Serbs fearful of toxic peril in aftermath of war

Release of chemicals creates possibility of ecological catastrophe

July 09, 1999|By CHICAGO TRIBUNE

PANCEVO, Yugoslavia -- Dragomir Djuric says he has been fishing the Tamis river for 48 years, pulling fat catfish out of its depths using live black leeches as bait.

Unless they are eaten, he says, the leeches usually stay on the hook for five days.

In recent weeks, he says, something in the water has changed. The leeches die in a day, and are white when pulled out, looking as if they had been "boiled."

The fish, he says, are different, too -- sluggish and sickly, with protruding bones and bulging eyes.

"I personally won't eat any fish from the river. Not for the next five years," said Djuric, president of the Tamis River Fishing Club.

The water, he says, has been polluted by a toxic mix of chemicals released from a huge manufacturing complex, the largest in the Balkans.

Some storage tanks were hit in NATO airstrikes on the complex and the nearby Lola-Utva airplane factory. NATO spokesmen said the facilities were "dual use," producing not only civilian chemicals and planes but also explosives and spare parts for the Yugoslav army.

The Yugoslav government says the airstrikes at places such as Pancevo caused an environmental catastrophe in Serbia. Next month, the United Nations is scheduled to conduct a formal assessment of the environmental damage of the war.

The U.N. investigation will be headed by Pekka Haavisto, Finland's former environment minister. He said NATO has not been forthcoming in providing detailed information on its targets.

"At this stage, NATO has not yet given us any detailed information showing the list of the targeted sites we got from the Yugoslav authorities," he said.

In the absence of hard evidence or scientific data, many Serbs are expecting the worst and seeing peril all around them.

Pancevo, a city 12 miles across the Danube from the Yugoslav capital of Belgrade, is gripped with fear, compounded by the legendary fatalism and sense of victimization of the Serbian nation.

A young woman named Yelena said she had an abortion this week, fearful that the fetus she was carrying might have been harmed by the air she breathed and the water she drank.

Her doctor advised her to undergo the procedure, she said, noting that her friends have been getting the same advice.

Stories are circulating of outsized fruits and vegetables, of trees turning bright yellow in mid-summer.

The petrochemical and fertilizer complex that dominated the economy of this city of 120,000 is now virtually reduced to rubble by repeated NATO strikes. The raids blew up storage tanks and released thousands of tons of toxic chemicals into the environment. Pancevo was enveloped in a noxious cloud of smoke and fumes for days.

Yugoslav officials compounded the environmental damage. The mayor of Pancevo, Srdjan Mikovic, said workers dumped some 9,500 tons of ammonia into the Danube for fear the tanks holding it would be hit by NATO's repeated sorties.

"Scientists told us that if the bombs blew the tanks, the ammonia would kill all life in the city and a wide radius," he said.

On April 15, he said, a missile struck a factory producing a highly toxic vinyl-chloride compound used to make plastic bags. According to the daily log the mayor kept during the bombing, "about 1,400 tons of ethylene dichloride poured out through the drainage into the Danube."

Professor Mico Martinovic, a hydrologist, said the array of toxic chemicals released in the region "is unique in world history."

"We have no idea what negative effects they will have on human life and the environment because we have no test analysis available," he said. "We can only suspect they polluted our entire watershed, the soil and the rivers."

Government inspectors took samples after the raids, he said, but have not made the results available to independent academics. "I, for one, am only drinking bottled water," he said.

However, most residents continue to drink and cook with the water from a local reservoir and eat fish from the Danube and Tamis rivers. A government ban on fishing was lifted three days ago.

According to the log Mayor Mikovic maintained, NATO bombed the chemical complex at Pancevo on 23 days, hitting it with at least 56 missiles or bombs.

On April 18, NATO bombers scored direct hits on facilities holding 1,500 tons of vinyl-chloride monomer, 250 tons of chlorine, 1,800 tons of ethylene dichloride and 15,000 tons of ammonia.

Thousands fled the city, coughing and complaining of burning eyes, stomach upsets and choking. The fires raged as long as 12 hours. Nearly a third of the toxic chemicals went up in smoke, Mikovic said.

Avram Izrael, director of Belgrade's Disaster Warning Center, said the capital was spared when the wind changed direction and carried the toxic cloud in the direction of Romania. "But only God knows how many people may be affected in the years to come," he said.

Pancevo officials say the central government in Belgrade downplayed the situation, concerned that the war effort would be undermined.

Ofelija Backovic, general manager of the Pancevo Radio and Television Network, said her radio and television stations were threatened with shutdowns five times for divulging "military secrets" by broadcasting details about the bomb damage.

Even now, many officials are reluctant to talk about the damage. But local residents complain of respiratory difficulties, burning eyes, choking sensations and upset stomachs.

"If you went there they simply told you, `Go home and rest. In a few days you'll be better,' " Djuric said. "After eight days of stomach aches and burning eyes, I was eating again."

Curcin Dusan, a local lawyer, said highly toxic mercury seeped into the ground around the petrochemical complex.

"That means it is going into the underground water supply and our water is poisoned. Leaves in houseplants are going black and streaky, and people like me want to know when we buy vegetables where they came from."

Pub Date: 7/09/99

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