Community Lost

GORDANA RABRENOVIC

November 16, 1992|By GORDANA RABRENOVIC

Boston. -- For two years I've been torn apart by what is happening in Yugloslavia. Eight years ago, when my husband and I left and came to the United States we had a country. Today we do not.

What is being destroyed in the former Yugoslavia are not just cities and villages, but also the concept of an integrated and ethnically diverse society. In their desire to create homogeneous regions, nationalist groups are driving out, killing or imprisoning everyone who is not a ''legitimate'' member of their group. The underlying logic of such actions is that it is impossible to live safely in heterogeneous communities.

For 27 years I had a very different experience. I lived in a large cosmopolitan city -- Belgrade. My friends were of different ethnic origins, and so were my family members. My father was Montenegrin, his two best friends and godparents to his children were Croats. One of his sisters married a Croat, another a Macedonian. His brother's wife was from Bosnia. One of his nieces married a Slovene, another a Hungarian.

We had fights in our family, but they had nothing to do with our ethnic origins. There were fights between men and women over their roles in the family, and between parents and children over children's rights and responsibilities.

When my cousins and I are asked about our own ethnic identity, we identify ourselves as Yugoslavs. We do not want to choose between our mothers' and our fathers' ethnic groups. We are the losers in this war, just like the Croatian woman who, urged to move to Croatia, responded: ''But, why should I go? I do not know anybody there.''

The existence of diversity within Yugoslavia made it possible for writers, painters and free-spirited thinkers to break norms in their own communities and still be able to work in another. I remember in the early 1980s a number of intellectuals moved to Belgrade or Zagreb to escape the totalitarian regime of the Bosnian and Herzegovinian government. But in the late 1980s the most democratic views and the only alternative to nationalist policy came from Sarajevo through an independent television station with a Yugoslav orientation.

Nationalism is popular because it promises order and stability through conformity to uniform sets of rules. Now when old ideologies of class-based socialism are dead, the new nation- or ethnic-based socialism is emerging. The ethnic leaders promise prosperity, democracy and full employment, but only for their own members. Nationalism is a new political resource. And the way to gain power is to capitalize on peoples' emotions and question their loyalty to their forefathers.

Diversity was part of a set of beliefs known as the Enlightenment-based modernity. I grew up believing in the power of science and education to bring progress and economic development. Society was supposed to be based on the ability and achievement of individuals that created opportunity for everyone.

In reality, Yugoslavia was divided between developed and underdeveloped regions, between modern cities and traditional towns and villages. Not everybody shared equally in the fruits of modernity. When the Yugoslav economic development slowed down, living costs increased, and unemployment became chronic. Nationalist ideologies flourished. They divided people into groups of ''us'' and ''them.'' ''We'' became the suppressed, exploited, victims. ''They'' became the exploiters who snatched our jobs and stole our opportunities.

It is not surprising that the fiercest fighting and ''ethnic cleansing'' is taking place in the most diverse, but also most unevenly developed part of Yugoslavia: Bosnia and Herzgovina. The destruction of Sarajevo symbolizes the failure of modernity, the failure to sustain an ethnically diverse community and to expand economic development to the less fortunate. The longer the fighting goes on, the less realistic it is that after the war a common life can be recreated.

When the war finally stops, the survivors will have to face the consequences of the imposed ethnically homogeneous society. Unity, identity and stability based on ethnic background will result in a lack of tolerance for individual freedom or individual development. What kind of social and political order will develop? Who will then be the enemy?

What will happen to my family in former Yugoslavia? It will be much harder for us to maintain our relationships across barricaded communities. More than that, I see my niece and nephews with few options and a terrifying future which at best simply limits their education and opportunities; at worst, it makes them likely victims of continued fighting, killing and maiming. For this war to stop, the people of former Yugoslavia must face the economic and political consequences. They must know that their enemy is not a member of another ethnic group but their leaders, who are robbing them of their future.

Gordana Rabrenovic is assistant professor of sociology at Northeastern University.

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