bosnia report
New Series No: 19/20 October - December 2000
The atrocities of a nation cannot be blamed on one man alone
by Alec Russell

The atrocities of a nation cannot be blamed on one man alone.

Alec Russell

It all boils down to what will happen to Col. Slavo ‘Gub’. A black-bearded bear of a man with a full-blooded voice and a fine head for slivovitz, some seven years ago he was to be found on the ridges overlooking the Bosnian town of Gorazde. He had a simple task and it gave him much pleasure - as he happily admitted. He ran the paramilitaries who were besieging the town in the valley below. Some days they would deluge the place with mortar bombs and artillery shells, on others they left it alone. It all depended on the sun and the slivo - and the state of mind of Gub. He was once asked: ‘What of the [mainly Muslim] inhabitants?’ Gub gave an avuncular smile: ‘You in the West understand, we are fighting against an Islamic jihad. What are we to do?’

Gub is just one of thousands of war criminals who have flourished in Yugoslavia during the past decade. Not all are Serbs. Croats under Miloševic's mirror image, Franjo Tudjman, Bosnian Muslims and Kosovo Albanians have all done their share of atrocities, but the lion's share of the slaughter has been done in the name of Serbdom. It was Serbs who bombarded Vukovar until even the trees had been whittled to shreds. It was Serbs who killed 6,000 Muslims at Srebrenica. It should not be forgotten that back home these atrocities went down very well.

To be fair, the Serbs were force-fed some foul government propaganda on state television and radio. But liberal Serbs fear that it is too glib to excuse their nationalist compatriots with talk of their being bullied or hoodwinked into toeing the line. The truth is that the ‘Butcher of the Balkans’ had many willing supporters. They voted him into office in the Nineties, and - while the elections were flawed - the results were not complete travesties. It was not revulsion at his war-mongering that led to this week's uprising. If anything it was the reverse - the point is that he lost the wars. Now, with the ‘evil mastermind’ on the ropes, the Serbs can pin the blame on him and duck responsibility, just as in South Africa where it is now almost impossible to find a white South African who supported apartheid.

‘Now people are trying to say just he [Miloševic] is guilty,’ said Gordana Igric, Balkans editor of the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting. ‘But most people supported nationalism in 1991 [year of the sieges of Dubrovnik and Vukovar] and they were happy just a year ago when the Albanians were expelled from Kosovo. ‘If he hadn't lost the wars, he would be a hero and still in power.’

So now Serbia faces a critical test: can it face up to the truth? It is a dilemma that has plagued eastern Europe for a decade. Only East Germany was brave enough to open up its secret police files to the public. Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania, and even Hungary, the ‘darling of the West’, are all still regularly beset by scandals over past skeletons. In Serbia, however, the test is particularly acute. Two of the vital ingredients in the Yugoslav nightmare that unfolded in the Nineties were the ‘unfinished business’ of the Second World War, when the Balkans were soaked in blood, and the Serbs' ancient victim complex. In Tito's Yugoslavia, the mass graves of the war dead were left undisturbed in an attempt to defuse the hatreds. Victims were buried under the neutral epitaph ‘to the martyrs who fell against fascism’. It was by reviving these memories that Miloševic and his like led Yugoslavia to war.

Now the danger is that unless Serbs are forced to face up to the horrors that have been done in their name new myths will be born, and the historic victim complex will once again bubble away, awaiting the next opportunity to explode. ‘Serbs will have to confront the past, like in Germany,’ said Ms Igric. ‘Serbia is full of xenophobia. Serbs need to try Miloševic and to face the facts. Srebrenica is just 120 miles away. As Yugoslavia opens up, people will be able to go there and see what was done.’ It is an optimistic vision, yet somehow the chances of Belgrade man, still less the likes of Col. Gub, being forced to face up to the past seem slight. That is bad news for the entire region.

This article appeared in The Daily Telegraph (London), 7 October 2000


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