The use of NATO military strikes against the Bosnian Serbs, at the urgings of the Clinton administration, camouflages for the moment a rift that has occurred in the Western alliance. Sooner or later recriminations over “who lost Yugoslavia?” are certain to come. And though it may be a while before historians render a verdict, there are already some indications that the answer will be “the Western European powers with the complicity of the United States.” The reason: a failure to understand the basic issues in the Yugoslav crisis.
Since the Western media failed—or simply refused—to state or explain the issues in that civil war, particularly as seen b} the largest ethnic group (the Serbs), I elicited information from Serbian friends and acquaintances who were visiting the United States or who were writing or phoning in an effort to be heard. What follows is a summary of those conversations.
“For nearly 50 years we were forced to suffer under communism, which we did not choose, and yet nary a word of concern from you. As a matter of fact, after 1948, your Presidents and Secretaries of State praised our dictator Tito, whom you know was a Croat and not a Serb. Communism was not our doing; you betrayed us near the end of World War II, when you abandoned our guerrilla leader, General Mihajlovitch, and supported the communists. We were your allies in the two world wars, and yet now you heap all sorts of evil upon our heads and blame us for everything in Yugoslavia.”
The voice was that of an intelligent, well-educated, and well-traveled Serbian woman at least 20 years my junior. The allegations and imputations were obviously not personal, but as was to be the case in nearly every one of my encounters, there was the inescapable question; “Why?”
The torrent seemed unending, but I had to listen. These were friends. More than that, I wanted to learn more about the agitated Serbian psyche in the present tragic situation. I was eager to ask about Sarajevo, Dubrovnik, and ethnic cleansing, among other things. But I quickly sensed that each conversationalist wanted to be sure that I viewed everything in the appropriate historical context.
In all of our conversations there was much harking back to Serbia’s past, and no end of repetition. I cannot even estimate how often I heard the same plaintive voice that expected me to understand. Although American in every way—birth, education, profession, family—I am of Serbian parentage, which they believed would enable me to put myself in their shoes and to grasp the enormity of their psychological as well as material burdens.
These were friends with whom I spent many an enjoyable and interesting hour when I served as cultural attache and public affairs officer in the American Embassy in Belgrade right after World War II, as well as many years later when I was doing research in Serbian and Yugoslav history. Many had read some of my books, most had not. They were aware that I was familiar with what they were telling me, but this did not diminish their determination to make sure.
I lost count of the times I was asked: “Are you Americans totally blind?” “Has foreign propaganda so hoodwinked you that you have lost your critical faculties?” “Are American Presidents and senators so mesmerized by TV pictures that they cannot think rationally; don’t you have people in your State Department who know Yugoslavia and Yugoslav history?” These rhetorical questions I could handle with a shrug of the shoulders, a shaking of the head, or some other vague gesture. The substantive ones were more difficult. Many a time, I had to come back to my Serbian friends and acquaintances with the question: “Was there a way to avoid civil war?”
A Serb friend, whose family is from Croatia and whose university degree is in engineering, was quick to tell me that although Slovenia fired the first shots in the civil war, that in itself was not critical because there were no appreciable minorities in Slovenia. Hence Slovenian independence came without much bloodshed. Croatia was different, he said, because of the large Serbian minority, which did not want to be in a Croatian state. “That situation might have been resolved,” he continued, “if the Tudjman regime [in Croatia] had been willing to treat the Serbs as equals. Instead it reduced them to minority status and then engaged in all sorts of discrimination against them. In addition, there were anonymous telephone threats, ugly signs painted on Serbian homes, and the like. And there was no chance that the Serbs would be given autonomy.” When I asked him to amplify, he replied that the worst part of the regime was its “adopting of symbols and other trappings of the hated World War II Ustasha fascist state.”
A Serb doctor from Zagreb pointed out that under the circumstances many of Croatia’s Kraina Serbs fled to Serbia but that most of them stayed, organized, and resisted. “Yugoslav army units in the area,” he added, “came to their defense, and the civil war in Croatia began.” After several months, during which Serbian forces occupied a significant chunk of territory, there was a cease-fire and a United Nations peacekeeping force was brought in.
All of this was familiar to me, so I eagerly moved on to a discussion of Bosnia-Herzegovina (which I will simply call Bosnia), a highly complex and complicated subject. When the moment seemed appropriate, I usually began with the question: “How did it all begin?”
“As you know, communism was a failure here as in Russia and everywhere else,” was most frequently the opening response. “When the Yugoslav Communist Party began to split up into many communist parties along nationality lines, what we had known but could not say publicly was out in the open— Tito and his comrades had not solved the nationality problem; they had made it worse. They swept it under the rug, where bitterness accumulated until the dam was ready to burst.”
“You mean . . . ,” I started to say. “Yes, I mean Tito’s vintage was where the grapes of wrath were stored,” he replied, letting me know that he was familiar with some Americana.
“Yes,” I said, “but how did the breakup of Yugoslavia begin?”
“As far as we Serbs are concerned, you know that we have always been the strongest supporters of the common state, but when we saw that others—especially the Croats—were not happy with Yugoslavia, we began to doubt the wisdom of our own position, particularly when we saw that under communism we got the short end of the stick.”
“But,” added a colleague, “we were not the ones that started to destroy Yugoslavia; we still wanted to save it.”
“You know. Professor, a few years ago some of our intellectuals in the Academy of Arts and Sciences began drafting a statement about the problems and difficulties facing Yugoslavia and suggesting ways to deal with them, and you know what happened? Someone got a draft copy of what was called The Memorandum, and without the text being published anywhere, our communist press viciously attacked it as an expression of Serbian nationalism.”
“Strange, isn’t it,” another friend added, “that now in the West they call it Miloshevitch’s platform of Serbian nationalism!”
“Yes,” declared his colleague. “When Miloshevitch became head of the Serbian party, he may have taken some ideas from it. You recall he went to Kosovo in April 1987, and in a huge meeting that lasted at least 12 hours he heard the sorrowful woes of many Serbs and how they had been persecuted by the Albanians and even by some of their Serbian colleagues in the government of the province—all of them communist party hacks.”
“And,” I broke in, “that experience made Miloshevitch a Serbian nationalist?”
“Well,” my friend volunteered, “that is when he made the statement heard round the world,” again seeking to impress me with his knowledge of Americana. “At that meeting in Kosovo, many Serbs seeking to get into the crowded hall were beaten by the police. When Miloshevitch, in response to a disturbance, was told what had happened, he ordered that more Serbs be allowed to enter and assured them with: ‘No one will ever beat you again!'”
“Wait a minute,” I interrupted, “there were other Serbian communists who defended Serbian interests—Rankovic, Nikezic, Perovic.”
“But none of them survived politically,” my friend hurried to say, “and maybe they were not really defending Serbian interests, and anyway they were all purged! Miloshevitch is the first, not only to survive but to rise to the top.”
“And therein lies the tragedy,” a retired university professor told me on another occasion, “because so many of my intellectuals hoped that he would launch Serbia on a democratic path, but their trust was misplaced.”
A young professional who grew up in Kosovo and whom I had just met for the first time sought to emphasize the importance of Kosovo to Serbs, calling it “Serbia’s Jerusalem” and “the cradle of the Serbian nation,” as well as the area of Serbia’s sacred monuments—Christian churches and monasteries. “And you know,” he added, “during the entire Tito period, the Kosovo Albanians were systematically persecuting the Serbs—setting haystacks on fire, cutting down fruit trees, raping young girls on their way from school—and desecrating their monuments, and yet there was not a word about it in our or the world’s press. Several years after Tito’s death we learned that the Serbian Orthodox Church in Belgrade in 1969 had sent a protest to Tito, but the public heard nothing of it at the time. Tito gave some assurances, but nothing changed.”
I was eager to leave Kosovo and to move on, but another friend told me not to forget that during the Tito years Kosovo Albanians had not only persecuted Serbs and forced them to flee, while countless thousands of Albanians were immigrating to Kosovo, but had also “brought hundreds of teachers and textbooks from Albania.”
When I turned my attention to Bosnia, the immediate response was: “Bosnia is Serbian; Sarajevo is Serbian.” Subsequently, the response was qualified—I could not understand the problem of Bosnia-Herzegovina except in the context of the Yugoslav civil war, which began with the secessions of Slovenia and Croatia. “Had it not been for the hasty recognition of them by the West,” I was told, “Bosnia-Herzegovina would not have sought independence, and there would not have been this bloodshed.” “Once Western Europe followed Germany’s decision to recognize Slovenia and Croatia, there was no way that the Yugoslav state could be saved,” was a familiar refrain that I heard over and over again. “And,” my friends kept repeating, “when the West recognized the rights of Slovenes and Croats to self-determination, we Serbs believed that the same principle should apply to us, but we soon found out that such was not the case.”
Yes, chimed in another friend, “the West told Slovenia and Croatia that it was OK for them to violate the Helsinki Accords with respect to changing international boundaries by force but told us we could not do that even after they aided Slovenia and Croatia in those violations. Our grievances did not matter!” The lack of evenhandedness in the West’s approach to the Yugoslavs was pounded into me on countless occasions, and there was always the “Why?”
“You know, Professor, there were nearly a million Serbs in Croatia, and they did not want to live in a Croatian state, especially m view of the fact that hundreds of thousands of their forebears were massacred by the Croats when the latter were last independent as a satellite of Germany in World War II.” To this I could only nod.
“And, Professor, you know we could not abandon our brothers in Bosnia. There are over a million and a half of them. At the time of the Turkish conquest in the 15th century Bosnia was Serbian. And once Serbia regained her independence in the 19th century, we fought to regain Bosnia, but the great powers gave it to Austria-Hungary, from which we finally got it in World War I. And then we all formed Yugoslavia.”
Here I was again listening to a lot of history I already knew, but I was at least partially helpless to stop the prose. “But what happened under communism?” I interjected.
“Professor, it is a long story. In the 1920’s and 1930’s we did not divide up into republics, but Tito split us up. And when the Muslims and Croats in Bosnia wanted to follow Croatia and Slovenia by seeking independence, our brothers who had lived there for centuries did not want to be separated from Serbia.”
“And you know what is so tragic,” added another friend, “is that the Muslims bet on the wrong horse twice—in World War II, when they joined pro-Nazi Croatia in the extermination of Serbs, and now in this try to form a nation that never existed before.”
More than once my friends reminded me that the Muslims were mainly the descendants of Serbs who had converted to Islam under the Turks. “Would you want to live under such people?” I was asked. “What would you think of citizens in your country who, if you were occupied by a foreign power, would accept the foreign religion of your conqueror and then serve him, and now you are asked to live under the rule of such people?” Again and again there was a return to the question: If self-determination was good for the Croats and Slovenes, why not the Serbs?
I pointed out that in 1992 the Serbs were but 34 percent of the population of Bosnia-Herzegovina even though they held more than 60 percent of the territory before the fighting began, but I was promptly given official statistics showing that between 1878 and 1971 the Serbs were the largest group. In 1971, Tito introduced the ethnic category “Muslim,” and that reduced the number of persons listing themselves as Serbs. According to the 1991 Yugoslav census, the population distribution was: Muslims, 44 percent; Serbs, 34 percent; Croats, 17 percent; and various other minorities, 5 percent.
So much for history. I wanted my friends to talk about the ongoing war and recent atrocities. “What about the shelling of Sarajevo’s skyline buildings?” I asked a Serb economist born and reared in Sarajevo. “I cannot defend the shelling of civilian areas,” he said, “but let’s look at it from the point of view of the Bosnian Serb authorities. First, you know that Serbian money built much of modern Sarajevo, that the Yugoslav National Army built the Olympic Village and other facilities in connection with the Olympics. So Serbs are reacting like the boy who builds something for his playmates, who then kick him off the field. He, in turn, seeks to destroy what he built. Irrational reaction to ingratitude? Maybe, but. . . . “
“In addition,” he continued, “many of the tall buildings were being used as observation towers by the Muslim forces.” Part of the problem, he added, is “Serbian frustration—not knowing how to deal with fellow-citizens with whom you thought you were building a better country, only to find out that they wanted to go their separate way once they got as much as they could from the common effort.”
“What of ethnic cleansing, prison camps, atrocities?” I asked another Serb from Bosnia, as well as several Serbs from outside it. All of the answers were similar. “As you know,” said one, “civil wars are the most tragic of wars, but in all wars there are people who are displaced from their homes, there are prison camps, and many people are killed, some in battle, some accidentally, and others in fits of anger resulting from a variety of circumstances.”
“But what about charges of genocide?” I asked. “There was no genocide,” was the universal answer. “It is true that in many densely populated places many Muslims were killed, but so were many Serbs as well as Croats. Some massacres were awful and cannot be defended, but all three parties have been guilty.”
“Muslims were not killed because they were Muslims,” another friend was quick to add. “It is true that in some areas of Bosnia that Serbs occupied, many Muslims were dispossessed—but not killed, unless they refused to obey the occupying forces. In many such areas, they were not disturbed if they did not constitute a threat to the occupation army.” Another friend was anxious to tell me that, of course, rapes were committed by all sides, but, he said, “there is not a shred of evidence that rape was ordered by anyone in authority, and certainly not as policy.”
A Serbian writer from Belgrade, who had been with Serbian forces in Bosnia and Kraina, wanted to tell me of Muslim prisons for Serbs in Sarajevo, as well as of Sarajevo Muslims killing Serbs so that they could take their apartments. “Your press talks about harmony in Sarajevo and Bosnia generally, but, you know, a Serb apartment dweller in Sarajevo does not dare show his face on his balcony for fear of being shot, on the grounds that he is signaling Serb forces.” “But,” he shouted, “you won’t read about these matters in your press, even though American newsmen know about them. After all, they are reporting from Sarajevo, and if they reported these things they would soon be on their way out. That’s like getting your news of World War II happenings from Berlin,” he said, with emphasis and a note of bitterness in his voice.
Another Serbian friend wanted to know why the American media were concentrating all of their attention on Sarajevo. “Why don’t they tell your people about the long Croat shelling of Trebinje, or the Muslim and Croat shelling of Mostar, as well as many smaller places?” And, he added, “why no mention of the Croats placing guns alongside the cathedral in Sibenik?”
This prompted me to ask about the shelling of Dubrovnik. “The fighting around Dubrovnik,” said a Serb who was born in that area, “was prompted by the Croatian forces’ attack on our naval facilities at the base of the Prevlaka peninsula, not far from Dubrovnik.” In addition, he continued, “the Croats had placed their troops in the hotels around the old city, so that they spied on our signal station on top of the mountain, so some of the buildings and boats by the old city were hit. But Serbian forces did not destroy Dubrovnik. At least one American professor, and Roman Catholic at that, visited the old city and confirmed that there was only minor damage inside the old city. The major damage was to the Serbian church library.” He asked me if I had seen any pictures showing the destruction of Dubrovnik, and I had to admit that I had not—and neither had any of my friends.
On one occasion I turned to an old acquaintance—I could not call him a friend, because when I first knew him most of my friends viewed him as close to the regime—and asked what the situation was like in 1991, when it seemed that Slovenia and Croatia were about to secede. I got a learned lecture. “You know,” he began, “we thought that the government could handle the situation. We had become accustomed to viewing the dictatorship as all-powerful. And there was the Yugoslav National Army, which Tito always told us could be counted upon to save Yugoslavia in any emergency.”
“But,” I asked, “who was in charge?”
“Well, maybe if we Serbs had been in charge,” he noted with a tone of resignation, “things might have been different.”
“Where were the Serbs?” I demanded. “The American media almost always speaks of the ‘Serb-dominated Yugoslavia,'” I asserted.
“Your media is absolutely wrong. When Slovenia seceded, the Yugoslav government was mainly in the hands of non-Serbs. Just look who was prime minister. Ante Markovic, a Croat. And who was minister of foreign affairs, Budimir Loncar, another Croat. The minister of defense and supreme commander was General Veljko Kadijevic, son of a Serb-Croat marriage, and his deputy was Stane Brovet, a Slovene. The chief of the air force was Zvonko Jurjevic, another Croat. Does that look like a Serb-dominated Yugoslavia?!” “And,” my friend continued, “it was Ante Markovich who signed the order to have the army take over frontier posts on Slovenia’s borders, as he was ordered to do by the Federal Executive Council.”
“What puzzles us,” he went on to say, “is why your leaders were in such a hurry to help those who wanted to destroy Yugoslavia. And after the dismemberment began, why were they so determined to perpetuate Tito’s greatest injustice to us Serbs? Instead of seeking to resolve disagreements here, they were willing to have communist Miloshevitch be the only defender of Serbian interests. Why?”
Another friend took up the question of sanctions. “You went to the U.N. and got sanctions against us and against no one else. Why? You knew that there were 50,000 Croatian troops in Bosnia, but no sanctions against Croatia. Is this what you call a fair and impartial policy?”
The wife of a Serbian doctor, recently on a visit to Belgrade, told me of the suffering that the Serbian people are enduring. “My friends asked me,” she said, “if you Americans realized who the sanctions were hurting. Don’t they know that the rulers here are not hurting, but the common people?”
“And,” her companion chimed in, “it is the children who are suffering the most. They tell you that medicine and medical supplies are exempt from sanctions, but those at the U.N. who write the sanctions rules and procedures have made life impossible; they keep changing the rules. Our doctors are desperate, but do you care?”
“Your press,” observed a professor friend of mine while visiting relatives in the United States, “keeps talking about refugees from Bosnia in Western Europe, but not a word about Serbian refugees. And what about all the refugees we have here? Don’t you Americans know that we have over a half-million refugees in Serbia? And thousands are Muslims, who would rather come here than go to Croatia. And we have Croats, too. Somehow, we think you know but just don’t care.” I admitted that I do not have any answers.
The same professor wondered out loud, while we were having our after-dinner coffee: “Where are your intellectuals, your professors and specialists on Eastern Europe? They must know what is going on. Are they not outraged by the lies being purveyed by your media? You know, we had our weak-kneed intellectuals, but under a communist dictatorship what could you expect? But you pride yourself on being a democracy, a place where independent inquiry and dissent does not send you to jail. What has frozen the mouths of your intellectuals?”
“A few have spoken up,” I responded, “usually in letters to the editor, but for the most part major media channels have not been open to them, certainly not the columns of such influential newspapers as the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, or Washington Post.” I did not like to admit this, but I knew it to be true. I was glad that he did not ask about the major network TV newscasts.
We returned to the topic a few days later, and I was able to show him an article from Foreign Policy, written by Peter Brock, a politics editor of the El Paso Herald-Post, entitled “Dateline Yugoslavia; The Partisan Press,” wherein he detailed the distortions, and even fabrications, of certain correspondents and their editors. Some had unashamedly engaged in “Serb-bashing.” I was also able to show him translated excerpts from a 1993 book by the Frenchman Jacques Merlino, the title of which (in English) reads The Truth From Yugoslavia Is Not Being Reported Honestly. Among other things, Merlino reports that an official of a public relations firm in Washington told him that their greatest success was in having, in effect, led the major American Jewish organizations by the nose over to the pro-Croatian side.
A friend of mine had already given the professor a few copies of Chronicles, with informative articles by Thomas Fleming and Momcilo Selic. Earlier, I had mailed him a few of my oped pieces that had appeared in papers in Philadelphia and in Nashville, as well as a few articles written by university faculty friends of mine. “Yes,” he said, “the truth is breaking through in a limited way, but your major news sources are very much like a broken record.” I could not disagree.
At another time I was talking with a lawyer friend who lives in Belgrade. He told me of a friend who in 1992 had long talks with a non-Serb American attorney who had held important positions in the United States government. The Serb told the American: “Look, we believed that only you Americans could be trusted to help, to be fair. What of Britain, we asked? Well, we knew that Britain was over the hill. France? Incapable and not really trustworthy. Russia? Russia has too many problems of her own. That only left you, but what did you do? You turned us over to the Germans, our bitter enemies in two world wars.”
When I asked another Belgrade friend if Serbs had any contact with the American Embassy, she spoke matter-of-factly: “They don’t really want to see us, and you know when a friend of mine came to Belgrade from Bosnia, she went to the American Embassy and told a young American officer there that she wanted to report on atrocities. When he asked what atrocities, she said they were atrocities against Serbs, and you know what he told her? They were only interested in those committed by Serbs!”
When I began a conversation with a retired professor of sociology, a woman, she cut me off before I could put forth a question: “You Americans have lost Serbia’s trust and friendship forever.” The bitterness in her voice left me with a feeling of sadness. It all seemed so unnecessary. Were we really so inept in handling foreign relations, especially in dealing with people who in the past had been such faithful allies? At least I had heard voices about the Yugoslav civil war that are almost never heard in our media.