The Balkans are a hub between East and West. This diverse region of Europe has rippled with conflict for centuries and like other areas repeatedly subjected to violent conflict and military actions, a significant legacy has been left behind. Rates of disability are higher in war torn regions for all the obvious reasons, support is often lacking, and in places like the Balkans the issue is complicated by the consequences of decades and centuries of conflicts between not just enemy nations, but friends and neighbors; as in Rwanda, people are struggling with the psychological aftermath of turning on each other. The toll of war in the Balkans has been immense.
In the 1990s, the Balkans exploded with a series of conflicts as the former Yugoslav republics battled amongst themselves. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) intervened on several occasions in an attempt to bring peace to the Balkans, and they brought a little something extra with them.
Depleted uranium (DU) is a radioactive material made from recycled nuclear fuel. It’s favored by militaries because it is extremely dense, which makes it useful for developing armor penetrating rounds. DU rounds can stop tanks in their tracks and easily penetrate body armor. This makes them immensely popular when the primary goal is stopping power which can be used to bring a conflict to a close quickly. Between 1994 and 1995, the United States Air Force (USAF) alone dropped 2.3 tons of DU ammunition in the Balkans. In 1999, during Operation Allied Force, 10.2 tons of DU were delivered by the USAF to military targets.
Dropping radioactive materials willy nilly may not seem like a wise idea, but numerous military authorities argue that DU poses no threat and can provide ample studies to back up the claim. This despite the fact that DU rounds break up on impact, spreading fine radioactive powder around the areas where they are delivered. When tank penetrating rounds are used, for example, the interior of the tank is covered in radioactive material. In the Balkans, abandoned and radioactive vehicles could still be seen by the side of the road five years after Operation Allied Force was over. Children played in them. Independent research teams have demonstrated that pockets of radioactivity are still present in areas which received large payloads during conflicts in the Balkans.
DU doesn’t stay confined to the area where it was delivered. It penetrates the soil and enters the water and is carried away by the wind. Thus, a radioactive contamination problem in the Balkans is a radioactive contamination problem for neighboring areas as well. Survey teams in the Balkans and neighboring areas have identified radioactive dust in the wind, in groundwater, in surface water, and in soil. While there have been some cleanup efforts, many recommendations suggest that DU should be left in situ because it is not believed to be a risk and disturbing contaminated ground may be more dangerous than cleaning it up.
Tell that to Allied soldiers who worked in the Balkans, who are currently experiencing unusually high rates of cancers, notably lymphoma. French and Italian soldiers are experiencing cancer at rates in excess of the norm. Residents of the Balkans may be facing what has been described as a “cancer epidemic” and DU is certainly one possible cause. In Serbia, unusual rates of chromosomal variations have been documented; radiation exposure is certainly one possible cause and the fact that radiation has been found in Serbian water supplies should certainly give one room for pause, at the very least.
There’s a name for it: They call it Balkan Syndrome.
NATO studies continue to insist that DU does not pose a threat, either to the people who were involved in peacekeeping missions in the Balkans or to the residents of the region. Their studies have primarily focused on soldiers, not residents, and long-term epidemiology studies are hard to find. Things like fertility problems can be difficult to recognize in the immediate wake of a conflict. I would also note that there is a long and established history of military denial of epidemiological trends when those trends look bad for the military.
The continued use of DU munitions is problematic. The fact that cancer rates consistently rise among people exposed to such munitions certainly suggests a very strong correlation which could merit further exploration. It is also notable that reports on the danger of such munitions conflict rather wildly, depending on the source or sponsoring agency of the report, which seems to suggest that more independent oversight would be a wise idea.
For those who trust NATO’s reports and believe that DU is not an issue in the Balkans, something still needs to be done about people with disabilities in the region, including those unusually high numbers of people with cancer and congenital disabilities. And this is complicated by the fact that repeated conflicts created masses of refugees, many of whom had no homes to return to and who were set adrift by conflict as borders were moved and redrawn. Many of these same refugees also experience psychological issues related to war. While the refugee crisis has eased, the aftereffects linger.
Post traumatic stress disorder is not uncommon among survivors of the wars in the Balkans who were refugees, some of whom are also trying to care for young children and disabled family members in a culture where disability is often treated as a sign of moral failing. Some of these children are the result of systematic military rape. Providing intervention is difficult on many levels; there are language and cultural barriers, the lack of fixed and stable homes makes it difficult to follow up, it is difficult to track people for demographic purposes, and it can be challenging to ensure that children have access to consistent education. People who have been refugees are also more likely to experience poverty, which can be a significant barrier to accessing needed services.
As the Balkan states slowly join the European Union, conversations need to shift from where responsibility lies to what we want to do about it. Intervention in the Balkans can only be effective, however, if residents of the region are empowered by it and that intervention remains respectful to cultural and social traditions of the region. Is the EU up to the challenge?
Here are some organisations working in the Balkans on disability issues:
Capacity Building of Disabled People’s Organisations in the Western Balkans (CARDS Project)
Center for Independent Living Serbia (supported by CARDS)
Self-Help and Advocacy for Equal Rights and Equal Opportunities South East Europe (SHARE-SEE)
Association of Disabled Persons (UDAS), Banju Luka, Bosnia