Tuesday, January 01, 2008

"The Bridge Betrayed" by Michael Sells [10]


In the opening section, Sells draws parallels between the bombing of the Oklahoma City Federal Building in 1995 and the outbreak of genocidal violence in the former Yugoslavia a few years earlier. In broad terms, the two events were spawned by similar movements motivated by similar ideologies nursed in similar cultural/intellectual climates. The difference, Sells rightly notes, is that in the United States such extremist elements are, for the most part, highly marginalized, socially, culturally, and politically. In the former Yugoslavia, on the other hand, such elements had had access to--and even control of--mass media outlets; powerful backing in government and the military; and all too often the support of major religious institutions.

Creating the Perpetrator

Despite all that had been done to lay the groundwork for genocide, nationalists and their allies still needed to do more in order to unleash the monster of ethnic violence. Milosevic and his allies took many steps in the final months and years of Yugoslavia's existence to create the compliance and willingness needed in the general population.

The purge of the Serbian communist party, the betrayal of Ivan Stambolic, purges of the Yugoslav army in order to create a Serb-dominated (and nationalist-allied) force, and increasing support for and ties to paramilitary militias--these were some of the many steps taken at the Federal level in Belgrade.

At the grassroots level, the work of turning ordinary Serbs into soldiers for racial separation and hatred was carried out by more brutal and direct means. Sells documents a few incidents where ethnic Serbs were punished, imprisoned, tortured, and/or killed for refusing to commit acts of violence against their non-Serb neighbors, or for speaking out against the fascist violence. He also discusses the well-documented process by which Serb nationalists would try to provoke revenge killings by Muslims against Serbs in order to harden the divisions between the two groups.

Young soldiers were numbed to the violence they were ordered to commit by being plied constantly with booze. Muslim civilians were degraded by being held in concentration camps without adequate food, water, sanitation facilities or privacy. And, of course, the use of derogatory names such as "Turk" and "balije". The wide distribution of looted good tended to muzzle curiosity among Serbs about what was being done in their name since most people preferred not to think too deeply about where the looted goods in their homes came from. And the practice of opening concentration camps to local sadists with a grudge to settle spread the complicity in the killings throughout the community.

Militia leaders such as Arkan and Seselj weren't merely given extensive material and financial support; they were given control over civilian resources and markets as well, enabling them to muster support through patronage and access to staples and consumer goods.

Sells concludes this section by noting the ubiquity of masks and facepaint in the ranks of the Bosnian Serb army and its allied paramilitary squads--the masks:

"...transformed identities. Before he put it on, the militiaman was part of a multireligious community in which Catholic Croats, Orthodox Serbs, Slavic Muslims, Jews, Gypsies, and others had lived together. These were his friends, his work colleagues, his neighbors, his lovers, his spouse's family. Once he put on the mask, he was a Serb hero; those he was abusing were balije or Turks, race traitors and killers of the Christ-Prince Lazar."

The Forgotten Serbs

Sells rightly notes that the nationalists did not speak for all Serbs--as the frequency of their violence against 'bad Serbs' who wanted no part of the war of violence being waged against their neighbors bears out. He lists many examples of Serbs who--often at risk to themselves--showed kindness to their non-Serb neighbors, and took actions which saved lives. Bogdan Bogdanovic, the mayor of Belgrade, is one example.

Sells also notes that in 1995, most Bosnian Serbs did not live in Serb-controlled areas of Bosnia--not an insignificant number were still in the government controlled remainder of the country, and many more were in Serbia proper. Milosevic allowed the Bosnian Serb military and the militias access to refugee camps so that 'disloyal' Serbs could be rounded up--these were often sent to the front lines without proper military training as punishment.

Sells concludes with this example, which I must confess I was unfamiliar with:

"In Bosnian government areas, the Serb Civic Council was formed to work for a multireligious society and to articulate the concerns of those Serbs loyal to a multireligious Bosnia-Herzegovina. The Civic Council pointed out that the total number of Bosnian Serbs living under the control of the Republika Srpska was less than 50 percent; over 150,000 lived in Bosnian government-controlled areas and some 500,000 had fled abroad. The council criticized the international community for treating the religious nationalist faction as the sole representative of the Serbian people."

How outrageous and depressing it is to reflect that, despite having followed events in Bosnia with interest at the time, I had never once heard of the Serb Civic Council or of its alternate view of Serb ethnic citizenship in Bosnia. Then again--the Bosnian war would not be the last time Western observers would dismiss civil violence in an unstable society by pointing to violent, armed extremist groups as somehow representative of the larger social group they claimed to speak for. Think about that the next time a news anchor on TV describes what "the Shiites" or "the Sunnis" in Iraq want.


I will conclude my review of Chapter four in my next post.

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