The horrific wars that tore Yugoslavia apart offer a window into the dark side of human nature. At a time when ethnic and religious violence has become widespread across the globe, revisiting these wars could prove useful. Just as the UN tribunals for war crimes committed during these Balkan wars wind down Tim Judah, a seasoned war correspondent who frequently reported on these wars, has chosen to reassess their legacy.
Last month (March 24) Radovan Karadzic, one of the Bosnian Serb leaders, was sentenced to forty years in prison for various war crimes and genocide. The UN tribunal has yet to declare a verdict in the case of Ratko Mladic, the leader of the Bosnian Serb army who led the killing of 7,000 men in Srebrenica. The biggest fish, Slobodan Milosevic, the former president of the Republic of Serbia who did much to stir up nationalist sentiments and hatred, died while his trial was still underway in March 2006.
Assessing the situation today Judah notes that “so much more could be done by Balkan leaders to address the legacies of these brutal conflicts, which have not yet really become history. Sometimes it looks like they are not capable of or interested in doing so and verdicts like the Karadžić one gave Serbian and Bosniak leaders an opportunity to beat nationalist drums again and remind their voters that they had better vote for them or the enemy would one day be back.” This is exactly the dilemma that perpetuates the violence in never-ending cycles of revenge. And it is not just demagogues who are to blame for this situation. They are only rewarded with power because ordinary people give it to them, because they are enamored with their nationalist rhetoric. They are made to feel special through national myths of past greatness and current innocence. They are not responsible for their present woes, it is “the other” who is responsible. It’s a powerful message. Many are unable, or unwilling, to resist the siren song of nationalism.
Source: Balkan Poison, Revisited by Tim Judah | NYR Daily | The New York Review of Books
June 28 is Vidovdan (Saint Vitus’ Day), a sacred day for all Serbs. It marks the anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo (1389), when the Serbs were defeated by the Ottoman Turks. This is also the anniversary of the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which kicked off WWI. That these two events share the same anniversary is not accident. The young Gavilro Princip, who shot the Archduke of Austria and his wife Sophie, was a Bosnian Serb and a member of the Serbian nationalist terrorist organization Ujedinjenje ili Smrt (Union or Death also known as the Black Hand). The Austro-Hungarian Empire had recently acquired the Bosnian territories, previously part of the Ottoman Empire, to administer per the Congress of Berlin (1878). But this was an inopportune time to acquire these territories. Nationalism was on the rise and the peoples of these regions desired independence. They didn’t fight to throw off the yoke of the Turks to then gain a new master. The Serbs in the newly independent Serbia were not content with their independence they also wanted their Serbian brothers in Bosnia to have the same freedom that they had. Here’s where the connection between the Battle of Kosovo and the Archduke’s assassination comes in. Ferdinand, knowing full well that June 28 was a sacred day for Serbs, decided to visit Sarajevo on that day anyway. He was already hated as a figure of the Austro-Hungarian Empire but this decision sealed his fate as a target.
It may seem strange that the Battle of Kosovo plays such an important role in Serbian history. But the defeat that marked the beginning of 500 years of oppression (at least in myth) created and cultivated the distinctive Serbian character. As Thomas Emmert explains “the Kosovo ethic…expressed a basic attitude toward life itself: democratic, anti-feudal, with love for justice and social equality.” The myth that grew in the aftermath of the battle, skillfully turned a defeat into a victory. In the most popular version of the myth Czar Lazar, the Serbian prince, choose defeat because he would be rewarded with a heavenly kingdom if he did so, thus making the Serbs a “heavenly” people rather than an “earthly” people.
Slobodan Milosevic in Kosovo
It had been a long time since I had thought about Srebrenica or the war in Bosnia, so when I saw Scott Anderson’s article in The New York Times Magazine (“Life in the Valley of Death”) this past weekend I was hoping for an optimistic update. I should have known better. It is difficult to heal from such traumatic events. The war in Bosnia had been raging since 1992 and the Bosniak refugees in the so-called UN protected “safe area” of Srebrenica were war weary, homeless, and hungry long before Ratko Mladic and his Bosnian Serb army showed up in July 1995. The massacre of 8,000 men at Srebrenica that followed was the beginning of the end of the Serbian campaign of ethnic cleansing. The elimination of the Muslim island in the Serbian sea opened the way for the peace talks at Dayton, Ohio that November. Continue reading