bosnia report
New Series No. 9/10 April - July 1999
Why Milosevic must be stopped
by Gordana Knezevic

`WHAT'S IT feel like when the city of your birth is under attack by NATO bombs?' a Canadian friend asked me recently as we sat in a downtown Toronto caf‚.

Watching television reports about the bombing of Belgrade and listening to Serbs in Serbia, or in exile, I have felt utterly paralyzed by the support they have given to Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic - a man British defence secretary George Robertson has called `a serial ethnic cleanser.'

Suddenly, it seems, Serb history, Serb mythology, and Kosovo's role as the the cradle of Serb civilization are being discussed around the globe, as if they were something truly exceptional - as if no other nation had ever experienced a single drop of bloodshed in its history. It is, in fact, not exceptional. It is a history like that of many European nations.

Moreover, the current problem of the Kosovo conflict lies not in Serbia's his tory, but in its present.

As a Serb, I feel lonely, alienated and unable to identify with any of the cur rent expressions of what `being a Serb' means.

Why should Serb history be thought of as any sort of justification for killing people of other ethnic groups? How far should the recreation of myths take us, in real life?

Whatever it is that Serbs are supposed to be given at birth obviously wasn't given to me when I was born in Belgrade in July, 1950.

A baby boomer, I grew up proud to be Yugoslavian. At no time did I ever volun teer to give up my Yugoslavian nationality. But being a Yugoslav is something that was taken away from me in the besieged city of Sarajevo, in 1992, when the Serb-led Yugoslav Army began indiscriminately shooting civilians inside my cho sen city.

The reason Sarajevo suffered so much during the war in Bosnia is because most of its citizens rejected the idea of living separately, along ethnic lines. They refused to buy the idea of an ethnically clean state. Instead, Sarajevans de fended the multi-ethnic structure of their society and because they did, 10,000 of them were killed between 1992 and 1995.

More than 200,000 others across Bosnia-Herzegovina also died.

The reason my newspaper, Oslobodenje, was targeted and its building turned into rubble was because its multi-ethnic staff - composed of Muslims, Serbs, Jews, Croats and other people who couldn't even define their ethnic background - not only worked together, but slept together in an underground shelter, safe from Serb guns that encircled the city. Beneath those guns, we managed to put out our paper every single day of the three-year siege.

As a consequence, SRNA, the Serb television network in Bosnia, labeled all of us Serb journalists still working inside Sarajevo `traitors.' It was never clear to me who it was I wasÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÔ supposed to have betrayed, but I was denounced as a traitor nonetheless.

I remember a unique moment during the Bosnian war when I received a telephone call from Belgrade-based Radio Politika. It was early morning and the Yugoslav Army was shelling a TV transmitter close to my Sarajevo home. I was prepared to provide an eyewitness report on what was going on as the attack unfolded in full view from my balcony.

It was the first spring of the war and the telephone lines were still working off and on. I started to describe the Yugoslav artillery action at Poljine Hill in detail. Suddenly, the very polite voice of the Radio Politika producer inter rupted me.

`Can you repeat everything you just said but not mention who's shooting? Just tell us what's been destroyed.'

I couldn't believe they didn't want to know what the Belgrade-run Serb army was doing to Sarajevo and its people. But the producer insisted.

`It's not my decision,' he said. `And I'm uncomfortable asking you to do it. But we can only put you on the air if you're willing to report on the destruction and nothing else. We're not allowed to talk about the army's involvement.'

I shot back: `But this is all about the army's involvement.'

It was then that he asked me, abruptly, `Are you a Serb?'

`Yes,' I said, `But I don't see how that's supposed to affect my reporting. Am I supposed to say this is all the result of an earthquake?'

At that point, he apologized. But there were no more calls from Radio Politika, or, for that matter, from any of my journalist friends in Belgrade. I didn't see things the way Serbs were supposed to see them - mainly as trouble caused by the presence of non-Serbs. The wall between me and Belgrade started to grow. I couldn't break through it.

I was a Serb besieged by Serbs. And I identified with each person in Sarajevo exposed to Serb shelling. I witnessed the pain of Bosnian Muslims, Croats, Jews and Serbs who were forced from their homes. I could not possibly identify with the people who had started all the shooting, or lend the perpetrators of that action moral support through silence. I could not close my eyes and say, `Well, there must be some historic reason for the Yugoslav army to target civilians in Sarajevo, in Foca, in Srebrenica and in Vukovar.'

I did not perceive myself as a traitor then, and I do not perceive myself as a traitor now. But I'm worried - because even though Bosnia was not regarded by any Serb as a cradle of their civilization, it was still the scene of indescrib able atrocities. And what of Kosovo, a place that is regarded as the cradle of civilization by many Serbs? What unspeakable atrocities might be committed there?

My cradle is in Belgrade. But that does not give me the right to go and shoot whoever lives now in the house on Proleterskih Brigada Street where my parents lived at the time of my birth.

Some people say, `But oh, that was during Tito's time and Tito was a dictator.' Yes. But part of what he dictated was that we embrace other peoples' cultures as part of our own wealth. He ordered that bridges be built and power plants be constructed. And he demanded that we learn languages and acquire new technolo gies and that we share these with other countries.

Oh, there was oppression of a kind, too, of course.

Hate-mongering was illegal. Insulting any ethnic or national group in the media was expressly forbidden.

And this created a hardship for some. People like Vuk Draskovic, for example, who is today Yugoslav deputy prime minister, must have had to rein himself in during the period.

Since NATO's air raids I have seen Draskovic shouting on CNN, `We are multicultural. We are not against Muslims or Albanians. Don't shoot Serbia!'

But such speeches by Draskovic are only inspired by NATO's attacks. It should be noted that, in the two decades following Tito's death in 1980, Draskovic contributed a lot to promote Serb nationalism.

In the days befÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÔ ore 1980, however, diversity was actually seen as an asset and a very important part of Yugoslavia's attractiveness. But once the idea of creat ing a Greater Serbia was unleashed, triggering the war, diversity was trans formed into an unfortunate circumstance of the Yugoslav reality.

Because many European politicians were a little familiar with Yugoslavia and chose it as a popular holiday destination, they believed what Milosevic was telling them back in 1991 when the Yugoslav army was just beginning its open ag gression against civilian populations. He provided all sorts of arguments that his army was `defending Yugoslavia' while his personal project of destroying Yu goslavia for the sake of a Greater Serbia was being implemented on the ground.

As for me, I used to be a pacifist. I believed in diplomacy. When Bosnia was in flames and world leaders gathered for a peace conference in London in August, 1992, I shared the hopeful expectations of the Sarajevan people. I thought it a minor miracle when I was allowed to leave Sarajevo aboard a United Nations plane to cover the conference for my newspaper.

The London conference sounded a strong voice for peace and even promised to put U.N. military observers on the border between Bosnia and Serbia.

But during that week of my absence from Sarajevo, almost half of the city was destroyed by shelling. The National Library, a masterpiece of Austro-Hungarian architecture, was burned down. Half of my newspaper's building was obliterated. The city's main cemetery came under heavy shelling and, afterwards, the victims of each new attack had to be buried in parks and, later, on the grounds of the Olympic sports stadium.

While most foreign journalists and locals were in London reporting the major diplomatic effort to stop the war, Serb guns back in Bosnia sped up their demolition of the city.

I learned the first harsh lesson of being a war correspondent: Diplomacy can sometimes be just a smokescreen for intensive military operations.

Today, I know the Serb army's record in Bosnia. And I'm concerned that the worst crimes committed during the Bosnian war may be replicated in the dark alleys of Kosovo's capital of Pristina, against defenceless and helpless Albanian civil ians.

I worry, too, because what we are seeing on our television screens are only the pictures that Slobodan Milosevic wants us to see, namely, Belgrade burning. Even NATO is incapable of bringing us pictures from inside Kosovo. And as long as Mi losevic succeeds in keeping TV crews out of the province, I fear that the real ity of the crimes being committed inside Kosovo may be much uglier than anyone can imagine.

So have I, as a Serb, betrayed my birthright? If I have betrayed anything, per haps I have betrayed Sarajevo. I left the besieged city in the summer of 1994. I never had a chance to report on the final NATO action - 11 days of bombing of Bosnian Serb targets - which paved the way for the Dayton peace agreement. But ever since, I've been waiting for a voice to rise up from inside Serbia. There must be someone, I thought, who can resist Milosevic and stand up and say, `Look, look what fellow human beings can do to each other, once the crime is justified by the state.' There must be someone there able to see beyond the flames of Belgrade and report to their fellow citizens what Serb troops are actually doing inside Kosovo and recount, as well, atrocities that were perpe trated in Bosnia.

My Canadian friends ask, `Why should Canada, thousands of miles away, get in volved?'

My answer is straightforward: because Milosevic must be stopped. His army must be dismantled. If Milosevic is allowed to continue his Satanic cleansing in Kosovo, we will see the continued Balkanization of politics in other parts of the world.

The alternative is peace in the Balkans now. It is a monumental task, regretta bly, one that cannot be achieved without the use of force.

This article was published in TÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÔ he Toronto Star on 11 April 1999


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