Slobo to expose Western cynicism
by Allan Little
In November 1991, I stood on the edge of Vukovar watching a ghostly procession of people, seemingly only half alive, who had that day emerged from many months of living underground as, daily, the homes over their heads were pulverised by Serb and Yugoslav army bombardment.
Among them a young woman, barely out of her teens. All she had managed to salvage of her possessions was a Serbo-Croat English dictionary. Vukovar had been an ethnically-mixed town on the beautiful Danube valley between Serbia and Croatia. ‘In your high-school class, how many of your friends were Serb and how many Croat?’, the young woman was asked by one of us. She seemed mystified by the question. ‘Really I have no idea. We did not ask, we did not care. We were all the same’, she said.
Milosevic’s great achievement was in persuading the world for nearly a decade that Yugoslavia was somehow irredeemably doomed to ethnic hatred and conflict. It was a lie from which the brave and tolerant and - in many cases - heroic people of Yugoslavia still need to be rescued.
In the early nineties I practically lived in former Yugoslavia. During my brief return visits to the UK, I was bewildered by the consensus that had taken hold among British - and Western European - people in general: that the Balkan tribes had been killing each other for centuries and there was nothing that could be done. It was nobody's fault. It was just - somehow - the nature of the region.
It was a lie that Western governments at that time liked. It got the Western world off the hook. When I and others argued that you could not blame all sides equally, the moral implications were that the world should - as it later did - take sides. We were denounced - derided even - by government ministers as lap-top bombardiers.
And when Milosevic takes the stand at The Hague, he will give chapter and verse on the deals he did with those who came to try to make peace: how much they knew, how much they tacitly agreed to by turning a blind eye here and there. After the massacre at Srebrenica in 1995, General Mladic - the chief perpetrator - said triumphantly: ‘Everything that happened here happened under the eyes of the world.’ We can expect that to be part of Milosevic’s defence too.
For the so-called peace process in the early nineties was - to Milosevic - nothing more than a way of fending off Western intervention against him. It was a tool to stave off military opposition, while he, with impunity, pursued military conquest. When the Americans under Bill Clinton started to argue for intervention, the Europeans opposed it on the grounds that it would derail the peace process.
And what was the peace process? Envoy after envoy coming to Yugoslavia to bang heads together - to persuade the so-called warring factions of the folly of war. It ignored the central dynamic of the conflict for years - that for Milosevic war was not folly at all. It was supremely rational. It was the only way he could stay in power. From 1991, it was clear that if you supported the arms embargo and opposed Western intervention you were - by inescapable logical extension - in favour of a Serb military victory.
In 1994, I landed in Sarajevo on a clear crisp sunlit winter's day. Half an hour later, a bomb landed in the crowded market place and seventy people lay dead. On the record, UN spokesmen would condemn no one until they could condemn everyone in equal measure. Moral equivalence, symmetrical guilt.
There followed one of the lowest episodes in the West's involvement in the war - a sustained and systematic whispering campaign to try to blame the victims. Off the record, UN spokesmen would take you aside and whisper in your ear that of course the Muslims had bombed themselves. Don’t forget - they’re all as bad as each other.
I left the Balkans a few months after that, when I found that I could no longer look Sarajevo in the eye, so tainted did I feel. I have many friends there - of all nationalities - and I could no longer live among them without a sense of debilitating shame. Many of us who covered that war felt this way.
It was in the end Madeleine Albright - much maligned on this side of the Atlantic - who could not stomach the lie any more, and she built a new consensus. Suddenly, it was OK to describe Milosevic as the driving force of the war. Suddenly it did not sound ‘unbalanced’ or ‘partisan’ to lay the blame squarely on the shoulders of one regime.
And so I hope that the indictment for what Milosevic did in Kosovo will be followed by an indictment for what he did in Croatia and Bosnia. Those people - the people Milosevic taught us to regard as the savage Balkan tribes who simply could not be persuaded from mutual slaughter; the girl with the Serbo-Croat-English dictionary - also need their day in court. And we owe it to them to examine our part in their tragedy.
Alan Little is an award-winning BBC correspondent who covered the Croatian and Bosnian wars. His analysis was aired on the BBC's Today Programme, 29 June 2001.