Bosnia in Our Future

One day, soon, I want to hijack Helmut Kohl, Jacques Chirac, Jacques Santer, and all the other leaders of the European Union, on the way to their latest summit, and I want to fly them to a neighborhood of Sarajevo called Ciglane. There I will drive them, past the graveyards, to the Café Herc, or perhaps, because it has more room, to the Café London. Just for an hour—since I know how busy their schedules are—I will have them listen to a small group of articulate, English-speaking Sarajevans. Have them listen, not, as they might expect, to yet one more plangent appeal for help, but to the sheer bottomless contempt and bitterness of people who don’t expect anything from them anymore. Nothing except empty words.

After three and a half years, this acid bitterness, so deep and tired that even the black humor of the earlier siege time hardly surfaces anymore, extends to almost everyone. To anything in a blue helmet, of course. To all the endless foreign visitors on their Sarajevo safaris—“How I hate foreigners,” someone said, when I first entered the Café Herc. But now the bitterness extends even to some of those journalists, intellectuals, and aid workers who came early and really tried to help; even to their own Sarajevan friends who have left; even, worst of all, to themselves, for being forced into this humiliating role of victim. Yet somewhere very near the bottom of the pile is this thing which still calls itself Europe.

Then, when I have got our European leaders safely back to their comfortable offices in Brussels or Paris or Barcelona, I should like to see if they can still go on smoothly delivering their soft, prefabricated speeches about our Europe of peace and progress and ever-closer union.

Most people brought up in Western Europe during the cold war have imbibed, consciously or half-wittingly, a Whig interpretation of European history. European history since 1945 has been told to them essentially as a story of progress toward more prosperity, more freedom, more democracy, more unity in something now teleologically called the European Union. What is more, in the 1970s and 1980s people in Eastern Europe increasingly came to believe this story. This is one of the reasons why, in 1989, they voted communism away and set out to “return to Europe.” Nineteen-eighty-nine was thus the greatest triumph of this idea—but also, it now seems, its apogee.

For since then we have, in the south-eastern part of Europe, gone almost all the way back. Amid the ruins of a Croat village in the Krajina, an old farmer takes us to look at a pile of rubble and twisted metal. It reminds me for a moment, quite uncannily, of the remains of the Berlin Wall. But this is all that is left of an eighteenth-century Catholic church, razed to the ground by Serb forces on October 5, 1991; less than two years after the fall of the Wall. We then …

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Letters

The Foul Balkan Sky? March 21, 1996