MIRacles No. 8

Joel GAzis-SAx
17 Kolovoz 1992
Zagreb, Croatia
Copyright 1992

"When you cut off communications totally," the Beograd journalist told me, " you help the totalitarian regimes here. They don't want witnesses!" I had come to witness life under sanctions at the invitation of Jozsef Kasza, mayor of Subotica, Vojvodina, Yugoslavia. Subotica and Beograd, I discovered, are not quite the places I expected them to be. When I told some of my Croat friends about my plans, their eyes widened and their mouths uttered phrases like "Be careful!" The walls against the free flow of information have made it impossible to understand the extent and determination of the opposition to Milosevic or to comprehend how the Serbian, Croat, Hungarian, and other residents of Vojvodina view the war.

To view the war at all from Yugoslavia can be a challenge. Aside from graffiti on the walls, the evidence of war in Subotica and Beograd is sparse. In one week, I saw seven soldiers on the streets of Subotica. (I see that many in Zagreb in fifteen minutes!) The patriotic banners, war toys, and other militaristic mercantile trappings that exist everywhere in Zagreb are seldom found in these two Yugoslav cities. You could travel in Yugoslavia for months, I think, and never notice the war unless you happen to talk to some of the people who have suffered from it.

Three incidents should illustrate some of the peculiar difficulties of peace witness in the new Yugoslavia:

1. I and other members of the Peace Camp in Subotica meet with Drusko Stepanovic, the local head of the Serbian Socialist Party, the same party as Slobodan Milosevic. He considers himself a Yugoslav because he has Serbian, Bunjevac, and Croatian ancestors. He denies that there are any ethnic problems in Vojvodina or anywhere else in Yugoslavia and insists that the Yugoslav National Army has completely withdrawn into the borders of Yugoslavia.

It is a tumultuous meeting as he challenges one questioner after another with some grim fact about their own native land. When I ask him about conscientious objectors, for example, Mr. Drusko tells me about how much he admires Muhammad Ali and reminds me about how the champ lost his boxing title for his resistance to the Vietnam War. I respond by admitting that my own country does mistreat its COs. "However," I add, "as a man who objects to all war, I am concerned with how my brothers in my belief are treated everywhere and I intend that wherever I see mistreatment, I will speak to it." He pauses as he realizes that he cannot silence me so easily before going on to another questioner.

Over the deep murmurs and outraged whispers of my fellow peace activists, I manage to tell him that I am willing to accept his word that the Yugoslav National Army has withdrawn from Bosnia and Croatia. "But what," I add, "is your government doing to ensure that Serbs from Yugoslavia are not crossing into Bosnia or Croatia to join the irregulars?"

"What can it do?" he responds. "When somebody feels that he is a Serb and he sees that his fellow Serbs are suffering, there is nothing I can or want to do to stop him from helping his brother Serbs."

2. I share my conviction against cultural sanctions and military intervention with a group of Beograd peace activists. Not surprisingly, many of them object to economic sanctions and one journalist goes to great lengths to expose what he feels is the futility of the military sanctions. I am moved to rethink my position based on their assertion that sanctions serve more to strengthen Milosevic's hand than to weaken it. The President of the Serbian Republic has been using the sanctions to rally jingoist sentiment. "It is us against the world," is his message, "and we are right."

"Now I understand how you can feel how the sanctions actually help Milosevic," I confess to the associate director of the Beograd Peace Center Zorista Trifunovic afterwards."As long as the sanctions are enforced, he can unite the people in a struggle against the Croats, the Bosnians, and the United Nations. If we change our minds and they are lifted, he becomes a hero, the man who stood up to everyone and won."

The strong feelings about the sanctions do not surprise me. As I leave the meeting, however, a Serbian woman runs to stop me. "How can you be against military intervention?" she asks with panic in her voice. "How else will we stop the killing? Can't you just be for wiping out the artillery positions around Sarajevo? Don't you understand if we do not stop the killing in Bosnia, the Croats and the Bosnians will kill everyone there. Then they will come to Yugoslavia and they will not stop until they have come to Beograd. They will exterminate everyone."

3. I am sitting in the camp cafeteria on the morning of our trip to Vukovar discussing the situation in Slavonia with some Romanian and Nigerian friends. When I refer to the area around Vukovar as "Occupied Croatia" (a designation which is in accord with internationally accepted boundaries), a young Yugoslav woman reacts angrilly. She insists that the land around Vukovar is not occupied by anyone. "I wonder," she says, "what you would think if you had visited this country before you had visited Croatia. You are not objective."

These incidents only begin to illustrate some of the predictable and unpredictable reactions to foreigners' peace witness in Yugoslavia. Throughout my visit, I was repeatedly challenged by a curious dichotomy in the thinking of nearly everyone I met. On the one hand, I was told again and again that, as a foreigner, I could not possibly understand the problems of former Yugoslavia. "You come here and tell us what is happening," says Ivana Balen of the Beograd Peace Center. "I have been living it every day." The next step in nearly every conversation was a long lecture on what we foreigners had to do to solve the problems of former Yugoslavia.

It is this curious dual expectations which was the hardest thing to address. I and the foreign activists who accompanied me reach a point when we began, as a matter of habit, to clearly tell everyone "You have to learn to solve your own problems." One lesson that I jotted down in my pocket notebook after my meeting with the Beograd activists was this: "When you use military intervention in one place, it makes peaceful resolution of conflict harder in other places. Parties will make war in the hope that a greater power will see the justice of their cause and annihilate the enemy for them."

As in Croatia, the people of Yugoslavia have lost hope in their personal power to make peace. Still, everywhere I went, I met people who spoke with sadness at the loss of friends now living on the other side. The problem, they perceive to a person, is that people throughout the Balkans have forgotten this love. How do they, can they ever reclaim it, they ask, now that the war has killed so many people and destroyed so much of what the living have? No one, they grieve, will be able to forget this war. And because they happen to be living in Serbia, they imply, they have no hope of explaining that they had no part in what is happening in Croatia and in Bosnia.

The worst thing we foreigners can do is to allow the half story of hatred to dominate our attentions. If we forget that people mourn the loss of their friendships, we will lose a very important key to peace in this part of the world. The machines of war can drive on forever as long as the agents of propaganda on both sides can turn the warm faces of friends into the grim mask of the Enemy.

So the Serbian journalist saw only part of the picture. He was right to perceive that the loss of communication with the outside world served to shroud acts of brutality committed by the Serbian government and irregulars. He also sensed the need to receive alternatives to the news reports coming out of the Serbian government. Reliance on journalism as the source of knowledge for our moral choices, however, can be hazardous. Journalists tend to turn to communicate more with leaders than with ordinary people. And they disparage ideas in favor of the record of history, at least the history that the powers of this world see fit to teach.

Ordinary people like the Croats I met in Osijek and the Serbs I met in Vukovar have a better understanding of the pain this war is causing and, in this understanding, know without knowing the way to create peace. What the Serbian journalist did not see as he lectured us from his highly rational perspective was that the silence of the sanctions also prevented alternatives to the military path to peace from being heard in his country. The shrill cry of the Serbian woman who tried to move me to support military intervention springs from this ignorance. And this same silence keeps friends from talking to friends. This is important because where there is friendship there can be no war.

If there is to be an end to the killing in former Yugoslavia, then friends must once more be allowed to talk to friends. And we foreigners must do everything we can to help people to talk once again.