Let me put this in a personal context. The war on the Balkan was for me the first war in my life during which I became truly aware of war and conflict. When the end of the Iraq-Iran war was announced on the radio in the late eighties, I was in my pyjamas. I shrugged and continued back to my attempts to beat the computer with chess. In my first year of secondary schooling, I couldn't understand why the higher grade students were walking around with transistor radios to follow the news on Desert Storm. Even the Rwanda genocide was a faraway, abstract happening - although it began to tickle my interests and questions began to bubble in my mind, while at the same time Yugoslavia already had fallen apart! Perhaps it was because the murmurings of "genocide" that rose during the Rwandan conflict, began to be whispered whenever the war in "former Yugoslavia" was featured. Perhaps it was how my parents lamented and sadly shook their heads as they saw Sarajevo shot into debris. One evening my father came down from the attic with the slide projector and showed me and my sisters a different, sun-filled Yugoslavia which my parents had seen visited shortly after their marriage.
But whenever I tried to find an introducing text to understand that patch of Europe on the map, with new borders now so tangled and strung together with enclaves, I rapidly lost track of the names, the peoples (which somehow mattered), the history (which somehow mattered even more). Tito stood out, but Tito was long dead - what did he matter? Muslims mattered, but they were not your archetypical Muslims I knew and they belonged to the same people?? I gave up. I was seventeen, there were other books to read, and some six months later the Dayton accords put a stop to the war. I thought.
It was not until 1999 when the war over Kosovo erupted, that my interests for the history of the Yugoslavian countries resurged, and they've not left me until today. Yet the experience I had then was not so different from what I had when I first began - even while geography, history and ethnology were better lodged into my head, my readings still failed to answer the mother of my questioning: what were those driving factors that disintegrated Yugoslavia, and more importantly, what motivated their people to willingly set upon this downward spiral into destruction?
"Bridge Across the Tara" has, so far, answered those questions with the most conviction I've come across. Besides that, it's a terrific read - I've read it thrice now.
The first two chapters, "Vukovar Junction" and "Silvercity" (translation mine) are, overall, anti-war stories - it would not have mattered what locations, or what time, they'd be told. They do, however, serve to set a stage for a desire to explain why these stories were told in former Yugoslavia.
Uklet Vukovar - the Cursed City
Vukovar, a city situated on the very eastern edge of Croatia, was declared Croatian when Croatia took her independence. Civil unrest worsened over time and during the Battle of the Barracks, a stream of tanks (which had been built cooperatively by Serbians and Croatians) rolled out of Belgrade and shot an estimated 87.000 grenades upon the city - about twice the amount of Vukovar citizens at that time. The Serbians retook a destroyed city - perhaps another sad example of "To save the city, we had to destroy the city." Note: according to the city administration, the Croatian population was about the same size as the Serbian one when the unrests began.
Water Tower of Vukovar, now a symbol of the folly of war
War turned both sides into animals - a point that is reiterated in Westerman's book time and time again - but the overall focus is on Serbian expansion and war acts. The Serbian people were displayed in the western press as the bad guys (that's how I remembered the war, too) and the Croatians as the good guys - which seems an utter fallacy to me now. Westerman talks about victimization a lot, and the sinister role which it consistently played in the mythologies surrounding the war. Even in the first chapter, a fierce anti-Miloević Serbian, got furious at Westerman when he had portrayed the Serbian soldiers as bellicose in one of his articles: "We Serbians love to fight" had read the header. Wasn't it true? Yes, it was, but Serbians were also victims - which was never told in the west.
Vukovar Junction is a story of Serbian victims. It shows the remains of Vukovar on February 1993, some 16 months after the siege - hollowed buildings, basements rumoured to still hold decomposing bodies, dogs that explode when they rummage through the debris and trip an unexploded shell or mine. The remnants of the over 1600 oak trees that had greened the city - now forming scorched and blackened crosses lining the streets. And it tells about Drago and his wife Svetlana - both Serbian, trapped in a city besieged by Serbians. When the health of Drago's wife deteriorates after spending three months in a musty, earthen shelter, they make for the communal hall in the city - a fateful two days before the Croatians, out of ammunition, would surrender the city. Their neighbour (Croatian) can enter the hall immediately. Drago and Svetlana are set apart and made to wait until nightfall; they are then ordered to get into a jeep - ostentatiously to take them back to their house. But they are not. "Where are you taking us?" "We're putting you onto the train to Belgrade."
Drago knows now. On the other side of the train tracks lies the Serbian front.
He had helped his wife to get out of the jeep; her blanket had snagged behind something. "Belgrade is there." The barrel of a rifle was poked between his ribs. "Quick! Walk!" They would tread on a mine, Drago thought, or otherwise the Serbian soldiers on the other side would open fire. But there was only one path: straight across the front. They began to walk, stumbling across the tracks. "I didn't dare to look back, neither did my wife, but I almost had to drag her with me." Then the loud sound of clack-zip-clack: the sounds of a kalasjnikov arming.
Drago's wife looks back and sees in that fraction of a moment what a human being is not really supposed to see.
Two bullets hit Drago in the hip. "Here and here, through this vest which I was also wearing that day." And one in his head. Zjika looks the other way when his father puts down his glasses and lets his staring eye drop in the palm of his hand. "The bullet grazed my temple, but took my eye with it." On the pit of the socket a small pluck of cotton-wool is recognisable.
He had lain face forward in the grass and had felt the warmth drain out of his wife's hand. Doors slammed - the kind of sound that carries, even when the night is filled with whistling blows. Everything in his body felt liquid and warm, as if he was streaming empty, which also was happening. He had stayed down a little longer after he heard the wheels of the jeep squeak. "I kissed my wife and then put the blanket across her."
Where the first chapter is an anecdote from the war zone between Croatia and Serbia, the second chapter turns towards Bosnia-Herzegovina. Silvercity tells, it is inevitable for a Dutch audience, about Srebrenica - some three years before the genocidal slaughter of the enclave. The timing is not exact - dates in the book are sporadically given and need to be puzzled together.
I do not know how many journalists during the 1990 - 1995 conflict have been able to punch through to Srebenica. Westerman recalls a German photographer, who went in before him and was locked in there for months. He gives the impression that he and his companion from The Independent were the next ones - and whether that's true or not, their entry and visit to the Muslim enclave is done by a hugely daring and bewildering stratagem. The chapter is more about the journey than the destination, and hence I'll be brief on this chapter. A notable quote, though:
Serbians, Croatians and Muslims, the latter elevated by Tito's decree to a "people", share the same language, height and girth, eye colour. The mean shoe size is identical to decimals behind the comma yet grotesque differences are being fantasized. On Serbian radio a professor in ethnography explains that Muslims vocal chords are shorter than Serbians'. "That's because of singing the muezzin for centuries." The contradictions are rife. "Muslims are a degree darker than Serbians," says one. "That's because their wives slept with the Turks".
"No," says another, "Serbians are a degree darker than Muslims: the Turkish landlords had the right to deflower every Serbian daughter."
Every race doctrine has something absurd, I thought, but this one was strung together from loose pieces of absurdity, which made it multi-headed, random and hence extremely dangerous.
"You don't understand us," Zoran says, his eyes tired.
The third and the last chapter, although written in the same thoughtful, inquisitive approach, seem to aim to find that understanding, scratching through the brutal surface of the war, observing how the orthodox church played its dastard part. In "Children of Tito" Westerman chases another impossible target: a better understanding of Miloević, the man described in the western press as the evil genius behind the war.
Wikipedia pictures from Marcović (left) and Miloević
A picture is painted of Miloević as a goofy compassionate, incapable to abuse the power of his presidency, haunted by traumas from his youth: his father committed suicide with a hunting rifle, his mother hung herself. The timeline in the book, however, do not match the dates on other sources: Westerman writes that his mother committed suicide when Miloević was a university student. According to his friend, Brana Crnčević, the president doesn't read papers, just violent thrillers, and frequently quotes Dostojevski, about the tragic fate of the Serbian people. And despite that (or because of that?), he became the most popular communist at the start of the post-communist era.
Miloević himself is unapproachable, so Westerman sets his eyes upon the persons that surround or know him intimately: his mother (but she's dead), Mirjana Marcović, his equally sphinx-like wife, and Gospodine Stambolić, the long-time friend and political mentor who Miloević ultimately betrayed. Stambolić answers the doorbell but does not open for interviews. Establishing an interview with Mirjana Marcović results in a months-long goose-chase in which Westerman eventually succeeds - yet fails: Mirjana is portrayed as an idealistic dreamer, ever nurturing the idea of restoring Tito's dream of a Yugoslavia made whole, while her husband occupies himself destroying that dream with every day that passes. This is in itself entirely different than this 2001 BBC article, who depicts her as the brain behind Slobodan.
The theme that emerges most persistently throughout the chapter is the subject that Tito tabooed and suppressed: the beast of nationalism. Instead of understanding Miloević, the currents that steered him to betray Tito's legacy and Stambolić come more and more into the limelight. It was those currents that washed Miloević to the shores of presidential power, according to Westerman - the currents had created and propped him up, not the other way around.
Had the Serbian intellectuals, as a movement, not contributed a much larger part to the liquidation of Yugoslavia than Miloević himself? Djukić, Miloević's biographer, wrote: `He was embraced by the intellectual circle, who exchanged their democratic flag immediately for the nationalistic tricolour. Scientists, writers, doctors and dissidents, all admired him. Miloević would never have been as self-confident if he hadn't had the backing of the Serbian intellectuals.' But that wasn't it. Those writers, scientists and artists shouldered Miloević because he had been pliant enough to execute their preferred policy.
This, in turn, leads to an absolutely fascinating interview with high-positioned members of Matica Srpska, an intellectual institute (what we'd call a think-tank these days) situated in Novi Sad, which in all honesty deserves to be diaried in full - as it glimpses into the heart of what would be the theme in the final, fourth chapter: understanding the psyche of the people on the Balkan.
"Miloević was the first to understand the (1986) memorandum," said the philosopher. "The Serbian people have the right on an own state, more than anyone else."
"You cannot suppress one's national identity. The creation of the own state was unavoidable," said the president.
The philosopher briefly thought and then said, "You in the west propagate those universalistic ideas: a new world order. What is that? Freedom and democracy for all? I say: it is imperialistic balderdash. The world forms a mosaic of intermixed and intermingled cultures. The western humanitarian tradition wants to outlaw nationalistic feelings. Hah, that's what Tito also wanted. Yet individuals resist against that, because universal values are insufficient to live on. One can not live without a national identity."
"Why does Europe want to keep Yugoslavia whole?" asked the president, accusatory. He looked at me with frowned eyebrows.
"A multi-ethnical state is unnatural," the philosopher spoke with feeling. "People know this. It spawns spontaneous movements that resist the universal thoughts of equality and freedom. I predict that the twenty-first century will become the century of nationalism."
The fourth chapter, "In the footsteps of A. den Doolaard" is the most empathic and humane of all chapters. Westerman meets A. den Doolaard, then over ninety years old and the man, a national Dutch icon, would pass away a few years later. He, too, is worth a diary on its own. Den Doolaard (a pseudonym) traveled in his youth extensively through the Balkan and attempted to capture the spirit of the Balkan people within his literature, which is still popular both in the Netherlands and the Balkan. There is now a monument in his honour in Macedonia.
A. den Doolaard
It's the best chapter to gain some insights behind the people on the Balkan - it is also much too short, as it is set up as a tripartite of three areas: Macedonia, Kosovo and Montenegro. All areas, as we now know in hindsight, would rally in some form for independence. Personally, I found Westerman's insights on Kosovo and Montenegro the most enlightening.
In Kosovo, he tries to interview the Serbian Arkan, or Z. R. - an internationally sought and convicted criminal, a war criminal to boot, with a history that reads on its own as baffling. After bank robberies in Sweden, he's arrested in Amsterdam, but soon after escapes from prison, and is later re-captured and wounded after robbing a jewellery store in Frankfurt which ends with another successful escape from the hospital. His football club, "Red Star" would take the World Cup in 1991, and Arkan latched onto the growing nationalism as no other. It has been rumoured he armed the hooligans of his club with arms and set them hunting Croatians in Vukovar - and their killing methods have been graphically documented by a Time photographer in the Bosnian city of Bijeljina .
When Westerman was in Kosovo, Arkan tries to get elected for Serbian parliament and preaches to the converted: "Kosovo is part of Serbia". Kosovo is the Jerusalem of the Serbs (apparently a quote from Miloević) - they do not see how it can be split.
An excerpt from a speech of Arkan:
"We're going to build new weapon factories. Weapon factories for Kosovo. A new super-army must arise in Kosovo. A super-police. Made from the best sons of the people. [....] Mothers and daughters of Serbia!" I could see the speaker boxes tremble with the noise, and yet Arkan's voice hardly could rise above the crowd's cheering. "Mothers and daughter of Serbia, I want you to give birth to ten children. If the Albanese can do it, then so can you: ten sons each." As if he had single-handedly made a goal, or had punched his opponent knock-out, the public roared with enthusiasm.
When I left, my ears squeaking, I realised that Arkan wasn't a typical Balkan product. Purely the fickle circumstances had allowed him to start his own bank or take a seat in parliament. [...] Arkan was a recognisable phenomenon, that is, he was the kind of pathological killer that is universal.
I concluded this with some relief. I had developed increasing doubts about this whole idea of the Balkan-man. Because so far I had only found a peculiar Macedonian beatnik and a master-villain ripped from the pages of a James Bond thriller. I had focussed on the extremities without concentrating on what moved the masses. And why, I asked myself, would I want to continue on this slippery slope of ethnology? [...]
I preferred to declare the Balkan-man dead, but my arguments to do this weren't strong enough yet.
So now Westerman focuses on the other side of the Kosovo population: the Albanian one. 1.7 million people in Kosovo that had subjugated to the ruling Serbian minority, that had been pushed out of most, if not all, public functions, and were united by a bloodless resistance. Westerman doubts that unity. And yet: when the Serbian army created a new road, the Albanese refused to make use of it, and preferred to roll their mule-carts through the grassy verges beside a perfectly level, unused tar road. All of the Albanese seem related, as family, split up in clans - and the clan elders had expressly prohibited violence - although Westerman finds plenty of sentiments to reach for arms against Serbians.
And then the book reaches the enigmas of the vendetta - that binds and dooms the Albanian men from birth - but which philosophy seems to underpin the whole of Balkan thinking. In 1989, so runs an estimate from the book, over 17.000 men risk their life the moment they set a foot outside. But the vendetta has been upheld by the clan-elders - because of the types of Miloević and Arkan. It reads as "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" - and it sounds too good to be true. It is. When Westerman meets another clan-elder, he learns that the vendetta already has retaken his course: another man has been killed. "Three years is a short while".
A. den Doolaard had written: "The vendetta was the doom of birth: never have I seen a race that carries the mark of Cain so distinguishable on its sombre, wise faces. [..] We in the west embrace Abel (at least, during peacetime), who multiplied the fruits of his harvest. Yet the [Albanian] honours Cain." Westerman is intrigued by this simple philosophy - but what would be its foundation? Den Doolaard had also speculated on this: The vendetta makes living life pleasantly bearable, an escape from an otherwise mind-numbingly dull existence.
Death motivated life. Leonard, Gjorg, the Shejqiri's and the Xhosa's killed each other born out of that same human need that had made Arkan choose a life of committing violent robberies, that made the matador enter the arena with the bull. But with one difference to the matador: the Balkan-man does not choose to enter the arena voluntarily, he's being dragged into it, whether he wants or not.
Bridge across the Tara
In the final piece, this theme crystallizes further. Westerman is brought to Montenegro specifically by the history of one man: architect Lazar Jauković, who built the bridge across the river Tara that separates Serbia from Montenegro. The same man destroyed his own creation during the Second World War and he was hung by the Italian forces on one of the bridge's remaining pillars. Westerman wonders: do the Montenegrins honour the architect for building the bridge, or for destroying it? Again, the amount of foresight in this book astonished me: Westerman interviews Slavko Perović, one of the first politicians to openly speak out for total independence of Serbia - which would happen in June 2006. Most of Lazar Jauković's relatives have already passed away - and by sheer fortune Westerman runs into his niece. From that interview he concludes: the Balkan-man is a man. Women do not matter, except for giving birth to soldiers.
And finally, he visits the bridge, spanning across the steep cleft. "As if a sword had cut the mountains in half." The Serbian customs halts the group of people, but lets them finally walk across the bridge.
We kept talking for a while. When the ice had been broken, Colin asked whether we could cross the bridge. "Go ahead," they said. Goran didn't dare to look across the railing; it took me a lot of effort. The boulders in the stream below could only be reached by fifteen minutes of falling down.
"You aren't afraid, are you?" taunted one of the Serbian men. We turned and saw how the Balkan-man was standing on the edge of the railing. He walked ten, twenty, thirty paces, a balancing act with death, before he jumped back onto the road.
Complete despise of death! "That indifference towards dying is inherited, the Serbians are like that," had Den Doolaard said.
Its final conclusion:
Perhaps it works like this: the Balkan-man exists in the heads and minds of the people on the Balkan. He does not exist in their genes or blood. To make him continue to live on, he must be recreated in every new generation and because this had continuously happened, it gives the appearance that it is part of its nature. Yet: because he's become entangled in the web of his own history, he's become powerless to look ahead neutrally. That's his tragedy. The Balkan-man marches with his back first into the future.
Keeping in mind the pending decision on December 10 about the future state of Kosovo, Westerman's reading of the cultures and the people on the Balkan do not bode particularly well for the results that now are coming rapidly to a climatic head.