Page last updated at 01:19 GMT, Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Scars of Nato bombing still pain Serbs

By Helen Fawkes
BBC News, Belgrade

Miroslav Maksic
Miroslav Maksic was killed months after the end of the Nato offensive

Every year the Maksic family like to visit the river near their home in southern Serbia. They go to remember 12-year-old Miroslav.

Miroslav had just been for a swim with his friend in Bujanovac, when he was killed by a cluster bomblet. His friend was seriously injured.

It was a hot August day, a few months after the end of the 11-week Nato bombing campaign, launched on 24 March 1999 in an effort to push Serb forces out of the province of Kosovo.

The unexploded ordnance had been lying discarded in a field, it had been dropped as part of a cluster bomb.

"We have been told that the place where Miroslav died has been cleared, but we are still afraid," says his sister, Maja.

"We don't know if there are any bombs left in the ground around here. This leaves us with deep physical and psychological scars."

I can't forget how my life has changed since that day - I can't take my children for a walk, I can't hold their hands
Sladjan Vuckovic
Retired Serb military officer

A decade on from the Nato bombing campaign, more than 90,000 Serbs are still in danger from unexploded cluster munitions, according to a recent report funded by the Norwegian foreign ministry.

The report says they face a daily threat and estimates that there are some 2,500 unexploded devices in 15 areas of Serbia.

The survey was presented earlier this month by the London-based Cluster Munition Coalition.

The organisation called on Serbia to sign up to the international treaty to ban cluster bombs, saying that this would unlock funding to help deal with the problem.

At the current pace, it is estimated that it will take another 20 years to get rid of unexploded ordnance from Serbia.

Convention unsigned

Sladjan Vuckovic says the anniversary is also difficult for him.

Sladjan Vuckovic
Sladjan Vuckovic was maimed while clearing Nato cluster munitions

The 43-year-old retired Serb military officer was clearing cluster munitions from Mount Kopaonik in central Serbia when one exploded.

He lost both his hands and part of his right leg, and his face was disfigured.

"I can't forget how my life has changed since that day. I can't take my children for a walk, I can't hold their hands," he says.

"It is especially hard when I think of Serbia, the country that I fought for, not signing the convention on banning cluster bombs."

And it is not just cluster munitions - the Serbian Mine Action Centre says that there are around 60 unexploded bombs across Serbia, including one in a small residential street in the capital.

European isolation

In the capital, Belgrade, and elsewhere in Serbia you can still see the impact of the bombing.

Along Kneza Milosa, one of the most imposing streets in the capital, buildings with massive craters share the street with Serbian government buildings and foreign embassies.

Remains of former Chinese embassy in Belgrade
The impact of the Nato bombings can still be seen in Belgrade, 10 years on

Most of the war damage has been repaired, but some bomb sites have proved too costly to repair or demolish.

Some are military facilities and the process is highly contentious and complicated, while other bomb damaged buildings appear to have been left as a reminder of the past.

The Nato air strikes were launched when peace talks failed to stop a Serbian military campaign against ethnic Albanian separatists in Kosovo.

The conflict had led to hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians fleeing Kosovo.

The international war crimes tribunal in The Hague said its investigators found at least 2,000 bodies in Kosovo.

But the political landscape of Serbia has dramatically changed since 1999, with pro-Western forces replacing the ultra-nationalists.

"The 10th anniversary of the air strikes will lead people to think about the bombing campaign, which they saw as unjust, unfair and illegal action carried out by Nato," says Serbian political analyst Bratislav Grubacic.

"When they think about what European Union is doing to Serbia now, many will feel that the West is still keeping Serbia isolated even though the country is working towards EU integration.''

Humiliating situation

Serbia's path towards Europe has been blocked - until the former Bosnian Serb military leader, Ratko Mladic, is caught, it will not be permitted to begin EU accession talks.

Poster in Belgrade reading: "Ten years of Nato occupation of Serbia.
The anniversary will be a trigger for Serbs to consider the traumatic events

For Serbs this means they need visas to travel to many European countries, something many find difficult and humiliating.

The former Yugoslav republic also faces challenges such as Kosovo's unilateral declaration of independence last year, and accusations that it is not fully co-operating with the International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) at The Hague.

And, like many other countries, Serbia is starting to feel the impact of the global economic downturn.

"This anniversary will be a trigger for Serbs to consider the traumatic events of the past and the current difficult situation," says Mr Grubacic.

"This certainly won't help Serbia to feel more pro-European and it's likely to only strengthen Euro-Scepticism here," he adds.

cluster bomb graphic
The cluster bomb, in this case a CBU-87, is dropped from a plane and can fly about nine miles before releasing its load of about 200 bomblets.

The canister starts to spin and opens at an altitude between 1,000m and 100m, spraying the bomblets across a wide area.

Each bomblet is the size of a soft drink can and contains hundreds of metal pieces. When it explodes, it can cause deadly injuries up to 25m away.

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