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Seeds of Carnage; Clearing the Clusters
By Christopher Dickey, 1 August 1999
After the war in Kosovo, unexploded cluster bombs continue to kill and maim dozens of victims. Imagine a crate full of soft-drink cans, about 200 of them. Imagine the crate is falling from the sky and spills its contents hundreds of feet in the air. The cans sprout little rubbery parachutes. Slowly, they drift toward the ground.
As they hit, they start to explode. Some blast out razor-sharp shrapnel.
Others are hot enough to bore through metal before they blow up. And some between 5 and 30 percentdon't detonate at all. They just lie there on the ground, or hang from their parachutes in tree branches, or drift in lakes and seas. Many are bright yellowvery inviting, especially for kids. Until, at some moment impossible to predict, they explode. That's a cluster bomb. The United States dropped more than 1,100 of them on Kosovo this spring: that is, 1,100 "dispensers" containing a total of more than 200,000 "bomblets," as the soda-can-sized explosives are called. The British dropped hundreds more.
Others were jettisoned into the Adriatic by Allied pilots who deemed it unsafe to land with unused ordnance still attached to their wings. The bomblets have killed and maimed people by the dozens ever since.
According to the World Health Organization, about 150 Kosovars were killed or injured by "land mines and unexploded ordnance"including bombletsin the first four weeks after the war ended on June 13. About 70 percent of the victims in Kosovo are under 24. The injuries and deaths have not attracted more attention, in part, because so much postwar violence continues. In the worst massacre since the fighting officially stopped, 14 Serb farmers were murdered in their fields one evening last week. But even if law and order are fully restored, the cluster-bomb problem is likely to endure. It has helped make Kosovo "among the world's most dangerous real estate," says Donald Steinberg, the U.S. presidential global-demining envoy. But the danger isn't limited to the war zone. Much of Italy's scenic Lago di Garda is now off-limits to the public because of four conventional bombs and a dispenser full of bomblets dropped there by a single Allied fighter. In the northern Adriatic, 161 explosive devices have been recovered so far, including 97 bomblets. It is feared that thousands more have yet to be found. Several Italian fishermen have been injured. Commercial fishing has been banned from Ancona to Trieste until the end of the summer, and hundreds of thousands of tourists normally expected on the Adriatic beaches this time of year have decided to go elsewhere. "The damage from the NATO operation in the Balkans did not stop when the war ended," says Maj. Franco Barintini of the Fifth Italian Task Force, speaking on behalf of the Italian Navy. "Anyone using the Adriatic is still under potential attack."
The kind of postwar risk created by cluster bombs is well known. Or ought to be. They were first used by the Americans in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia to close the Ho Chi Minh Trail. (They failed.) But millions of primitive bomblets are still scattered in Indochina's forests and fields, still killing and maiming. During Operation Desert Storm in 1991, bomblets were deemed essential for liberating Kuwait. In the years since, they've killed or injured hundreds of Kuwaitis. During the air campaign against Serbia, cluster bombs caused some of the worst incidents of "collateral damage." One that went astray above the city of Nis killed 15 civilians and wounded 70. The Pentagon likes cluster bombs because they are cheap. A fully loaded CBU-87 (the kind most used in Kosovo) costs only $16,500, compared with $178,500 for a single laser-guided GBU-16 "smart bomb." But the Pentagon doesn't like to talk about the postwar problem. As one Washington source now assessing the magnitude of the problem admitted, "We used cluster bombs in Kosovo in a way that we knew shifted the risk from pilots to civilians." The weapons are meant to be dropped from altitudes up to 3,000 feet. NATO planes flew five times that high. A defective dispenser dropped from that height can scatter bomblets unpredictably for miles around. Ironically, humanitarian nongovernmental organizations were prepared for another problem: unexploded mines and booby traps. Phil Straw of the British charity group Halo Trust has been working to clean up an old Yugoslav Army base at Lenabe near Pristina. The Serbs had stockpiled mines there, and the British Royal Air Force attacked them with cluster bombs. Now, most of the mines have been identified and removed. But the bomblets are still turning up. "We found some in the craters. They're littered throughout the fields," says Straw. Potential danger areas are marked off, but locals pay little attention. Recently, young boys stripped down to their underwear to frolic in water-filled craters as if they were public pools. Weren't they scared by the signs that said "Danger:
Mines"? "Sure," said 12-year-old Xhabanir Dobarathi. "But we want to swim." A belated campaign is now underway in Kosovo to warn about the dangers of bomblets. But they look so benign that macho young men are still tempted to handle them. Esat Bibaj, 20, warned a friend of his not to do that one day in the heavily bombed village of Lladrove. But the friend, who was with the KLA, thought he could defuse the yellow cannister. "Then it exploded," said Bibaj. He is now in the Pristina Hospital with both his legs in casts. His friend is dead.
Because NATO planes were dumping unused bombs in the Adriatic's international waters, similar horror stories are now told by Italian fishermen. The Adriatic had designated "drop zones" that were supposed to be safe; but the sea is shallow, and the bomblets tend to drift. When Italian fisherman Gimmi Zennaro, 39, pulled in his fishing nets off the coast of Venice one morning last May, he noticed something that looked like a Pepsi bottle. "By the time I realized what the U.S. insignia on the side of it meant, it was too late," he told NEWSWEEK. "It just blew up. I lost my boat, my catch, my crew [who quit] and my nerve."
Although Zennaro hasn't returned to fishing, many of his colleagues have decided to risk it. During the summer months fishermen make 80 percent of their annual revenues. Since May a small flotilla of NATO minesweepers has been combing the Adriatic for unexploded munitions, and the exercise was considered almost complete until two more fishermen were blown out of their boat a few days ago. Now the fishing ban has been extended to Aug. 31.
Such problems might have been avoided if cluster bombs had received the same attention over the years as land mines. But even the charitable organizations that have led the campaign against mines are divided on the question of cluster bombs. When the Ottawa Accords banning mines were under debate in 1997, some groups wanted to include a ban on cluster bombs. "Governments wouldn't even discuss it," says Steve Goose of Human Rights Watch. British Red Cross spokesman Neil Thorns says that "if cluster bombs had been included, it was very doubtful that Britain or any of the major powers would have signed. We had to compromise."
Caleb Rossiter, of the Center for International Policy in Washington, D.C., sees no hope of a ban. He thinks the most realistic way to reduce the threat in the future may lie with American technology. Although the United States has not even signed the Ottawa Accords, it has found ways to make its land mines self-destruct or deactivate. If cluster-bomb "duds" could be made to do the same, the world would be a safer place.
Now that American and European troops in Kosovo are at riskto say nothing of fishermen and tourists in Italythere might be a chance to do just that.
With Mark Dennis in Pristina, Barbie Nadeau in Rome, Amanda Bernard in London and John Barry in Washington
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