Why the Balkans Are So Violent

Love Thy Neighbor: A Story of War

by Peter Maass
Knopf, 305 pp., $25.00

Nearly five years ago, I was taken to see the Svarc Hospital in Karlovac, a key military garrison town which defended the southern edge of the Habsburg Empire against the Ottomans until the end of the First World War. In July 1991, Karlovac was again a front-line town, this time just inside Croatian-held territory. The hospital was perilously close to the now-defunct Republic of Serbian Krajina, the Serbian enclave inside Croatia. Indeed, it was the first large building in the line of Serbian fire.

Seeing a civilian hospital severely damaged by heavy artillery was shocking enough; but I was there to investigate the claims of Croatian civilians, mainly peasants from the two adjoining regions of Kordun and Banija, that they and their compatriots had been the victims of atrocities by Serb paramilitary fighters during a recent offensive.

The International Committee of the Red Cross had finally succeeded in picking up the bodies of many dead Croats left lying in the streets under a scorching summer sun for an entire week. The mortuary at Svarc had just received three of them in a refrigerated truck when I arrived. I climbed the steps at the back of the truck and gazed upon three disemboweled bodies, one female and two male apparently, all in an advanced state of putrefaction.

At the age of thirty-three, I finally smelled the stench of a European atrocity, a part of our history which had fascinated me since my teens. This fascination was in no sense morbid. I was brought up trying to understand how, a mere two decades before I was born, the German and Soviet states could indulge in uninhibited violence against so many millions of people. While nothing before or since may compare with the extent of their crimes, they were not a mere historical aberration but part of a tradition. Modern Europe has a shamefully forgotten history of atrocities and massacres which, to judge by the wars of Yugoslav succession, has yet to be comprehended or exorcised.

The Balkan peninsula has long been known for its exceptionally violent culture. Yet every time a brutal war breaks out in the region, European and American observers—journalists, diplomats, and humanitarian workers—can hardly believe what they see. Early in Love Thy Neighbor: A Story of War, Peter Maass, a Washington Post writer, describes his first encounter with a victim of “ethnic cleansing,” a Muslim woman who had walked for a month and a half from her home in the Bosnian town of Foca to Split on Croatia’s Dalmatian coast:

I wrote it down in my notebook but I didn’t believe it. How could she have been on the run with two children for forty-five days? During World War II people wandered for that long, even longer, but Bosnia’s war was a small-time affair, a few people killed, a few thousand refugees, it would be over in a couple of months, when the politicians would come to their senses again. She wasn’t marching …

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