Subscriber Only

Kathy Sheridan: It was Nato bombers and tanks that finally stopped the war in Kosovo

We have been here before with Serbian tyrant Slobodan Milosevic and Kosovo

Memory check: Russia’s assault on Ukraine is not the first war on European soil since the second World War. Little more than two decades ago, the same questions were being asked and the same certainties trotted out.

The Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic and his soldiers had subjected the Balkans to eight years of genocide, mass murder and systemic rape and destruction. Rape was deployed as a weapon of war, men were starved in concentration camps; boys were bussed away in full view of UN peacekeepers to be dumped in mass graves.

In March 1999, the world’s media stood on another European border as hundreds of thousands of refugees were hunted from Kosovo to further Milosevic’s dream of building a Greater Serbia on the ruins of the former Yugoslavia.

The playbook has a familiar ring.

“Milosevic said he was fighting for Yugoslavia, but he was doing everything to destroy it,” Stipe Mesic, a former Croatian president, told the Hague war crimes tribunal.

Milosevic’s plan to carve up the former Yugoslavia on ethnic lines involved purging non-Serbs from Serb-dominated areas of Croatia and Bosnia. “The Serbs in Croatia were only needed to ignite the fuse in order for the war to be transferred to [neighbouring] Bosnia-Herzegovina,” Mesic said. As for Croatia, “whatever territory could be wrested from it would be joined to Greater Serbia”.

While skinheaded paramilitaries piled out of vans shooting at random, I walked into an ordinary house to find soldiers' bodies sprawled across household furniture

Mesic knew that Milosevic’s plan to conquer Croatia could “happen only through a horrible war and in blood. Croatia will never relinquish a centimetre of its land to Serbia”.

Asked to describe Milosevic’s character, Mesic answered : “I never saw him show any emotions . . . He could have desisted from the option of war, but he never took any action to stop it.”

It was Nato bombers and tanks that finally stopped Milosevic. I was there among chanting, exultant Albanians when Nato thundered across the border into Kosovo.

Ethnic cleansing

Fertile land normally bursting with grain and vegetable crops had gone wild, motels and cafes had been looted and burned. Ethnic cleansing was evident in the carefully-targeted burned-out houses.

In the days afterwards, while Mad Max-style Serb tank columns careened through the narrow roads and skinheaded paramilitaries piled out of vans shooting at random, I walked into an ordinary house to find soldiers’ bodies sprawled across household furniture, reported on the hellscape of a psychiatric hospital of 350 souls abandoned three months previously by its Serb directors and doctors and saw the soul-destroying detritus of a torture chamber in Pristina.

Safely away from the battleground were those secure in their certainty that any country seeking to join Nato must be a pathetic tool of the US military-industrial complex

The questions hurled around then and now are little different. What if Nato had not intervened? What took them so long? Why was the world so ill-prepared for a racist cut-throat like Milosevic? Above all, what malignant dynamic whips a nation into naked, hate-filled nationalism masquerading as patriotism, the kind that justifies the torture, rape and slaughter of their neighbours? Facebook and Twitter can’t be blamed because they didn’t exist.

Safely away from the battleground, as ever, were those secure in their certainty that any country seeking to join Nato or begging for its help must be a pathetic tool of the US world-domination, military-industrial complex.

Members of the eastern European left have coined a word for it: Westplaining. It describes how certain western leftists attribute everything bad that happens east of Germany to western schemes. To many eastern Europeans it’s a knee-jerk reaction that denies their lived experience and presumes that none of them have a will, or interests or agency of their own.

It suggests, as author and journalist George Monbiot put it, that Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia et al were manipulated by the West into joining Nato and that Putin is a mere puppet of western machinations who can be yanked about as if made of rags.

It suggests that only westerners have agency and interests, that the rest of the world is an empty vessel, waiting to be filled with meaning and intention by westerners’ good or evil schemes.

Slaughter of millions

Above all, it suggests that Russia’s serial annexations,the slaughter of millions in massacres and famine, the brutal invasions and continuing threats towards the Baltic states, the support for Bashar al-Assad, the use of hybrid warfare to destabilise western democracies, the assassination of political dissidents and journalists, the current “kill lists” of Ukrainian intellectuals and journalists, are all somehow the fault of the West.

No Russian leader has ever been held accountable. Unless he ventures outside Russia, Putin will never pay the price of his war crimes.

Every student debater is aware that the West has committed foul deeds in the name of liberation. War is failure. I’m not the only one of my generation with a box full of Stop the War and Ban the Bomb badges and anti-war posters from the 1970s, to Dublin’s 130.000-strong anti-Iraq War march in 2003. No one who has seen war or its aftermath wants to return there.

But the year is 2022. In a more transparent, globalised world where madmen openly play at hybrid warfare and nuclear alerts, where a distressed European diplomat emerges from the Putin-created hell of Mariupol repeating five words, “Guernica, Aleppo, Grozny, Coventry, Leningrad,” what response do we offer? Down with War badges?

A question for those blessed with certainties. How would you stop a psychopathic Putin now?