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Why did NATO bomb my home?

Story and photos by Jim Bartlett, Editor-in-Chief

Hard Rain
Our hosts display bomb fragments from a
NATO air strike that poured destruction
on their mountain farm.

Teslic, Bosnia and Herzegovina — January 18, 1996

One thing all parties in the Former Yugoslavia share in common is that if they feel some injustice has been done to them, you must see it with your own eyes. Here in Teslic, deep in Bosnian Serb country, I am being treated to several such show-and-tells. They reveal how deep hurt and resentments lie, how entrenched the bitterness can be. The appeals of the people to walk their land reveal a legacy of hatred in the making, even when their reasons are based on incorrect conclusions.

One of these was a house that had been blown to smithereens by NATO war planes during the bombings last August. An atrocity, I was told. A target that had been missed by a big, evil warplane from on high, raining devastation on the innocent people involved. Helpless farmers. No military activity near the place. That kind of stuff.

We drove east out of Teslic, along a road that snakes up through hollows and farmland reminiscent of West Virginia. We came to a small sliver of buildings running along a ridge line. The place was really straight right out of Appalachia. Muddy, every type of animal running about, haystacks and ramshackle sheds running the length of the drive to where the bombed house lay in ruins.

King of the Hill
A Yugoslav moonshiner proudly displays
the condenser on his Slivo still.
As we walked along, we met the farmer who lived there with some of the family. There were easily four generations of the family living on the place. The oldest man eyed us a bit warily at first, but warmed right up when we asked to get a picture of him in front of his still. It was a beat-up device, but the more I looked around the more obvious it became that this guy and his son were major moonshiners. Big 150-200 gallon fermenting barrels were everywhere.

After our photo-op, we were led up to see the house. The NATO flyboys had really done a number on the place. The whole front was blown in, the cottage next to it was in pieces. The little barn, or whatever it was, simply wasn't there anymore. A ten-foot long crater marked the spot of detonation. We were told that the house 100 yards up the road had lost its roof and every tree within a 50-yard radius were shredded. All kinds of junk still littered the area even though the NATO bombing happened in August.

Face of Resentment
A young boy who survived the bombing
of his home evenly eyes the alien Americans
who have come to hear his story.
They told us about the man and his son who lived there. Both, they said, were killed. The son had been blown to pieces. They introduced me to the man's sister. She had been buried alive in the cottage next door along with her son when the bombs hit.

The boy unnerved me. He had a piercing stare that told me he was no friend of Uncle Sam. He spoke not one word, but if looks could kill...

While my colleague from The Discovery Channel moved them here and there, setting up shots, I began to do a little forensics work, looking for fragments of the bomb to maybe identify it. The more I looked around, the more the whole "only civilians, no military" line began to unravel.

Hard Evidence
Proof of military activity on
the ridge: a 55-gallon drum of spent
machine gun and anti-aircraft shells.
The first thing that caught my eye was a blasted 55-gallon drum that had spilled over in the explosion, dumping a potload of spent machine gun and anti-aircraft casings on the ground. Did the half-crippled old moonshiner have himself an ack-ack gun? Somebody up here did. It also struck me that there were all sorts of shredded Yugoslav army uniforms lying about, and a bunch of soggy military bandages. Still, nothing conclusive.

I asked our guide where the Muslim lines were. Oddly enough, they were just over the next ridge, about 5 klicks (km) away. I could see a little road from where I stood, possibly a supply route to the Serb positions on the hilltop. My guides also volunteered the direction the NATO aircraft was going when it made its pass. The shape of the crater confirmed their reports. It paralleled the Serb line. As a rule, planes make their passes along an adversary's line to prevent shots from hitting friendly forces.

They told me that NATO must have missed their target, but the more I looked around, the less I could see of any target that was worth hitting, there in the area. It was all just fields and woods.

Then I started finding bomb fragments. A piece of casing here, a bit of circuitry there. One really big piece was an evil bastard with a machined inner lining, supposed to bust into a gizzillion pieces when it goes off. Chilling stuff.

The Culprit
A Yugoslav copy of the U.S. Army's
292 military radio antenna. Transmissions
from this radio, its presence unknown by
neighbors, probably brought NATO air strikes.
As I was collecting pieces, and they were being snapped by my eager-beaver Discovery Channel pal, I looked up. Presto! The mystery of why the place was hit was solved. There, on the wood pile, sat the top section of the Yugoslav copy of a U.S. Army 292 radio antenna. It was a simple piece of metal, a forked little devil that had brought death from the sky. What we had here was perhaps the remains of a radio relay station. Maybe more, judging from how close the Muslim line was to this site. If Uncle Sam had missed, it was only by about five feet.

The sad tale we were told of innocents bombed for no reason had pretty much unraveled. There had definitely been some kind of Serb position there, and the antenna had been sending up electronic signatures for perhaps the year that the battle lines had stabilized in that area. The whole time, the NATO AWACs had been cruising overhead, triangulating the position for future action. When the word finally came down last August, Bah-WHAM!

In the end, I was left with the feeling that this little show-and-tell expedition was a far cry from the usual, sinister, political, public relations affair. The people showing us all this probably never know that a radio position had been operating on the hill above their farm. They seemed to be simply regurgitating what the local media machine had spit out.

What I walked away with with was a reaffirmed sense of how deeply entwined the military and civilian populations are in this land. The old moonshiner and son probably had nothing to do with the troops or the war, and the troops had no other place to set up if they wanted to live better than cavemen while accomplishing their commo (communications) mission. So there they all sat, one with his still, the others with their radios. As fate will sometimes dictate, it was there that this poor farming family paid for events beyond their control.