THE PAST AND PRESENT LIVE CONCURRENTLY IN THE BALKANS
Bitterness a Hardy Crop in War-Ravaged Former Yugoslavia
By Mark J. Porubcansky
26 June 1994.
VUKOVAR, Croatia — Crumbling walls of brick and mortar testify to the grim cycles of Balkan history. They stand as tombstones over ideals of brotherhood and unity, monuments to ingrained fear and self-deception.
War that began with the secession of Slovenia and Croatia on June 25, 1991, has devoured the lives, hopes and fortunes of millions of Yugoslavs.
At least 210,000 are dead or missing, including thousands here in Vukovar. “Ethnic cleansing” and rape as weapons of war have been added to the 20th century’s host of horrors.
This land is a tangle of victimization, self-pity and self-justification. Victimized by history, by ideology, by their leaders, people have victimized each other during the past three years in the hope of avoiding more victimization themselves.
The Balkans are the oft-trampled frontier between Byzantium and Rome, between the Islamic Ottomans and Christian Europe — the cradle of World War I and a battleground in World War II.
The people are given to a “sense of self-pity and narcissism,” said Aleksa Djilas, scholar son of Milovan Djilas, the Communist-turned-dissident. “This self-pity is partly rooted in reality, but it’s so exaggerated that it’s pathological.”
He described it as an “inability to look critically at one’s own history.”
If that is so, the consequences are numbing. Although Slovenia’s secession was swift and relatively bloodless, at least 10,000 people were killed in Croatia. War still rages in Bosnia where 200,000 are dead or missing.
Vukovar, once a city of 60,000, suffered the first extended Serb siege. Shelling reduced much of the Croat-ruled town to piles of brick and mortar. U.N. guards now keep watch over what is suspected to be the mass grave of Croats killed after Serbs overran Vukovar in late 1991.
What makes today’s Vukovar so typical — and terrifying — is the few thousand sad souls who remain, living on self-justification, monotony and nobody-asked-me-anyhow hopelessness. Their attitudes mirror feelings all over former Yugoslavia.
To Dafina Trumic, an elderly Serb who lost two homes and even shared a cellar with Croats during the shelling, Vukovar’s destruction was regrettable, but made perfect sense.
Parroting standard propaganda, she accused secessionist Croats of provoking trouble by attacking the Serb-dominated Yugoslav army, then the fifth-largest in Europe.
“The army had no choice but to defend itself,” she declared.
The view that Serbs have nothing to apologize for is rooted in five centuries of domination by Ottoman Turks, and the slaughter of tens of thousands by Croatian fascists in World War II. [Note: Serbs were not the only victims of World War II; they also committed horrendous crimes against humanity and genocide against Bosniak people].
Stevan Basara, a vendor in a barren open market, said the fighting in Vukovar was the result of radical Croats using symbols of the Croatian fascist state. Others say Serbs lost jobs as Croatian nationalists took authority.
The Serbian Myth
Behind these specific complaints stands a collective Serb national consciousness that has assumed the power of myth. When Serb politicians sounded the alarm of new repressions, Serbs acted to avoid being victimized again.
As for the Croatians, their view of history mirrors that of the Serbs.
A sense of historical mistreatment is at the root of today’s ideology: Croats suffered in Austria-Hungary, then in Serb-dominated Communist Yugoslavia. Endangered yet again, Croatia must assert itself to preserve itself.
Croatia’s Defense Ministry estimates 3,000 Croats died in Vukovar and that 2,600 are still missing. Many thousands more are refugees.
“Maybe they can return,” Basara said, “but in 200 years.”
The Serbs who “won” Vukovar are themselves victims: suffering and spiritless in surroundings that mock their quest for a Greater Serbia.
A sunny spring noontime found the baroque center of town nearly empty, except for a braying drunk wobbling on his motor bike.
Mrs. Trumic and her husband, a retired army officer, live in someone else’s apartment on monthly pensions equivalent to $6 each. A duck costs $4.60. Eggs are 15 cents apiece.
On this day, Mrs. Trumic was trying to sell some dry noodles, a cheap plastic telephone and a pair of fake Levis for extra cash.
In the nearby Vojvodjanska Bank, the only action was a video game on tellers’ computer screens. Dusty sports trophies from before the madness began shared shelf space with gleaming shell casings from afterward.
The virulent nationalism that fed the horror in Vukovar and elsewhere was pumped through state-run media by Serb and Croat political leaders — some sincere, some cynically manipulating public opinion.
On either side, the message was “an ideology of a nation that is in danger, combined with disregard for others — presenting one’s own case as special and worth dying for,” said Zvonimir Separovic, a former Croatian foreign minister who heads an international organization that studies victimology.
“It’s a horrible curse to be a Croat,” said Antun Vrdoljak, head of state radio and television in Croatia. But he added that Croats are like grass: The more they are mowed down, the stronger their roots.
From such a garden, the seeds of conflict blew to Bosnia-Herzegovina.
A sense of victimization, fostered in part by the world’s unwillingness help, amplified the killing there, too.
In the northern Bosnian city of Tuzla, historian Salih Kulenovic said Slavic Muslims have had enough.
Many Bosniaks of eastern Bosnia, nearly all forced from their homes by Serbs, are descended from Bosniaks expelled from western Serbia in the 19th century, he said.
“We’ll never again allow anyone to change us… by force,” Kulenovic said. “We didn’t deserve this.”
Suffering has strengthened the collective identity of Bosniaks and it appears that, as a result, another aggrieved nation is being created.
Bosnia’s Croats also feel victimized. They and the Bosniaks ended a year of hostilities and agreed in March to form a united front against the Serbs.
Ivan Saric, a spokesman for Croats who were surrounded by Bosniaks in the central town of Vitez, did not deny that Croats committed atrocities, but also said his people were victims of a land grab by Bosniaks trying to make up for their losses to the Serbs.
“It was like a game of dominoes: Serbs, Bosniaks, and then it fell on the Croats,” Saric said.
Even those who loathe the horror understand how hard it is to change the Balkans.
Hunger for Authority
From caliphs to Communists, this is a land where people do what their leaders tell them.
“People are used to having some sort of authority,” said Petar Matanovic, a Croat Roman Catholic priest in Tuzla. “Sometimes it’s Communist totalitarianism. Now it’s national totalitarianism.”
A middle-aged Croat grocer who identified himself only as Ivica struggled to understand why he was a refugee in Vitez. His blue eyes blazed and words tumbled over each other:
“The little people are not guilty of this, but nobody asked us. I know there are others on the other side who don’t want it. But no one asked them, either.”
The people of his village, including himself, weren’t smart of quick enough to stop it.
“I could understand how my grandfather, who couldn’t read, could be seduced to make war on someone,” Ivica said. “But I can’t believe people now would do it.”
They did. The past and present live concurrently in the Balkans, and the future is hard to change.