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SAME LAND, SAME FATE

4 minute read
James Walsh

In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Mark Antony reflects on the numbing cruelties of civil war, a “domestic fury” so dreadful “that mothers shall but smile when they behold/Their infants quartered…/All pity chok’d with custom of fell deeds.” Last week, it seemed, the pitilessness that has devoured so much of the former Yugoslavia since 1991 was at last choking itself toward extinction. Strife that has fed on vengeful mythologies and minor cultural differences was succumbing, among many southern Slavs, to a universality of victimhood. Around the western Balkans, sorry droves of refugees could almost have exchanged identities as they toted a few spare relics from their past lives into banishment.

Which creased face of age, which inconsolable howl from a child, could distinguish some nominal victor from vanquished? Scores of thousands of Croatian Serbs flowed to Serbia, Bosnian Croats to Croatia and Muslims from centuries-old homelands in Bosnia to the last strongholds of their community. As foreign observers adduced evidence of a terrible death that may have befallen 5,000 or more army-age Muslim men in Srebrenica, an eastern Bosnian town conquered by Serbs last month, the U.N. began to document deeds that were perhaps just as appalling, albeit much less extensive, against some Serbs uprooted by Croatian troops two weeks ago: burned, pillaged houses and the bodies of slaughtered refugees. Though some new fighting appeared imminent, notably around Dubrovnik as Croatian forces massed there, already changed circumstances on the ground emboldened the U.S. to press what could be the first winning peace formula.

If Washington’s blueprint works, and that remained dicey, the rough disposition of peoples that is now a fait accompli, thanks to the Croatian army’s blitz through the Serb-held Krajina region, would serve as defensible territories for coexistence. One thorn in this rose may really sting the Muslim-led government in Sarajevo: a suggested abandonment of Gorazde, the remnant republic’s last outpost in the east, in exchange for Serb concessions of greater breathing space around Sarajevo itself. In turn, the U.S. would lead its allies in committing substantial reconstruction aid to Bosnia and, most important, some 25,000 troops as part of the nato force to implement the peace. Western Europe’s capitals signed up for the deal, so eager are they to be free of Bosnia. An accident on the road to Sarajevo in which three key American officials and a French peacekeeper were killed, prompted personal anguish, but the U.S. peace mission pushed on. Assistant U.S. Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke, who had been shopping the formula around the Balkans, won a cordial reception from Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, who stands to gain relief from the U.N. economic embargo.

This road to peace remained full of pitfalls, but all the crisscrossing trails of tears underscored how fundamentally kindred–in most important respects, all but indistinguishable–are the various Yugoslavs who wage this “domestic fury.” One sign of tempered passions was the purge of Banja Luka, a comfortable seat of mixed traditions before the war. Chastened Bosnian Serb forces carried out ethnic purification here with a new twist: allowing some 5,000 Croats and Muslims to leave peaceably.

In her 1940 classic Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, the British writer Rebecca West speculated that should she accost a Yugoslav peasant, “whisper to him, ‘In your lifetime, have you known peace?’ wait for his answer, shake his shoulders and transform him into his father, and ask him the same question, and transform him in turn into his father, I would never hear the word ‘Yes.'” Now that the spread of fresh suffering has recalled this heritage, perhaps it will help sketch out a sense of shared destiny.

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