Unfashionable Victims

Charles Simic

  • The Serbs: History, Myth and the Destruction of Yugoslavia by Tim Judah
    Yale, 368 pp, £19.95, April 1997, ISBN 0 300 07113 2

Oh those awful Serbs! Until recently no one cared or knew much about them in the West and now almost everyone has an opinion about them and it’s most likely to be unfavourable. Karadzic and Mladic – icons of inhumanity – are taken as embodiments of the soul of their people. Even before the wars in the former Yugoslavia started, American newspapers are offering analyses of the Serbs. A New York Times editorial on 4 April 1989, for instance, described Yugoslavia’s Roman Catholic republics as ‘the country’s most advanced and politically enlightened region’ now undeservedly threatened with ‘bullying’ by a block of Orthodox Christian republics. It was an open-and-shut case: a struggle between industrious Roman Catholic Slavs, whose culture and traditions are a part of civilised Europe, and the Byzantine East, where laziness and violence are the rule. Later on, during the war in Bosnia, it was the Bosnian Muslims who were praised for their affinities with the West and for being unlike Muslims elsewhere.

Before long, Western newspapers and Balkan nationalists were using much the same language. With complete assurance, editorials, columns and op-ed page articles purported to locate characteristics that have supposedly been present for centuries in these little-known Balkan peoples. For many Western commentators talking about the Serbs was a way of defining their own cultural superiority. Offering their readers crude morality plays, they conveniently overlooked the possibility that their own diatribes resembled the nationalist rhetoric they so deplored. Most absurd of all was the idea that there are two kinds of nationalism: the ‘Post-Modern nationalism’ of Slovenes and Croats, tolerant, democratic and nonaggressive, and Serbian nationalism, which is intrinsically expansionist, authoritarian and violent. To anybody able to read the nationalist press in Serbia and Croatia this is laughable. The best proof of the fact that Serbs and Croats are one and the same people are the almost identical idiocies their super-patriots spew out every day.

Once it was clear that the West agreed with local nationalists that the peoples of the former Yugoslavia had nothing in common, it followed that the break-up of the country was something to be encouraged. The inconvenient fact that the Serbs were the largest ethnic group, and the only one with significant numbers scattered throughout the other republics, was never seriously addressed. Instead, they were dismissed as the jailers of Yugoslavia, the perennial trouble-makers, the sort of people who couldn’t be reasoned with, who didn’t understand anything more subtle than the carrot and the stick. Again and again a columnist would say that the stick was all the Serbs understood, whereupon a letter to the editor or an op-ed page article would argue that a carrot should be offered.

Even the new Croatian Constitution, as Tim Judah points out in his fine new book, which demoted 600,000 of Croatia’s Serbs to minority status by making the new country the ‘national state of the Croatian people’, was not so alarming as to postpone Croatia’s recognition. Serb fears of Croatia were wildly exaggerated, the journalists said, as if they themselves would take in their stride the news that they were no longer American citizens, but were from now on members of an Irish, Jewish, Chinese, or other minority in an Anglo-Saxons-only state. If the Serbs had complaints, it was said, they should have worked within the system. Even when thousands had been fired from their jobs merely for being Serbs, and the streets and schools named after the heroes of the Anti-Fascist resistance had been renamed after the Fascists responsible for the mass killings of Serbs in World War Two, they were supposed to hold their breath and wait for Susan Sontag or Bernard Henri Levy to take up their cause.

It is important to understand that even if Mahatma Gandhi had been the President of Serbia there would still have been a Serbian problem to solve. Yugoslavia made sense for the simple reason that neither Christ nor Allah would be able to draw just borders between most of its peoples. Once the country was officially abolished by the international community, the position of the Serbs, and of all those who regarded themselves as Yugoslavs, became impossible. One day they were free to drive to Italy with their families; the next, their documents were worthless and they no longer knew of what country they were citizens.

Tim Judah’s book is the first detailed and reliable guide to these complicated questions, alert to the pressures of Balkan history and culture, and completely impartial: nationalists on all sides will loathe it. The early part is devoted to a summary of Serbian history since the Middle Ages, and the remaining two-thirds to recent events. In Judah’s summary, Serb history is an unhappy tale of wars, massacres, occupations and migrations. Ethnic cleansing was what every side did in the region over the centuries, so what the Serbs set out to achieve this time round was not an aberration but part of a long local tradition. I’m not so sure. Nationalists turn to history in search of a licence to kill, and even academics are inclined to attribute large-scale evil to ethnic and cultural causes. The implicit premise here is that you and I have a hidden bond with those who murder in our names. A far more plausible explanation is that the tragedy in Yugoslavia was caused by men who were the product of fifty years of Communism rather than of any native tradition.

At the point of the break-up of Yugoslavia, the Serbs faced three options, all equally unworkable: 1. A rump Yugoslavia without Slovenia, reconstituted as a loose confederation of democratic republics, which, given the Communist-turned-nationalists in power everywhere, including Serbia, was not about to happen. 2. A Yugoslavia broken up into five or six independent states, which would mean leaving a large number of Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia Hercegovina reduced to minority status. 3. All Serbs in one large, new state – which would in turn make everybody else a minority. If there had been no bad blood, perhaps a solution could have been found. But given the massacres of the Second World War it was impossible not to be concerned about the future. ‘Every village in Croatia and Bosnia,’ Judah writes, ‘was now beginning to remember what the neighbours had done fifty years before. If they were not actually plotting revenge, they began to prepare, as best as they could, against the possibility that their neighbours might be doing so.’ Like many others, I kept hoping that mutual self-interest would prevail, forgetting that this wasn’t a situation in which anything so rational could be expected. ‘We don’t wish to live with them any more. We have to separate once and for all,’ one read and heard people say in Serbia, but nobody I heard or read gave any clue as to how this could be achieved fairly and peacefully – and, of course, it never could be. It was no more sensible than the old idea that Alabama and Mississippi could be turned over to African-Americans: would every New York City cab driver and doctor jump at the opportunity to live in a ghetto among his or her own people? The nationalist programme was as stupid as that.

In this supremely difficult moment, the Serbian people made a catastrophic mistake. They allowed a cynical opportunist, the corrupt Communist Party and the huge secret police to take charge of their national interests. Overnight, the same mafia who had deprived the people of their freedom for fifty years changed tack and began to promise them the restoration of their dignity and their rights, and the people bought it. Most Serbs bridle when they hear this. As Judah points out, ‘not only were people disoriented but, brought up with a heroic image of themselves as the people who had opposed Fascism unlike the Croats, they simply refused to believe the most appalling camp stories.’ They still imagine that the dreadful bias against them in the Western media somehow cancels out their own responsibility for what happened in the war. They point to the shamefully under-reported atrocities committed by Croats and Muslims, as if these excused their own murders. They hate to be told that their rulers do not have their best interests at heart, preferring to lay the blame on a global conspiracy or the duplicities of the New World Order.

Judah’s book makes plain the convergence of competing ambitions, the monstrous alliance of incompetents, opportunists and criminals bent on enriching themselves while supposedly defending the holy cause of the Serbian people. ‘It was not just expelled Muslims and Croats who were robbed,’ he writes. ‘Local industrial and agricultural assets that would have helped sustain Serb-held areas both during and after the war were simply stripped and sold off.’ As long as there were fortunes to be made, no one in charge was in a rush to stop the carnage. One of the drawbacks for those who preach democracy in the Balkans is that democracy is not as profitable as nationalism.

Despite his own evidence to the contrary, Judah nevertheless accepts the claim that there was also an attempt to realise the centuries-old dream of a Greater Serbia. I don’t believe this for a moment. Serbs have never had a clear-cut national programme. I’m 59 years old and have had innumerable political discussions with Serbs of every description, but the subject of Greater Serbia has never come up. We are more likely to make fun of our national pretensions. My fondest memories of my grandfather are of him inventing funny and bawdy versions of medieval heroic ballads. Scarce as they sometimes appear to be, there are Serbs who understand that they are a small people living unenviably at the crossroads of three religions and several contending empires. The opposition daily and weekly papers have published hundreds of pieces in recent years pointing out that the idea of ‘Greater Serbia’ was a half-baked scam, ‘Plan B’ set out after Milosevic’s other schemes to extend his power over the rest of Yugoslavia had collapsed.

The question that remains is how something so mad and self-defeating as ethnic cleansing could have occurred. How, to echo Judah, could Serbian history be so misused? As with most such outrages, there is no single explanation. It started with the state-controlled media in all the former republics. Give some ideologue a monopoly of the means to fan hatred between ethnic groups in the USA and don’t be surprised when neighbours begin killing neighbours and justify their actions with tales of ancient victimhood. In Yugoslavia the old Communist propaganda machine was already in place. All that was necessary was a change of vocabulary. It didn’t take much to convert class warfare into ethnic hatred and have the intellectuals start making excuses for a new round of crimes. Truths, half-truths and plenty of lies – who could sort them out? Pretty soon even sensible people could not tell them apart.

And where was the democratic opposition all this time? The problem, as has often been the case with the Serbs, is that they were suicidally divided. During the Second World War, they were more or less evenly split between royalists and Communists. At the same time as they were being slaughtered by the hundreds of thousands in Croatia, they were engaged in killing each other in a civil war. These animosities have not died out. The coalition of opposition parties, which functioned so well last winter when the demonstrations were taking place, has now practically fallen apart. One side, still hoping to bring the monarchy back, accuses the other of being crypto-Communists. And if that were not enough, the Serbs are also split regionally: the different histories and cultures of Serbia proper, Montenegro, Vojvodina, Bosnia and Hercegovina sometimes make it seem that contemporary Serbs live simultaneously in different centuries.

Given the complexity of the situation and the lack of unity, Milosevic had a pretty free hand. He made secret agreements. The first was with the Slovenian President to let Slovenia leave the union. In 1991, while the war in Croatia was still in progress, he made the all-important deal with Tudjman to split Bosnia and Hercegovina between them. In order to implement that plan Milosevic continued to arm the Serbian population in Bosnia Hercegovina, as he had previously armed the Serb population in Croatia, and instructed his secret police to organise ‘patriotic’ paramilitary groups to go into Bosnia and do whatever they could to encourage the Muslims to flee. ‘Milosevic organised everything,’ says Vojislav Seselj, the leader of the Serbian Radical Party:

We gathered the volunteers and he gave us special barracks ... our uniforms, arms, military technology and buses. All our units were always under the command of the Krajina or Republika Srpska Army or the JNA. Of course I don’t believe he signed anything, these were verbal orders. None of our talks was taped and I never took paper and pencil when I talked with him. His key people were the commanders. Nothing could happen on the Serbian side without Milosevic’s order or his knowledge.

The Serbian paramilitary had plenty of company. This is how Judah describes the scene in Bosanski Brod in the days before the war started in Sarajevo: ‘Gunmen and militias from a multitude of groups prowled around town. A number of Muslims from Serbia’s Sandzak region had “Allah is Great” stitched to their arm flashes. They said they were in training for the struggle that they intended to take to Serbia itself. Croats from the Croatian Army were also in town, some sporting the “U” symbol of the old Ustasha state.’

The strangest aspect of the whole story is that the massive exchanges of population received tacit support from abroad. In the West, enthusiasts of the break-up had their own ideas about drawing new borders. Yugoslavia was to be abolished and divided between spheres of influence, except for Bosnia, which was to become a kind of theme-park where all religions and ethnic groups would live happily ever after. In the last months of the war, the ethnic cleansing in Krajina, Srebrenica and Western Bosnia took place with a nod from Washington and the go-ahead of the local leaders, as no one any longer doubts.

Clearly, to be an individual in the former Yugoslavia, someone who minds his or her own business, who has no intention of harming anybody, has become an extremely precarious business. The nationalist euphoria did not include everyone. Thousands of Serbs deserted in the war and even more left the country. Muslims had even less choice. They ran for their lives. My parents, like so many others, went through something very like this more than fifty years ago. To their absolute astonishment, they found themselves on the other side of the globe through no fault of their own. I figured it wouldn’t happen again in my lifetime. I never expected to see my childhood replayed on CNN. It is the predicament of the innocents on all sides that makes the story of Yugoslavia so awful. If you forget them, you end up exonerating Milosevic, Tudjman and Izetbegovic: the West, by dealing only with the nationalist leaders, has effectively made travel arrangements for anyone who holds different views.

This may be perfectly obvious, but long experience has taught me that not all innocents have the same status. In 1948 my mother, brother and I were deported from Austria by a pro-Tito English colonel who lectured us that we had no right to leave a country run by workers. In the present war, Croatia cleansed its territory of most of its Serbian population with only a few mild rebukes from the West. To be accepted as an innocent victim has always required that one be a member of a fashionable victim group. There was nothing inevitable about the tragedy in Yugoslavia. Religion, cultural determinism, national traits are just pretexts. Nationalists everywhere are forever trying to embroil the rest of us in their genocidal projects by raking over the coals of history. They reject the possibility of any kind of choice, believing instead in the iron law that says we must either kill or be killed.