Saturday, April 3, 1999


It was inevitable
that Serbs would
rally to Milosevic

By Susan Manuel
Special to the Star-Bulletin


ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- Last week, as the inevitability of NATO bombing of Yugoslavia became increasingly apparent, I wandered numbly around Islamabad. For the past year I've been working here with a United Nations program, and living a rather strange existence, detached from the Pakistani community and culture, which goes on largely behind walls and veils.

It wasn't that way in my last posting, in former Yugoslavia, where I had spent the previous four years as a U.N. peacekeeping spokeswoman. I had been deeply engaged with the people, the politics and the cultures. I left my heart in Belgrade, and I left many Serb, Croat and Muslim friends.

This time, as the peace talks in Rambouillet, France, disintegrated, I didn't call friends in Belgrade, as I had during the previous threats of air-strikes. I tried to live "normally." On Sunday, I saddled an old horse someone left in my care and rode out into a woods at the edge of Islamabad. While tracing my way through the dusty, garbage-strewn trails, I made plans to organize a private showing of Yugoslav films. Maybe in this small way, I could do something locally to widen the focus on the current catastrophe in Kosovo and to show people that there is more to Yugoslavia. There are artists and thinkers and normal people with a complex (but obsessive) view of their own tragic and complicated past. There is humor and self-deprecation and horror of war -- even at their own part in the war of the past decade.

The night before the first bombs fell on Yugoslavia I became frantic and angry. I corralled people at work and at parties, telling them that NATO bombs on Yugoslavia would mean massive bloodshed and would anchor Milosevic more firmly than ever.

From my time in Yugoslavia, I knew that bombs would not stop the Serb attacks on Kosovo Albanian villages. On the contrary, the Serbs would mobilize against the Albanians, seeing them now not only as secessionists, but also as proxies of Washington which had finally revealed itself as the enemy. The Great Satan would no longer exist just for Iran, Iraq, Libya... For Serbs, the Great Satan would have entered Europe, too.

The Serbs would rally behind President Milosevic, even though most despise him. They understand that he ruined the once-respected Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Yet they also see him as tough and smart. He's their man, their only man. If bombs fell, I ranted, Milosevic would also put an end to the democratic opposition that has struggled to make what's left of Yugoslavia a sane and humane place.

Under attack, people's most brutal and primeval instincts would surface. Paramilitaries like the hated Arkan would be loosed. Truth about anything would cease to exist.

But the bombs fell and with them all the efforts to contain the bitterness collapsed. That my predictions proved right was no consolation.

Truth ceased to exist, not just on Serbian TV, but on CNN. This wasn't an attack, the NATO spokesman said, but part of the peace effort. His repeated insistence that "the reason for our action was the great humanitarian catastrophe which would have occurred without our action..." became increasingly idiotic. President Clinton's TV address to the Serbs, which undoubtedly few saw -- seemed to say that by bombing Serbs, we are helping to sensitize them to the advantages of living in one world with their neighbors.

For four years in Croatia, Bos-nia and Yugoslavia I had tried to convince the local people I met, mainly journalists, of that same "living together" truism, which is so central to our identity as Americans. I defended the principles of the United Nations and the rationality and humanity of the West. While I loved the Serbs as people, I was in constant argument with many of them over their claims to victimization and an international conspiracy against them. I tried to argue that there were rules by which the enlightened world operated, and they should trust them.

With the NATO bombing, the Serbs are now confirmed in their paranoia. From my e-mail traffic since the airstrikes began, I'm watching both Serbs and Albanians preparing to die, and to hate.

Meanwhile, "the greatest humanitarian catastrophe since World War II," as NATO is calling it, unfolds as if no one in Washington or London expected it. Aid agencies are yanking colleagues from Pakistan and struggling to get them to Italy, Croatia, Albania, Macedonia, Montenegro in a desperate attempt to accommodate refugees in very poor countries.

The endless pictures on TV of Albanian refugees depress me. I've seen those pictures before --in real life. My slice of experience in the long and brutal Yugoslav wars was in central Croatia. I too saw and even accompanied refu-gee convoys of tractors, horse-drawn carts, and tiny rattle-trap Yugos, full ofold chairs and tires and diapers, leaving lovely farms with herds of white sheep and rose gardens, never to return.

Those refugees were Serbs. The attackers, the Croatian army. CNN was there, but the story never led the news and quickly disappeared. In the weeks following the four-day attack and exodus of all 30,000 Serbs in Western Slavonia, I became embroiled, not in the public drama but in a private one. All four males in a family who had been my home away from home had disappeared. That they were Muslims, living among Serbs (traditional enemies), was irrelevant to me, but testimony to the difficulty of understanding the Yugoslav wars. I went on a personal odyssey to find them. The feeling ofhelplessness was almost unbearable, compounded with the sense of loss and frustration that we as peacekeepers had failed to keep the peace.

(Thanks to many who intervened, including the U.S. embassy, my friends, who had beentaken mistakenly to a Croatian military prison, are now living in New York.)

Three months later, a much larger attack occurred in the Serb-held area of Krajina, Croatia: A quarter-million Croatian citizens, who happened to be Serbs, fled. For weeks, carts and tractors crawled across Bosnia toward Serbia. The routes were lined with the wreckage of those who didn't make it. Seventy percent of the Serb houses in the Krajina area were destroyed. Refugee columns were shelled by the Croatian army. More than 1,000 people were killed, mainly civilians.

These Serbs had few international aid agencies rushing to help them. They arrived in Serbia exhausted, aided by locals for a few weeks, and then cast into the sea of 700,000 Serb refugees from the wars in Bosnia and Croatia who to this day lead lives of misery in a country which has run out of resources and sympathy.

Why was there so little coverage of the Krajina debacle? Why was NATO not calling this the "greatest humanitarian catastrophe since World War II?"

For many reasons, but here are two: First, NATO and the U.S. had decided to opt for Croatia and its right to put down secession. Not only were there few if any statements of outrage issuing from Washington, but there was also tacit assistance to the Croatian army to reclaim the parts of its territory under local Serb control.

Second, between May 1995, when my area was attacked, and August 1995, when the Krajina was emptied, came perhaps the most sickening single event in any recent war. At Srebrenica, in just a few days in July, thousands of Bosnian Muslims, theoretically under U.N. protection in a tiny and beleaguered "safe area," were killed by Bosnian Serbs, most in mass executions.

The legacy of Srebrenica led to the lack of sympathy for the Krajina Serbs' plight, to the eventual NATO airstrikes on Serb-held Bosnia and to the Dayton Agreement, which prescribed thecurrent peace arrangement in Bosnia. I think it has also contributed to the almost vengeful glee with which NATO and U.S. spokesmen now demonize the Serbs of Yugoslavia.

The e-mails are coming in, and sometimes I've managed to get people on the phone: "Don't worry about us: We're OK for now..." "Our people are now united more than ever..." "I'm not afraid of dying, as truth and God are on our side..." "Susan, we have no right to live, love, work...We have no tears. All of us are like rock, sometime. But sometime we cry!"

Those of us who worked in former Yugoslavia used to say we almost never met a Serb, a Croat or a Muslim who could concede that his or her side had ever done wrong. An American journalist friend told a particularly defensive young Serb one evening: "You may not have done wrong, but wrong was done in your name."

For the same reason, I now have my work cut out for me.

A Star-Bulletin staff writer from 1982-92, Susan Manuel
worked for U.N. peacekeeping missions in Cambodia, South Africa,
Croatia, Bosnia and Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro). She now
works for a U.N. agency in Islamabad, Pakistan.

Text Site Directory:
[News] [Business] [Features] [Sports] [Editorial] [Do It Electric!]
[Classified Ads] [Search] [Subscribe] [Info] [Letter to Editor]
[Stylebook] [Feedback]

© 1999 Honolulu Star-Bulletin