You can spend years refusing to face up to the obvious. You can find endless justifications and search for ifs and buts. Eventually, however, there comes a moment when the visitor to the Balkans must simply put his head in his hands and cry: “Enough!” One nagging question returns to haunt you: why have so many millions of Serbs become liars on a grand scale or gone mad, or both?
Everybody feels that their own point of view is sometimes misunderstood. Many feel that their country is right, even when it is wrong. But none except the Serbs have managed in recent years to take this reversal of reality to such a high art form. According to a view held widely in Serbia today, anybody who accuses the Serbs of anything (yes, anything) either has been duped by or is part of an international conspiracy – an a la carte mixture of Bill Clinton (trying to distract from cigars and moral decay in the Oval Office), Germany (with its well-known ambitions for a Fourth Reich) and international Islam (seeking a fundamentalist takeover). When western news reports show Serbs in a bad light, it is only because the reporters are too stupid or venal to tell the shining, shaming truth.
The Serb grasp on reality can make The X Files seem down to earth. Take the extraordinary (and typical) conversation I had recently with Darko, a well-educated resident of Pale, a little town half an hour’s drive from Sarajevo that used to be the capital of Radovan Karadzic’s Bosnian Serb republic. “Why does Tony Blair blame the Serbs for everything?” Darko asked. “What have Serbs done wrong?”
Well, there’s a question and a half. I take a deep breath as I flash through the mental index of the past eight years. Camps, cleansing, rapes, massacres – where shall we start? Finally I cautiously toss out one word: Srebrenica, the little Bosnian town where thousands of civilians were notoriously slaughtered in cold blood in 1995. Every detail of the massacre has been analysed and re-analysed. I expect my new acquaintance to sound defensive when the name is mentioned. Not a bit of it. He leaps upon the name of Srebrenica like a hungry piranha on a bleeding hunk of flesh: “It was war. We tried to relieve our country. There was no massacre.” So that’s that.
In a Serb Orthodox monastery, I have an equally baffling encounter. Father Luke, the abbot, wistfully notes that international attitudes towards Serbs have changed in recent years. “Before, all doors were open for me as a Serb. Now all of them are closed. What happened?” Another humdinger of a question. My explanation is promptly rejected: “No, it’s not to do with what we Serbs have done.” In his view Serbs are being crucified for the sins of mankind. “There was a need for one nation to take all the sins on its back.”
You can find isolated instances of lunacy in any country. But nowhere more than in Serbia. Take the question of Albanians fleeing Kosovo – Serb TV blames the exodus on Nato raids. Ask Albanian refugees if that is indeed the reason, and they’ll tell you that power comes out of the barrel of a Serb gun. The standard, shared experience is of a small group of armed men telling everybody in the village to clear out within the next half an hour, on pain of death.
Ask Serbs why the Albanians are leaving, however, and they will repeat with a straight face the line about Nato bombings. You get the impression that most of them could pass a lie-detector test on the matter. You can blame this in part on the Serb government’s powerful propaganda machine. Milosevic’s iron control of TV – with its poisonous messages of hate and paranoia – has played an important role in recent years. But even those who have access to alternative sources of news still subscribe enthusiastically to the view of unsullied Serb innocence.
Back in the winter of 1996, things seemed very different. The streets were filled with the deafening sound of thousands of whistles calling time on the Serb leader. The banging of pots and pans every night at 7.30pm was supposed to drown out the lies of TV news. Milosevic briefly seemed doomed, and a healthy Serbia seemed to be emerging. It was all an illusion. Nowadays many of the pot-bangers sit nodding in agreement in front of the TV news.
In recent weeks Nato has sought to highlight the demonstrations against conscription in Serb towns, as a way of proving that support for the regime is less solid than it was. Up to a point. But an unwillingness to allow your sons to be killed is rather different from understanding why your country is under attack in the first place. This far more important change is yet to come.
For the moment, most Serbs have a clear rule of thumb for assessing the accuracy of a news report. If the report shows others in a bad light, it is accurate; if it shows Serbs in a bad light, it is a malicious invention.
As the experience of modern Germany shows, there is nothing pre-programmed about lunacy. Germany was a normal country before 1933 and is a normal country again today. Just as a sane country can turn mad, a mad country can eventually become sane once more. But the change cannot happen overnight. A deep-seated sense of victimhood has helped to reinforce the sense of being misunderstood. In effect the Serbs ask: “How can we be guilty, we who have historically suffered so much? My forefathers fought bravely for a just cause. My country is less rich than many of the nations who accuse us. Therefore my country is free of sin.” This conclusion leaves something to be desired in the logic department. But it accurately reflects the Serbs’ guiding philosophy of life: once a victim, always a victim.
In short, winning the war against Slobodan Milosevic will be the easy part. Turning Serbs back into sane citizens of the world will be more difficult. If a Serb tells you that this is an unwarranted slur on a brave nation, just ask him or her why Albanians are fleeing Kosovo. Ask what happened at Srebrenica. And get ready for a depressing reply.
Steve Crawshaw writes for the “Independent”