Blood and Belonging
Croatia and Serbia
THE ANCIEN REGIME
WILD strawberries were served in a silver cup at breakfast, I remember, followed by hot rolls with apricot jam. The dining room looked over the lake, and when the window was open you could feel the mountain air sweeping across the water, across the white linen tablecloth and then across your face.
The hotel was called the Toplice, on the shores of Lake Bled, in Slovenia. The diplomatic corps spent the summer there, in attendance upon the dictator who took up residence across the lake. My father, like the other diplomats, came to gossip and take the waters. Every morning, he bathed in the heated pools beneath the hotel. I played tennis, ate wild strawberries, rowed on the lake, and conceived a passion for an unapproachable Swedish girl of twelve. Such are my ancien régime memories, and they are from Communist Yugoslavia.
I remember an evening listening from the bottom of our dining room as the then foreign minister, Koa Popovi, suavely smoked cigarettes in an ivory holder and told how his partisan unit had "liquidated the Chetniks," the Serbs who had fought on Hitler's side at the end of the war. I had never heard the word "liquidated" used like that before.
It was obvious, even to me, that the Communist elite had won power not merely by defeating a foreign invader but by winning a vicious civil war. The reality of Tito's police state was just as obvious. We lived in Dedinje, a hillside suburb overlooking Belgrade, only several hundred meters from Tito's residence. Wherever you walked, there were men in plain clothes, strolling about orwhispering into walkie-talkies. Tito himself was the hidden god of the whole system. With his sleekly groomed hair, permanent suntan, shiny silk suit, and black onyx ring on his finger, he resembled nothing so much, my father said, as a prosperous south German refrigerator salesman.
Obviously, he was more imaginative and sinister than that. I remember how, on a cruise in the Adriatic, my parents kept hiding a book from the crew, stowing it under their bunk, locking it in their luggage. The book turned out to be Milovan Djilas's The New Class. Djilas, Tito's companion in arms, was still in Tito's jail for denouncing his dictatorial tendencies.
We traveled everywhere in the Yugoslavia of the late 1950sthrough Bosnian hill villages, where children swarmed up to the car, barefoot and in rags; to the great mosque of Sarajevo, where I removed my shoes and knelt and watched old men pressing their foreheads on the carpets and whispering their prayers; to the Dalmatian islands and beaches, then unvisited by Western tourists; to Lake Bled in Slovenia. Parts of southern Serbia, central Bosnia, and western Hercegovina were so poor that it was not clear how ordinary people survived at all. Ljubljana and Zagreb, by contrast, were neat, prosperous Austro-Hungarian towns that seemed to have nothing in common with the bony, bare hinterlands of central Yugoslavia.
At the time, all expression of economic resentment, together with nationalist consciousness itself, came under Tito's ban. The society marched forward, willingly or unwillingly, under the banner of "brotherhood and unity." To call yourself a Croat or Serb first anda Yugoslav second was to risk arrest as a nationalist and chauvinist.
I had no idea how complicated and ambiguous the division between national and Yugoslav identity actually was. I knew, for example, that Metod, my tennis coach in Bled, always called himself, first and foremost, a Slovenian. I remember him saying bitterly that he hated serving in the Yugoslav National Army, because both he and his brother were ragged by the Serbs for being Slovene.
Was that the only time I saw the cracks that were to become fissures? I think so. For everywhere else I remember people who told me, happily, that they were Yugoslavs. In retrospect, I see that was there at the most hopeful moment. Tito was still lionized for having kept the country out of Stalin's empire; there were the first signs of the economic boom of the 1960s; soon to come was the liberalization of travel, which allowed millions of Yugoslavs to work abroad and for a time made Yugoslavia the freest of all the Eastern European Communist countries.
I hold on to my ancien régime memories. Everyone now says the descent into hell was inevitable. Nothing seemed less likely at the time. My childhood tells me that nothing is inevitable: that is what makes what did happen tragic.
THE NARCISSISM OF MINOR DIFFERENCE
As Balkan nationalists tell it, their history is their fate. Croats will explain, for example, that the root cause of the bloodshed in the Balkans is that they are "essentially" Catholic, European, and Austro-Hungarian in origin, while Serbs are "essentially" Orthodox, Byzantine, and Slav, with an added tinge of Turkish cruelty and indolence. The Sava and Danube Rivers, which serve as borders between Croatia and Serbia, once demarcated the boundary between the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires.
If this historical fault line is emphasized often enough, the conflict between Serbs and Croats can be read off as inevitable. Yet it is not how the past dictates to the present but how the present manipulates the past that is decisive in the Balkans.
Freud once argued that the smaller the real difference between two peoples, the larger it was bound to loom in their imagination.He called this effect the narcissism of minor difference. Its corollary must be that enemies need each other to remind themselves of who they really are. A Croat, thus, is someone who is not a Serb. A Serb is someone who is not a Croat. Without hatred of the other, there would be no clearly defined national self to worship and adore.
In Croatia, Franjo Tudjman's ruling HDZ (Croatian Democratic Alliance) party presents itself as a Western-style political movement on the model of the Bavarian Christian Democrats. Actually, the Tudjman state resembles the Serbian regime of Slobodan Miloševi much more than either resembles anything on the Western European parliamentary model. They are both post-Communist one-party states, democratic only in the sense that their leaders' power derives from their skill as manipulators of popular emotion.
An outsider is struck, not by the differences between Serbs and Croats, but by how similar they seem to be. They both speak the same language, give or take a few hundred words, and have shared the same village way of life for centuries. While one is Catholic, the other Orthodox, urbanization and industrialization have reduced the salience of confessional differences. Nationalist politicians on both sides took the narcissism of minor difference and turned it into a monstrous fable according to which their own side appeared as blameless victims, the other side as genocidal killers. All Croats became Ustashe assassins; all Serbs became Chetnik beasts. Such rhetorical preliminaries, needless to say, were an essential precondition of the slaughter that followed.
Yet what remains truly difficult to understand about the Balkan tragedy is how such nationalist lies ever managed to take root. For ordinary people know that they are lies: all Croats are not Ustashe; all Serbs are not Chetniks. Even as they use these phrases, people know they are not true. It cannot be repeated too often that these people were neighbors, friends, and spouses, not inhabitants of different ethnic planets.
A nationalist minority on both sides went to work on their deeply intertwined common past, persuading all and sundry, including outsiders, that Serbs and Croats have been massacring each other since time immemorial. History has no such lesson to teach. In fact, the protagonists were kept apart for much of their past, in separate empires and kingdoms. It was only the assassination of Croat politiciansin the Parliament in Belgrade in 1928 that set off the slide into ethnic warfare during the Second World War. While the present conflict is certainly a continuation of the civil war of 1941-45, this explains little, for one still has to account for the nearly fifty years of ethnic peace in between. It was not merely a truce. Even sworn enemies on either side still cannot satisfactorily explain why it broke down.
Moreover, it is a fallacy to regard either this war or the civil war of 1941-45 as the product of some uniquely Balkan viciousness. All the delusions that have turned neighbors into enemies are imports of Western European origin. Modern Serbian nationalism dates back to an impeccably Byronic style of national uprising against the Turks. Likewise, the nineteenth-century Croatian nationalist ideologue Ante Starevi derived the idea of an ethnically pure Croatian state indirectly from the German Romantics. The misery of the Balkans stems in part from a pathetic longing to be good Europeansthat is, to import the West's murderous ideological fashions. These fashions proved fatal in the Balkans because national unification could be realized only by ripping apart the plural fabric of Balkan village life in the name of the violent dream of ethnic purity.
Likewise, even genocide in the Balkans is not a local specialty but an importation from the grand Western European tradition. Ante Paveli's wartime Ustashe regime, which Serbs mistakenly regard as the true face of Croatian nationalism, couldn't have lasted a day in office without the backing of the German Nazi regime, not to mention the tacit approval of that eminently European authority the Catholic Church.
In sum, therefore, we are making excuses for ourselves when we dismiss the Balkans as a sub-rational zone of intractable fanaticism. And we are ending the search for explanation just when it should begin if we assert that local ethnic hatreds were so rooted in history that they were bound to explode into nationalist violence. On the contrary, these people had to be transformed from neighbors into enemies.
Thomas Hobbes would have understood Yugoslavia. What Hobbes would have said, having lived through religious civil warhimself, is that when people are sufficiently afraid, they will do anything. There is one type of fear more devastating in its impact than any other: the systemic fear that arises when a state begins to collapse. Ethnic hatred is the result of the terror that arises when legitimate authority disintegrates.
Tito achieved the national unification of each of the six major south Slav peoples. He understood that a federal state was the only peaceful means to satisfy the national aspirations of each people. For each ethnic group to unify on its own, they would each have had to initiate the forcible deportation of populations. As much as a quarter of both the Croat and Serb populations have always lived outside the borders of their republics. Tito created an intricate ethnic balance which, for example, reduced Serbian influence at the heart of the federal system in Belgrade, while promoting Serbs to positions of power in Croatia.
Tito's containment of nationalism, built as it was on a personal dictatorship, could never have survived beyond his death. Even by the early 1970s, his socialist rhetoric of "brotherhood and unity" was falling on deaf ears. In 1974, he compromised with nationalism, allowing the republics greater autonomy in the new constitution. By the end of his reign, the League of Communists, instead of counterbalancing the ethnic clientism among the elites in the republics, was itself fragmenting along ethnic lines.
This fragmentation was inevitable given Tito's failure to allow the emergence of civic, rather than ethnic-based, multi-party competition. Had Tito allowed a citizens' politics in the 1960s or 1970s, a non-ethnic principle of political affiliation might have taken root. Tito always insisted his was a Communism with a difference. In the end, his regime was no different from the other Communist autocracies of Eastern Europe. By failing to allow a plural political culture to mature, Tito ensured that the fall of his regime turned into the collapse of the entire state structure. In the ruins, his heirs and successors turned to the most atavistic principles of political mobilization in order to survive.
If Yugoslavia no longer protected you, perhaps your fellow Croats, Serbs, or Slovenes might. Fear, more than conviction, made unwilling nationalists of ordinary people. But most people did notwant it to happen; most people knew, if they drew back for a second, that rushing to the protection of their ethnic group would only hasten the disintegration of their common life.
Ethnic difference per se was not responsible for the nationalistic politics that emerged in the Yugoslavia of the 1980s. Consciousness of ethnic difference turned into nationalist hatred only when the surviving Communist elites, beginning with Serbia, began manipulating nationalist emotions in order to cling to power.
This is worth emphasizing, since most outsiders assume that all Balkan peoples are incorrigibly nationalistic. In fact, many people bitterly lament the passing of Yugoslavia, precisely because it was a state that once gave them room to define themselves in non-nationalist ways. In a poignant and bitter essay, "Overcome by Nationhood," the Croatian writer Slavenka Drakuli describes how, until the late 1980s, she had always defined herself in terms of her education, profession, gender, and personality. It was only the maddened atmosphere of the Croatian-Serbian war of 1991 that finally stripped her of all of these defining marks of identity except simply being a Croatian. What is true of an intellectual cannot be less true of village people. The nationalist language games of the elite only appeared to give a voice to their fear and their pride. In reality, nationalism ended up imprisoning everyone in the Balkans in the fiction of "pure" ethnic identity. Those with multiple identitiesfor example, from mixed marriageswere forced to choose between inherited and adopted families, and thus between two fused elements of their own selves.
Historically, nationalism and democracy have gone hand in hand. Nationalism, after all, is the doctrine that a people have a right to rule themselves, and that sovereignty reposes in them alone. The tragedy for the Balkans was that, when democracy at last became possible, the only language that existed to mobilize people into a shared social project was the rhetoric of ethnic difference. Any possibility of a civic, as opposed to ethnic, democracy had been strangled at birth by the Communist regime.
Serbia's Slobodan Miloševi was the first Yugoslav politician to break the Titoist taboo on popular mobilization of ethnic consciousness. Miloševi portrayed himself both as the defender ofYugoslavia against the secessionist ambitions of Croatia and Slovenia and as the avenger of the wrongs done to Serbia by that very Yugoslavia.
Miloševi's program, first set out in the Serbian Academy of Arts and Science Memorandum of 1986 and consistently followed ever since, has been to build a Greater Serbia on the ruins of Tito's Yugoslavia. If the other republics would not agree to a new Yugoslavia dominated by the Serbs, Miloševi was prepared to incite the Serbian minorities in Kosovo, Croatia, and Bosnia-Hercegovina to rise up and demand Serbian protection. These minorities served as Miloševi's Sudeten Germanspretext and justification of his expansionary design.
So much is obvious. More complicated is the relation between the Miloševi project and Serbian opinion. It would make matters simpler if we could demonize the Serbs as incorrigibly nationalistic and assume that Miloševi was merely responding to their ethnic paranoia. The reality is much more complicated. While there were extreme nationalist elements, like the Chetniks, still seething with resentment at Tito's campaign against their wartime leader, Draža Mihajlovi, the majority of urban Serbs in the early 1980s displayed little nationalistic paranoia, and even less interest in their distant rural brethren in Knin, Pale, Kosovo, or western Slavonia.
What needs to be explained, therefore, is why most ordinary Serbs' general indifference to the Serbian question turned into rabid anxiety that Serbs in the diaspora were about to be annihilated by genocidal Croatians and fundamentalist Muslims. Miloševi certainly exploited "the Serbian question" to serve his demagogic ends. But the Serbian question was not of Miloševi's making. It arose inevitably out of the collapse of Tito's Yugoslavia. Once the multiethnic state disintegrated, every national group outside its republic's borders suddenly found itself an endangered national minority. As the largest such group, the Serbs felt particularly vulnerable to the rise of Croatian nationalism.
While the Croats, like the Slovenes, professed to support the emergence of a loosely confederal Yugoslavia, in reality both republics were set on the course of independence by the late 1980s. The drive toward national self-determination was fueled by economic resentment. As the bills came in for Yugoslavia's expansionin the 1960s and 1970s and its foreign indebtedness increased, the two richest republics, Slovenia and Croatia, became resentful that their economic success was creamed off to pay for backward Bosnia and "Balkan" Serbia. Both Tito's suppression of the Croatian spring of 1970 and Miloševi's expansionist behaviorespecially Serbia's absorption of the autonomous provinces of Kosovo and Vojvodinaconvinced Croatian and Slovenian nationalists that they had no future inside a federal Yugoslavia. Independence strongly appealed to the local intelligentsia and the Communist elite: it would make them big fish in a small pond.
Croatians claimed the right of national self-determination, and they soon had influential backing from the newly reunited Germany. But no one in Germany or the European Community scrutinized with sufficient care the implications of Croatian independence for the rights of the 600,000-strong Serbian minority.
Croatia, in its independence constitution, described itself as the state of the Croatian nation, with non-Croatians defined as protected minorities. While most Croats sincerely believed that their state offered full rights to the Serbian minority, Serbs regarded themselves not as a minority but as a constitutionally protected nation, equal to the Croats. When the Croats revived the Šahovnica, the red-and-white checkered shield, as their new flag, Serbs took one look and believed the Ustashe had returned. The Šahovnica was both an innocently traditional Croat emblem and also the flag of the wartime regime that had exterminated a large, if still undetermined, number of Serbs. When Serbs were dismissed from the Croatian police and from the judiciary in the summer and autumn of 1990, the Serbian minority concluded they were witnessing the return of an ethnic state, with a genocidal past.
Defenders of the Croatian position insist that these fears were manipulated by Miloševi. They certainly were, yet, in the broader context of the collapse of the inter-ethnic Yugoslav state, Serbs had reason to be afraid. War was the result of an interacting spiral of Serbian expansionism, Croatian independence, and Serbian ethnic paranoia in Croatia.
The final explosion was detonated in the summer of 1991 by battles in Serbian areas of Croatia for control of the key seat of local power, the police station. In Serb villages like Borovo Selo in westernSlavonia, when the Croatian state dismissed local Serbian policemen, they proceeded to arm and set themselves up as vigilantes. When the Croats tried to restore their authority in Serbian areas, they were fired upon and roadblocks were set up at the entrances to villages. With the Croatians unable to control Serbian areas of their state, the Yugoslav National Army stepped in, at first to restore order and then to smash Croatian independence. Croatia then had no option but to fight for its survival. After six months of tenacious resistance, it found itself, at the cease-fire of February 1992, with a third of its national territory occupied by the rump state of Serbian Krajina and its supply routes to the Dalmatian coast blockaded by the Serbian paramilitaries in Knin. Twenty-five thousand UN troops now keep the two sides apart at checkpoints scattered across all of Croatia's main road networks. The war in Croatia has subsided into an armed truce, but the basic conflict between Serbs and Croats rages on south of the Sava River, as the two fight to divide Bosnia-Hercegovina at the expense of the Muslims.
THE HIGHWAY OF BROTHERHOOD AND UNITY
I began my journey where it used to begin every summer of my Yugoslav childhood, on the highway between Belgrade and Zagreb. This was the highway we traveled, in a magnificent black Buick with lots of fins and chrome, to Lake Bled in Slovenia. It was called the Highway of Brotherhood and Unity and it was built, with a typically Titoist mixture of genuine national enthusiasm and socialist forced labor, to link together the economies of the two central republics, Croatia and Serbia. For three hundred kilometers, it runs parallel to the Sava River, through the Slavonian plain, some of the flattest and richest farmland in Europe.
I began by visiting Tito's birthplace in Kumrovec, which is off the Highway of Brotherhood and Unity on the Slovenian border, in a hilly region of northeastern Croatia known for the sharp tang of its white wine and the disputatiousness of its people.
Kumrovec was preserved as in one of the socialist newsreels Iused to see in the Belgrade cinema in the 1950s. The sun was shining. The apple blossom was shimmering in the spring breeze. Peasants rolled through the village on hay carts. Outside the whitewashed farmhouse, there was a bronze statue of Tito as partisan hero, in his greatcoat, striding ahead, deep in thought. Inside the house where the great leader was born, to a Croatian father and Slovenian mother (the perfect Yugoslav parentage), I inspected the maize-filled mattress where he may have slept; his report card in an Austro-Hungarian school; his photograph as a Comintern agent during the 1930s; his fake Swedish passport used during the partisan war; his field glasses, his splendidly vain white partisan uniform, with red-and-gold epaulettes; the map of his wartime campaigns, which showed how much of the partisan campaign was fought where the Bosnian war rages now; his postwar "travels for peace" as head of the nonaligned movement: each capital visited was rewarded with a red star. Some places, like Cairo and New Delhi, had a dozen red stars each; other remote places, like Santiago, Chile, or Ottawa, Canada, only one.
I was shown around by the local schoolteacher, a small, disappointed man with the red-rimmed eyes and broken veins of a drinker. When I asked his name, he made a small, nervous bow.
"So you are a relative?" Tito was a nom de guerre. His family name was Broz.
"A distant cousin," said Ivan, poker-faced. But later, when he was showing me the marshal's partisan uniform, he whispered, "Once we took it out of the display case for a dusting, and I tried it on." He looked about furtively, smiling and showing his stained yellow teeth. "It fitted perfectly."
Had he ever met Tito in person? Once, he said, when Tito took President Nixon to see his humble beginnings in Kumrovec. Ivan, then a schoolboy, was chosen to present a bouquet to Pat Nixon, while a girl was chosen to present flowers to the American President. For weeks, they were drilled in their bow and their curtsy, and then when the great moment came, it was over in a flash. "Afterward, the girl received a pen set and a signed autograph from the President. I got nothing. Such is life."
Ivan remembers the dictator's eyes trained upon him. "He was a politician. You never knew what he thought."
Did people still come to visit here, I wanted to know. Oh yes, Ivan assured me. But the place was empty. There were no coaches in the parking lot, no families picnicking in the park, no one but me poring over the exhibits.
In one of the cases, there was a photo of Tito at an international conference, sitting behind a little sign reading: "Yugoslavia." Someone had violently scratched out the name of the country with a ballpoint pen.
Why, I asked. Ivan shrugged his shoulders. "It is not a popular name now in Croatia" was all he would venture.
"Did you always feel more Croatian than Yugoslav?" I asked him. "Always," said Tito's sad cousin.
Back on the Highway of Brotherhood and Unity, I soon become aware what an odd highway it is. First of all, the green destination signs have all been painted over. I stop at one of them and take a closer look. The highway sign says I am headed toward Lipovac, but when I peel back the Lipovac decal on top, the word Belgrade appears beneath. The highway still does go all the way to the Serbian capital, but as far as Croatia is concerned, that destination has disappeared. Officially speaking, therefore, I am on a highway to nowhere.
About forty kilometers past Zagreb, the Croatian traffic begins taking the exits, leaving the highway to me. Soon I am the only civilian car on the road, besides the UN jeeps and lorries heading out from Zagreb to the checkpoints along the route. I have a superb four-lane motorway all to myself. I stop, get out, cross both lanes and back again. No one. Then I get into the car, take it up to 115 miles an hour, feeling full of adolescent elation. I roar up to a tollbooth, only to discover that its windows are smashed and the booths are empty, though the hazard lights continue to blink on and off. I back up and take the tollbooth at full speed.
I have no company except for hawks, who circle above the deserted highway looking for field mice, and feral cats who prowl along the grassy uncut verges. But from time to time, I can just make out the flash of sunlight on the binoculars of Croatian spotterteams dug into the motorway exit ramps. They must be wondering what a civilian car is doing using this deserted stretch of motorway as a drag strip.
I have Austrian plates on the car. With Croatian or Serbian plates, I couldn't proceed beyond any of the checkpoints ahead. I am also equipped with a UNPROFOR pass, the essential passport for the UN protection zones I am about to enter. In the boot of the car are some canisters of extra petrol, to get me through the Serbian zones, which are under a fuel embargo. Besides the canisters, there is a flak jacket. I put it on once, and took it off immediately. It is ludicrously cumbersome and in practice useless. All you think about when you are wearing one is the parts of your body that remain exposed. Besides, the canisters have already leaked onto the flak jacket, ensuring that if I do get hit while wearing it, I will burst into flames.
About seventy kilometers east of Zagreb, I spot the first signs of war: the guardrails on the central median strip have been chewed up and strewn about one of the lanes. Then I begin to feel the track marks left behind in the road surface by the passage of tanks and armored personnel carriers. Farther on, the road is pocked and pitted with mortar blasts. On one of the motorway bridges, I spot my first sign of the cross with four Cyrillic "C's" in each quadrant, standing for the Serbian motto: "Only Unity can Save the Serbs." On the next motorway bridge, I see the "U" for Ustashe, together with the checkered flag, the Šahovnica. On my left a rusted and burned-out bus, lying on its side by an exit ramp, its roof sheared away by some form of incoming fire. I have reached the edge of the war zone.
At the Jordanian headquarters at Novska, seventy kilometers east of Zagreb, a UN jeep meets me and leads my car down a shell-pocked feeder road, over a pontoon bridge, and past the Serb and Croat checkpoints, and drops me off at a blasted and wrecked shell of a building that used to house the Jasenovac museum and memorial center.
Between 1941 and 1945, trains drew up at the railhead ramp on the other side of a vast, low, marshy field that slopes down to the Sava River. Jews and Serbs, Gypsies and Croatian Communists were herded out of the sealed wagons and pushed down the ramp to the rows of barracks behind the barbed wire. They were put to work in the brick factory, and when they were used up they were burned in the brick ovens or shot in the back of the head and then dumped in the Sava River.
No one knows exactly how many people died in the bare field behind the museum where the barracks and barbed wire once stood. Serbs and Croats cannot even reach agreement about this. Serbs maintain the figure is 700,000. There isn't a Serb village in central Croatia that didn't lose someone in this place. Croats insist that the number is no more than 40,000. Independent researchers have put the total number of people exterminated at Jasenovac in the region of 250,000, but no one can be sure.
It seems nearly as difficult to come to terms with what happened only two years ago, when the war of 1991 reached Jasenovac. For I am walking into a museum that has been systematically destroyed. Every book in the library has been ripped up and tossed onto the floor. Every glass exhibit case has been smashed. Every photograph has been defaced. Every file has been pulled out of every drawer, every table and chair has been upended, all the curtains have been cut to ribbons, all the windows have been smashed, and all the walls have been daubed with excrement and slogans. Some quite amazing hatred of the past has taken hold of the people who did this: as if by destroying the museum, they hoped to destroy the memory of what was done here.
Several thousand Croat militia were billeted in the museum in October 1991, and it is likely that they vandalized the place, although the walls have also been defaced with graffiti left behind by the Serbs who shelled the center and retook it from the Croats.
I wade through rooms shin-deep in ripped books and torn photographs, and with these I can struggle to piece together what the exhibits might have been like. On the floor, a picture of a crowd of prisoners waiting at the barbed wire lies beside a photograph of a young woman, her hair in plaits, leaning on a fence. Next to that a photo of a prelate shaking hands with an SS officer lies ontop of a pile of ripped-up prisoners' files, and beside that, shredded portraits of Tito. The whole history of Yugoslavia seems to lie amid the shattered glass and filth at my feet.
I can see how the children struggled to understand what they were told by the museum guides, because their drawings lie scattered all over: barbed wire, barracks, and guards in bright watercolors, the walking skeletons at the brickworks, as seen through the eyes of a nine-year-old trying to understand.
Among the shards of glass and masonry I find scraps of film, ripped from the projectors in the museum cinema. Bending down in the filth, I hold the frames up to the light through the shattered windows open to the sky. In one strip of film I see frame after frame of an old man weeping; in another, a starved woman tottering down the road; in another strip of film, eighteen frames of a headless corpse.
Light streams through a gaping shell hole in the roof of the lecture theater, and a lectern is all that remains standing in the burned-out wreckage of seats and cinema screen and wall paneling. On the front of the lectern there are the words, in Serbo-Croatian, that mean: Lest We Forget.
I walk out into the field behind the museum, now strewn with artillery shell casings, toward the railway cars, their ventilation holes sealed with barbed wire. I ask myself how such a place can ever be drained of its capacity to poison the living.
After 1945, Tito had the camp bulldozed in the hope that Serbs and Croats might forget. Then, in the 1960s, when Tito supposed the wounds had healed, the memorial center was opened. But after all the school visits and lectures and film showings, Yugoslavia never came to terms with what happened here. The past remained unmastered and unforgiven.
If the new Croatian state, proclaimed in May 1990, made one central mistake on the road to war, it was its failure publicly to disavow the Ustashe state and what it did at Jasenovac. The President of free Croatia, Franjo Tudjman, fought the Ustashe as a young partisan, but in the euphoria of independence he tried to unite all of Croatia's tortured past into what was called a national synthesis. So he never came to Jasenovac. He never got down on his knees, as Willy Brandt did at Auschwitz. If he had done so,Serbs and Croats might have begun the process of ending the past, instead of living it over and over. Because Tudjman did not come here, Serbs in Croatia were manipulated by Belgrade and by their local leaders into believing that the new Croatia was the fascist Ustashe come again.
Serbs scoff when you say Tudjman should have atoned for Jasenovac. "Are you crazy?" they say. His party was financed by Croatians abroad, in Toronto and Melbourne. And who were they? Old Ustashe.
But the problem of confronting the past runs deeper than that. The wartime Ustashe state was Croatia's first experience of independent nationhood. It has proved impossible for Croatian nationalists to disavow a nationhood that was fascist. Instead, Croatians evade the issue altogether, either by dismissing tales of Ustashe atrocity as Serbian propaganda, or by attempting to airbrush atrocity into crime by playing statistical sleight of hand with the numbers who died here. Finally, it appears, some Croats have dealt with Jasenovac by trying to vandalize its remains.
It is always said that aggression begins in denial and that violence originates in guilt. A nation that cannot repudiate a fascist past may condemn itself to a fascist future. True enough. But there is another equally imprisoning mechanism at work. If your enemies call you a fascist enough times, you will begin to call yourself one, too. Take your enemies' insult and turn it into a badge of pride. How many times in the weeks ahead do I meet Croats at checkpoints who say, "They call us Ustashe. Well then, that is what we are." And likewise, the Serbs: "You call us Chetniks. Well, that is what we are." The two sides conspire in a downward spiral of mutually interacting self-degradation. And where does that spiral begin? In the most ordinary form of cowardice, the one every one of us knows only too welltelling lies about the past.
But that is not all. Jasenovac is not the whole suppressed truth either. It is not all there is to say about Croatia in wartime. If Croats cannot bear Jasenovac, it is not merely because of what was done in their name but also because of the partiality of what is remembered. At Jasenovac, Tito's Yugoslavia remembered Croatians only as murderers, never as victims. Tito never built a memorial center at any of the mass graves of the thousands of Croatians massacredas they fled before his Communist partisans on the roads of northeastern Croatia and Slovenia in May 1945. The guilt of Jasenovac became unbearable, not merely because it was great, but also because it was unjust. At Jasenovac you begin to discern the lie about the past that eventually destroyed Tito's Yugoslavia. The lie was that the Second World War was a national uprising against German occupation led by Tito's partisans. In reality, it was a civil war fought among Yugoslavs. Postwar Yugoslavia never had enough time to heal the wounds of that war.
Jasenovac is a place to make you ponder your inherited liberal pieties. Somewhere in my childhood, I must have been taught that telling lies eventually makes you ill. When Václav Havel said that people need to live in truth, he also meant that nations cannot hope to hold together if they do not come to some commonand truthfulversion of their past. But there are nations with pasts so hard to share together that they need centuries for forgetting to do its work. To ask for truth, to ask for shared truth, might be to ask for too much. Yugoslavia might be such a case. Fifty years was not enough time to forget.
Whatever the case, it is hard to continue believing in the healing power of historical truth when you stand in the middle of a vandalized museum. Some dark spirit, stronger than truth, was at work here. And it is at work on the road from Jasenovac as you drive away. Toward Novska, you pass Serb house after Serb house, neatly dynamited, beside undisturbed Croat houses and gardens. When you turn toward Lipik, it is the turn of all the Croat houses to be dynamited or firebombed, next to their untouched Serb neighbors. Mile upon mile, the deadly logic of ethnic cleansing unfolds. In village after village, they have ripped open the scar tissue over their common wound.
CRY, GIRL, CRY
I am in central Croatia now, in the heart of what was once one of the most complex multi-ethnic communities in Europe, shared between a Croatian majority, a Serbian minority, and several other groupsGermans, Italians, and Hungariansbesides. The 1991war tore these villages apart, and now they are divided between Croatian and Serbian sectors, with UN checkpoints in between.
On all the roads that lead north from the Highway of Brotherhood and Unity, there is a continuous swath of devastation wherever you look: roofless houses, with a cascade of roof tiles and roof beams strewn about the deserted, weed-filled rooms; fire-edged window and door frames, brick walls pierced with tire-sized artillery blasts. Some houses have been raked by so much automatic-weapons fire that the plaster has been completely torn away, leaving only the pitted brick, the tree trunks outside the houses wearing a glittering jacket of metal slugs. In the ditches lie small Yugoslav Zastava cars, riddled with bullet fire or twisted into rusted sculpture by a tank's treads.
At first the destruction appears to have no rhyme or reason. In some villages, not a wall has been left unsprayed with bullets, while in others, scarcely a house has been touched. After a while, you begin to work like an archaeologist, sifting through the clues to discern a pattern to what must have happened. There appear to be three typical forms of destruction. The most surgical form is dynamiting: the houses are collapsed in neat piles, with minimal damage to the houses next door. Families were driven out by their neighbors or by paramilitary militias and their homes were blown up. Many of these dynamited piles appear to have once been large, recently constructed houses, and it makes you wonder how many years of a man's or woman's life as a Gastarbeiter in a German automobile factory went into this, only to see it fall like a pack of cards.
The second type of destruction appears to have been accomplished by artillery fire, from the Yugoslav National Army guns that punched round, tire-sized holes in Croatian village walls. The third type of destruction is firebombing, which leaves fire marks on all the windows, and which would have been the work of marauding paramilitaries on both sides.
Some houses were daubed by the Serbs with the slogan "U," for "Ustashe," which then marked them for ethnic cleansing. Others are marked with crudely and rapidly painted names of those who lived in them, as if, as they were abandoned, their inhabitants were hoping to remind the defenders that they belonged to the same side.I spent hours in these ruins, the dust in my throat, the sound of broken glass under my feet, deciphering the clues to the shape of catastrophe.
Never say ethnic cleansing is just racial hatred run wild, just Balkan madness. For there is a deep logic to it. By 1990, this part of Yugoslavia was a Hobbesian world. No one in these villages could be sure who would protect them. If they were Serbs and someone attacked them and they went to the Croatian police, would the Croats protect them? If they were Croats, in a Serbian village, could they be protected against a nighttime attack from a Serbian paramilitary team, usually led by a former policeman? This is how ethnic cleansing began to acquire its logic. If you can't trust your neighbors, drive them out. If you can't live among them, live only among your own. This alone appeared to offer people security. This alone gave respite from the fear that leaped like a brushfire from house to house.
The West has to make up its mind about the emerging order of ethnically cleansed microstates that have taken the place of Yugoslavia. Nobody in the West wants to appear to be condoning ethnic cleansing, but every day, every hour, civilians are fleeing war zones, or being driven thence by men with guns, into the relative safety of their own ethnic enclaves. Ethnic apartheid may be an abomination, but for the more than two million refugees who have fled or been driven from their homes, apartheid is the only guarantee of safety they are prepared to trust. Civilian victims in the area are rightly indifferent to our scruples and our strictures about ethnic cantonment. For the West failed to save Sarajevo, where Muslim, Croat, and Serb lived together in peace for centuries. It is asking the impossible to believe that ordinary people will trickle back to the multi-ethnic villages they have left behind, simply in order to vindicate our liberal principles.
As you travel through the zones of devastation in central Croatia, you also have the impression that you have fallen through some hole in time and are spinning backward into the past. You are not in 1993 but in 1943. In Serb villages, old ladies in black scarves and black wool dresses watch you suspiciously as you pass; ribbed hay carts go by, driven by old men in their Second World War khaki forage caps. Out in their back gardens, women are bending overtheir hoes. On the roads, militiamen, wearing the red, white, and blue shoulder badge of the Serbian Krajina, emerge from dugouts by the road to stop the car and search you. Everyone is wary. Few will talk.
In one ruined farm, formerly inhabited by Croatians, I came upon an old Serbian couple camped out in the remains of an outbuilding. They were in their eighties, and they had been driven from their home in Daruvar, forty kilometers to the north, by the Croatians. The old man was sawing up a piece of charred wood for the stove. The old lady was tidying up their tiny room, with its bed, its cracked window, table, two cups and two chairs, and spotlessly swept floor. They had rebuilt the roof themselves, and they survived on what they got from neighbors and the Red Cross. We sit on a stump, in the middle of the ruins, with glass, brick, and burned roof beams littered about, and when I ask them whether this war has been worse than the last one, the old lady replies, with bitter scorn, that this one has been much worse. "In the last one, we all fought the Germans. This time, there was just betrayal." Neighbor against neighbor, friend against friend. Can you ever live together again? They both shake their heads and look away.
When I ask them how they manage to survive, they suddenly seem to revive. "God will arrange everything," they both say, in unison, exchanging a cheerful glance across what must be fifty years of marriage. When I get up to leave, the old man takes my hand and holds it in a long, intense grip. His bright blue eyes stare deep into mine. "Truth and national rights. That is all we want. Truth and national rights."
A mile away, across another checkpoint, this time in the Croatian village of Lipik, I come across a man helping a team of six women in blue overalls to stack up the usable bricks from the rubble of a flattened house. It turns out that he is the owner of the house, and the women are from a municipal detachment sent out to repair damaged houses.
Tomislav Marekovi is the man's name, Yup to his friends. Yup is the caretaker in the local hospital and a trainer of the local football team in his spare time. I suspect, without knowing for sure, that he also is a prominent local supporter of the HDZ, the ruling Croatian party. Why else, I reason, is his the only house I can find inLipik where the rubble is being cleared by a municipal work detail?
He shows me where his kitchen was, where the television set used to be, where his couch stood. Now there is nothing left but the foundations and a mound of bricks which the women are stacking in piles after chipping away the mortar. Next door's house was untouched. Why? I ask. Serbs, he says. We always got on. Now, he says, they are in West Germany. And the house next door? My parents, he says laconically. Suddenly he points out into the street. "That is where they left my father. There, in the street, for three weeks, before someone buried the body. And my mother, they took her to a barn and set her on fire."
Yugoslav army tanks, dug into the hills above Lipik, were pounding the town and, under directions from local Serbian paramilitaries, were targeting Croat houses. When Yup's house came under bombardment, he and his wife jumped in their car and fled to Zagreb, but his parents refused to come, thinking they would be safe. Days later, they were dragged out of their house by Serbian paramilitaries, possibly from the same village. They were shot and their bodies were burned. Yup tells me all this with a few sighs, a few pauses to light a cigarette, staring glumly into the distance. All the while, the women work silently around us, stacking bricks.
Yup declares a break and I sit down with the women at a trestle table in his tiny back garden. I want to know why the work detail is all-female, and they all reply, with much laughter and winking, "Because women are the best." Left unsaid is the fact that so many Croatian males are away serving in the army. I tell them that I've noticed on the other side the Serbs aren't rebuilding. They're just living in the ruins, with their guns trained toward Croatia, waiting. "They're not rebuilding," says one lady, matter-of-factly, "because they know they're done for." Some of the other ladies nod, while others look down silently at the table.
Yup says, "Three of you are Serbs, isn't that right?" And three of the women beside me nod and look back down at the table. In the silence, they leave it to me to figure out how it comes about that three Serbian women are helping to rebuild a Croat's house. It can only be because they were married to Croats, have lived here all their lives, and find themselves now torn in two, as their village is. Then the Serbian woman beside me slowly begins to cry and astillness descends over everyone. The Croatian women across the table look at her dispassionately, while she crumples into herself. "Cry, girl, cry," says one, and reaches over and takes her hand.
Back in 1989, we thought the new world opened up by the breaching of the Berlin Wall would be ruled by philosopher-kings, dissident heroes, and shipyard electricians. We looked forward to a new order of nation-states, released from the senile grip of the Soviets. We assumed that national self-determination had to mean freedom and that nationalism had to mean nation building. As usual, we were wrong. We hoped for order. We got pandemonium. In the name of nationalism, dozens of viable nation-states have been shattered beyond repair. In the name of state building, we have returned large portions of Europe to the pre-political chaos prior to the emergence of the modern state.
Large portions of the former Yugoslavia are now ruled by figures that have not been seen in Europe since late medieval times: the warlords. They appear wherever nation-states disintegrate: in Lebanon, Somalia, northern India, Armenia, Georgia, Ossetia, Cambodia, the former Yugoslavia. With their car phones, faxes, and exquisite personal weaponry, they look postmodern, but the reality is pure medieval.
Their vehicle of choice is a four-wheel-drive Cherokee Chief, with a policeman's blue light on the roof to flash when speeding through a checkpoint. They pack a pistol but they don't wave it about. They leave vulgar intimidation to the bodyguards in the back of the jeep, the ones with shades, designer jeans, and Zastava machine pistols. They themselves dress in the leather jackets, floral ties, and pressed corduroy trousers favored by German television producers. They bear no resemblance whatever to Rambo. The ones I began meeting at the checkpoints on the roads leading off from the Highway of Brotherhood and Unity were short, stubby men who in a former life had been small-time hoods, small-town cops, or both. Spend a day with them, touring their world, and you'd hardly know that most of them are serial killers.
Warlords not only dominate the war zones, but have worked their way to the heart of power in the authoritarian single-party states of Croatia and Serbia alike.
War criminals are celebrities in the Balkans. They have seats in the Serbian Parliament. One of them, Vojislav Šešelj, the self-styled Duke of the Serbian Chetniks, runs his own party as well as a full-time paramilitary unit. Another, Željko Raznjatovi, a.k.a. Arkan, controls an eight-hundred-strong paramilitary unit called the Tigers, who raped and tortured their way through eastern Slavonia in the Croatian war of 1991. This odious thug, on the run from an Interpol warrant for an attempted murder in Sweden, is a parliamentary deputy and operates a number of immensely profitable sanctions-busting businesses, including selling smuggled petrol for hard currency at petrol stations around Belgrade. Ever the post-modem Prince of Darkness, Arkan has launched himself into celebrity franchising. In Serbian farmhouses in eastern Slavonia, the icon you are most likely to see beside an image of Saint Sava is a large colored calendar with a different picture of Arkan for every month of the year.
At anti-Miloševi demonstrations in Belgrade, which I attended at the end of my journey, who should appear, cruising through the middle of the crowd in his Cherokee Chief, but this smiling killer in a smart sheepskin jacket, waving suavely to left and right, obviously reveling in his provocation of Belgrade's impotent peace party.
Croatians will tell you that the fact that Arkan is allowed to serve as a deputy in the Serbian Parliament is proof that Serbia is a fascist regime. It is not. There are functioning opposition parties and newspapers, and, indeed, just as much democracy in Belgrade as there is in Zagreb. It is Djilas's characterization of Serbian politics"democracy with a tinge of banditism"that best describes the way warlords have worked their way into the heart of the system.
There are warlords on the Croatian side, tooif not in Zagreb, then in the front-line towns like Osijek, run by town council president and local party boss Branimir Glavaš. When you tour the town in Glavaš's jeep, it is like being with a spectacularly popular local politician in a small American town. He comes across a local wedding and the band serenades him. The bridegroom asks him tokiss the bride; the revelers hand him bottles to sample. It is hard to remember that this man is leader of the Glavas Unit, a paramilitary group held responsible not merely for the defense of Osijek but for the cleansing of Serbian villages and for the murder of Croatian policemen who sought to maintain good relations with Serbs.
Glavaš flashes a policeman's badge at the police checkpoints, as well as a military pass at the front line. The limits of his power are as imprecise as they are pervasive. He has translated the nefarious glamour of the warlord into peacetime power, yet he assures you with a snap of his fingers that he could remobilize his paramilitaries overnight. Thirty kilometers away, across the front line in Serb-held Vukovar, there is Mr. Koji, the Serbian equivalent of Mr. Glavaš. Same jeep, same courteous manner. Same guns.
The warlords are nationalists, but their convictions are uninteresting. They are technicians of violence, rather than ideologues. Earlier than everybody else, they understood that ethnic nationalism had delivered the ordinary people of the Balkans straight back to the pre-political state of nature, where, as Hobbes predicted, life is nasty, brutish, and short. In the state of nature, the man with a Zastava machine pistol and a Cherokee Chief is king. For he can provide the two commodities everybody here craves: security and vengeance.
Once the Yugoslav Communist state began to spin apart into its constituent national particles, the key questions soon became: Will the local Croat policemen protect me if I am a Serb? Will I keep my job in the soap factory if my new boss is a Serb or a Muslim? The answer to these questions was no, because no state remained to enforce the old inter-ethnic bargain. As a result, every individual rushed, pell-mell, to the next available source of protection: the warlord.
For the warlord not only offers protection. He offers a solution. He tells his people: If we cannot trust our neighbors, we must rid ourselves of them. If we cannot live together in a single state, we must create clean states of our own. The logic of ethnic cleansing is not just motivated by nationalist hatred. Cleansing is the warlord's coldly rational solution to the war of all against all. Rid yourself of your neighbors, the warlord says, and you no longer have to fearthem. Live among your own, and you can live in peace. With me and my boys to protect you.
After dark in Vukovar, your car headlights range over pockmarked walls, roofless ruins, and piles of rubble on both sides of the road. You do not stop at the bullet-shredded STOP signs because there are no cars at the crossroads. People must be living here, because you occasionally see a solitary light gleaming from behind a shutter in one of the bombed-out tower blocks. But you see no one because no one ventures out after dark. Rats scuttle to and fro across the road to forage in the garbage. In the distance, you hear an occasional burst of small-arms fire.
This ghost town was once a Habsburg episcopal seat on the Danube. In 1991, it became the Croatian Stalingrad. Throughout the autumn, the Croatian national guard defended it to the last street against the heaviest artillery bombardment seen in Europe since 1945. When the Serbian paramilitaries and the Yugoslav National Army finally "liberated" the town in November 1991, at a cost of something like nine thousand lives, there was nothing left to liberate but a devastated ruin.
The self-proclaimed Republic of Serbian Krajina has its eastern headquarters in Vukovar. "Krajina" means the military frontier. Serbian settlement in Croatia was established in the seventeenth century by the Austro-Hungarians as a buffer zone between them and the Ottomans. As the appointed defenders of European civilization against the Turks in the Balkans, the Serbs have always gone armed. The gun culture here is ancestral.
In the town square, a banner has been stretched over the road from one pulverized house to another. It reads: "Welcome to Vukovar, Year One." But, eighteen months after entering the town, the Serbs have done nothing to rebuild it. It should probably be left as it is. UNESCO could fence it off and declare it a European heritage site. What could be more European, after all, than our tradition of senseless nationalist warfare?
The Serbs have taken down the Croatian street signs and replacedthem with Serbian ones in Cyrillic, but the Croatian signs are still stacked in the attic of the pulverized town museum, as if somewhere in their minds the Serbs expect that the Croatian signs will one day go back up again.
In the museum attic, too, is a still more extraordinary sight: three bronze bustsMarx, Engels, and Leninsitting on the main roof beam, dispatched there in the 1980s at the official death of Communist ideology, and now revealed by the bombardment that blew away all the roof tiles and the false ceiling concealing the roof beams. These three bronze busts were the only exhibit in the museum to have survived the siege intact.
While the responsibility for the destruction of Vukovar lies squarely with the tanks and artillery of the Yugoslav National Army which lobbed 150,000 shells into the place, the Croatians also appear to have dynamited parts of it as they withdrew, so that the Serbs would gain nothing but rubble for their pains. The pulverization of Vukovar made no military sense. When I asked a Serbian tank commander why they had done it, he shrugged his shoulders. "War has many such tragedies ... Leningrad ... Stalingrad ..." But these were battles with a military objective. In a nationalist war, on the other hand, military objectives were driven by a desire to hurt, humiliate, and punish. The JNA (Yugoslav National Army) could have bypassed Vukovar and sent its tank columns down the Highway of Brotherhood and Unity all the way to Zagreb. Instead, it sat on the other side of the Danube and pounded Vukovar into rubble, as if to say, with each outgoing shell, "So you want to be independent, do you? This is what it will cost you, and what you will have at the end of it is nothing but ruins."
It is hard not to think, as you stand in shattered graveyards, convents, churches, and homes, that someone derived deep pleasure from all this destruction. All these ancient walls, all these crucifixes, church towers, ancient slate roofs, were demolished by people whose ideologies ceaselessly repeated that they were fighting to defend the holy and sacred past from desecration. In a way, the artillery expressed the essential nihilism of what people called conviction more honestly than all the nationalist pieties about fighting for the sake of the sacred motherland.
Some quite uncontrolled adolescent lust was at work here. Thetank and artillery commanders could not have seen what they were hitting. It was all as abstract and as satisfying as playing the machines in a video arcade. It didn't even seem to bother the largely Serb commanders that a significant percentage of the population being bombed, perhaps as many as 20 percent, were ethnic Serbs. Now many of them lie on the city's outskirts beneath one of the bare, nameless crosses in a mass grave.
The Serbs have inherited the ruins that they themselves have made. One might have expected regret or shame, or, failing that, some state of moral confusion about what they had done to the city. But nothing, not a syllable. Only a kind of embarrassed silence.
It was in Vukovar that I began to see how nationalism works as a moral vocabulary of self-exoneration. No one is responsible for anything but the other side. In the moral universe of pure nationalist delusion, all action is compelled by tragic necessity. Towns must be destroyed in order to liberate them. Hostages must be shot. Massacres must be undertaken. Why? Because the other side started it first. Because the other side are beasts and understand no language but violence and reprisal. And so on. Everyone in a nationalist war speaks in the language of fate, compulsion, and moral abdication. Nowhere did this reach such a nadir as in Vukovar. The pistol-toting hoodlums, holed up in the ruins of the Hotel Dunav, who came out and threatened to kill my translator simply because he was a Hungarian; the Krajinan Information Minister who had no information that was not a lie; the mayor of Vukovar, who went around the Vukovar hospital handing out Serbian flags to men whose legs ended at a bandaged stumpnot one of these creatures ever expressed the slightest sense of shame, regret, or puzzlement that the insensate prosecution of their cause had led to the ruination of their own city. For all of them, the responsibility was solely Croat.
Serbian Krajina calls itself a state, but is more like a feudal kingdom run by small-time warlords, called Deputy Minister This and Supreme Commander That, whose power depends on how many cars, weapons, and men they can commandeer. You soon discover that their writ usually runs out at the next checkpoint.
Mr. Koji, the security boss of Vukovar and district, assures you he has the town under control, but there are three impact clusterson the bulletproof windshield of his Passat from a firefight with the local gangsters three nights before. There are guns everywhere: on the backs of old men bicycling out to guard duty on their village checkpoints; hanging from the belts of the militiamen who check your papers at the entrance to the town; behind the counter in the local bar. Everywhere in Krajina, the democracy of violence rules.
At night, the Serbs of Krajina sit in bunkers at the entrance of their villages with their guns trained down the lonely roads, waiting for the Croats to come at them. It's a village war, and the front line often runs right between two back gardens. One rainy night I went out to the front lines about thirty kilometers from Vukovar. With the faint glow of the Croat positions in Vinkovci clearly visible, I scuttled to the Serbian trenches under washing lines, over garden fences, past old discarded washbasins and newly hoed vegetable gardens. When I reached the safety of the Serb bunker, I could hear Croatian music from the other side, mixed with the grunting of Serbian pigs in the sty next door.
From their positions, the Serbs can see the homes they were forced to flee; they can see their neighbors in their gunsights. One paramilitary called Chobi Chetnik, with a sign reading "Serbia: Liberty or Death" on his battledress, got on the CB radio at two in the morning to taunt the Ustashe a hundred meters away. This is a war where the enemies went to school together, worked in the same haulage company, and now talk on the CB every night, laughing, taunting, telling jokes. Then they hang up and try to line each other up in their gunsights.
And so it goes, night after night, neither peace nor war, the two sides straining at the leash, taunting and testing each other, probing each other's positions with small-arms fire and the occasional lob of a mortar or artillery shell.
The Serb positions are defended by ex-Yugoslav army officers, Dad's Army village volunteers, and wild Chetnik paramilitaries. Without the UN, they know, they would be quickly overrun. You can see their desperation in the way they drink, and in the listless fatalism that steals over their faces when the bravado of the bunker dies away.
The Croat forward lines, which I visited at Osijek, thirty kilometers from Vukovar, look altogether more impressive. They aredug in behind a stretch of dynamited motorway, and they seem to be both more disciplined and more belligerent than the Serbs. They believe the UN is ratifying the permanent occupation of a third of their country, and the men in their flak jackets and helmets wave their Zastava automatics in the direction of the Serbian lines and tell you the Croatian flag will soon be flying over Vukovar. More front-line bravado perhaps, but I left both sides feeling that the cease-fire in eastern Slavonia hangs by a thread.
The Serbs in their bunkers have a case that deserves to be heard. In Yugoslavia, they were a protected constitutional nation. In an independent Croatia, they were reduced to a national minority in a state with a genocidal past. Without a state of their own, the Serbs repeat over and over, they face extermination again. The Serbian war in Bosnia is designed to give them such a state, by providing a unified land corridor from Serbia proper, connecting up the Serbian lands in western, central, and southern Croatia. Without such a corridor, the Croatian Serbs know they will not survive, and until such a corridor is secure they live from day to day in a state of armed paranoia. There is a currency and there is a flag, but there is no state in Krajina, merely a jungle. And they have no sure protector. For all their bravado, they know they cannot count on Miloševi. If the price of their defense becomes too high for Serbia proper, the Krajinans know they will be sold down the river.
The Serbian case would be more convincing if they were less persuaded that the whole world, especially foreign journalists, is against them. After you have had your car commandeered by drunken paramilitaries, after you have been shot at and had your life threatened, a certain indifference to their cause tends to steal over you.
The war zones of eastern Slavonia, and Vukovar in particular, leave behind an unforgettable impression of historical retrogression. Graveyards where Jews and Ruthenes, Germans, Croats, and Serbs once were buried together now lie desecrated by the bombs of both sides. Elegant episcopal palaces and monasteries, delicately arcaded squares left behind by the Austro-Hungarians, lie in ruins. Time has slid back through five centuries here. One of the richest and most civilized parts of Europe has returned to the barbarism of the late Middle Ages. Such law and order as there is, is administeredby warlords. There is little gasoline, so the villages have returned to the era before the motorcar. Everyone goes about on foot. Old peasant women forage for fuel in the woods, because there is no heating oil. Food is scarce, because the men are too busy fighting to tend the fields. In the desolate wastes in front of the bombed-out high-rise flats, survivors dig at the ground with hoes. Every man goes armed. No one ventures beyond the village. No one trusts anyone they have not known all their lives. Late-twentieth-century nationalism has delivered one part of the European continent back to the time before the nation-state, to the chaos of late-feudal civil war.
A week spent in Serbian Krajina is a week spent inside a nationalist paranoia so total that when you finally cross the last Serbian checkpoint and turn on the radio, and find an aria from Puccini playing, and look out of your window and see the wet fields in the rain, you find yourself uncoiling like a tightly wound spring, absurdly surprised to discover that a world of innocent beauty still exists.
On the Highway of Brotherhood and Unity, you never tell anybody where you've really come from or where you're really going. At the Croatian checkpoints, you say merely that you're going to the next Croatian town. At the Serb checkpoints, you smile, let them search your trunk, rummage through the dirty underwear in your luggage, offer them Marlboros, and tell them over and over that you are heading toward the bosom of Mother Serbia.
At the first tollbooth on the Serbian side of the highway, you do not hand them the toll card you picked up at the Zagreb entrance. You say, instead, that you've come from the Serbian Krajina, and then you negotiate your toll fee in deutsche marks. This is the only tollbooth in Europe where, with laughter, exchange of cigarettes, and displays of mocking disbelief at what they propose to charge you, you can barter your toll fee down to a reasonable sum.
About twenty-four kilometers from Belgrade, you see your first sign of the impact of Western sanctions: enormous queues of smallZastavas, Fiats, Renault 5s stretching down the motorway from the service stations, and large crowds of men gathered around the empty pumps, waiting for the occasional delivery. They play cards, talk politics, sing along to a harmonica to pass the time, but when you come up to talk and they discover that you are a Western writer, an angry knot of men soon surrounds you. A short, stubby man with a porkpie hat on his head, mud-encrusted boots, and the hands of a farmer pokes you in the chest and says, "What the hell were we supposed to do with those Croats? Stand there and wait for them to cut our throats? And what do you do? You give us these sanctions. You call that fair?" And so it goes, with themes and variations, that soon have them blaming Churchill and the British for supporting Tito rather than Draža Mihajlovi. So apparently it is the fault of the British that Yugoslavia had fifty years of Communism.
Their anger would be more threatening if it were not accompanied by a certain comic ritual. The men in the queue approach, say they don't want to have anything to do with a Westerner, turn on their heels, so that their friends can see what a splendid gesture of defiance they have made, and then they return anyway and start talking, pausing to let you take notes, peering over your shoulder to see how you write their names and so on. This, I learn in the days ahead, is part of the ritual style of Serbian nationalism itself. The dance has its opening quadrille: we won't talk, the West never understands; we despise you, you tell nothing but lies; then they start talking and never stop. Ask anybody a simple question and you get that telltale phrase: "You have to understand our history ..." Twenty minutes later and you are still hearing about King Lazar, the Turks, and the Battle of Kosovo. This deep conviction that no one understands them, coupled with the fervent, unstoppable desire to explain and justify themselves, seemed to define the style of every conversation I had in Belgrade.
Next morning, when I visit a bank queue, the same rituals repeat themselves. People violently and vehemently refuse to talk, only to start into a stream of Serbian self-justification that begins with their immemorial struggle against the Turks and concludes with their defense of Serbian Bosnia against the Muslim fundamentalists.Along the way, the invective sweeps up the anti-Serbian crimes of Churchill, Roosevelt, Stalin, and Tito into a rhetorical flow as muddy as a spring torrent.
Bank queues are as fundamental a part of Belgrade life as the petrol queue. The economy is in a state of advanced hyperinflationrunning at 200 percent per month. In the restaurants, the price stickers on the menus change overnight. The only reliable hedge against inflation is a hard-currency account. Many private banks have opened for business and promise to pay 10 percent per month on such accounts. How they manage to do so is a mystery. The rumor is that the private banks are deeply engaged in the netherworld of smuggling, illegal oil imports from Ukraine, and arms trading with Russia, together with the laundering of Western drug money. Some of these banks have gone bust, and the fear is that if more of them do, the Miloševi regime itself might be swept away in the ensuing economic chaos.
So anxious are the small depositors about the fate of their accounts that many of them queue all night long in order to be sure to be able to withdraw their hard currency. These queues stretch hundreds of meters down the streets, a pushing, shoving mass of cold, deeply unhappy old-age pensioners, some of them weak with tiredness.
You might have thought such queues would be full of anti-Miloševi grumbling. Belgrade, after all, never voted for him and has always resented its demotion from a world capital of the nonaligned movement, as it was under Tito, to an isolated, embargoed Balkan provincial capital. Yet, again, all the anger that might be directed at Miloševi is directed at the Westat Churchill, at Mrs. Thatcher for having supported the Croats, at the Americans for aiding the Bosnian Muslims, and so on.
He answers the door of his Belgrade flat himself. His hair is white now, and age has loosened the sharp, aquiline features I remembered from the book jacket of his Conversations with Stalin. He is eighty-two, and seems stooped and frail as he leads me down the corridorto his study. He tells me which of the low green velvet armchairs to sit in and asks me whether I want tea or a drink. When I decline, he laughs and remembers the time he led a Yugoslav delegation to meet Stalin in 1944. The Russians offered them vodka, and when the Yugoslavs turned them down, the Russians shouted, "What kind of people are you?" "We were partisans," says Milovan Djilas, with a thin, watchful smile. There is something of the puritanical partisan in him still.
Djilas was at Tito's side throughout the partisan guerrilla campaigns against the German occupiers and their Serbian and Croatian collaborators. Better than anyone else, he knows that the mutual loathings of 1993 all go back to the massacres and countermassacres among Yugoslavs between 1941 and 1945. As the last great partisan leader left alive, he is the last one who still remembers the Yugoslav dream that the next generations tore apart.
He tells me about setting off in an American Willys jeep in the summer of 1945, as Vice President of the new Yugoslavia, to establish the border between Serbia and Croatia. "I was a Montenegrin, after all," he says with a smile, "and so I was supposed to be impartial." What principle, I ask him, did he use to decide which villages were to go to the Croats, which to the Serbs? "The ethnic principle," he says, and he describes how he counted up the ethnic percentages in each village along the border before deciding which ones would belong to Croatia, which to Serbia. This was the border the war was fought over, and to this day Serb nationalists accuse Djilas of selling out Serbian interests to the despised Croatians.
He was both a key architect and map-drawer of postwar Yugoslavia and the first Communist dissident in Eastern Europe. He broke with Tito in 1953 for betraying the ideals of the partisan movement and for allowing the new Communist state to be taken over by a new bureaucratic, privileged class. For this, Tito had him imprisoned for nine years. It was in prison that he learned his meticulous, heavily accented English, using a dictionary to translate Milton's Paradise Lost into Serbo-Croatian.
I expect him to blame his old enemy, Tito, for failing to understand ethnic nationalism, but he shakes his head vigorously. Tito's handling of nationalism could not be faulted. He gave each republic just enough autonomy to satisfy nationalist demands, without compromisingthe unity of Yugoslavia. His fundamental mistake was that he never managed a democratic succession. He never created the institutions and the state of mind necessary to make democracy work. The minute the Communists began to disintegrate, Yugoslavia itself began to fall apart.
I ask him whether democracy and nationalism are compatible. In the Yugoslav case, could a democratic system have held the country together? Yes, he insists, gradual democratization, gradual relaxation of one-party rule, might have resulted in the kind of democratic culture that could have allowed the nationalisms of the region to share power together. And why didn't he democratize in time? "Because he was both the master and the slave of the privileged Communist class," Djilas says, with the relish of a man who has lived to see his original heresy proclaimed the truth.
By failing to democratize in time, Tito threw away all of his achievements. In the end, the Communists proved no more successful than the Austro-Hungarians or the Turks in mastering the region. "We Communists," he says, "were the last empire."
How does he understand the nationalism that has torn his Yugoslavia apart? Balkan nationalism, he argues, was an imported Germanic ideology, which reached these regions only in the 1870s. Immediately, it had a fatal impact, tearing apart the complex ethnic tissue of peoples and nations who had grown together as neighbors over the centuries. He thinks of nationalism still, not as an intrinsic folk emotion, but as an alien virus, the work of city intellectuals who stirred up unlettered people and pushed a successful multi-ethnic experiment over the precipice. Few people I meet in Belgrade believe Miloševi himself has any deep nationalist convictions. He merely knows that when he shouts from a podium, "Nobody will ever beat the Serbs again!" they applaud him to the rafters.
The West's greatest mistake, Djilas then says, is that it has "sa-tanized" the Serbs. This comes as a surprise from someone constantly vilified in Serbian nationalist propaganda as a betrayer of Serbian interests. Yet Djilas is insistent: by placing exclusive blame on the Serbs for both the Croatian war of 1991 and the Bosnian war of 1993, the West has delivered the Serbian population into the hands of Miloševi and the nationalists.
Thus far, the Balkan sorcerer Miloševi has turned all of the brewof resentment toward the West to his own advantage. Sanctions are turning the daylong queue into a way of life for ordinary people, but the regime seems more secure than ever. Although Belgrade itself voted against Miloševi in last autumn's elections, street demonstrations against the regime fizzle out almost as soon as they begin. Opposition parties are weak and divided, and even more nationalistic than Miloševi. All in all, the scene is bleak confirmation of Djilas's essential point: a society with no democratic tradition has filled the post-Communist void with persecution mania directed toward the West and delusions of grandeur directed at their fellow Serbs.
In Djilas's view, the Western "satanization" of Serbia has also enabled Croatians and the Bosnian Muslims to lay claim to the role of blameless victim. Sanctions against Serbia were unavoidable, he admits, given the siege of Sarajevo, the occupation of a quarter of Croatia, and the concentration camps for Muslims. But this only convinces Croats and Muslims that they will not receive international sanctions for acts of revenge against the Serbs.
Djilas views this all with the Olympian detachment of an old man, but there is one moment in our conversation when his detachment breaks down. "We must be the only country in Europe," he says with cold contempt, "actively rehabilitating fascist collaborators." He means the Croatian Ustashe, but also Serbian collaborators, the Chetniks, who fought with the Germans. The thought that everything he fought for has collapsed and everything he fought against fifty years ago has been restored to public honor momentarily clouds his face. He looks tired and dispirited. "The Second World War is not over, not here anyway," he says with a sigh.
He liked greenhouses. So he built himself a greenhouse. He used to rest there, among the poinsettias and the cactuses, like an old lizard in the sun. Now they have buried him in the greenhouse, in front of his residence in Belgrade. There is a large white marble slab, with bronze lettering that reads "Josip Broz Tito, 18921980."
No one much visits anymore, and the place is neglected. On theday I visit, it is raining, and rain is dripping from a broken skylight onto the Marshal's grave. Nobody cares.
On his birthday in 1945, some teenagers ran a relay race from Kragujevac to Belgrade and presented him with a baton. Every year of his reign, the "youth" of Yugoslavia repeated that race, and at the end of it they presented the old dictator with the relay batons. His birthday became "Youth Day." Twenty thousand batons are kept in the museum next to his grave. Nobody visits the batons anymore.
How quickly the legitimacy of power drains away. The batons were not ridiculous twenty years ago. The relay race meant something to people. Now it seems to belong to the rites of some vanished tribe.
What does one conclude? Dictators have no successors. Charisma is the most unstable of legitimacies. That much is obvious. But what about democracy? Was there ever, really, a chance of democracy here? The old lizard himself would have said: Never, they will only tear themselves apart if you let them. From the hell where dead tyrants are sent, he would be surveying the inferno that followed his reign and he would be saying: I told you so. There must be a rule of iron. I was right. Djilas was wrong. After me came the deluge.
But nothing in what happened proves the dictator right. What was needed was more timetime for a people to forget, for old men to die, and for their memories and their shame to die with them. Time for vengeance to seem ridiculous. Time for hatred to seem stupid. Time for the politics of honor and memory to be replaced by the politics of interest. Time, in other words, for what the dictator spent his life opposing: the banality of bourgeois politics.
In a culture that never had the time to experience the banality of bourgeois politics, nationalism became the vernacular in which democracy came to the ruins of Yugoslavia. Not real democracy, of course, but the manipulated plebiscitary democracy that ratifies one-man rule. In that kind of democracy, nationalism offers the immense appeal of a politics of permanent fever, of eternal exaltation. Instead of the banal politics of the real, instead of a political world thatconfronts the factsthe poverty, backwardness, stubborn second-rateness of ordinary Balkan existencenationalism directs the mind to higher things. It offers the glorious politics of identity and self-affirmation. Instead of the interminable politics of interest and conciliation, there are enemies within and without to defeat; there is the immortal cause, the martyrs of the past and the present, to keep faith with. And it does not escape the attention of cynics and criminals that in this state of organized and permanent exaltation, there is no cynicism, no crime, no large or small brutality, that cannot be justified if the words "nation," "people," "rights," and "freedom" are suavely sprinkled over them.
And what about us?
Standing back from the disaster, one begins to see that Western failures to act in time were caused by something deeper than inattention, misinformation, or misguided good intentions. The very principles behind our policies were in contradiction. In the light-headed euphoria of 1989, we announced our support for the right of national self-determination and for the territorial integrity of existing states, without realizing that the first principle contradicted the second. We insisted on the inviolability of frontiers, without being clear whether we also meant the frontiers within federal states like Yugoslavia.
Most of all, we allowed guilt over our imperial pasts to lead us to evade our responsibilities to define the terms of a post-imperial peace. Post-imperial societies felt guilty about condemning the nationalism of peoples who have been kept under imperial control. When the "captive nations"from the Baltic to the Balkansasserted their freedom, we did not stop to consider the consequences. After Versailles, after Yalta, the collapse of the last empire in Europe offered us a third opportunity to define a durable peace and create a new order of nations in Europe. We could have ended the Cold War with a comprehensive territorial settlement, defining borders, guaranteeing minority rights and adjudicating among rival claims to self-determination. So concerned were we to avoid playing the imperial policeman, so self-absorbed were we in the frantic late-1980s boom, that we allowed every local post-Communist demagogue to exploit the rhetoric of self-determination and nationalrights to his own ends. The terrible new order of ethnically cleansed states in the former Yugoslavia is the monument to our follies as much as it is to theirs.
AN OLD MAN'S WALLET
I am standing directly in front of the Moscow Hotel in downtown Belgrade in the middle of a listless, slowly disintegrating demonstration against the Miloševi regime. A crowd of several hundred people has been there all morning and is slowly discovering that it is too small to make anything happen. In the middle of the crowd is an old man wearing a Chetnik hat. I go up and talk to him. He is in his seventies and he fought with Mihajlovi against Tito during the Second World War. Does he have sons, I ask him, and if so, have they seen fighting this time?
Calmly, he takes out his wallet and shows me three passport-size color pictures: each of his sons, all young men in their twenties. Two are dead, killed on the front during the Croatian war. The third is in prison. Why? Because, the old man says with grim satisfaction, he took his vengeance. He found the killer of one of his brothers, and killed him. Then he takes out a small folded news clipping from a Croatian newspaper, and there is a passport-size photo of another young man's face. "The bastard who killed my son. But we got him. We got him," he says, neatly folding the picture of his son's assassin back into the wallet with the pictures of his sons.
From father to son, from son to son, there is no end to it, this form of love, this keeping faith between generations which is vengeance. In this village war where everyone knows each other, where an old man keeps the picture of his son's killer beside the picture of the son who avenged them both. There is no end, for when he dies, this old man knows, and it gives him grim satisfaction, there will be someone to do vengeance for him, too.
Copyright © 1993 by Michael Ignatieff