Two decades ago the Serbian city Panćevo was bombed by NATO, resulting in great pollution. Today, it’s still uncertain what consequences the chemicals have had on the people living there.

It was early morning. The many Catholics from around the city were gathering in church to celebrate Easter Sunday. A day which was supposed to be filled with happiness and celebration. Little did they know, the day would soon turn into one of sorrow.

Less than five kilometres from the crowded church was the city’s industrial complex. An oil refinery, a chemical plant, and a fertilizer factory.
It was first until the loud blast from the bombs hitting the oil refinery reached the congregation, that they knew they had been targeted – and hit.
Srdjan Mikovic’s warm demeanour and light smile freezes. He says a few words in Serbian and is quiet for a while. When he looks up again he repeats:

“Dusan Bogosavljev, Mirko Dmitrović, Dejan Bojković. I still remember the names of the men who were killed that morning,” Mikovic says, slowly pouring his soda taking a sip.

The three men were “luckily the only casualties” in the city of Panćevo during the bombings explains Mikovic, who was mayor of the city at the time.

”It was a stressful time. Every night we had busses ready for the people living closest to the industrial site. If it was bombed we knew we would have to save them fast,” explains Srdjan Mikovic, who was mayor in Panćevo during the bombings in the spring of 1999. Photo: Lotte Kragelund

From Kosovo to Panćevo

In 1999 NATO’s “Operation Allied Force” was set in motion. The objective was to get the Yugoslav troops, that were mainly Serbian, to withdraw from Kosovo – a region in the south of the country which became an independent province in 1974.

To understand the conflict surrounding Kosovo we need to go back to 1980 when the charismatic leader of Yugoslavia Josip Broz Tito died. His death left a void in the political arena. A void the Serbian politician Slobodan Milosevic tried to fill, when he took power over the communist party and became president of Yugoslavia seven years later. Milosevic branded himself on the Serbian nationalism, making the tensions grow between the Kosovar Albanians – who wanted Kosovo to become an independent republic – and the ethnic Serbs living in Kosovo, who wanted the province to become a part of Serbia and not an independent province nor republic.

In the late 80’s the tensions had grown so big that Milosevic decided to withdraw Kosovo’s statue as independent province. A move that in return gave Milosevic the status of a hero amongst the Serbs, and infuriating the Albanian majority in Kosovo.

Time didn’t put a halt to the dissatisfaction amongst the Kosovar Albanians, on the contrary. In 1998 the dispute between the ethnic Serbs and the Kosovar Albanians resulted in a spur of violence. Continuing for more than a year and claiming more than 13.000 lives, NATO intervened to stop what they call “military action, violence and repression” taking place against the Kosovar Albanians.

During the operation NATO targeted the Yugoslav air defences in Serbia and then according to their website “gradually escalated the campaign using the most advanced, precision-guided systems and avoiding civilian casualties to the greatest extent possible.”

This meant not just bombing Kosovo in an attempt to persuade Serbia’s President Slobodan Milosevic to surrender from Kosovo, but to bring Serbia’s infrastructure to its knees. The purpose was to put a halt to the production and transportation of ammunition to the Serbian troops in Kosovo.

This is where Panćevo comes into the picture despite being more than 400 kilometres north of Kosovo.

Panćevo was a large production centre in the region with good access to roads and trains. In other words, the city was a significant location in Serbia’s infrastructure. And therefore also a target for NATO.

In the video above you’ll find a brief overview of some of the larger bombings in Panćevo during NATO’s military operation in the spring of 1999.
Source: Gopal, S., report ”Precision bombing, widespread harm”. Dr.Dragana Đorđević, Belgrade University.

Chemicals and more chemicals

“We were really surprised when we were bombed. We weren’t prepared for it. So we had to react fast when we realised we were a target as well,” remembers Mikovic, who after the first bombing gathered the leaders of companies which could be potential targets in the city hall.

One of the places that was a special cause for concern was the fertilizer factory with its 9.600 tons of liquid ammonia. An amount that would have killed many people in the surrounding area had it been bombed.

To get rid of the stored ammonia the production of fertilizers was increased, some of the ammonia was burnt and some sent to Romania. By the time of the first attack on the fertilizer factory around 250 tons of ammonia was still in the storage tank.

“We then decided to put the rest in the water. It was less dangerous then having it being bombed. It was the best to do,” Mikovic states, with a certain nod.

The 250 tons of liquid ammonia was poured in to the wastewater channel next to the plant. A channel with connection to the Danube river.

This wasn’t the only chemical released into Danube or to the rest of the city. Below, you’ll find a short overview of the chemical slips which took place during the bombings of the industrial complex.

Enveloped in black

The days on the calendar had passed the 18th of April – the night of the fatal bombing of the petrochemical plant and the two other factories. But the days seemed alike for Mikovic. With one hand on the steering wheel and the other firmly hugging his phone, the eyes were glued to the sky. Or more, to the heavy black cloud surrounding the city making it almost impossible for the sun to create day.

Even though Mikovic was driving, his attention wasn’t on possible oncoming traffic. Not that many people went out these days anyways. Most stayed inside waiting by the radio or television to hear the latest news.

“I was driving around to see where the cloud was moving. I then reported it on the local radio, which had me through live from my car. If the cloud changed directions we would have to evacuate people. It was my responsibility as the mayor to keep people safe,” says Mikovic.

One of the people staying put was Srdjan Stankovic. He was 24 years at the time, studying at Belgrade University, and living with his parents.

“It was as if our lives were put on hold. We weren’t in the mood to do anything. Apart from watching the news and sitting at home,” he says.

The people living in the city knew the chemicals in the cloud were dangerous for them. But exactly what the damage would be to the environment and themselves was unknown – an uncertainty that still exists among the people living in Panćevo twenty years later.

Breath, eat, drink

The chemicals in the cloud were indeed dangerous, as were the tonnes of the chemicals leaked before the bombings. “Some of them cause cancer, tumours, spontaneous abortion and birth defects in children. After the bombings the concentration of these chemicals in Panćevo were more than 10.000 higher than the maximal allowed concentrations,” explains Dr. Dragana Đorđević, head of the Centre of Excellence in Environmental Chemistry and Engineering, at the University of Belgrade.

The people in Panćevo have also suffered from a rare type of liver cancer, called angiosarcoma more often according to this 2001 report. A type of cancer that has been linked to the exposure of vinyl chloride, a chemical of which 400 tons burned after a storage tank at the petrochemical plant was hit.

However, far from all chemicals burned. Though the most of the mercury that spilled on the ground was recovered, the same cannot be said for the 200 kilogram of mercury which leaked into the Danube. A river that was a source of drinking water and agricultural use, and still is today. For the water in Danube to again be drinkable the mercury would have to be diluted with 100 billion litres of water, when following the standards of the United States Environmental Protection Agency.

As the water in Danube runs fast, the river has an average flow on approximately two million litres per second. With this pace it would take a little over 1,5 years for the 100 billion litres to run through.

Back to normal

Despite bombs falling around him, Stankovic stayed in Panćevo with the rest of his family.

“There’s one day I remember clearly. One of the missiles flew a few hundred meters away. When it detonated, I felt the pressure waves in our house. The doors flew open. It was pure luck the windows weren’t destroyed,” Stankovic says.

Many others in the city decided to leave during the bombings. Going to family or friends living elsewhere in Serbia or other parts of former Yugoslavia..  

It wasn’t just during the bombings that fewer people lived in Panćevo. With the industrial plants destroyed many moved away from the city in the hopes of getting work elsewhere.

Almost all of the 8.761 people who used to work at the industrial complex lost their jobs after the bombings.

But for then 24-year-old Stankovic moving away wasn’t an option.

“I never considered moving away. If I was going to die it would be in our house,” he states.

“I just hoped they were good at targeting,” laughs Srdjan Stankovic, who lived in Panćevo during the bombings. Today, he still lives in the city together with his wife and daughter. Photo: Lotte Kragelund

Instead he stayed, finished his university degree and is today Professor in Biology and Ecology. And through his work he met his wife, with whom he has a young daughter. Together, they’ve set the family’s roots firmly into the ground of Panćevo.

Despite the elevated occurrence of liver cancer and the unknown effects of the chemical slips 20 years earlier, neither Stankovic nor his wife are worried about their health:

“The environmental situation was bad after the bombings. But I don’t think it left any long term damage. You can’t say for sure what is because of bombings and what is due to life. Panćevo is a great place to live, and we’re not going anywhere.”

It’s the same uncertainty Mikovic lives with.

“Maybe these marks I have under my eyes are from the chemicals I was exposed to,” Mikovic says, and take of his glasses to show the dark dots:

“All I know is, I didn’t have them before the bombings. It can be from all the chemicals back then or from the stress. Maybe I’ll get sick when I get older. And if I get sick, I won’t know if it was because of the bombings or because of age. That’s just how it is,” he says with a light shrug.

Bombs or part of life

It has proven difficult to make a direct connection between diseases and the bombings. Take for instance the higher level of liver cancer which has been found in Panćevo. Here it hasn’t been possible to make a link to the pollution caused by the bombings. Years earlier the people in Panćevo had already been exposed to ethylene after a large chemical spill. Something that made it impossible to determine the different impacts the two leaks had.

Ethylene was only one in a long row of chemicals the city, and the river Danube, had been in contact with before the NATO operation. A lot of these chemicals surfaced from the industrial complex.

Today, there’s still a higher level of pollution in the waters around Belgrade and Panćevo, The International Commission for Protection of the Danube River found in 2013 a higher concentration of nitrates. Something that isn’t necessarily linked to the pollution 20 years ago.

“Panćevo is known for the canal where the chemical plant, HIP-Azotara and Oil Refinery discharge their wastewaters, this could be one of the causes of the pollution. Other causes might be the influence of Belgrade city and the wastewaters discharged,” said one of the scientists, Momir Paunovic, to the Open Data in Europe and Central Asia.

But one of the chemicals that doesn’t pong out on the monitor when looking for too high concentrations in the water is ammonium. Ammonium is created when ammonia gets in contact with water. Back in 1999 around 250 tons of ammonia was poured into the wastewater channel, which is connected to the Danube.

In 2010 a group of scientists from different universities in Serbia took water samples from eight different places in Danube. One of them being near Panćevo. According to the report the level of ammonium was no higher than the average levels found.

The waters in Danube around Panćevo is more polluted then other areas in Serbia. Though the chemicals don’t necessarily originate from the leaks in 1999. Photo: Lotte Kragelund

The power of positivity

Today, the industrial complex is still working on getting back on its feet. The oil refinery has been sold to a Russian oil- and gas company, doing large modernizations of the place. The fertilizer plant is up and running and has become one of the largest producers of mineral fertilizers in the region. As for the petrochemical plant parts of it is working, but the factory is still undergoing massive renovation to become fully functional.

The life of Mikovic also went on. Healing his own and the city’s wounds. He resigned as mayor the year after the bombings, but ran for office again in 2004. And won taking office until 2008. Today, he works as an attorney, still living in Panćevo.

“I’m not going anywhere. I don’t know if I’ve been damaged from the chemicals. Maybe I have. All I know is, I have allergies,” Mikovic says.

With the light tone that hardly ever disappears when talking about the struggles during those three months, the will to survive and move on with their lives becomes obvious.

“During the bombings we were making jokes about the attacks. It was a survival mechanism,” says Stankovic with a small laugh, making it clear it still is.

Survival comes in many forms and shapes, but Mikovic and Stankovic have more in common than their first name. They also share the same attitude.

“It was a hard time, but I try to stay positive and be happy. What happened is history. Today, I try to let the past be past and concentrate on the future because that’s time we still have,” Srdjan Mikovic states.