Where the 14th Century Vies with the 20th

WILLIAM PFAFF

September 29, 1992|By WILLIAM PFAFF

Zagreb, Croatia. -- In Sarajevo I spoke with a young woman who works (and lives) in the local offices of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and casually asked if she were ''Catholic, Orthodox, Muslim -- or none of the above.'' She said, ''I am so glad you asked like that. No one else does.'' (The question usually is: Are you Croat, Serb or Muslim?)

She said, ''My mother was Muslim. I feel Bosnian.'' Someone else asked if she would leave Sarajevo if she could. She replied, ''If I wanted to leave I would be gone now.'' I asked what future she saw for herself in today's Bosnia-Herzegovina. Her answer was a shrug.

If there are any good guys, as opposed to the bad guys, in today's ex-Yugoslavia, they are the people like her, who represent a modern, pluralist and tolerant society, as in the West.

Such a society did exist in Yugoslavia until now, coexisting with the 14th century. Visitors to prewar Sarajevo saw a relaxed community proud of the way in which people had cooperated in the much-praised arrangements for the 1984 Winter Olympics. Forty years of Communist-dominated education had produced a largely secularized Muslim younger generation. The old Turkish quarter harbored wine bars, jazz clubs and discos. There was a notable and surprising chic among the young -- last year's Parisian styles, but stylish nonetheless.

This kind of 20th-century European society existed in Croatia and Serbia as well as Bosnia-Herzegovina. Its members in Serbia are those who are still struggling against Slobodan Milosevic and the alliance of ex-Communists and extreme nationalists which he leads, and which has dominated Serbian policy making -- and television and nearly all of the press -- since the collapse of communism.

The war here thus is between centuries as well as religions, and the people who belong to the 20th century have lost. They are victims of the ignorant emotions and tribal passions of 600 years ago, deliberately and culpably reignited not only by politicians like Franjo Tudjman of Croatia and Slobodan Milosevic, but by those nationalist intellectuals who have promoted schemes of Serbian national expansion since early in this century. What President Milosevic of Serbia is doing carries out a program most recently promulgated, in the 1980s, by the Academy of Sciences of Serbia.

In Zagreb, Croatian television dwells on images of laughing soldiers, thumbs-up to the camera, advancing in skirmish line toward The Aggressor. Then it cuts to interviews with commanders and staff officers, where in every case crucifixes are aggressively displayed in the foreground.

The message transmitted is that Croatia's Christian warriors are battling the near-pagan Byzantine Serbs. The message is also that once Croatia gets the U.N. Protection Force out of the way -- Mr. Tudjman has just announced that he wants them out by March of next year -- Croatia will drive the Serbs out of the Croatian regions now in Serbian hands.

The Serbian-controlled press agency, Tanjug, reports that an Islamic international conference has just been held in Zagreb under the auspices of Zagreb's Islamic Center, and that it called for a holy war against Bosnia's invaders.

No doubt this is so. A television crew here says a number of Gulf Arabs were on their flight into the city last week. Why shouldn't foreign Muslims join the fight? There are reports, as yet unverified, that some have. Serbian spokesmen make much of this, as evidence that Serbia is the victim of a jihad rather than an aggressor.

A French officer in Sarajevo said to me, ''They are all mad. We are on another planet here.'' But that should be corrected to say that those in charge are nearly all mad and have drawn the rest into their apocalyptic fantasies. Their insistence upon identifying the war as a war of religion has naturally tended toward self-fulfillment.

Today, driving across the countryside, who holds a town is easily determined by seeing which church is intact and which deliberately destroyed, or by the destroyed mosques. Cheerful towns in Serbian-held Bosnia with bright washing drying on lines, children playing, have here and there the blackened, burned-out house. Guess who once lived there?

The leader of the self-proclaimed Serbian independent republic inside Bosnia-Herzegovina, Radovan Karadzic, has just said in New York that if the international community ''continues'' to deliver arms to the Bosnians, ''there will be international war, a true war of religions. We will bring volunteers from the Christian world. Two thousand Cossacks, Romanians, Ukrainians, the Protestants of Germany'' only await his word to fight alongside the Serbs of Bosnia.

It is the 14th century war with the Turks he has in mind, or the Thirty Years war, and of course what has happened during the last year has made inevitable a conflict lasting for at least 30 years more in what used to be Yugoslavia, whether formal military action continues or not. What reconciliation is imaginable now, after these butcheries? That girl from 20th-century Sarajevo, who wants merely to be Bosnian, will have to leave. That, or die in the 14th century.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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