Sanja Milenkovic was only 15 years old. She died on a glorious spring day, the religious holiday celebrating the Holy Trinity, when on 30 May 1999 NATO fighter jets destroyed a militarily insignificant bridge across the Morava in Sanjy’s Serbian hometown Varvarin, connecting two parts of the town. Together with her another 10 civilians died in the massacre in the small Serbian province town. 27 Varvarin citizens were severely injured.
Sanja’s mother, Vesna Milenkovic, is one the family of dead or affected persons, who demanded compensation of the Federal Republic of Germany – acting for NATO – before the Federal High Court in Karlsruhe. For the first time after Germany had participated without reservation in a combat mission that was not UN covered and contrary to international law, civilian victims demanded compensation.
“Many people still want to know today, how Princess Diana died, I want to know, why my innocent child had to die”, says Vesna Milenkovic: “We are very concerned about justice and that the truth becomes known and the responsible persons are named. Nobody can reüplace my daughter.”
Although the Federal High Court in Karlsruhe took the same view as in the case of the massacre committed by the SS in the Greek village of Distomo, that war results were to be regulated only among states, the Federal High Court Judges then expressly left open – due to the strengthening of the individual in international law – whether for the example this is also true for combat missions of the German Federal Armed Forces abroad.
The air raid was contrary to international law and thus a war crime
This was what the Varvarin citizens, represented by the Karlsruhe lawyer Professor Dr. iur. Norbert Gross, had hoped for. In the reasons of appeal he states, “that individual civil claims of aggrieved persons deriving from their national right are not excluded beside any claim in international law by their mother country”.
The air raid was contrary to international law for the people of Varvarin and thus a war crime. But the judges in the red robes did not risk anything, they did not want to get involved neither in the contradictory statements of the War Ministry nor in the global liability of the individual war waging NATO states and remained with the dominant opinion. Thus they fell behind the principles of the valid Afghan Islamic tribal law, according to which an act of murder can be atoned for by the “Talnion”, an adequate compensation, as the regulations in the “Sachsenspiegel”, the oldest form of written law in Germany, say.
The 10 dead and 27 severely wounded persons were simply interpreted away. Now the Varvarin citizens decided to appeal with the Federal Constitutional Court.
What happened on 30 May 1999? The day began in the Serbian town of Varvarin at the river Morava like all over Europe as a young, glorious spring day. Very early the anglers sat at the river bank. It was market day, and the celebration of the Holy Trinity was celebrated with a procession. At noon there were many people around the single-lane makeshift bridge, which had been established by the Germans after the Second World War as a compensation. The fifteen-year old student and daughter of the mayor, Sanja Milenkovic, ran with her two friends Marina Jovanovic and Marijana Stojanovic across the bridge.
Murderous attack on civilians
Marina Jovanovic, who appears before the Karlsruhe High Court as claimant, reports about the most terrible moment of her life: “At 1.00 o’clock we came from church and from the market in good mood and went on our way home for lunch, our way leading us across the bridge back to Donji Katun, a borough of Varvarin. We were already close to the other side of the river, and we were not in a hurry, because it was a beautiful, sunny day in May. Suddenly there was a hissing, a dreadful impact hurled us through the air, and I heard my friends screaming. All around there was a terrible heat, I felt like glowing and then floating in the air.”
Marina falls down with the bridge, faints for two or three minutes and then realizes her bleeding hand, hears Marijanas calls for help and sees nothing but the central pillar of the bridge rising before her. Her right leg is totally smashed below the knee, the lower leg seems only be connected to the body by pure flesh. Like the two other girls she is lying on the diagonally hanging down footpath of the bridge.
Sanja seems heavily injured, has the hand on her chest and wants to say something, but she does not succeed. She breathes heavily. After the first impact, she is sitting with her back to the railing, about 1 to 2 meters away from her, then after approximately five minutes the airplanes come back. She sees their trace and also the projectile that dashes towards her. Suddenly Sanja slips away downward and loses consciousness. She now hangs with her head in the water. Marina creeps down, in order to hold her head above water. She slips along on her elbow, because she cannot use her legs, and calls for help. On the back she carries a backpack, which probably saved her life, because a fragment of a kilo had penetrated it. From the backpack she gets a water bottle and moistens the face of the unconscious Sanja. Now it seems, as if Sanja was smiling at her. Marina stands in the water up to the hip, she can hardly keep upright because of the strong current, and she fears that her leg could be amputated completely. Therefore, she gets out of the water again.
Marijana, who is heavily hurt as well, tries to pull herself up at the railing, then sees to her astonishment that from the upper arm a bone protrudes, and at the same moment she is at the end of her tether. With the second impact she sees, how Sanja continues to slip downward. It is dark, sticky, the eyes burn, and both friends lose consciousness repeatedly. The collapsed bridge makes the water level rise, so that the girls lie now with their body in the river. Marijana gets more frightened, she fears for Sanja, and for herself, because she cannot swim. Marijana sees her friend Marina creeping with the water bottle to Sanja, in order to wash to her face and so bring her back to consciousness. Both call it for help and scream loudly: “Take care of Sanja!”
Second attack kills 8 helpers
When the first rockets meet the bridge across the Morava, panic breaks out among 3500 people on the market in Varvarin, and immediately chaos prevails on the roads. Some people scream: “Away, just get away! They are coming back!” There are also calls that girls were on the destroyed bridge and a red car had fallen into the water. Others do not behave so egoistically, for example Milan Savic. He insults his friends in the café saying they were cowards: “But we have to help the wounded!” His decision to save others cost the lives of the 28 year-old man and 7 more helpers, among them the priest Milvoje Ciric.
A second air raid on the almost completely destroyed bridge followed. Sanja did not have a chance to live because of her heavy injuries. She died some hours later under the eyes of her mother in the hospital. Marijana remains crippled for the rest of her life. Marina, who studies medicine in Belgrade today, is still tormented by over 40 bomb fragments in her body, which cannot be removed in an operation. She says: “From that day on I have never been a light-hearted young person any more. I think of the cruel events again and again.”
German Tornadoes take part in attacks
In all lawsuits, from the regional court in Bonn to the Higher Regional Court in Cologne and up to the Federal High Court, the representatives of the Federal Government denied the participation of the German Air Forces in the attack on the bridge of Varvarin. That is very doubtful at least, as the German ECR Tornadoes as well as the reconnaissance tornadoes, which filmed the targets, flew from Italy to deployments in Yugoslavia about 484 times. The ECR bombers alone fired 244 AGM-88-Harm-Missiles at a price of 200 000 Dollars each. The Squadron Commander A. Schulte [name changed] said about the attacks of the German tornadoes before the defence committee of the German Bundestag: “We fired eight missiles per flight – thus eight times we ‘lighted’. Then the world awoke and shot at us.”
But even if German Federal Armed Forces pilots were not involved in bombardment, in the sense of a global liability Germany, too, is responsible for the events in Varvarin. Beyond that, the modern war machine is based on the division of labour to a high extent. Thus, it was a task of the reconnaissance tornadoes of the German Air Force to photograph the targets with the help of 60-mm-infrared cameras in Kosovo and in the Serbian hinterland. The targets were then judged and transferred to the combat bombers of other NATO states to be stored in their satellite-based control systems (GPS). The bomber crews then focussed their targets with the help of these videos.
The first NATO statement after the attack that the bridge of Varvarin had been a secondary target, which the pilots themselves had looked for, has meanwhile been disproved, because in a documentation of NATO of 31 October 1999 headed “Strategic target” as well as in an added target list the “highway bridge of Varvarin” is marked on a map. This “highway bridge” had already been mentioned before as one of 11 targets in Serbia and declared a bomb target. However, in Varvarin there is none. There was only the single-lane makeshift bridge, which led into a local borough. Even judge Sonnenberg in the Bonn regional court had realized this. One does not have to be military personnel in order to exclude this bridge as one of eleven “strategic targets”.
“Pushing the release button required great willpower”
Experts assume that this target had meant the four-lane freeway bridge about 15 km from Varvarin leading from Belgrade to Kosovo and that it was not meant to be the local bridge without military any meaning in the town of Varvarin. A mistake, which led to the “misthrow”?
According to one of the pilots of the reconnaissance squad, pushing the release button for the anti-radar missiles in the ECR or the camera button in the reconnaissance aircraft always requires great willpower. Thus the tornado pilots of the German Federal Armed Forces smooth the way for the following attack formations and that thereby in all probability people are killed – at least indirectly – had a deep effect on him, the soldier said.
The military expert and lieutenant colonel Juergen Rose has not doubt about it, he refers however to the US Air Force aerial war doctrine of the so-called five rings used by NATO, according to which the “target priority” ranks the “civilian population” even before the opposing military. – Did the German generals contribute to an aerial war contrary to international law?
NATO alone could throw a light on the matter, but it has remained silent until today. The existing action plans are still a military secret. Why so? NATO has rejected all accusations to offend against humanitarian international law. However, the defensive alliance admits tragic events, whereas these were not only inevitable incidents.
Air Force General Walter Jertz, once combat pilot and military speaker of NATO writes in his book “Im Dienste des Friedens – Tornados über dem Balkan” (In the name of peace – tornadoes on the Balkans): “Besides deliberately destroyed factories and infrastructure facilities, residential buildings and hospitals were always damaged and destroyed, too, – in the technical wars of the 20th century this often happens widely and intentionally in order to break the moral of the population.”
We certainly hope that the “Varvarin” case at the Federal High Court in Karlsruhe will contribute to disprove the statement of the Federal Government Schroeder/Fischer that it was pushed into the Kosovo war by the Clinton administration in Washington. According to a report in the “International Herald Tribune” the election winner Gerhard Schroeder explained immediately before he presented his credentials with President Clinton together with the delegates Fischer, Vollmer and Verheugen on 9 October 1998 in Washington: “Nobody, not even the president of Yugoslavia, is to hope that we follow a less decisive course than the past administration”.
“The way into war” – the red-green government was bent on doing so
According to Matthias Küntzel in “Der Weg zum Krieg” (Way into war), the war of intervention was assured even before the vote in the German Bundestag on 16 October 1998 of the designated government. The motive was that the red-green government was keen on being taken serious on the international stage in order to be granted a constant seat in the Security Council. The siding in this brutal civil war between Serbs and Albanians with its expulsions on both sides was sold to the good delegates of the Bundestag of the running out electoral period (legislative period between 1994 and 1998), to the homeland media front and to the German public as a crusade for human rights. Particularly the public television channels reacted with blind obedience. It is close to self-censorship that until today no documentation about the 2000 civilian victims of bombardment on Serbian side has been published.
Although Germany joined the Humanitarian International Law, experts in international law still argue about the conformity of the war against Yugoslavia with international law. It is clear that the bombardment of the hinterland of Serbia, including the bridge of Varvarin, was out of proportion. Professor Dr jur Reinhard Merkel said after the Kosovo war at the Evangelische Akademie in Arnoldshain: “Those who want to help someone else by letting indifferent third people pay with their life for the recovery, although this could have been avoided by accepting the risks for one’s own life and body, pursue a shabby maxim. They disavow the standard, to which he appeals for their own actions. – I fear that history will recall not only to the acts of the Mr. Milosevic, but also to the war of his opponents as a reminiscence of horror.”