Bernard Darnton
Bernard Darnton

Do Unto Your Brother...

So, you thought you were confused about the Balkans. Just be thankful that you're not Iranian. (Apologies to our Iranian readers, please bear with me.) Iranian spin-doctors are having a bit of trouble deciding exactly how to explain what's going on.

Originally it was easy. The nasty Christian Orthodox Serbs were picking on the poor innocent Kosovar Muslims, just as they picked on the Bosnian Muslims. The evil Western, also supposedly Christian, powers were just standing by watching the slaughter. Then came the complicated bit. The Great Satan, the United States, waded into the conflict and started bombing the Christian side.

Things may be more liberal than they were twenty years ago but the thought of reporting on the Americans in a good light probably still caused a few headaches for Teheran newspaper editors.

However, working out just what the hell's going on isn't necessarily that easy for us either. Ask anyone with any knowledge of the area why it's all happening. The reply will probably begin something like, "Well, in 1389…" From what I know of my family history, you don't have to go back too far before it starts getting pretty mongrelised. I have no doubt that a few hundred years ago one group of my ancestors was probably doing something terrible to another group of my ancestors but I try not to beat myself up over it.

That's not how it works in the Balkans. "Forgive and forget." "Live and let live." These phrases apparently don't translate well into Albanian or Serbo-Croat. The entire place is infected with a group-think that defines everyone by tribe, race, religion, language.

Adrift in an ocean of Christianity, most Albanians and a significant number of Bosnians are Muslims, left over from when the Ottoman Empire ran that corner of Europe. In this place of long memories and short tempers that would be enough to stir up trouble but it's too simple for a place like the Balkans. The Christians come in two flavours. Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croats are not known for their Christian brotherly love towards one another. The Croats betting on the wrong side in the second world war didn't help things much either.

Religion is merely the most obvious dividing characteristic. The only people the Muslim Albanians hate more than the Orthodox Serbs are each other. In the north of the country live the Ghegs, in the south live the Tosks; and both these groups are splintered fractal-fashion into smaller and smaller groups. When someone said something bad about someone's mother in the fifteenth century, the story got handed down through the generations. Blood feuding is a national sport. Much like Tito's Yugoslavia, it's only been the grip of a dictator that has kept a lid on the violence.

Thankfully, too many centuries of religious, ethnic, and tribal hatred is about to come to an end. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair know who's in the right and they've got the laser guided bombs to prove it.

So why has NATO decided to hold its 50th birthday party in Belgrade? For half a century NATO was a purely defensive organisation, designed to act reflexively against Soviet aggression. Now, at an age when it should know better, it's decided to mind someone else's business. One reason is probably that the United Nations, the crowd who usually minds other people's business, would never have taken action due to objections from Russia and China. The Russians, as Orthodox Slavs, are natural allies to the Serbs and the Chinese are generally not interested in any war where they can't sell weapons to both sides.

Given that NATO has got involved, what are they trying to do? Nobody's ever won a war simply with air power and the Serbs are tough bunch who aren't
going to let a few cruise missiles ruin their day. That leaves the option of either piking out and looking silly or going in on the ground. At the time of writing, not a single allied soldier is known to have been killed. I wonder how many black bags coming home the British and American public can stomach and whether the politicians will take the risk.

How many other NATO governments would send in troops? The French are probably not keen. They see the Russians as potential friends and don't like American power in Europe. The Greeks and Turks would have serious trouble working together. Involving the three new Eastern European members, Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary, would be too provocative to the Russians. The Germans could go; after all, they've been there before. The Serbs seem to have learnt a few tricks from their last visit. You could send in the Italians, but who the hell wants to be on their side? In other words, it comes down to that last great Mediterranean power, Iceland.

And what will they face when they get there? This won't be a race through the Kuwaiti desert with a 'road to Basra' turkey shoot at the end. During the research for this story, talking to a bloke in the pub, I found out that guerrilla warfare was part of the school curriculum in Yugoslavia. Yugoslavia has a great partisan history, pinning down a decent bit of the German army in World War Two when they were really needed elsewhere. After the Soviets invaded Hungary and Czechoslovakia, Tito decided that his country should be ready and taught all his schoolkids how to fight, make explosives, etc. This should make them more than an even match for people schooled in America who had to pick these things up in their spare time. There is no good ground war option. To go in from the south requires that the troops are resupplied over a mountain range from a country with no infrastructure. Going in from the north risks spreading the war, and the ethnic cleansing, to Vojvodina. Vojvodina was, like Kosovo, an autonomous republic within Yugoslavia and has a large population of ethnic Hungarians along with a multitude of smaller minorities. NATO involvement may well have made things worse in Kosovo. Surely nobody wants the same in another province as well.

It's quite possible that nothing I've mentioned above will be relevant. By the time this is printed, perhaps before I even finish this sentence, this chapter of the story may come to a close. Perhaps Milosevic will get killed, the Russians might wangle something out of the Americans and abandon the Serbs, or Jesse Jackson could call down a host of angels and the whole thing would be over.

Despite this, it's still worth discussing the right and wrong of what's going on. Why has NATO decided to act here? What about East Timor, Sierra Leone, or, a couple of years ago, Rwanda? I suspect it's that we feel a lot less comfortable when the people suffering live similar lives to us — or used to. They went to work or school, ate at McDonalds, and stayed home in the evening to watch 'Wag the Dog' on TV. And half of them can explain what's happening in English. After seeing the people and hearing the stories, it does give me a certain pleasure to watch the gun camera tapes of smart bombs finding their targets. For those who really like them, you can download the videos from For me, watching a bridge disappear in smoke and flame is a few seconds of cheap entertainment. I can imagine though, that if I was an expatriate Yugoslav living in the US or Britain, I may not find the use of my tax dollars to destroy my home country so amusing. Is it right that someone should be forced to pay for acts they see as murder and vandalism? I think we all know the answer to that.

National armies should exist to protect the citizens of their state, not to go getting involved in other people's fights. Is Milosevic a threat to the US or Britain (or us)? No, he's just a vicious little bastard who, thankfully, lives a long way away. Other governments have no business sending their armies in.

Counter to these views is the idea that you can't just stand by and let the ethnic cleansing, systematic rape, and wholesale destruction of lives and property go on while the closest you get to the action is paying your CNN subscription. I agree, but it mustn't be forced.

If you feel strongly enough, go and fight as some American Albanians have done. If you don't like fighting, work in a refugee camp. If you'd like to do those things but you're a bit busy at work and the kids are sick, etc, donate some money. It shows you care a bit more if you give it because you want to rather than because the government's bullied it out of you. Does the government have any role at all? It can lift any restrictions there may be on its subjects working as mercenaries. One significant move would be to allow free entry to anyone who wanted to come here. No rubbish about only accepting limited numbers or having to prove a family connection. Refugees from Kosovo are currently looking for a better life in Albania. This is a country whose idea of economic growth is to send out more chain letters. New Zealand would be an absolute paradise by comparison. We benefit by taking in new immigrants as well. Immigration adds new life to a country, with new people, new businesses, and good food.

The best things we can give to the people of the region are ideas. The idea of individualism, for example. The current crisis is the thousandth repeat of the same old story. Rather than see people as individuals and judge them on their values, too many people can only see the groups that those people belong to. Groups not chosen by considered thought but joined by accident of birth. It should be irrelevant whether you're Gheg or Tosk, Hutu or Tutsi, Chelsea or Millwall.

Only when people's regard for one other is based on each person's qualities as an individual can seemingly intractable blood feuds come to an end. A healthy dose of capitalism wouldn't go amiss either. When you profit from dealing with people it doesn't cross your mind to be racist and you certainly don't want to kill them. Notice that the people here who complain about the 'Asian invasion' tend not to be real estate agents.

Every day you probably hear someone complaining about free markets, rampant greed, our individualistic culture. It's worth considering the alternative. Would you like the boss of Telecom to sit in his office aking a couple of million a year or would you prefer it if he burned down your house, stole your pigs, chopped down your trees, raped your sister, and killed your father all because of a nasty remark your great-granddad made?

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