ‘Dubrava Massacre’,” the prosecution’s announcement said.

NATO has not compensated the victims of its bombing raids on Yugoslavia. However, MacLahlan pointed out that for victims of conflict, what mainly matters “is not necessarily the material compensation… it is that somebody says, ‘We see what happened to you, we see the harm that befell you’ – that helps a lot. And so even if it’s just that acknowledgement, it means that people not no longer feel invisible,” she said.

As well as Serbia’s Remembrance Day for people who died in the NATO bombing on March 24, the country also has a Remembrance Day for the Civil Victims of NATO bombing on May 7. The day was chosen to mark the anniversary of the attack on the city of Nis.

Unlike March 24, the May 7 Remembrance Day is not commemorated with a state ceremony with speeches, only the laying of flowers by officials.

There are various monuments commemorating the victims of the NATO attacks across what was then Yugoslavia. The largest is the monument dedicated to the victims of the bombing in Belgrade, the Eternal Flame, set up at the initiative of Mira Markovic, who was the wife of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. It does not include any data or names.

In February 2020, some media in Serbia reported that at the initiative of President Vucic, a commission would be formed “soon” to establish a complete list of the people died during the NATO bombing.

The commission hasn’t been established yet, and Vucic’s office did not respond to BIRN’s questions about progress, or about whether it will count the victims of the bombing or will use data that already exists.

On the 25th anniversary of the start of the NATO bombing, it’s still unclear when, if ever, a comprehensive list of the victims’ names will be compiled.

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