The Yugoslav civil war will turn out to be, from the long perspective of the American experience, a mere dot on the horizon. But for a small part of the American landscape—the Americans of Serbian descent—the twisted portrayal of this war, by politicians and the media, will be painful and difficult to bear for a long time to come.
As a Kansas mother and public schoolteacher and her husband were listening to the morning TV news, which made reference to “bombing the Serbs,” they were interrupted by their three-year-old who asked; “Will it be safe for me to go outside to play?” The mother was of Serbian ancestry (although not the father), and the child took the threat personally, hi the Chicago area, students of Serbian ethnic background were told by their teachers that they would not call on them until “their people” stopped doing those terrible things in Europe. An old man in New Jersey who immigrated from Serbia searched in vain for a support group or a legal defense fund to help him deal with anti-Serb taunts. And those Americans of Serbian background who have sought assistance from the American Red Cross in sending relief supplies to needy persons in Serbia have routinely received the cold shoulder. There is no end to such examples.
The media and the American political leadership have succeeded in poisoning the attitudes of Americans toward Serbs and Serbia to such an extent that it has embittered Americans of Serbian descent. The parroting of insidious Serb-bashing by teachers and study guides, including publications for students that deal with current events, means that the indoctrination has reached young unsuspecting minds in the schools. Students whose mothers are Serbian but not the fathers have been able to hide their ancestry, but children whose father’s name gives them away are on the front line of a propaganda war. Of course, the anti-Serbian diatribes have also found their echo in businesses and places of employment, and even social and religious settings.
One example of the school scene is the World Newsmap for the week of August 31, 1992, distributed to schools by the Weekly Reader Corporation. It features “Bosnia under Siege,” with anti-Serb allegations, such as “Serb troops invaded Bosnia,” engaged in “a campaign of terror,” and that some of their “actions remind people of Nazi brutality.” Then, under the title “What Would You Do?” there is a listing of suggested strategies, among them “bombing military and other targets in Serbia.” Moreover, students were asked what would they do if they were the victims of brutality, and alternative actions were posed for them: “Would you leave?” or “Would you try to fight the Serbs?” No hint whatsoever of a civil war.
The Time Education Program for September 14, 1992, titled “Current Events Curriculum: Reading and Writing Skills Curriculum,” while referring to the Bosnian civil war, asks the students: “Besides the whole slogan of ‘ethnic cleansing,’ what other Serbian policies are frighteningly reminiscent of the Nazis?” And “how is the response of the outside world different or similar to reactions to early Nazi policies against the Jews?”
The Teachers’ Edition of Scholastic Update for March 25, 1994, has several articles dealing with Bosnia, among them “Why Should We Care?” Among other things, the Serbs are blamed for the Market massacre in Sarajevo in February 1994, with no reference to the fact that United Nations investigations had failed to identify the culprit or culprits. The article speaks of Bosnia as “one of the worst examples of genocide in modern times.” Another article asserts: “This time, a horrified world community responded. Led by the United States, Western nations issued a stark warning to the Serbs.” While there are references to all sides committing atrocities, over and over again there are assertions that the Serbs were the main culprits. There are repetitions of the charge that 200,000 persons had been killed and that two million people were driven from their homes, suggesting that it was the Serbs who did it.
At the end of the Teachers’ Edition are three exercises for students. One is a “Pop Quiz” which seeks to determine if the students had grasped the anti-Serb allegations. Another is a “Puzzle Page” with a crossword puzzle where several of the words to be filled in identify Serbs as the guilty party. Finally, there are six questions to respond to, one being “Write a brief note to one of the teenagers in which you describe your reaction to their experience in Bosnia.”
With respect to the figures on fatalities listed above, even Patrick Buchanan, no friend of the Serbs, has pointed out the logical absurdity of the claim that 200,000 were killed, by calculating how many would have been killed per day since the war began. And George Kenney, who in 1992 resigned from the State Department to protest American policy in Yugoslavia, wrote in the New York Times Magazine of April 23, 1995, that those figures were phony, that the more correct number of fatalities—from all sides—was between 25,000 and 60,000. But media reports pay no attention and continue repeating the inflated figures.
An example of anti-Serb actions at the neighborhood level was the circulation in Naperville, Illinois, of a petition by students of Central High School, which urged people to write to President Clinton, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Claiborne Pell, and to Illinois Senators Paul Simon and Carol Moseley-Braun. The texts of the suggested letters urged the lifting “of the Arms Embargo against the government of Bosnia immediately to enable them to defend themselves. Nothing short of this will halt the Serbian offensive, massacre of innocent children and rape of women.” These petitions were circulated as a class assignment! At least one of the students circulating the petitions was a Muslim.
As a consequence of these actions, Americans of Serbian background, especially vulnerable young ones, who once prided themselves as descendants of the heroic Serbs who fought as our allies in two world wars, have been driven to deny their Serbian ancestry. Some are cowed, not unlike Jews in a number of countries where the sins of society were laid at their feet. Americans of Serbian descent who once prided themselves as Orthodox Christians have been silenced by the media portrayal of their religious beliefs as backward and even barbaric. Moreover, these Americans wonder why certain American politicians (some openly and others tacitly) support Muslims in opposition to the Christian Serbs. Many of these Americans who once pointed with pride to their contributions to America now avoid mentioning their ancestry. Among these are inventors such as Nikola Tesla and Michael Pupin; sculptors such as David Brein; business tycoons such as William Salatich, William Jovanovich, Milan Puskar, and Milan Panic; politicians such as Governor George Voinovich (Ohio), Rose Ann Vuich (first woman state senator in California), and Congresswoman Helen Delich Bentley (Maryland); Pulitzer prizewinners Charles Simic (poetry) and Walter Bogdanich (journalism); artists such as Stephen Stepanchev (poet), Karl Maiden (actor), and Steven Tesich (screenwriter); as well as scientists, educators, and community leaders, too numerous to mention.
From another viewpoint, there is nothing about Americans of Serbian background that any one of them needs to be ashamed of; there are no crime syndicates associated with Serbian names. Serbs who came to these shores and their offspring have an excellent record as law-abiding citizens. The only time when some of them were guilty of breaking the law was during Prohibition, but in that respect they had a lot of company with Americans of other ancestries.
Americans of Serbian background have been especially proud of their service in the American Armed Forces, and particularly of those among them who were decorated with Congressional Medals of Honor, such as Mitchell Page (Pajich) and Alex (Jake) Mandusich in World War I; Louis Cukela (Djukelich), the only person in American history to win two Congressional Medals (World War I and World War II and recommended for a third); and Lance Sijan (posthumously) in the Vietnam War. And there arc a large number of Purple Heart recipients. Now, Americans of Serbian background are made to feel shame to such an extent that they suffer in silence when they think of the accomplishments of their ethnic kin who served this country.
Americans of Serbian background have been proud, not only of the fact that Serbia fought on the side of the Allies in the two world wars, but also of the Serbs’ heroic battles against the Ottoman Turks for the resurrection of their homeland. And they were most proud of the fact that by the beginning of the 20th century, the Serbs had established a democratic parliamentary political system. This was at a time when battlers for democracy in Germany and Austria-Hungary were having little success, and those in Russia and other Eastern European countries could only dream. American Serbs were also proud that in World War I, little Serbia was able to hold off the vastly superior forces of the Austro-Hungarian Empire for over a year, making a significant contribution to the victory of her Western Allies. In World War II, when most of Europe was under the Nazi heel, Serbian generals in the Yugoslav army in March 1941 said “No” to Hitler at the height of his power. The Axis, however, soon crushed the Yugoslav forces, and Croats set up a pro-German state, which declared war on the Allied powers. Moreover, Germany’s Croat minions massacred hundreds of thousands of Serbs, as well as thousands of Jews and Gypsies in their realm. They were joined in many of these massacres by the Muslims of Bosnia-Herzegovina, which was made part of the Groat satellite state. These Muslims, under the leadership of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, also formed military divisions to fight on the side of the Axis.
But the Serbs were not cowed, and in July 1941 they raised the first flag of underground resistance in Europe, under the command of a little-known colonel, Draza Mihailovic (subsequently promoted to general by the Yugoslav government-in-exile). Immediately, he and his brave Chetniks were hailed as heroes, and Mihailovic was on the cover of Time magazine on May 25,1942. American Serbs were elated. Within two years, however, British prime minister Winston Churchill made what he later admitted was his worst mistake of the war, abandoning Mihailovic and throwing the West’s support to the Yugoslav communists, who had launched a separate resistance movement known as the Partisans. Later it became evident that the communists were primarily interested in seizing power in Yugoslavia, which they succeeded in doing.
The abandonment of Mihailovic was a hard blow to Americans of Serbian descent, one which they could not understand, especially given the known antidemocratic position of international communism. In fact, they were not told until the 1960’s that in March 1948 President Truman had posthumously awarded Mihailovic the Legion of Merit, but at the insistence of the State Department it was kept secret, on the grounds that the news might injure our relations with communist dictator Josip Broz Tito.
When after the war, the Yugoslav communists, under Tito’s leadership, organized the new Yugoslavia on the pattern of the Soviet Union, the Serbs were punished by scattering a third of them among other ethnic units, called republics. American Serbs could only say, “We told you so.” While Tito’s regime included Serbian communists, who remained loyal to the party leader, Tito (Croat-Slovene) and his close associates from Slovenia and Croatia were firmly in control. After the breakup of Yugoslavia in 1992, Americans of Serbian ancestry found themselves pilloried when they spoke up in defense of their kin in areas of the country where civil war raged. By that time, the Croats and Slovenes had astutely engaged public relations firms for “spin control,” publicizing the notion that their secessions were justified as opposition to the desire of the Serbs to dominate them: a clearly spurious charge, but one which the American media spread widely and the public swallowed uncritically. This helps to explain the West’s hasty recognition of the secessionist republics and the push to accept them as new members of the United Nations.
Neither the media, nor the supposedly independent journalists, and certainly no important political leaders, took note of the fact that the Western actions totally ignored the interests of our once much-touted allies, the Serbs. And those same great powers seemingly took no note of how their future interests in the Balkans would be affected by the role that the Serbs would eventually play.
Americans of Serbian ancestry have been deeply concerned about the widespread satanization of Serbs and Serbia by the politicians and by the media and have asked themselves what the Serbs have done to deserve the vilification. They believe the Serbs have acted in the time-honored tradition of fighting for their rights, a concept occupying a high place in the pyramid of American political iconography. In this case, however, the Serbs’ determination to fight for their rights met with the equal determination of the West to force them to accept a detestable outcome in the wake of the disintegration of Yugoslavia.
The Serbs, the only group among the South Slavs who were allies of France, Britain, Russia, and the United States in two world wars, expected understanding if not support. Moreover, these countries, as well as Yugoslavia, were signatories of the Helsinki Accords, which proclaimed that changing internationally recognized boundaries by force was unacceptable. But these countries forgot their obligations, and joined Germany, Serbia’s enemy in two world wars, in aiding and abetting the secessionist republics, first of all Slovenia and Croatia, in changing Yugoslavia’s boundaries by armed force. And there is no indication that these same powers were aware that they were violating the Montevideo Convention of 1932, which stipulated the conditions for recognizing new states, conditions that Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina did not meet.
While there were few Serbs in Slovenia, there were nearly three-quarters of a million in Croatia and about 1.5 million in Bosnia-Herzegovina, which followed Slovenia and Croatia in seceding. These Serbs, constituting about one-third of the Serbian population of Yugoslavia, had lived together in one state since 1918 and believed that they had a right to remain a part of Yugoslavia. Or, if not, they believed that they had a right to create their own mini-states on territories that they have inhabited for centuries. After all, they thought, if self-determination was right for the secessionists, why not the Serbs?
What puzzled some Americans (and not only those of Serbian descent) was the West’s attitude, which on the one hand welcomed the fall of communist systems but on the other fought doggedly to internationalize the communist Tito’s administrative internal borders, which punished the Serbs. This was particularly relevant in the case of Bosnia-Merzegovina, where the Serbs constituted one-third of the population. Moreover, the leader of the Muslims, Alija Izetbegovic, plainly stated in his book The Islamic Declaration that there “can be neither peace nor coexistence between the Islamic religion and non-Islamic social and political institutions.” Moreover, he wrote: “The upbringing of the people, and particularly means of mass influence—the press, radio, television and film—should be in the hands of people whose Islamic moral and intellectual authority is indisputable. The media should not be allowed—as so often happens—to fall into the hands of perverted and degenerate people who then transmit the aimlessness and emptiness of their own lives to others.”
Clearly, this view was contrary to the Bosnian Muslims’ claim that they favored a multiethnic state. But American political leaders and the American media, presumably great defenders of pluralism, seemed not to notice and continued with their pro-Muslim and anti-Serb declarations.
Understandably, Americans of Serbian background were greatly troubled by the reports of various atrocities in Bosnia, which the media ascribed to Serbs. They realized that in wars, especially civil wars—including the American Civil War—all sides commit atrocities. And according to United Nations observers and some private relief agencies, this was also true in Bosnia, but the American media paid scant attention, choosing instead to continue vilifying only the Serbs. Newspapers often failed to identify Serb victims or Serbian graves in published pictures, leaving the impression that the graves were those of Muslims or Croats. American political leaders and the media then attributed the three main outrages in Sarajevo to the Serbs, when to this day no credible evidence against the Serbs has been produced, and much to the contrary. These were the so-called “breadline” massacre of May 1992, the explosion in the Markale market in February 1994, and a similar explosion in August 1995. The first prompted the Western powers to have the Security Council of the United Nations vote for severe economic sanctions against rump Yugoslavia, meaning Serbia and Montenegro. The second one was used to force Bosnian Serbs to pull their heavy weapons some 20 kilometers away from Sarajevo and to tighten the sanctions against Yugoslavia. The third was used as a pretext for the massive bombing campaign against the Bosnian Serbs.
Of the first, the U.N. commander in Sarajevo, General Lewis MacKenzie, has provided information that suggests that the Muslims were the more likely culprits. The same point was made by the London newspaper. The Independent. Of the second, the U.N. office in New York reported that based on their reports from Sarajevo, it was impossible to tell who was responsible. Experts from Israel have thrown serious doubts on allegations that the Serbs were the villains. A Turkish doctor at a Sarajevo hospital pointed to the nature of victims’ wounds that threw doubts on the allegations of those who had said that it was a Serbian shell. Independent journalists who have seen the confidential U.N. reports have concluded that indeed it was impossible to place responsibility, while at the same time hinting that Muslims—domestic or foreign, and perhaps not under the command of the Bosnian Muslim authorities—were liable. French television was more forthright in blaming the Muslims. Some reports even hinted that it may have been a device accidentally exploded by Muslims. Of the explosion last August, independent investigations have concluded that the Serbs were not and could not have been responsible.
Consequently, Americans of Serbian descent arc bewildered by the indifference of Western leaders to the evidence and the facts and by the relentless Serb-bashing of the Western media. One of the worst excesses occurred when the media publicized a statement from an unnamed FBI source who claimed that the Serbs were suspects in the World Trade Center bombing. Yet the arrest of members of an Islamic terrorist ring brought no apology to Serbs.
Older Americans can recall how Americans of German descent suffered because of the indiscriminate German-bashing during World War I. We need to remind ourselves, however, that at that time there was no radio or television, and no newspapers for students to spread the venom. Ironically, the Serb-bashing came at the very time when we were apologizing for the way Japanese-Americans were treated in World War II. And we are not even at war with Serbia!
A large number of Americans of Serbian heritage have written letters and articles to national newspapers and magazines, as well as those in their respective communities, seeking outlets for the truth. Most of them were met with silence, although some were published, especially letters to the editor. Some Serbian-American organizations have placed ads, some full-page ones, in a few leading newspapers. A few American scholars and journalists with no ethnic ties to Serbia but who know the Yugoslav case well have written similar messages, usually with the same results.
But the truth does trickle out. Peter Brock, a political writer for the El Paso Herald-Post, has traveled to Bosnia and surrounding areas and written a number of informative, objective reports. He has also written two lengthy articles for magazines specializing in foreign affairs, detailing the anti-Serb bias of the media, and he is currently writing a book on the civil war. Moreover, David Binder of the New York Times has written several factual reports that reflect favorably on the Serbs, only to see them suppressed by his own paper. Fortunately, some of the spiked articles have been published elsewhere. Several objective articles have also found their wav into non-mainstream magazines, including Chronicles.
Some British and French journalists have also issued unbiased reports. At least one French correspondent, Jacques Merlino, has written a book showing how the reality of the Yugoslav conflict is not being told truthfully. A British journalist noted parenthetically in May 1995 that if the Serbs “were openly boasting about offensives under preparation, the massed ranks of the international media would be crying foul. But the response is muted when the Bosnian government trashes its solemn commitments to the international community.”
Moreover, the media defame the Serbs for violating the so-called safe havens, but fail to point out that the Muslims have used these havens as staging areas for military attacks on the Serbs. Additionally, the media, far from vilifying the Croats when they destroyed the historic bridge at Mostar or condemning the Muslims when they smashed the monument to Nobel Laureate Ivo Andric at Visegrad, paid scant attention, hi May 1995, when Croatia launched a massive assault against the Serbs in the “U.N.-protected” area of Western Slavonia, the international community uttered a mild rebuke. Also in May, when the Bosnian Muslims broke the ceasefire (previously brokered by former President Carter) and the Bosnian Serbs shot back, NATO launched air strikes against the Serbs. And last August, when Croatian troops overran another “United Nations protected” zone (Krajina) and carried out the largest “ethnic cleansing” of the whole Yugoslav conflict, there was no condemnation by the United States. To the utter disbelief of Americans of Serbian background, the Clinton administration viewed it as an improved opportunity for peace. To this day, United Nations reports continue to be filed on the mass killing of Serbs who refused to flee and on the Croatians who destroyed and stole Serbian property (buildings, livestock, and even dogs).
What has puzzled Americans of Serbian ancestry, but also many other informed Americans, is that while President Clinton has at different times referred to the conflict as a civil war, and has even said that the United States is not taking sides, concrete acts of his administration have consistently favored the Muslims. The most vivid actions were American aircraft dropping bombs and launching Cruise Missiles against Bosnian Serb targets in September 1995, leading one American officer to observe that the Americans had become the Muslim Air Force. And as indicated above, our assistance to the Croats has been such that even Croatian cabinet ministers publicly took pride in American help.
To an extent, Americans of Serbian background have seen some support for their position by the admissions of former Secretary of State James Baker and former French President Francois Mitterrand: that Western policies toward the Yugoslav crisis were not only in error but even contributed to the tragedy. Baker recalled that his original position was right, that the United States should have taken up the question of recognizing secessionist Yugoslav republics only after they had reached political settlements. He has pointed out that the unilateral declarations of secession by Slovenia and Croatia, and the use of force to accomplish them, was in violation of the Helsinki Accords, acts which precluded peaceful negotiations and consequently led to a vicious civil war. Be it noted that Baker is the only major American political leader involved in the Yugoslav policy to have made such an admission. There was also some satisfaction in President Jimmy Carter’s assertion that the Bosnian Serb side of the story had not been told in the American media. Similarly, in a newspaper interview in September 1994, Mitterrand revealed that he had originally opposed the hasty recognition of the secessionist republics; he asserted that he could sec no justification for converting communist Tito’s administrative internal borders into international ones.
In the United States, however, hatred of the Serbs seems to continue undiminished. In fact, last year the United States discovered a new way to fight the Serbs—suspending the Social Security checks of Americans currently living in Serbia or Montenegro. The checks are to be held at the American Embassy in Belgrade until the sanctions are lifted, when many of these retirees may be dead.
Most Americans of Serbian descent accept what they see with a certain fatalism, and ascribe it to stupidity. At the same time, they are distraught because they arc unable to detect a more believable explanation. They wonder why TV anchors and other journalists keep repeating the same misinformation, even when mistakes are pointed out to them. And they are bothered by failures to make corrections or to offer apologies. Moreover, they see a certain irony in the sameness of the anti-Serb bashing, as if it were directed by a central propaganda office, reminiscent of Agitprop (office of agitation and propaganda) in communist states.
There is an awareness among these Americans that Europe’s great powers, including their supposed friend, Russia, “sold out” the Serbs. They argue that what policymakers in the West fail to understand is that, given this background, the Serbs are reluctant to be anyone’s satellite. The Serbs may like certain foreign nations, but they do not want to be under the thumb of any one of them. They want to deal with all countries openly, equally, and freely. They want to be the sole judges of what is right and proper for them, while respecting similar rights for others.
Some Americans of Serbian descent are inclined to say, “Cry, beloved country, for the demonizing of your historic friends and allies, and for the shame and pain that your actions have caused to their descendants in our midst,” but they are also heartened by South Africa’s Alan Paton, who saw that the dawn would come to dispel the darkness and end the bondage of heartless cruelty and immoral injustice.
In the end, however, what these Americans, and especially those who came as immigrants, have most in common is their concern about the moral image of America. They know that the Serbs never viewed the United States as cold and heartless, the way that they looked upon Britain, Russia, and other great powers. Somehow Americans were different. They were a beacon of hope—of fairness and justice. But American policymakers have recently tarnished this image, and Americans of Serbian ancestry wonder why. Most important of all, they wonder whether America’s tattered reputation can ever be repaired, the wounds ever healed.