Wild strawberries were served in a silver cup at breakfast, I remember, followed by hot rolls with apricot jam. The dining-room overlooked the lake, and when the window was open, you could feel the mountain air sweeping across the water and the white linen tablecloth and then on to your face.

The hotel was called the Toplice, on the shores of Lake Bled in Slovenia. The diplomatic corps spent the summer there, in attendance upon the dictator who took up residence across the lake. My father, like the other diplomats, came to gossip and take the waters. Every morning, he visited the hot mineral water baths beneath the hotel. I played tennis, rowed on the lake and conceived a passion for an unapproachable Swedish girl of twelve.

We travelled everywhere in the Yugoslavia of the late 1950s– through Bosnian hill villages, where barefoot children swarmed up to the car; to the great mosque of Sarajevo, where I removed my shoes and knelt and watched old men pressing their foreheads on the carpets and whispering their prayers; to the Dalmatian islands and beaches, then unvisited by Western tourists; to Lake Bled in Slovenia.

Parts of southern Serbia, central Bosnia and western Hercegovina were so poor that it was not clear how ordinary people survived. Llubliana and Zagreb, by contrast, were neat, prosperous Austro-Hungarian towns that seemed to have nothing in common with the bony, bare hinterlands of central Yugoslavia.

At the time all expressions of economic resentment, as well as of nationalist consciousness, were banned by Tito. The society marched forward, willingly or unwillingly, under the banner of ‘brotherhood and unity’. To call yourself a Croat or Serb first, and a Yugoslav second, was to risk arrest.

I had no idea how complicated and ambiguous the division between national and Yugoslav identity actually was. I knew that Metod, my tennis coach in Bled, always called himself, first and foremost, a Slovenian. I dimly remember him saying bitterly that he hated serving in the Yugoslav National Army, because both he and his brother were ragged by the Serbs for being Slovenian.

Was that the only time I saw the cracks that were to become fissures? Everywhere else, I remember people who told me, happily, that they were Yugoslavs. In retrospect, I was there at the most hopeful moment. Tito was still lionized for having kept the country out of Stalin’s empire; there were the first signs of the economic boom of the sixties; soon to come was the liberalization of travel which allowed millions of Yugoslavs to work abroad and which for a time made Yugoslavia the most free of all the eastern European communist countries.

I hold on to my ancien régime memories. Everyone now says the descent into hell was inevitable. Nothing seemed less likely at the time. My childhood tells me that nothing is inevitable.

 

The Highway of Brotherhood and Unity

Between Belgrade and Zagreb is the Highway of Brotherhood and Unity, built by Tito to link the two central republics of Croatia and Serbia. For three hundred kilometres, it runs parallel to the Sava river, through the Slavonian plain, some of the flattest and richest farmland in Europe.

Driving along the highway this summer, I soon become aware what an odd road it is. For a start, all the green destination signs have been painted over. I stop at one and take a closer look. The sign says I am headed towards Lipovac. I peel back the Lipovac decal, and the word Belgrade appears beneath. As far as Croatia is concerned, the Serbian capital has disappeared. Officially, therefore, I am on a highway to nowhere.

About forty kilometres past Zagreb, the Croatian traffic begins taking the exits, leaving the highway to me. Apart from the UN Jeeps and lorries heading out from Zagreb, mine is the only civilian car on the road. I have a superb four-lane motorway all to myself. I stop. I get out, cross both carriageways and back again. No one. Then I get into the car, take it up to 115 miles an hour, feeling an adolescent zeal. I roar up to a toll-booth, only to discover that its windows are smashed and the booth is empty, though the hazard lights continue to blink on and off. I back up and take the tollbooth at full speed.

I have no company except the hawks circling above the deserted highway, looking for field mice, and the feral cats prowling along the grassy, uncut verges. But from time to time, I can just make out the flash of reflected sunlight on the binoculars of Croatian spotter teams dug into the motorway exit ramps. They must be puzzled by the civilian car using this deserted stretch of motorway as a drag-strip.

I have Austrian plates on the car. With Croatian or Serbian plates, I couldn’t proceed beyond any of the checkpoints ahead. I am also equipped with a UNPROFOR pass, the essential passport for the UN protection zones I am about to enter. In the boot are canisters of extra petrol to get me through the Serbian zones, which are under petrol embargo. There is also a flak jacket. I put it on once and took it off immediately. It is ludicrously cumbersome and in practice useless. All you think about when you are wearing it are the parts of your body that remain exposed. In any case, the canisters of petrol have already leaked on to the flak jacket, ensuring that, if I do get hit while wearing it, I will burst into flames.

About an hour out of Zagreb, I see the first signs of war: the guard-rails on the central median strip have been chewed up and are scattered about one of the carriageways. I begin to feel the track marks left behind in the road surface by the passage of tanks and armoured personnel carriers. Further on, the road is pocked and pitted by mortar blasts. On one of the motorway bridges, I spot my first cross, the four Cyrillic Ss in each quadrant, standing for the Serbian motto: Only Unity Can Save the Serbs. On the next motorway bridge, I see the U for Ustashe and the chequered flag of the Sahovnica. On my left, near an exit ramp, a rusted and burnt-out bus is on its side, its roof sheared away by some form of incoming fire. I have reached the edge of the war zone.

 

Jasenovac

At Novska, seventy kilometres east of Zagreb, a UN Jeep meets me and leads my car down a shell-damaged slip-road, over a pontoon bridge, past the Serb and Croat checkpoints and drops me off at a wrecked building which used to house the Jasenovac museum and memorial centre.

Between 1941 and 1945, trains drew up at the rail-head ramp on the other side of a vast, marshy field that slopes down to the Sava river. Jews and Serbs, gypsies and Croatian communists were herded out of the wagons and down the ramp to the barracks behind the barbed wire. They were put to work in the brick factory, and when they could work no longer, they were burned in the brick ovens or shot in the back of the head and dumped in the Sava river.

No one knows how many people died here on the bare field behind the museum where the barracks and barbed wire once stood. Serbs maintain the figure is 700,000. There isn’t a Serb village in central Croatia which didn’t lose someone in this place. Croats insist that the number is no more than 40,000. Independent researchers have put the number in the region of 250,000.

It is just as difficult to come to terms with what happened only two years ago, when the war of 1991 reached Jasenovac. For I am walking into a museum that has been systematically destroyed. Every book in the library has been ripped up and tossed on to the floor. Every glass exhibit case has been smashed. Every photograph has been defaced. Every file has been pulled out of every drawer; every table and chair has been up-ended; all the curtains have been shredded; all the windows have been smashed; all the walls have been daubed with excrement and slogans. An intense hatred, an overwhelming hatred from the past, has taken hold of the people who did this. As if by destroying the museum, they hoped to destroy the memory of what was done here.

I try to piece together what the exhibits might have been like. On the floor, a picture of a crowd of prisoners waiting at the barbed wire lies beside a photograph of a young woman, her hair in plaits, leaning on a fence. There is a photo of a prelate shaking hands with an SS officer; it is on top of a pile of prisoners’ files and beside shredded portraits of Tito. The history of Yugoslavia seems to lie among the shattered glass and filth at my feet.

Museum guides would have tried to teach schoolchildren what happened here, and I can see how they struggled to understand it; their drawings lie scattered all over: barbed wire, bright barracks, water-colour guards, the walking skeletons at the brick works, as seen through the eyes of a nine-year-old.

I find scraps of film, ripped from the projectors in the museum cinema. I bend down and hold the frames up to the light from a shattered window. In one strip, there is an old man weeping; in another, a starved woman tottering down the road; in a third, eighteen frames of a headless corpse.

Light streams through a shell hole in the roof of the lecture theatre. A lectern is still standing; the seats, cinema screen and wall panelling have all been burnt out. On the front of the lectern there are the words, in Serbo-Croatian: Lest We Forget.

After 1945, Tito had the camp bulldozed in the hope that Serbs and Croats might forget. Then in the 1960s, when Tito had assumed that the wounds had now healed, the memorial centre was opened. But after all the school visits and lectures and film showings, Yugoslavia never came to terms with what happened here. The past remained unmastered and unforgiven.

When Croatia declared its independence in 1990, it made one central mistake, one that may have put the new state on the road to war: it failed to disavow publicly its fascist past, to disassociate itself from the Ustashe state and what it did at Jasenovac. The President of Free Croatia, Franjo Tudjman, fought the Ustashe as a young partisan, but in the euphoria of independence, he tried to unite all of Croatia’s tortured past into what was called a national synthesis. He never visited Jasenovac. He never got down on his knees, as Willy Brandt did at the Warsaw Ghetto. Had he done so, the local Serb leaders would have had difficulty persuading their Serb followers that the new Croatia was the fascist Ustashe come again.

Serbs scoff when you say Tudjman should have atoned for Jasenovac.

Are you crazy? they say. His party was financed by Croatians abroad, in Toronto and Melbourne. And who were they? Old Ustashe.

But the problem runs deeper. The wartime Ustashe state was Croatia’s first experience of being an independent nation. It has proved impossible for Croatian nationalists to disavow that nationhood, even if it was also a fascist one. Instead, they evade the issue. They dismiss tales of Ustashe atrocity as Serbian propaganda; they airbrush atrocity into crime by playing statistical sleight of hand with the numbers who died. Finally, it appears, some Croats have dealt with Jasenovac by vandalizing its remains.

It is said that aggression begins in denial and that violence originates in guilt. A nation that cannot repudiate a fascist past may condemn itself to a fascist future. True enough. But there is another equally imprisoning mechanism at work. If your enemies call you a fascist enough times, you begin to call yourself one too. Take your enemies’ insult and turn it into a badge of pride. How many times in the weeks ahead do I meet Croats at checkpoints who say: ‘They call us Ustashe. Well then, that is what we are.’ And likewise, the Serbs. ‘You call us chetniks. Well that is what we are.’ The two sides conspire in a spiral of mutually interacting self-degradation. And where does that spiral begin? In the most ordinary form of cowardice, in telling lies about the past.

But that is not all.

Tito’s Yugoslavia remembered the Croatians of Jasenovac only as murderers, never as victims. Tito never built a memorial for the thousands of Croatians who were massacred on the roads of northeastern Croatia and Slovenia in May 1945, fleeing Tito’s own communist partisans. The guilt of Jasenovac has become unbearable, not merely because it was great, but also because it was unjust. At Jasenovac you discern the lie that eventually destroyed Tito’s Yugoslavia: that the Second World War was a national uprising against German occupation led by Tito’s partisans. In reality it was a civil war fought among Yugoslavs.

Jasenovac makes you ponder liberal pieties. Somewhere in my childhood, I must have been taught that telling lies eventually makes you ill. When Vaclav Havel said that people need to live in truth, he also meant that nations cannot hope to hold together if they do not come to some common–and truthful–version of their past. But there are nations with pasts so hard to share that they need centuries before forgetting does its work. To ask for truth might be too much. Yugoslavia might be such a case. Fifty years was not enough time to forget.

 

Cry, girl, cry

Thomas Hobbes would have understood Yugoslavia. What Hobbes would have said, having lived through religious civil war himself, is that when people are sufficiently afraid they will do anything. There is one type of fear more devastating in its impact than any other: the systemic fear which arises when a state begins to collapse. Ethnic hatred is the result of the terror which arises when legitimate authority disintegrates.

On all the roads which lead north from the Highway of Brotherhood and Unity, there is a continuous swathe of devastation. I am in central Croatia now, in the heart of what was once one of the most complex, multi-ethnic communities in Europe: a Croatian majority, a Serbian minority along with several other groups–Germans, Italians and Hungarians. The 1991 war tore these villages apart, and now they are divided between Croatian and Serbian sectors, with UN checkpoints in between.

Roofless houses, their tiles and beams lying in deserted, weed-filled rooms; fire-edged window and door frames; brick walls pierced by artillery blasts. Some houses have been raked by so much automatic-weapon fire that the plaster has been torn away, leaving only the pitted brick. The tree trunks outside wear a glittering jacket of metal slugs. In the ditches lie small Yugoslav Zastovo cars, riddled with bullets or twisted into rusted sculpture by a tank’s treads.

At first the destruction appears to have no rhyme or reason. In some villages, not a wall has been left unsprayed with bullets, while in others, scarcely a house has been touched. I work like an archaeologist, sifting through the clues to discern the pattern. There appear to be three forms of destruction.

The most surgical is dynamiting: the houses then collapse in neat piles, with minimal damage to the ones next door. Families are driven out by their neighbours or by paramilitaries, and their homes are simply blown up. Many of these dynamited piles are large, recently constructed houses. How many years as a gastarbeiter in a German car-plant were invested in them?

The second type of destruction is accomplished by artillery fire, from the Yugoslav National Army guns which punch round, tyre-sized holes in Croatian village walls.

The third type of destruction is fire-bombing, which leaves scorch-marks on all the windows. This would have been the work of marauding paramilitaries–from both sides.

Some houses are daubed by the Serbs with the letter U, for Ustashe, marking them for ethnic cleansing. Others have the crudely painted names of those who lived in them. I spend hours in these ruins, the dust in my throat, the sound of broken glass under my feet, deciphering the clues to the shape of catastrophe.

Never say ethnic cleansing is just racial hatred run wild, just Balkan madness. For there is a deep logic to it. By 1990, this part of Yugoslavia was a Hobbesian world. No one in these villages could be sure of being protected. If you’re a Serb, and are attacked, do you go to the Croatian police? If you’re a Croat, in a Serbian village, being attacked at night by Serbian paramilitaries, usually led by a former policeman, where do you go? If you can’t trust your neighbours, drive them out. If you can’t live among them, live only among your own. Ethnic cleansing appears to offer people their only security. It alone gave respite from the fear which leaped like a brush-fire from house to house.

As you travel through the zones of devastation in central Croatia, you have the impression that you have fallen through some hole and are spinning backwards into the past. You are not in 1993, but 1943. In Serb villages, old ladies in black scarves and black wool dresses watch you suspiciously as you pass; ribbed haycarts go by, driven by old men in their World War Two khaki forage caps. In their back gardens, women are bending over their hoes. On the roads, militiamen, wearing the red, white and blue shoulder badge of the Serbian Krajina, emerge from dugouts to stop the car and search you. Everyone is wary. Few talk.

In one ruined farm, formerly inhabited by Croatians, I come upon an old Serbian couple camping in the remains of an outbuilding. They are in their eighties and have been driven by the Croatians from their home in Daruvar, forty kilometres to the north. The old man is sawing up a piece of charred wood for the stove. The old woman is tidying up their tiny room, with its bed, its cracked window, table, two cups and two chairs, and spotlessly swept floor. They have rebuilt the roof themselves, and have survived on what they get from neighbours and the Red Cross. We sit on a stump, in the middle of the ruins. I ask them if this war has been worse than the last one.

The old woman replies, with bitter scorn. ‘In the last one, we all fought the Germans. This time, there is just betrayal.’ Neighbour against neighbour, friend against friend.

Can you ever live together again? I ask, knowing the answer. They both shake their heads and look away.

I ask how they manage to survive, and they suddenly revive.

‘God will arrange everything,’ they both say in unison, exchanging a cheerful glance across what must be fifty years of marriage. When I get up to leave, the old man takes my hand and holds it in a long, intense grip. His bright, blue eyes stare deep into mine. ‘Truth and national rights. That is all we want. Truth and national rights.’

A kilometre away, across another checkpoint, this time in the Croatian village of Lipic, I come across a man helping a team of six women in blue overalls stacking up the usable bricks from the rubble of a flattened house. It turns out that he is its owner, and the women are from a municipal detachment sent out to repair damaged houses.

Tomaslav Marekovic is his name, Yup to his friends. Yup is the caretaker in the local hospital and coach of the local football team in his spare time. I suspect, without knowing for sure, that he is also a prominent local supporter of the HDZ, the ruling Croatian party. Why else, I reason, is his the only house I can find in Lipic where the rubble is being cleared by a municipal work detail?

He shows me where his kitchen was, where the television set used to be, where his couch stood. Now there is nothing left but the foundations and a mound of bricks which the women are stacking in piles after chipping away the mortar. Next door’s house was untouched. Why? I ask.

Serbs, he says. We always got on. Now, he says, they are in West Germany.

And the house next door to that?

My parents, he says laconically. He points to the street. ‘That is where they left my father. There, in the street, for three weeks, before someone buried the body. And my mother, they took her to a barn and set her on fire.’

Yugoslav Army tanks, dug into the hills above Lipic, were pounding the town and, under directions from local Serbian paramilitaries, were targeting Croat houses. When Yup’s house came under bombardment, he and his wife jumped in their car and fled to Zagreb, but his parents refused to come, thinking they would be safe. Days later, they were dragged out of their house by Serbian paramilitaries, possibly from the same village. They were shot. As Yup tells me all this, he sighs, pauses to light a cigarette, and stares glumly into the distance. The women work silently around us, stacking bricks.

Yup calls for a break, and I sit down with the women at a trestle table in his tiny back garden. I want to know why the work detail is all female, and they reply, with much laughter and winking: ‘Because women are better workers.’ Left unsaid is the fact that so many Croatian males are away serving in the army. I tell them that the Serbs nearby aren’t rebuilding. They’re living in the ruins, with their guns trained towards Croatia.

‘They’re not rebuilding,’ says one woman, ‘because they know they’re done for.’ Some women nod; the others look down silently at the table.

Yup says, ‘Three of you are Serbs, isn’t that right?’ And the three women beside me nod and look back down at the table. In the silence, they leave it to me to figure out how it comes about that three Serbian women are helping to rebuild a Croat’s house. It is because they were married to Croats, have lived here all their lives and find themselves now, torn in two, as their village is. The Serbian woman beside me begins to cry, and a stillness descends over everyone. The Croatian women across the table look at her dispassionately, while she crumples into herself. ‘Cry, girl, cry,’ says one and reaches over and takes her hand.

 

The Highway of Brotherhood and Unity - Michael Ignatieff
 

Warlords

Back in 1989, we thought the new world opened up by the breaching of the Berlin Wall would be ruled by philosopher kings, dissident heroes and shipyard electricians. We looked forward to a new order of nation states, released from the senile grip of the Soviets. We assumed that national self-determination had to mean freedom, and that nationalism had to mean nation building. We were wrong. We hoped for order. We got pandemonium. In the name of nationalism, dozens of viable nation states have been shattered beyond repair. In the name of state building, we have returned large portions of Europe to the pre-political chaos prior to the emergence of the modern state.

Large portions of the former Yugoslavia are now ruled by figures that have not been seen in Europe since medieval times: warlords. They appear wherever nation states disintegrate: in the Lebanon, Somalia, northern India, Armenia, Georgia, Ossetia, Cambodia, Liberia, the former Yugoslavia. With their car-phones, faxes and exquisite personal weaponry, they look post-modern, but the reality is pure medieval.

The warlord’s vehicle of choice is a four-wheel-drive Cherokee Chief, with a policeman’s blue light on the roof to flash when speeding through a checkpoint. They carry a gun but don’t wave it about. They leave vulgar intimidation to the bodyguards in the back, the ones with shades, jeans and Zastovo machine pistols. They themselves dress in the leather jackets, floral ties and pressed corduroy trousers favoured by German television producers. The ones I met at the checkpoints leading off from the Highway of Brotherhood and Unity were short, stubby men who in a former life had been small-time hoods, small-town cops or both. Spend a day with them, touring their world, and you’d hardly know that most are serial killers.

Warlords dominate the war zones; they have also worked their way in to the heart of power in the authoritarian single-party states of both Croatia and Serbia.

Warlords are celebrities in the Balkans. They have seats in the Serbian parliament. One, Vojislav Seselj, the self-styled Duke of the Serbian chetniks, runs his own party as well as a full-time paramilitary unit. Another, Zeljko Raznjatovic–also known as Arkan–controls an eight-hundred-strong paramilitary unit called the Tigers, who raped and tortured their way through eastern Slavonia in the Croatian war of 1991. This odious thug–there is an Interpol warrant for his arrest for an attempted murder in Sweden–is a parliamentary deputy who also operates a number of immensely profitable sanctions-busting businesses, including one that sells smuggled petrol for hard currency. Ever the post-modern Prince of Darkness, Arkan has launched himself into celebrity franchising. In Serbian farmhouses in eastern Slavonia, the icon you are most likely to see, beside an image of Saint Sava, is a large coloured calendar with a different picture of Arkan for every month of the year.

That Arkan is allowed to serve as a deputy in the Serbian parliament is proof, Croatians will tell you, that Serbia is a fascist regime. It is not. Belgrade is no less democratic than Zagreb, with functioning opposition parties and newspapers. Milovan Djilas’s characterization of Serbian politics–‘democracy with a tinge of banditism’–also explains how the warlords have worked their way into the heart of the system.

Because there are warlords on the Croatian side too, if not in Zagreb, then in the front-line towns. Osijek is run by council president and local party boss Branimir Glavas.

I tour the town in Glavas’s Jeep; it is like being with a spectacularly popular local politician in a small American town. He comes across a wedding and is serenaded by the band; the bridegroom asks him to kiss the bride; the revellers hand him bottles of wine to try. This man is, however, also leader of the Glavas Unit, a paramilitary group responsible for the defence of Osijek; it is also responsible for the cleansing of Serbian villages and for the murder of Croatian policemen who sought to maintain good relations with Serbs.

Glavas flashes a policeman’s badge at the police checkpoints and a military pass at the front line. The limits of his power are as imprecise as they are pervasive. He has translated the nefarious glamour of the warlord into peacetime power, but assures me that he could re-mobilize his paramilitaries overnight.

Thirty kilometres away, across the front line in Serb-held Vukovar, there is Mr Kojic, the Serbian equivalent of Mr Glavas. Same Jeep, same courteous manner. Same guns.

The warlords are nationalists, but their convictions are uninteresting. They are technicians of violence, rather than ideologues. Before everyone else, they understood that ethnic nationalism has delivered the ordinary people of the Balkans straight back to the pre-political state of nature where, as Thomas Hobbes predicted, life is nasty, brutish and short. In the state of nature, the man with a Zastovo machine pistol and a Cherokee Chief is king.

And the warlord not only offers protection. He offers a solution. He tells his people: if we cannot trust our neighbours, we must rid ourselves of them. If we cannot live together in a single state, we must create clean states of our own. Ethnic cleansing is not just motivated by nationalist hatred. It is the warlord’s coldly rational solution to the Hobbesian war of all against all. Rid yourself of your neighbours, the warlord says, and you no longer have to fear them. Live among your own, and you can live in peace. With me and my boys to protect you.

 

Belgrade

On the Highway of Brotherhood and Unity, you never tell anybody where you’ve really come from or where you’re really going. At the Croatian checkpoints, you say that you’re going to the next Croatian town. At the Serb checkpoints, you smile, let them search your boot, rummage through the dirty underwear in your luggage, offer them Marlboros and tell them over and over that you are heading towards the bosom of Mother Serbia.

At the first toll-booth on the Serbian side of the highway, you do not hand them the toll card you picked up at the Zagreb entrance. You say instead that you’ve come from the Serbian Krajina, and then negotiate your toll in German marks.

About twenty kilometres from Belgrade, I see the first sign of the impact of Western sanctions: enormous queues of small Zastovos, Fiats and Renault 5s stretching from service stations, and large crowds of men gathered around the empty pumps, waiting. The men play cards, talk politics, sing to a harmonica, but when I approach them, and they discover that I’m a Western writer, they surround me, an angry knot of men. A short man with a pork-pie hat, mud-encrusted boots and the hands of a farmer pokes me in the chest: ‘What the hell were we supposed to do with those Croats? Wait for them to cut our throats? And what do you do? You give us these sanctions. You call that fair?’ And so it goes, with themes and variations, that soon have them blaming Churchill and the British for supporting Tito rather than Draza Mihailovic. The British are to blame for fifty years of Communism in Yugoslavia.

Their anger would be more threatening if it were not so comic. The men in the queue approach, then say they don’t want to have anything to do with a Westerner, then turn on their heels–their friends all admire the splendid gesture of defiance–and then return and start talking, pausing to let me take notes, peering over my shoulder to see how I spell their names. This, I learn, is part of the ritual style of Serbian nationalism itself. The dance has its opening quadrille: we won’t talk; the West never understands; we despise you; you tell nothing but lies; then they start talking and never stop. Ask anybody a simple question and you get that telltale phrase: ‘You have to understand our history . . .’ Twenty minutes later and you are still being told about King Lazar, the Turks and the Battle of Kosovo. Everywhere there is a deep conviction that no one understands them, coupled with the fervent, unstoppable desire to explain and justify themselves.

Next morning, I visit a bank; there is a queue; the ritual repeats itself. People violently and vehemently refuse to talk, only to launch into a stream of Serbian self-justification that begins with their immemorial struggle against the Turks and concludes with their defence of Bosnian Serbia against the Muslim fundamentalists. Along the way, the invective sweeps up the anti-Serbian crimes of Churchill, Roosevelt, Stalin and Tito into a rhetorical flow as muddy as a spring torrent.

Bank queues are as fundamental a part of Belgrade life as the petrol queue. The economy is in a state of advanced hyperinflation–running at two hundred per cent per month. In the restaurants, the price stickers on the menus change overnight. The only reliable hedge against inflation is a hard currency account. Many private banks have opened for business and promise to pay ten per cent per month on such accounts. How they manage to do so is a mystery. The rumour is that the private banks are deeply engaged in the nether world of smuggling, illegal oil imports from the Ukraine, arms-trading with Russia together with the laundering of Western drug money. Some banks have gone bust, and the fear is that if more do, the Milosevic regime itself might be swept away in the ensuing economic chaos.

So anxious are the small depositors about the fate of their accounts that many queue all night in order to ensure they can make a withdrawal. The queues stretch hundreds of yards, a pushing, shoving mass of cold, deeply unhappy, old-age pensioners, many weak with tiredness.

 

Tito’s Grave

He liked greenhouses. So he built himself a greenhouse. He used to rest here, among the poinsettias and the cacti, like an old lizard in the sun. Now they have buried him in the greenhouse, in front of his residence in Belgrade. There is a large white marble slab, with bronze lettering: JOSIP BROZ TITO, 1892–1980.

No one much visits any more. On the day I show up, it is raining, and water is dripping from a broken skylight onto the Marshal’s grave.

In 1945, on Tito’s birthday, some teenagers ran a relay race from Kragujevic to Belgrade and presented him with a baton. Every year of his reign, the ‘youth’ of Yugoslavia repeated that race and at the end of it they presented the old dictator with the relay batons. His birthday became ‘Youth Day’. Twenty thousand batons are kept in the museum next to his grave.

How quickly the legitimacy of power drains away. The batons were not ridiculous twenty years ago. The relay race meant something to people. Now it seems to belong to the rites of some vanished tribe.

What does one conclude? Dictators have no successors. Charisma is the most unstable of legitimacies. That much is obvious. But what about democracy? Was there ever, really, a chance of democracy here? The old lizard himself would have said: Never, they will tear themselves apart if you let them. From the hell where dead tyrants are sent, he is surveying the inferno that followed his reign and saying: I told you so. There must be a rule of iron. I was right.

But nothing proves the dictator right. Time was needed; time for old men to die and their shame to die with them. In a culture which never had the time to experience the banality of bourgeois politics, nationalism became the vernacular of democracy in Yugoslavia. Not real democracy, of course, but the manipulated plebiscitary democracy which ratifies one-man rule. In that kind of democracy, nationalism offers the immense appeal of a politics of permanent fever, of eternal exaltation. Instead of the banal politics of the real–the poverty, backwardness, stubborn second-rateness of ordinary Balkan existence–nationalism directs the mind to higher things. It offers the glorious politics of identity and self-affirmation. Instead of the interminable politics of interest and conciliation, there are enemies to defeat; there is the immortal cause, the martyrs of the past and the present to keep faith with. And it does not escape the attention of cynics and criminals that in this state of organized and permanent exaltation, there is no cynicism, no crime, no large or small brutality, which cannot be justified if the words ‘nation’, ‘people’, ‘rights’ and ‘freedom’ are suavely sprinkled over it.

And what about us?

Standing back from the disaster, one sees that the Western failure to act in time was caused by something deeper than inattention, misinformation or misguided good intentions. The very principles behind our policies were in contradiction. In the light-headed euphoria of 1989, we supported the right of national self-determination and the continuing right of existing states to maintain their territorial integrity. How could we support both?

Most of all, we allowed guilt over our imperial pasts to keep us from defining the terms of a post-imperial peace. Post-imperial societies felt guilty condemning the nationalism of peoples who have been kept under imperial control. When the ‘captive nations’, from the Baltic to the Balkans, demanded their freedom, we did not stop to consider the consequences. After Versailles, after Yalta, the collapse of the last empire in Europe offered us a third opportunity to define a durable peace and create a new order of nations in Europe. We could have ended the Cold War with a comprehensive territorial settlement, defining borders, minority rights guarantees and adjudicating between rival claims to self-determination. But so concerned were we to avoid playing the imperial policeman that we allowed every local post-communist demagogue to exploit the rhetoric of self-determination and national rights to his own ends. The terrible new order of ethnically cleansed states in the former Yugoslavia is the monument to our folly, as much as it is to theirs.

 

An Old Man’s Wallet

I am standing in the street directly in front of the Moscow Hotel in downtown Belgrade in the middle of a listless, slowly disintegrating demonstration against the Milosevic regime. A crowd of several hundred people is slowly discovering that it is too small to make anything happen. In the middle of the crowd is an old man wearing a chetnik hat. I go up and talk to him. He is in his seventies and he fought with Mihailovic against Tito during the Second World War. Does he have sons? I ask him.

He takes out his wallet and shows me three passport-sized colour pictures: each of his sons, all in their twenties. Two are dead, killed during the Croatian war. The third is in prison.

Why is he in prison?

Because, the old man says, he took his vengeance. He found the killer of one of his brothers, and killed him.

The old man then takes out a small folded news clipping from a Croatian newspaper. There is a passport-sized photo of another young man. ‘The bastard who killed my son. But we got him. We got him,’ he says, neatly folding the picture of his son’s assassin back into the wallet with the pictures of his sons.

From father to son, from son to son, there is no end to it, this form of love, this keeping faith between generations which is vengeance. In this village war, where everyone knows each other, where an old man keeps the picture of his son’s killer beside the picture of the son who avenged them both. There is no end, for when he dies, this old man knows, and it gives him grim satisfaction, there will be someone to do vengeance for him too.

 

Photograph © Magnum

The Visit
World War One Veterans