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Who Cares?

begun in folly, continued in crime, and ended in misery
—Erasmus

It’s hard to find anything good to say about Serbs these days. Burning villages, killing women and children, chasing hundreds of thousands of blameless people out of their homes hardens the heart of anyone watching. To set neighbor against neighbor is not only evil; it’s also stupid. Poor Serbs, their leader is a Balkan Jim Jones and they have behaved like members of a religious cult preparing themselves for mass suicide by sipping a foul-smelling brew of nationalist bluster and self-pity. Like any such spectacle of self-debasement, it is painful to watch. So many perfectly normal and good people are to be found among them. Do they also deserve to be demonized and punished for being trapped with lunatics? Many in the West, who ought to know better, think they ought to be.

Predicting Milosevic’s actions has always been child’s play. One merely had to stop to consider what would be humane and advantageous to the Serbs and then imagine its opposite. “What vile thing is he planning to do to the Albanians?” I wondered with a couple of Serbian friends as the NATO bombs were starting to fall. As someone who spent time in Yugoslavia during World War II in a small village disputed by four warring factions, I knew what our people were capable of. We suspected it was going to be something monstrous and we were speechless at the prospect: the horror awaiting the innocent in the cauldron of hatreds and the shame we felt as Serbs. It took a moment’s reflection to realize there would be a bloodbath.

As obvious as this seemed to us, there are Serbs who still won’t admit that there is a connection between the actions of their president and the mess they are in. The universal truism that you reap what you sow has become incomprehensible to them. In their own minds, the Serbs are innocent because their poverty and suffering are real and there’s always someone else to blame for it. In a state where the ruling elite has been engaged in mass murder and ethnic cleansing in the name of all Serbs, prominent academicians, intellectuals, and political analysts continue to occupy themselves with unraveling the Machiavellian intricacies of the New World Order. They see the most ambitious nationalist projects of their neighbors realized with the blessing of the “international community” and they have difficulty understanding why they were not allowed to do the same.

Thanks to this kind of reasoning, Milosevic’s dream has come true: Serbia is now a nation of ten million war criminals. He only has to read the American press to have his proof. Haven’t more than a few intellectuals, historians, and newspaper columnists told their readers that there’s a clear collective complicity of ordinary Serbs in his crimes? That’s what he himself always believed about Albanians and Bosnians as he set their towns on fire. His quarrel with the world—so he must think—is not philosophical, but is merely a quibble about which ethnic group is culpable.

Future historians may be astonished at the resurgence in our time of the idea of collective guilt as a respectable argument. The fate of 600,000 Ser-bian refugees from Croatia and Bosnia and some 180,000 from Kosovo who are now in Serbia and Montenegro is a good example. After hundreds of columns and Op-Ed pieces expressing horror and outrage about the plight of Albanian refugees, there’s hardly a peep about this new wave of unfortunates. The few who have addressed the issue have said—as they’ve said earlier about the expulsion of Serbs from Croatia and western Bosnia—it’s regrettable, but, let’s face it, vengeance was to be expected. Of course, they are lucky not to be able to read the nationalist press in Yugoslavia. The same selective morality is the height of fashion there.

This similarity of perspectives drives anti-Milosevic Serbs to despair. It is shocking to them to realize that liberal Western intellectuals and journalists, whose integrity they once idealized, do not believe that victims everywhere ought to be pitied, that they pick and choose who deserves compassion and who does not, as if they were epicures of suffering. Some of the same people who rightly condemned the shelling of Vukovar and Sarajevo had no complaints about NATO’s “bombing for peace,” which, from the information available, killed more civilians than soldiers, hit more hospitals and schools than tanks, freely dropped cluster bombs on populated areas, and created an ecological disaster, all acts explicitly condemned by the Geneva Convention as war crimes. They accepted the premise that killing the innocent to save the innocent is perfectly acceptable when it serves a higher purpose and they slept the sleep of the just.

In the meantime, the expelled Albanians are back in their burned homes in Kosovo returning the favor by torching Serbian and Gypsy homes, looting, kidnapping, and doing plenty of bloodletting of their own. It turns out that they, too, believe in collective guilt and punishment. The columnist William Pfaff explains it all in the International Herald Tribune: “As Bismarck observed, nations are created in blood and iron. Such is the case of Kosovo.” He advises the “international community” to “defend the security of Kosovo’s Serbs, but without illusions as to their eventual departure.” He is not alone in the West in holding this view. So far, in fact, these daily murders and bombings have gone virtually unpunished. It took the Albanian editor Veton Surroi,* and not the leading American columnists, to remind us that there is no excuse for what is being done, that after Albanians strangle the last Serbian grandmother, they are liable to start killing one another.

The latest refugees from Kosovo camp by the side of the road in abandoned factories, barracks, and school buildings in Serbian border towns and wait for a handout. The Yugoslav government allocates one deutschmark per day to the many thousands expelled from Croatia and Bosnia; so the refugees from Kosovo can hardly expect much for themselves. If they travel to Belgrade to plead their case, the cops beat them up and turn them away, since Milosevic doesn’t want a public reminder of his disastrous policy. If they seek medical help or attempt to enroll children in local schools, they are harassed by the authorities, since, of course, they do not exist. In a country where hundreds of thousands of workers are out of jobs after NATO’s destruction of its economic infrastructure, where pensions and salaries, already miserable, are customarily a few months late, practically everyone sees the situation as hopeless; and that of the refugees is the most hopeless of all.

If they are nearly invisible now, they are bound to become even more so in the months and years to come. The official US policy is to maintain the sanctions on Serbia, to give no economic aid, to make the refugees suffer along with the rest of the Serbs until they get rid of Milosevic. United Nations relief agencies and the Red Cross do what they can, but the chances of Vanessa Redgrave or Elie Wiesel dropping by for a visit are slim. Even the bombs that fell on them and killed more than a few did not upset Western commentators very much. I cannot imagine a more awful predicament, but then I remember plenty of other people in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East who also have no future. What makes the plight of these Serbs different, perhaps, is that it occurred just at the time when everyone talks about human rights. The wars against Milosevic were ethical and humanitarian campaigns intended to rescue the innocent. How is it that these thousands of refugees are not an issue for the high-minded among us who pretend to be our moral conscience?

  1. *

    See his “Victims of the Victims,” The New York Review, October 7, 1999, p. 21.

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