25 years since the NATO intervention in Yugoslavia

In 1999, NATO launched a 78-day campaign of airstrikes against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia to force Belgrade to end its brutal repression of Kosovo Albanians and withdraw its military and police forces from Kosovo.

The later established International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia proved that Yugoslav forces were responsible for crimes against humanity and massive human rights abuses of the Kosovo population, including during the alliance operation.


On March 24 last year, in his speech on the occasion of the Day of Remembrance of the Victims of 1999, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic stated: "NATO took parts of our territory (Kosovo), killed 79 children, 2,500 people, and not only civilians , but also soldiers and policemen".


In previous years, Vucic has used similar, but not always identical, figures for the number of people killed. In those years he was the Minister of Information of the dictator and war criminal Slobodan Milosevic.


In his speech in 2021, Vucic spoke of "2,500 civilians killed, but also soldiers and policemen"; in 2019 it noted "2,500 civilian deaths". But in 2017, the Serbian head of state said that "during the three months of bombing and killing, we lost the lives of more than 2,000 civilians and almost 1,000 soldiers and police."


Every year on March 24, the anniversary of the start of NATO bombing, both officials and the media cite figures ranging from 1,200 to 2,500 people, without specifying whether they were civilians or members of the armed forces.


As part of the Serbian national commemoration event in 2021, during an audiovisual presentation, it was stated that "around 4,000 civilians" had died during the NATO air campaign.


The uncertainty about the exact number of victims highlights the fact that the number remains approximate and can be manipulated by political leaders for propaganda purposes. A final death toll has never been established and they have never been exhaustively listed by name.


The figures given by the Yugoslav authorities in 2000 are much lower than those claimed by Vucic - hundreds, not thousands.


Professor Susan Brough, acting director of research at the UK's Institute for Advanced Legal Studies, said the lack of accurate information on the number of victims or the exaggeration of the death toll "fuels conflict and discontent".


"This way reconciliation is not allowed, justice is not allowed in the conditions of transition," Breaux explained to the "Balkan Investigative Reporting Network" - BIRN.


"I've always said you have to identify people by name - you know what I mean, who are these people? Don't tell me the number 2,500, tell me who they are."


However, no exhaustive list of names exists.


There are no data confirmed by the court


Along with speeches by Vucic, Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik and the head of the Serbian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Porfiri, the annual Serbian state commemorations of the anniversary of the NATO bombing included dramatized scenes with actors playing victims of the war and audiovisual montages of archive footage from 1999


In the past few years, during the audiovisual part of the event, photos of servicemen who died at the time have also been shown.


In 2023, one of the speakers was the daughter of a serviceman who died in the bombing, and in 2022, a woman who was wounded as a child spoke at the commemoration. But in general, the names of civilian victims are rarely mentioned.


There has been no court case, either international or domestic, to establish the number of civilian casualties.


NATO did not respond to BIRN's questions about its assessment. The alliance did not conduct any internal investigation into the civilian deaths.


Carolina MacLachan, senior adviser for advocacy and policy at the Center for Civilians in Conflict, said coalition operations such as the 1999 NATO campaign "are notorious for not providing enough information on civilian casualties and making it quite difficult the achievement of any accountability".


"And that's because in most cases, if you want to pursue accountability, you have to go after a specific country, and if it's a coalition operation, then it's quite difficult to establish who did what and who's responsible," MacLachan explained.

"There is very little transparency and very little data is published about who acted when and where within the coalition. Or because, for example, one country may have dropped a bomb, but acting on intelligence from another country. And then the question is, "Okay, who's responsible?" she added.


The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague has set up a commission to investigate allegations that NATO personnel and leaders may have committed war crimes during the air campaign. The committee released its report in June 2000, saying it "does not recommend that an investigation be initiated." However, it does not attempt to establish the exact number and only uses previously published data.


The committee cited a Human Rights Watch report published in 2000 which concluded that between 488 and 527 "Yugoslav civilians" had died as a result of NATO bombing.


The report also said it found a Yugoslav foreign ministry publication called "The White Paper: NATO War Crimes in Yugoslavia" to be "largely credible based on its own research and comparison with other sources."


According to Human Rights Watch, the Yugoslav ministry's publication "provides a rough overall estimate of around 495 killed and 820 injured civilians in specific documented cases."


The Hague Tribunal Commission report cited figures from the Yugoslav Ministry and the said human rights organization, concluding that the number of casualties was "within 500 civilians killed" - far less than the 2,500 casualties for which the Serbian government later claimed.


Initial figures in Yugoslavia are lower


In April 1999, Yugoslavia filed a case at the International Court of Justice against Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States, alleging that during the NATO campaign they had breached their obligation to not use force against another country.


In some of these cases, in January 2000, Yugoslavia submitted to the International Court of Justice a document that included detailed information about NATO attacks on its territory and damage to non-military buildings.

The document also included a list of attacks that killed civilians, stating that in 59 incidents related to violations of the rules for the protection of civilians in international armed conflicts, the total number of civilian deaths was 463.

Appendices to the Yugoslav file include documents from the then police and courts that confirm people's deaths or establish what exactly led to their demise.

Also in 2000, the Yugoslav Federal Ministry of Defense issued its "White Paper" publication, which included similar data.

In the same year, Human Rights Watch published its report on the civilian casualties of the NATO campaign. The watchdog identified 90 incidents and said that "in 69 of the 90 incidents, the exact number of victims and their names are known".

According to Human Rights Watch, in seven other incidents the death toll was known and some of the names were confirmed. In 11 cases the number is clear, but the names remain in oblivion. In three incidents, neither the names nor the exact number are known.

"Based on the available data for these 90 incidents, the organization concludes that between 488 and 527 Yugoslav civilians died as a result of NATO bombing," the report said.

The only other attempt at a count was made in 2014, when the NGO Center for Humanitarian Law in Serbia and Kosovo published a list of the names of all the victims they were able to confirm. According to NGO data, a total of 454 civilians were killed in Serbia, Montenegro and Kosovo.

Monuments without names

During the NATO bombing campaign, at least 11 attacks were confirmed, with a large number of civilian casualties. Two of these were attacks on convoys of ethnic Albanian refugees fleeing Kosovo on 14 April and 13 May 1999.

The others are attacks on the southern Serbian town of Aleksinac (April 5), a train in the Gordelica gorge (April 12), the Serbian state television station in Belgrade (April 23), a bus near Poduevo (May 1), a bus on the Pecs-Rojaje road

(May 3), Nis (May 7), a bridge in Varvarin (May 30), a hospital in Surdulica and a residential area in Novi Pazar (May 31).

The only major discrepancy between the Yugoslav data and the conclusions of international and local NGOs concerns the deaths in Dubrava prison in Kosovo.

The complex, near Istok, was hit by NATO twice - on May 19 and 21, 1999. According to data from the Yugoslav era, a total of 95 people died. However, in the years since, this claim has been disputed and it has been suggested that most of those who died in the prison were actually killed by Serbian paramilitaries and not by alliance airstrikes.

Another number of victims was proposed in an indictment filed in November 2023 by the Special Prosecutor's Office of Kosovo, in which a Serb with dual citizenship of Kosovo and Serbia was accused of involvement in the Dubrava murders.


"The defendant is accused of participating in the murder of 109 prisoners and the wounding of 108 others, all of Albanian ethnicity, on May 22, 1999, in the so-called 'Dubrava massacre,'" the prosecutor's office said in a statement.

NATO has not paid compensation to the victims of its bombing of Yugoslavia. However, McLellan points out that for victims of conflict, what matters most "is not necessarily the financial compensation... what is important is that someone says, 'We see what happened to you, we see the harm that happened to you'—that helps a lot. And so even if it's just that recognition, it means people don't feel invisible anymore," she said.

In addition to the Day of Remembrance for those killed in the NATO bombings in Serbia on March 24, the country also commemorates the Day of Remembrance of the Civilian Victims of the NATO bombings on May 7. The day was chosen to mark the anniversary of the bombing of Niš.

Unlike March 24, Remembrance Day on May 7 is not marked with a state ceremony with speeches, but only with the laying of flowers by officials.


There are various monuments on the territory of the former Yugoslavia. The largest of them is dedicated to those who died in the bombings in Belgrade - the Eternal Flame, set up on the initiative of Mira Markovic, who is the wife of Slobodan Milosevic. It does not contain any data or names.

In February 2020, some media in Serbia reported that, on the initiative of President Vučić, a commission would be formed "soon" to prepare a complete list of the dead.

The commission has not yet been established, and Vucic's office did not respond to BIRN's questions about progress, as well as whether it will count the victims of the bombings or use already existing data.

On the 25th anniversary of the start of NATO bombing, it is still unclear when, if ever, a comprehensive list will be compiled. /BGNES


Militsa Stojanovic, "Balkan Investigative Reporting Network" – BIRN