In the twilight, the machine gunner holds aloft the dissembled barrel of his weapon, his hands oily and stained, and grins at me. White-toothed, red-haired, he wears his beret like a bonnet. Cocky, not too large, he laughs, then swears a heavy, loaded Serbian curse, unsparing of the Croats.

The machine gunner is a Kraina Serb: he and I are both part of a military company whose task is to defend the Serbs, and, if need be, to hurt the Croats. Both of us are preparing for a night assault on a Croat-occupied Serb village, cleaning our weapons and listening to the sergeant. The sergeant is a sixfooter, dark and lanky, with the high cheekbones of an ancient Avar. He also is a Kraina native, a volunteer who has come from Serbia to defend his father’s hamlet.

In a raspy voice, the sergeant tells us of the Croat deserters he has seen sunk in concrete up to their thighs, during the 1991 war, above Dubrovnik. “They left the poor bastards,” the sergeant says, “so they could perform their bodily functions, and they fed them, until we started shelling their positions. The first to die were the built-in men, screaming for the rest of them to think about God.” “The hill,” says the sergeant, “is mined, by them as well as us. Remember: short bursts, grenades, watch out for the trip-wires!”

The machine gunner—a living, breathing Rob Roy, of these mellower Highlands—does not hate the Croats. His family has not been touched by the two-year-old Serbo-Croat war, and all his relatives are present and accounted for. But he has lost friends to the Croats: some to bullets, and some to the knife, fire, and the club. The 20-odd Serb victims of the Mali Alan ambush of January this year, for instance, were all dismembered by the Croat soldiers, some while they were still alive.

The cockade the machine gunner wears on his camouflage beret is the silver, double-headed Serbian eagle, a legacy of Byzantine times. The Croats’ memories are as long as the Serbs’—to them, the Latin pillage of Constantinople was not so great an evil as the persistence of Byzantines and Serbs who remained orthodox. Though originally welcomed to Jesus by Greek emissaries, Croats have become Roman Catholics, while the machine gunner, the sergeant, and I still cling to the religion of our ancestors.

In Kraina, the conflict between the two Slavic peoples has entered a new stage: in Serbian, “Kraina” means “frontier,” much like the American frontier of the West, or the “Ukraine” of the Rus—a region of border wars, skirmishes, over-the-line feuds and grudges, bloody all. The Croats, despite a United Nations ban on the importation of arms, have acquired German Leopard tanks and some former East German heavy weaponry; they wear American, NATO, or German uniforms and equipment, eat NATO rations, and use Western standard military small arms. Gone are the days of the Croat armed rebellion against the respected Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia: today, it is Croatia that is a recognized state, a member of the U.N., while what is left of Yugoslavia, the Republic of Serb Kraina, and the Serb Republic of Bosnia are international pariahs, shunned by the “international community.” How has all this come about?

To my red-haired, red-bearded, blue-eyed companion with his brand new Yugoslav Army PKT machine gun, it makes no difference whether foreigners recognize Serbia, the Kraina, or Serb Bosnia. He is a simple peasant soldier, like his forefathers. Holding his weapon, in the dusk before a battle, he feels himself fulfilled. Once the military frontier of Venice against the Ottoman Turks, Kraina has for centuries been the home of a Serb yeomanry whose status is not unlike that of the Russian Cossacks. Farmer-soldiers, the machine gunner’s ancestors defended the West, Christendom, and the Serbs—in their mind, always inseparable—from the East, Islam, Asia, and the myriad of evils and ills as old as the first wars between the Europeans and the Turkic steppe-raiders or the desert marauders of the Near and Middle East. Kraina Serbs—a mixture of Slavs and the native Balkan Celts and Illyrians—lived in a changeless and satisfying land, tending to tasks as immutable as their vine-covered landscape. Along crystal-clear but turbulent rivers, all emptying into the Adriatic Sea, they—Serbian Orthodox in religion—rejoiced in being what God created them: a free people on free territory, recognized as such first by Venice, then by the Kingdom of Hungary and the Empire of Austria.

That night, we did not attack our objective. Someone—a politician, or a military bigshot thinking like a politician—had decided that it was prudent not to provoke an additional outcry against Serb “aggression.” The Croats, in our village, could spend that night in peace—thanks to the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, and the Communist Republic of Yugoslavia.

In 1918, the victorious Serbian Army, on the winning side of World War I, entered the Austro-Hungarian province of Croatia to preserve civil peace. Western allies and the spearhead that had broken through the Salonika front defeated the Bulgarians, bringing about the capitulation of Austria-Hungary and ultimately the fall of Germany. The Serbs of Serbia were called in by the desperate Croatian Parliament to prevent a communist revolution-in-progress. The Croatian invitation was somewhat reluctant: last among all the Austrian Slavic subjects to declare independence (following the Austrian military debacle), the Croats were faced by an angry Entente, determined to treat them as a defeated nation.

Formed ad hoc on October 29, 1918, the Kingdom of Croats, Serbs, and Slovenes had to ward off Italian claims to the whole of the Dalmatian coast, as agreed on in the Treaty of London of 1915, by which Italy had been brought into the fighting on the Entente side. Furthermore, Croatia, like all the defeated Central Powers, had dissolved into a chaos of rioting deserters, warring nationalities, and mutinous regiments returning from Serbia and the Italian Front. The new “state” tried frantically to drum up international support for its vision of a South Slav, rump Austria-Hungary, but Western victors would not hear of it—until two years ago, when Germany set out, once again, on the road to a world war.

In 1918, however, Croatia was ordered by the “international community” of the day to join up with Serbia as well as with Slovenia (another former Austro-Hungarian province) to form a “Yugoslavia.” What the machine gunner’s, or the sergeant’s, great-grandfather thought of this, I do not know. My own grandfather voted for a union of the Kingdom of Montenegro and the Kingdom of Serbia into a single Serb state. As a deputy to the Great Montenegrin National Assembly of November 1918, my grandfather, Blagota Selic, had little use for a “Yugoslavia.” Instead, he worked toward a more viable and historic “Greater” Serbia, made up of all the disparate Serb lands in the Balkans, liberated—after hundreds of years of bitter fighting—by the Serbian Army. Moreover, the 1915 Treaty of London had promised the Serbs as much as it had promised the Italians: a line was drawn from the Hungarian border downward to the Adriatic Sea and all the lands south of it given to the Serbs as their ethnic heritage. This projected “Greater” Serbia included the whole of Bosnia, which according to the official Austro-Hungarian statistics had a 44 percent Serb majority, as opposed to some 32 percent Moslems and about 24 percent Bosnian Roman Catholics (called “Croats” by the nationalists in Zagreb). For the medieval Kingdom of Bosnia had been a Serb kingdom, and most of its Muslims’ ancestors had been Orthodox Serbs before being—often forcibly—converted to Islam by the conquering Ottomans.

As my Montenegrin Serb grandfather saw it (in agreement with my Serbian maternal grandfather, who had fought as a guerrilla against both the Bulgarians and the Austro-Hungarians) Serbs had been, by international trickery—through the wiles of diplomacy, finance, and unholy influence-peddling—deprived of their hard-won patrimony. Every second Serbian adult male had died in the Great War for the Serbs to end up as parts of a state that, among its first measures, reinstated former Austro-Hungarian officers into the Yugoslav Army, with an automatic advancement in rank!

That night, of our aborted assault upon the village of Dragisic (the village was later taken by another Serb attack), we thought different things, but I’ve yet to find a Kraina Serb, or a Bosnian Serb, or a Herzegovinian Serb, willing to repeat this experience with the “German” or “Turkish” Slavs. The sergeant himself had barely survived the 1991 war, when his unit was deserted by its commanding officer, a “Yugoslav” who turned out to be wholly Croat, whereas my own father had seen his army units, in 1941, turned over to the Nazis by the Croat and Muslim officers of his day.

Through the creation of Yugoslavia, Kraina—ethnically Croatian from the 7th to the 16th century, but entirely Serb after the 16th-century Croat exodus under the Turkish onslaught—was given to Croatia, despite the record of the past four centuries and the fact that it was the invited Serbs who had defended it. In 1939, under Croat pressure, the government of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia incorporated Kraina into the Province of Croatia, which was given the borders of an imaginary Croatia that had never existed, in an effort to thwart exactly what came about two years later, in World War II. (It must be remembered that Croatia lost its independence in the 12th century, to the Hungarians, and never regained it, until today.) In 1941 the whole Croat nation, led by all its political factions except the communists, lined itself solidly with the Axis and fought, with commendable tenacity, together with Mussolini and Hitler against the Free World.

This may help to explain the present German, Austrian, and Italian support for Croatia, so mistakenly glorified by the Western media as a bastion of democracy and liberty in the Balkans. As in 1941-1945, today over 300,000 Croatian Serbs are refugees in Serbia, after being declared a non-nation by the 1991 Croatian constitution and after seeing hundreds of their fellow Serbs slaughtered by the sons and the grandsons of the fascist Croatian Ustashi in the first ethnic cleansing of the last 50 years, a fact rarely noticed by the Western press.

It was the Croat police’s military attack upon the Serb village of Borovo Selo, near Vukovar, that in May 1991 started the Serbo-Croatian War. What the Serbs had declined to do, in the case of the 1991 Slovene armed uprising against the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, the Croats did without compunction, shooting at their former friends and neighbors.

In 1941, Croats and Bosnian Muslims, together with Kosovo Albanians, gave the Nazis more volunteer troops than the whole of the Soviet Union, and more than any other region on earth. The Croat Army Legion (Verstaerken Kroatische Infanterie Regiment 369), the Croat Air Force Legion, the Croat Naval Legion, the 13th Maffen-Gabirgs-Division der SS Handschar (kroatische Nr. 1), the 33rd Maffen-Gabirgs-Division der SS Kama (kroatische Nr. 2), the 368th German-Croatian Volunteer Division, the 373rd German-Croatian Volunteer Division, the 392nd German-Croatian Volunteer Division, the German-Croatian Gendarmerie (SS), the Italian-Croat Legion, the Italian-Croat Voluntary Anti-Communist Militia, the 21st Maffen-Gabirgs-Division der SS Skanderbeg (albanische Nr. 1), the 1st and 3rd Italian-Albanian Rifle Regiments (Cacciatori di Albania), and many other, lesser units, all fought against the Allies, in the Soviet Union, France, and Yugoslavia. All of these troops also fought against the Serbs—Royalist Chetniks, Tito’s Partisans, and, especially, the civilian population—as their primary target.

During the 1941-1945 war in Yugoslavia, the Serbs lost a million people —mostly noncombatants—to the combined actions of their enemies, who are today recognized as democratic, pro-Western states by the “international community.” The ethnic cleansing of Serbs in World War II has never been recognized by the U.N., whose files are clear of the Jasenovac death camp, near Zagreb, where some 30,000 Jews, 50,000 Gypsies, and over 600,000 Serbs were murdered. For this, we can thank the former Yugoslav communist government and its wish to promote “Brotherhood and Unity” within Yugoslavia, as well as the stalwart efforts of those same forces within the U.N. organization that elected the former Nazi Kurt Waldheim as secretary-general. Nor should one discount the effects of decades of Croat émigré propaganda. Even a cursory glance at any Croat émigré newspaper of, say, 20 years ago will show a collective Serb portrait that coincides with what passes for truth today, after all the alleged Serb misdeeds in the current war. What is strangely puzzling is that all the imputed Serb atrocities of the present—and much more—were committed by the Croats, the Muslims, and the Albanians 50 and 80 years ago, in World Wars I and II. The 1914 mass hangings of Serb women in Austro-Hungarian-occupied Serb Macva can hardly be explained away as a Serb invention, since photographs, taken by the Croat, German, and Magyar executioners themselves, still exist, and a War Crimes tribunal that wants to set the record straight can examine this evidence before proceeding to the next set of anti-Serb massacres, those occurring in World War II.

“On the night of September 3/4, 1942, 700 arrested hostages were shot in Hrvatska Mitrovica. It was noted that, after exiting them from the jailhouse, the Serb hostages were made to pass through an Ustashi gauntlet in order to reach a waiting bus. As they were passing, the Ustashi administered blows to them with wooden clubs. At the site of the execution, besides shooting, there also occurred throat-slitting and other sadistic excesses. Among those was the cutting off of female breasts. . . . ” This is from the official report of the German Legation at Zagreb to the Ministry of the Foreign Affairs of the Reich, on September 11, 1942.

“On the occasion of his promotion to the rank of an Ustasha captain,” goes another such report of November 21, 1942, “the senior police commissioner, Tomic, arranged a dissolute party. After dinner, heavy drinking ensued. When all present were totally intoxicated, Tomic commenced to shoot with his pistol. The valuable oil paintings and crystal served him as targets. Around midnight, several Ustashe were ordered to bring in a few Serbs who had been kept in jail. These Serbs were knifed to death, and the Ustashe sucked blood from their wounds.”

A memorandum by a German officer who was sent to prevent Croat massacres of the Serb population of Eastern Bosnia (the site of present day “humanitarian aid” to the Muslims) during August 1941 states: “While we were traveling in the direction of the Javer Mill, near Srebrenica and Ozren, we found all Serb villages along the way completely abandoned. However, in the houses we often discovered entire families butchered. We even found barrels full of blood. In villages between Vlasenica and Kladanj, we found impaled children, their tiny members contorted in pain, as if they were insects. pinned down with needles.” Perhaps such German reports of their Croat allies’ behavior explain why today’s Bosnia has an inverted proportion of Serbs to Muslims, when compared to Austro- Hungarian, and even Ottoman, times.

During my 1993 stay in Kraina—as a volunteer—and in 1992 in Bosnia, as a war reporter, I have heard of Serbs killing Moslems, but not Croats. It should be remembered, however, that even in this war, it was the Muslims who first shot at a Serb wedding party in Sarajevo, in the summer of 1992, murdering the father of the groom. This triggered the Bosnian carnage. It was Saban Muratovic, at Visegrad in Bosnia, who over the Yugoslav airwaves threatened to blow up the Visegrad dam and obliterate everything and everybody down the Drina and the Sava river valleys. It was Alija Izetbegovic, the Muslim President of Bosnia and Herzegovina, who over those same airwaves publicly admonished the frantic Muratovic not to proceed with his plan. This was all before any Serb retaliatory actions, at the very outset of the 1992 Bosnian explosion. Personally, in Belgrade, I have talked to a father whose son—a Serb volunteer on the Croatian front—was butchered like a hog at the beginning of the Serbo-Croatian war, in 1991, and then portrayed first on Croatian TV and later on German TV as a Croat victim of the Satanic Serbs!

It was Alija Izetbegovic who in the 1970’s, in his Islamic Declaration, called on Muslims to take over power in Bosnia once their number surpassesd 51 percent of the population. According to Izetbegovic’s book, it is also the Bosnian Muslims’ obligation to institute the rule of Shari’ah, or Islamic Law, in Bosnia and to turn it, perhaps, into something like the United Arab Emirates, where it is a capital crime to convert a Muslim. Nobody in the West paid any attention to Izetbegovic then, except for Amnesty International, which defended him as a prisoner of conscience.

Croatia, on the other hand, is governed by one of Tito’s communist generals, Franjo Tudjman, who publicly said in 1991 that he was glad he was “neither Serb, nor Jewish.” In his book Historic Dead Ends, published much after Izetbegovic’s, Tudjman belittled the number of Serbs killed in World War II, claiming only 30,000 Serbs died in the Jasenovac camp, “mostly anti-fascist Croats” at that. To the chagrin of many Jewish groups and lobbies, Tudjman also denies the existence of Nazi extermination camps and has allowed World War II war criminals to return to Croatia, where many of them have been publicly honored for their “contributions to the Motherland.”

War in former Yugoslavia cannot be regarded piecemeal: what happens in Kraina is an outcome of what goes on in Bosnia, and both depend on what has happened, and is still happening, in Croatia. Nothing in former Yugoslavia can be understood without a knowledge of the past, which for most former Yugoslavs is still the living present.

Had there been no Ottoman invasion of the Balkans, in all probability Balkan history would have been as uneventful as Dutch or Danish history. But the 1389 Kosovo defeat pushed the Serbs northward into what was Hungary and Croatia, while the 1526 Hungarian defeat at Mohacs emptied Croatia of most of its Croat population, which escaped (sometimes) as far north as Austria. In the 17th century, the Albanians came, as Turkish troops, into the Serbian heartland of Kosovo. A parallel is often drawn between the Kosovo and Kraina cases, but there is a crucial difference: Serbs came into a largely vacated Kraina, invited there by its Hungarian, then Venetian, masters, to defend the region from the conquering Ottomans, while the Albanians descended upon Kosovo as part of an Asiatic occupying force and displaced—often brutally—a numerous and established Serbian population.

But history happened, and Serbs, Croats, and Albanians became inextricably mixed. The best solution would have been a Yugoslavia, provided there was a consensus on its institution among the constituent nations. Unfortunately, there never was a consensus: Serbs wanted a Yugoslavia, as did the Slovenes and the Croats initially (so long as they could dominate it), whereas the Muslims and the Albanians had no use for a plan that abrogated their overlord status, derived from their privileged position as Muslims within the Turkish Empire.

During the course of a February 1993 night, as I stood watch over our position above the Croatian coastal town of Skradin (a town with many Serb monuments as well, including a 14th-century church) and wondered when the real shooting would start, history, ignored by the foreign meddlers in the Yugoslav mess, marked the sky: red tracers from 20-m.m. guns streaked between our position and the Croats’, sometimes crisscrossing each other like a giant game of tic-tac-toe.

In 1992, in Serb Cajnice, close to the besieged Muslim town of Gorazde, I lived on military Spam and rationed bread; that was the time when all the world was talking of Serb “concentration camps” where Muslims, as the claim went, were “intentionally starved.” On the Bosnian-Serb-Romanian Mountain, that same summer, food was even scarcer than in Cajnice: homemade cheese and army bread were all we ate there (not bad fare, but monotonous); there was no U.N. “humanitarian aid” for the women and children of the high plateau above the Zepa region, where convoy after convoy of white U.N. trucks traveled. After the trucks, the Muslims of Zepa usually attacked our positions, sneaking by our patrols and guards at night and murdering the very same young and old Serbs, too weak for the rifle, who had smiled at us, confident that we would defend them.

Still, Muslim prisoners of war in the Serb camps were fed the same rations as our troops—Spam they often would not eat, nor anything derived of pork, but we had nothing else to offer them, or ourselves. Not far from us, in Sarajevo, in over a dozen unregistered camps, our imprisoned noncombatants went hungry, week after week, month after month; in the Muslim Croat Bradina camp, near Konjic in Herzegovina, Serb women and children were kept in a railway tunnel and, from time to time, either tortured, raped, or murdered, according to their captors’ whim. Mostar, the capital of Herzegovina, which had a prewar population of over 30,000 Serbs, today has only 400 left: taken out night after night, one by one, they disappeared, into that same, Croat darkness.

At Elie Wiesel’s insistence, the Serb camp at Manjaca was emptied at the end of 1992, but many of its Muslims came back to Bosnia several weeks later as armed soldiers of Islam, while the Croats and the Muslims still maintain their clandestine camps, where Elie Wiesel’s envoy, journalist Daniel Schieffer, was never allowed to visit. A year before the hysteria about “raped Muslim women” hit the Western media, reports of hundreds of genuine, documented cases of punitive, cold-blooded rapes of Serb women and girls in Croatia were presented to the Yugoslav public, but none of the Serbian-speaking foreign journalists in Belgrade considered them worthy of mention. As for the Serbs’ own propaganda effort, their attitude may best be summed up by the recent reluctance of Herzegovinian Serb peasants to have the media present at the exhumation of the thousands of Serb noncombatants murdered by the Croat Ustashi in World War II. Asked what they had against the airing of these events (the communist government had previously filled in many of the execution pits with concrete, to cement its concept of “Brotherhood and Unity”), the peasants replied that “Serbs do not exploit their dead.”