Balkan Nightmares

A few years ago, the Spanish journalist and writer Arturo Pérez-Reverte wrote a brief article on why he will not talk about the Balkans. I had become a fan of Pérez-Reverte from reading his remarkable novel of the Balkan war, El pintor de batallas (The Painter of Battles). Pérez-Reverte spent 20 years of his life as a war correspondent, reporting on the conflicts in Cyprus, Lebanon, Eritrea, the Sahara, the Falkland Islands, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Chad, Libya, Sudan, Mozambique, Angola, the Persian Gulf, and the Balkans. As you will see, this is hardly someone for whom war is just an abstract reality.

At the time of the Bosnian War (1992-95), I took what you might call an academic interest in it, especially since I was then a researcher studying East European culture and problems of national identity. It was an important case in the evolution of my thinking about national identity, and even became something of a personal obsession. I am a confirmed liberal and have always been nervous about the great categories of good and evil, heroism and cowardice, categories that are routinely abused for various ends. What I heard and read of the Bosnian conflict was a challenge to my moral and historical understanding.

To encounter Pérez-Reverte’s article, years later, was a shock and a personal reconnection to history. It was published in Spanish, but I will do my best to translate a few excerpts.

It has gotten to the point where just hearing a Slavic language nearby, even distantly reminding me of Serbian, makes me tense up, clouds my eyes and my memory. I fall into a fury. I drag up sinister memories: checkpoints in the rain, cruel brutality, common graves, throats cut in cornfields, rabble with Kalashnikovs, psychopaths with impunity.

[...] the ever-present wish not to mourn, but to harm and kill, to avenge [...] those hunted down and murdered in snow-covered forests, the women raped like animals in whorehouses by drunken soldiers. That farce of the Hague, with its eyedropper judgments, so equidistant, calculated, well-documented, doesn’t do shit for me. I’m sorry. I shit on this justice, on all justice that comes late, as is the rule, and merely scrapes the surface. [...]

[...] the abject cowardice of the Dutch [U.N. Peacekeepers] before the Serbian butchers, the three thousand prisoners murdered in Srebrenica after the city’s fall, the clumsy indecision of the United Nations, the baseless, cowardly smile of the alleged negotiator [...] while those of us who were there, filming blood and shit, told each day’s tale of the dead, with images that this useless underling countered with his empty declarations, affirming with a moron’s solemn gravity that, despite appearances, the Serbs were proving reasonable and receptive and that the matter was in good hands. So day after day, year after year, while the bombs continued to fall, the killing and raping went on before the eyes of a pathetic Europe that did nothing until—someone with the balls to stop it—Clinton’s United States decided at last to bring a fist down on the table.

Am I crazy to hear this as a prophetic voice? To me, it resembles the great tirades of the Nevi’im, the Prophets of the Hebrew Bible, not only for its hysterical tone, but also and especially for its persistent appeal to justice, real justice, defense of the weak and vulnerable, the appeal for retribution, for meaningful punishment of wrongdoers.

The spirit of the Prophets is very far from the pettifogging legalism associated here with the U.N. and international justice (the Hague). It is far from the self-serving, fastidious morality of liberalism. It has no patience with forms, propriety, or reasonability; it concerns itself only with truth and with deeds.

In July of 1995, over 8,000 Bosnian Muslims in the U.N. “safe area” at Srebrenica were systematically killed by Serbian troops under Ratko Mladić. This episode has been called the largest mass murder in Europe since World War II. Shortly afterward, in August and September of that year, the NATO air campaign against the Army of the Serbian Republic brought a halt to “ethnic cleansing” and forced a negotiated end of the war.

At that time, I was still a university teacher in Russian language and literature. I vividly recall the enormous headlines in a popular Russian-language newspaper: “Serbs Under Attack!” [Serbov b'iut]. Many of my Russian-speaking acquaintances felt passionate solidarity with the Serbs; with some I witnessed violent rage against the Bosnians and their defenders.

Among my university friends, by contrast, the intervention was rejected, but without passion, on the principle that no military action by the U.S. or by NATO should be condoned; no doubt, the thinking went, these atrocities had been exaggerated in the press, they were taking place on both sides, and our involvement would only make things worse. At one dinner party I recall, a genteel young Serbian couple sneered at the accounts of mass brutality, and were generally approved. They claimed never to have seen nationalist sentiment or animosity toward Muslims in their native Yugoslavia.

Blind hatred on the one hand, bland complacency on the other. How often have you felt that this is the moral and political landscape of our world? How often have you wished for the loud, heedless words of the prophet: justice, justice above all things?

Categories: World

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