by Chris William Erdman
The Dead Zone
The headlines were eerily familiar, their sequence predictable, as in a recurring nightmare. August 5, 1998: Kosovo: Serbs Roll As West Watches; September 9: Serbs, Ethnic Albanians Trade Atrocity Charges; September 16: Kosovo's Crisis Is Bad, and Getting Worse; September 30: New Massacres by Serb Forces in Kosovo Villages; October 2: The Killing in Kosovo; October 3: U.S. Sets Deadline for Bombing Serbs; October 9: New Kosovo Refugees, Many Ailing, Scramble to Survive; October 14: Milosevic Accepts Kosovo Monitors, Averting Attack.
When was it that we saw those headlines, with just a few words changed, datelined Bosnia? Two years ago? Five years ago? A century? Time moves so fast. And did we learn anything from that time? Can we learn something still?
Books chronicling the horrors of genocide in the Balkans are not bedtime reading. I know: I've spent too many evenings reading these books, then tossed and turned through sleepless nights hoping to shake the images seared into my soul by these graphic texts. My nights and days are haunted by a whole host of troubling questions. What drives a Serb guard to force a Muslim prisoner to bite off the testicles of another prisoner? How can a human being crush another man's skull under his boots, cut off a woman's breasts, force a father to rape his own daughter, then command prisoners to bludgeon each other with sewer pipe—all without going stark raving mad? That's just the trouble with what happened in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and now in Kosovo: the dividing line between sanity and insanity, between heaven and hell, is terribly thin and alarmingly fragile. With frightening ease, men and women stepped over a line and fell into a world that would appall Edgar Allan Poe and sicken Stephen King.
These books are a witness to that descent, a testament of unimaginable and unbearable brutality, a free-fall into a new moral universe in which there is no law, no conscience, no limitation. Brought face to face with the dark side of the much celebrated ideal of autonomous individualism, we readers are challenged to re-evaluate many of the assumptions of the modern Western world. For in Bosnia, the unencumbered self did not soar like an angel toward the heavens, but made its demonic descent into the depths of hell.
Many remember the first televised images of life in the Serb-administered camps of Omarska and Trnopolje, which shocked the world on August 6, 1992: the skeletal bodies of men, eyes hollow from fear, abuse, despair. We were incredulous. We'd seen pictures like this before: photos of life in Auschwitz, Dachau, and Belsen. Never again, the world then chanted. How hollow were our words. How nave our resolve. And frankly, those photos from Omarska didn't describe half of it. The "killing centers" of Bosnia were theaters of personalized violence, where Serb guards indulged in perverse orgies of physical and psychological torture.
There in the death camps "dying was easy," testifies Omarska survivor Rezak Hukanovic; "living was hard." Such horrors are grisly enough when related by observers like Peter Maass, Michael Sells, and David Rohde. But when revisited by one who spent a long a bitter season in hell at Omarska, the specter of raw evil burns itself into the reader's mind. Hukanovic will never let me forget the picture of
a man forced to drink dirty motor oil. Nor will I be able to erase images of a guard firing into the back of a defenseless man's head and forcing every witness to applaud. The fear petrified upon the scorched face of Durat, who used to be a goalie on the Prijedor soccer team, as the guards pushed his head through a burning tire. A scrawny, dried-up skeleton of a man tearing apart a dead pigeon for food. A son weeping as he is forced to watch the bloodthirsty monsters plunge daggers into his father's body.
Standing on the threshold of the twenty-first century, I'm forced by these texts to wonder if too many of us have been seduced into believing that the wild beast that has leaped upon us at various times and in various places throughout history, has been tamed in our more "civilized" world. Bosnia, resting in the cradle of Europe, shatters such arrogance.
"Bosnia," says Peter Maass, "makes you question basic assumptions about humanity." Just because your society seems stable, your relationships healthy, your politics amenable to the diversity of cultures within your community, doesn't mean it will always remain so. "There are so many seams along which a society can be torn apart by the manipulators. … The wild beast is out there, and the ground no longer feels so steady under my feet."
In 1984, if you had prophesied to nearly any Yugoslav living in Sarajevo that within eight years' time his friends, neighbors, and relatives would be locked in a bloody war among themselves, he would have thought you were drunk or deranged. At best he would have been amused, at worst insulted.
Nearly 40 years earlier, the Communist guerrilla leader, Tito, had re-established the Yugoslav federation, a fragile coalition that existed from 1918 to 1941 before being torn apart by World War II. The chaos of war opened the door for the manipulators of ethnic, religious, and nationalistic ideologies. Croatia, controlled by a brutal fascist militia known as the Ustashe, championed a vision for an independent "Greater Croatia." The Ustashe "cleansed" Croatia of Serbs by forcing them to convert to Roman Catholicism, leave, or be killed. Many Bosnian Muslims fought with the Ustashe against their ancient enemies, the Serbs. Though hated by Croat nationalists, the Muslims were useful to their cause: "the enemy of my enemy is my friend," teaches a Slavic proverb.
In Serbia, Orthodoxy rather than Catholicism was the dominant religious tradition, and there too was a Muslim minority, the legacy of many centuries of Ottoman rule. "We hated [the Muslims] twice," say Serb nationalists. "First for being traitors—the converted Muslim is worse than the original Turk. And second, for fighting with the Ustashe." The Serbs formed their own militia, known as the Chetniks, and waged a violent pogrom against non-Serbs in their cause to establish a "Greater Serbia."
Pursuing the truth about genocide in the killing fields of Bosnia and Kosovo.
Eager to maintain the Yugoslav republic, Tito's army of Partisans, representing the major ethnic and religious groups of the former Yugoslavia, fought for a unified republic under Communist rule. At war's end, Tito executed Ustashe and Chetnik sympathizers alike.
Following the war, Tito's strong-arm policies galvanized the diverse loyalties of the Yugoslav peoples into a unique multicultural society—one that not only seemed to transcend the past but aspired to be a shrewd architect of the future. Though communist, Tito had, by the 1970s, negotiated Yugoslavia's independence from the Kremlin, positioning the republic strategically between the Soviet and Western powers. Yugoslavia became Eastern Europe's richest and freest nation. Calls for an independent Croatia or Serbia began to fade, along with memories of the hatred and violence that had erupted during the war.
In Bosnia, for example, many Slavic Muslims, Serbs, Croats, Jews, and Gypsies based their political identity not upon their ethnic, religious, or nationalistic affiliations, but upon the constitutionally assured tolerance of their diverse cultural heritage. Between 1981 and 1991, nearly 20 percent of all marriages in Bosnia-Herzegovina were between people of different cultural and national backgrounds. The older tribalisms were waning; people saw themselves simply as "Bosnians." And when the world descended upon Bosnia in the winter of 1984, it was enchanted by a host that seemed to exemplify the Olympic ideal of universal harmony. Bosnia in general, and its jewel, Sarajevo, in particular, became an international symbol of the virtues of pluralism.
Then the killing began again - -followed by the reporting. And now we have a whole shelf of Bosnia books, ranging from journalistic accounts to scholarly histories. A good place to start is Love Thy Neighbor, by veteran journalist Peter Maass, or Endgame, by David Rohde, the courageous Christian Science Monitor reporter who was briefly taken prisoner by the Serbs. I've already mentioned Rezak Hukanovic's personal testimony, The Tenth Circle of Hell, an indispensable book that is currently out of print but still easily findable by resourceful book hunters.
Michael Sells's The Bridge Betrayed: Religion and Genocide in Bosnia is essential for anyone who wants to understand the forces manipulated by those Balkan leaders who orchestrated the violent assault on the Slavic Muslims of Bosnia. Sells documents the ways in which this assault was a religious genocide perpetrated by both Serbian Orthodox and Croatian Roman Catholic Christian extremists. He shows why and how politicians, intellectuals, and clergy exploited ancient religious mythologies, ethnic loyalties, and nationalistic ambitions and used them to fuel an unholy fanaticism.
The slaughter of Muslims in the twentieth century drew upon a mass of nineteenth-century mythic literature, poetry, and theological reflection. This romanticized literary movement reached back across the centuries to a medieval legend, transforming it into a cultural icon that generated powerful ideological potential. In the late fourteenth century, the Serbs resisted the invasion of the Ottoman Turks through the valiant leadership of Prince Lazar. But during a clash in Kosovo in 1389, the prince lost his life, and the Serb army was conquered by the dominating forces of the Ottoman Empire. For the Serbs, the battle of Kosovo marks the death of Serb independence and the birth of five centuries of Ottoman rule.
The romantic writers of the nineteenth century celebrated the martyrdom of Prince Lazar, and as Sells describes, re-imagined and embellished the Lazar legend. Art, literature, and folktales portrayed Prince Lazar as an explicit Christ figure, surrounded by a group of disciples gathered for the Last Supper, and betrayed into the hands of his enemies. As Christ was betrayed by Judas, Lazar was betrayed by Vuk Brankovic—a Serb who gave Lazar's battle plans to the Ottoman army. In this handy nationalist myth, Sells writes, Brankovic "represents the Slavs who converted to Islam under the Ottomans and any Serb who would live with them or tolerate them."
From this mythic reconstructionism it's not far to a midnineteenth-century historical drama that Serb nationalists regard as the high point of Serbian literature. The Mountain Wreath, written by an Orthodox bishop, celebrates a Christmas Eve slaughter of Slavic Muslims by Serb warriors, and includes the choral chant, "the high mountains reek with the stench of non-Christians." It was amid this flowering of nationalist identity that Vuk Karadzic—an ancestor of modern Serb warlord Radovan Karadzic—wrote in 1845:
Whoever is a Serb of Serbian blood,
Whoever shares with me this heritage,
And he comes not to fight at Kosovo,
May he never have the progeny
His heart desires, neither son
Beneath his hand let nothing
Neither purple grapes nor whole-
Let him rust away like dripping iron
Until his name be extinguished.
This foundational nationalist myth conflated Jesus Christ and Prince Lazar, identified Kosovo as the Serb Golgotha, and demonized Slavic Muslims not only as Christ-killing Turks but as traitors against the Slavic race—a race that was by nature considered to be Christian.
Whenever religion gets too cozy with political power, it loses its soul and becomes a tool for those who would manipulate the religious impulses of a people to serve their own ends. Apart from the kind of hidden faithfulness exemplified by the courageous Christian individuals and communities in David Manuel's book Bosnia: Hope in the Ashes, Balkan Christianity was simply too closely aligned with nationalist extremists to maintain a prophetic posture against genocidal ideologies. On the lips of Serb nationalists, "Christoslavism" became the heresy that not only inspired but also justified the savage acts that ripped into the Balkans during the spring of 1992.
What happened in Bosnia-Herzegovina was terrible. On this, at least, there is consensus. But was the violence of "ethnic cleansing" a form of genocide? Many people still say no, despite the mass of evidence that continues to accumulate—evidence that these authors carefully document. Many maintain their denial despite the fact that genocide is defined in no uncertain terms by the international community:
Genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: (a) Killing members of the group; (b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; (c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; (d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; (e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
In November 1988, both Congress and President Ronald Reagan passed the Genocide Convention Implementation Act making genocide, as defined above, a crime punishable under U.S. law. Consequently, the charge of genocide holds tremendous foreign policy implications for Western nations like the United States—especially at a time when American politicians feel enormous pressure to keep American troops off foreign soil. Genocide is a touchy designation in a politically charged context.
One afternoon in September 1997, I chatted informally with a former U.S. diplomat to Yugoslavia. We were between meetings in Washington, D.C., and I was eager to hear his perspective on Bosnia. A simple parish pastor, and not a career politician, I made the mistake of referring to the slaughter in Bosnia as "genocide." I was summarily reprimanded. "Hitler's Final Solution was genocide," he told me. "Rwanda's carnage was too. But what happened in the Balkans was ethnic cleansing … blatant human-rights violations, but not genocide."
On a different occasion, I'd heard something similar from a Serbian Orthodox priest who lives not far from my home. "Definitely not," he told me when I asked him if the campaign against Bosnia's Muslims was an attempt to destroy them. "They planned to destroy us," he said, citing a rumor, well known among Bosnian Serbs, that Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic had set in motion a program to cleanse Bosnia of Serbs. "What were we supposed to do, let them kill us? No! Christians have a right to defend themselves." He pointed to a couple of handsomely framed photographs on the wall behind me. "These two men saved us," the priest said with respect and gratitude. "Without them, Bosnian Serbs would have been slaughtered."
There I sat, sipping Serbian coffee, listening to a fellow Christian pastor extol the virtues of Radovan Karadzic, President of the Serbian Republic of Bosnia, and Gen. Ratko Mladic, leader of the Bosnian Serb forces. Here was a new perspective on the war. From the books I'd been reading, I'd learned to fear these two men as ideologues and villains, among the chief architects of Serb aggression against an essentially defenseless Muslim population. It's possible that the diplomat and priest are right: what happened in Bosnia wasn't genocide. Those who wrote these books as a witness to genocide could have been mistaken. They could have been deceived. Worse yet, they could have stuffed their pockets with money from oil-rich Islamic governments. Or so the priest wanted me to believe.
And had I not read these books, conversations like this would have kept me in the dark, morally and spiritually inattentive to the power of propaganda and self-delusion. In this sense, these books are sentinels. They serve as guardians against the manipulation of those forces useful to any ideologue who wants to provoke and justify genocide in this post-Cold War world. And they alert us to the designs of those who hope to render us passive while they assault our common humanity.
Chris William Erdman is a pastor and author of Beyond Chaos: Living the Christian Family in a World Like Ours (Eerdmans).
Copyright © 1998 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture Magazine. For reprint information call 630-260-6200 or e-mail bceditor@BooksAndCulture.com.
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