The recent news that Slobodan Milosevic died while in custody in The Hague for war crimes has returned Serbia – and the Balkans – to our front pages, displacing Iraq, Afghanistan and avian flu for a few moments. To some, the death of Milosevic seems an unfortunate reminder of the unfinished business lingering from the wars that wrought the former Yugoslavia throughout the 1990’s, as though it had all been solved years ago. Or, at least, superceded by 9/11 and the “war on terrorism”.
I have an intimate and exhaustive relationship with the countries that once made up Yugoslavia: my father was born on the Adriatic coast to a mixed Serb-Croat family before immigrating to Canada and I have traveled throughout the region since a young child. Cities, towns and villages that are but bylines to most are familiar to me: Belgrade, Zagreb, Sarajevo, Mostar, Pristina, Srebrenica – these and many more are anything but remote to yours truly.
But I’ve always had a difficult relationship with my father’s homeland or, rather, a difficult one since Tito died in 1980. Before that, things were pretty simple. I was half-Yugoslav, a partial product of a multicultural, multi-ethnic nation that was the envy of the Eastern Bloc. My relatives traveled the world with all the confidence of someone like myself, a Canadian.
And then it all unraveled.
To be a liberal-minded individual with ties to that part of the Balkans was a test in the last decade of the last millennium. You were tainted by association, a member of a group of people who were carrying out “ancient, tribal, ethnic hatred” to one another. And that, to me, was the singular fault of the rest of the world when it came to the Balkans.
Yugoslavia did not fall apart because of long repressed, simmering animosities. It fell prey to politics, pure and simple. The people who have lived in what we once called the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia were not always intent on killing one another nor did they merely await a trigger to ignite a conflagration. But politics are more difficult to explain to outsiders; actually, they’re pretty complex to explain to insiders.
A few years back – okay, over a decade ago – I was at a social function populated by what are termed “policy wonks”, civil servants and academics with an abiding interest in international relations. Seated across from me was a well-known Canadian apparatchik, a bored older man with a desire to pick a fight to enliven his evening. For some reason I rose to his challenge and we became engrossed in a discussion about the Balkans.
His take was that “Yugoslavia” was an articulated, compromised entity doomed to failure owing to the ethnic enmity that had resided there for centuries, a common perception at the time. My view was that the region was under the undue influence of politicians keen to gain power and willing to do whatever it took to achieve their goals.
“These people have been at their throats for years, far before we even considered them,” I remember him telling me. “They are not like us. And never will be.” He stared at me hard with that last quip, as he tried to communicate the difference between Canada and Yugoslavia, us good, they bad.
Taken aback, I thought about what ethnic hatred can engender, the means one can ethnically cleanse or kill.
And I asked this man a simple question: “What place am I describing in which two communities are separated by a river? Two ethnic groups that have lived together for hundreds of years but harbour differences? Differences that come to a boil over an issue nearby, resulting in one group stoning the others. Stoning women and children.”
He was stumped for an answer and mumbled “Mostar? Sarajevo?”
No. The answer is Montréal. Canada. During the 1990 Oka Crisis in my homeland. The country that successfully eradicated the Beothuk people of Newfoundland in the 19th century, the world’s first example of ethnic cleansing.
Anyone can be manipulated. We aren’t as different as we think we are.