Fast and deep, flash flood of hate drowns naive hopes for Balkans

June 27, 1993|By Dusko Doder | Dusko Doder,Contributing Writer

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- The vast plain of northern Yugoslavia looked like a chessboard that day two years ago, with its patchwork of light and deep-brown fields. The sky was pale blue, and the wheat was bleached white under the sun.

But it was a disarmingly peaceful scene, for there wasn't another vehicle on the straight, firm arrow of highway that stretched over the horizon. It was like Interstate 95 without any traffic.

The emptiness of the place foreshadowed the collapse of Yugoslavia. For this was the principal route linking its main component parts, the lifeline for their joint existence.

Somehow it had been just been severed by invisible hands. We had the road all to ourselves, rushing toward Slovenia, which had declared independence two days earlier.

That event on June 25, 1991, aroused anxiety, but few expected it would be the catalyst for the longest siege of barbarity in Europe since World War II. The experience has lacerated all of us who watch and live in Yugoslavia, and it has raised the question whether the nightmare could have been prevented.

* I had thought myself a seasoned observer of Yugoslavia when I served for three years as a correspondent in Eastern Europe in the 1970s. My book about Yugoslavia began with the sentence describing it as "a country in which anything could happen, and generally does." Even then nationalism was Yugoslavia's weakness.

But the country had become more advanced and more sophisticated. New generations had grown up in an age of foreign travel and national enlightenment. Common wisdom held that if democracy were introduced, then ethnic feuds would subside.

When I arrived back in Yugoslavia in 1990, this seemed to be so.

The shops in the capital, Belgrade, were flourishing. Thousands of "Duty Free" outlets (they were not duty-free, but the Western name had caught on) were selling goods from computers to Christian Dior perfume. Prime Minister Ante Markovic was following International Monetary Fund prescriptions for success.

Nationalist passions were alive, too, of course -- in newspapers and on the TV. But it did not seem possible these could produce real strife, not at the end of the 20th century.

Some Yugoslavian friends did give warnings. But how, we protested, could people who vacationed in Italy and watched MTV be anything like the nationalist fanatics of the past? No, it was not possible.

Yet there were early warnings: Croatian policemen ambushed and massacred by Serbs, an ethnic killing here and there. But we disregarded them. It seemed no worse than violence in New York City.

Looking back, it is appalling to think of our smugness and that of the international community. We were lulled by the peculiar safety of the Cold War into believing that the world had changed. The signs of a new violent era were all around us. We just were not interpreting them.

We did not fully comprehend when Croatian or Muslim friends told us about being dismissed from jobs or being taunted in apartment buildings. We overlooked the Bosnian Serb housekeeper's venomous talk about Croats. U.S. officials traveled here and were adamant that Yugoslavia would remain whole. The precious Helsinki Accords dictated it.

*

But MTV wasn't all that people were watching. The nationalist poison that crept into people's minds would not have been possible without state-controlled television. First in Croatia and Serbia, then in Bosnia, television became the tool of politicians who understood that the way to remain in power was to whip up

nationalism.

Travel a mile outside Belgrade, and you will typically find a village where people work in the fields all day, come home weary and switch on televisions. Most people live in similar communities of less than 5,000. Brainwashing is an easy tool, particularly in a formerly Communist society where people were discouraged from independent thinking.

Shortly after the fighting began in Croatia, where 10,000 eventually died, we traveled to visit a farmer couple two hours north of Belgrade. The old man and woman repeated what they had heard on Belgrade television: that Croatian fighters had murdered Serbian schoolchildren.

The old couple were horrified. It did little good to tell them it was a false story. They believed it, and that is what mattered.

Even our mailman believed that story. "I am not a fighting man, and I do not have children myself. But when I saw what those [Croatian] Ustashe had done, I was ready to go out and fight myself," he said.

Technological advances had been used not to bring democracy and enlightenment but for more sinister purposes, to sow fear and distrust. The feverish emotions required to engage people in the wars in Croatia and Bosnia would not have been possible without that manipulation.

*

This has been a sort of delayed-reaction war.

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