MIRacles No. 12

Joel GAzis-SAx
25 Rujan 1992,
Palo Alto California
Copyright 1992 by Joel GAzis-SAx

[The next two installments of MIRacles were written from my home in California.]

"What are two Americans doing in Serbia?" The Serb who shared our couchette cabin on the train ride from Beograd to Skopje was perplexed. Like many outsiders to the region, he believed that the border was closed to us, that we would not be allowed in. When I offered my passport as proof that it was not, he asked his question again. This time I explained that we were Quakers on a mission of peace. "We are here," I said, "because we want to support the voices for peace and because we do not want the people of Serbia to die in an Allied bombing."

I have come to like the Serbs as I like the Croats and I regret that I did not spend more time in new Yugoslavia. They are not the dark, violent animals that the Croatian press depicts them as: they are like us. They laugh, they cry, they enjoy good food. Once, during my trip, I had dinner in a Beograd restaurant whose walls were covered with wrought iron Serbian royalist symbols (the four Cs in a quadrant) and portraits of old Serbian leaders. As I ate, I overcame my initial chill at the decor when I realized that this was nothing more sinister in these designs than the eagle and flag covered walls of some American restaurants. Nothing in these symbols by themselves implies violence. And nothing in the nature of the Serbian people that is not present in other people makes them especially prone to violence. The Serbs have been led into war and bloodshed by certain ultra-nationalist politicians. By no means are they unreachable. Peace can be made with the Serbs.

My fellow American, Brethren volunteer Eric Bachmann, reminds me that the first refugees of this war were Serbs. Tens of thousands of Serbs, spurred by a false Beograd television report of a massacre, either abandoned their Croatian homes or took up arms. Franjo Tudjman's move to fire many Serb managers plus the history of Utashi actions against the Serbs during World War II gave credence to the lie. When Bosnia seceded, Serbs in that country were told that the Muslims had declared a jihad against them. Though the feelings may be based on the lies told to them, we must remember that the feelings of fear that the Krajina Serbs feel are very real. If we are to solve the war in former Yugoslavia, we must take these attitudes very seriously.

Many people have suffered in this war and suffered terribly. The whole region will struggle to recover for many years. Though Serbia itself has not been attacked, Serb communities and households in Croatia and Bosnia have. Serbs have suffered reprisals from both the Croat and Bosnian armies. House demolitions and evictions of Serbian families are common events in Croatia. We should not forget the Serbs who, when Vukovar came under siege, endured the shelling alongside their Croat neighbors and friends. The myth that the Serbs have suffered nothing in this war must be challenged. Peace activists have an obligation to take the side of all the war's victims and oppose all ultra- nationalist political ideologies.

We must also seek alternatives to military solutions and support the Serbian peace movement. The biggest source of conflict between the Zagreb and the Beograd peace movements is the question of military intervention. The ambivalence of the Zagreb activists is understandable given the terrible damage in Slavonia and Dalmatia. Some activists, moved by the frustrating lack of an effective peace process, have renounced their pacifist and anti- militarist views to take up arms.

The reaction of the Beograd activists to the decision of many Zagreb activists to support military intervention is understandable, too. "We have been struggling with our government to end the killing of Croats and Bosnians," they argue. "You respond by telling us and the whole world that the solution is to kill us. Whatever happened to peace?" Or as Zoritsa Trifunovic of the Beograd Peace Center puts it: "We are against our soldiers. We are against all soldiers. We are against all intervention. Why should we be for this one intervention now?"

The struggle of the Beograd activists against the "horrible music of tanks" is, perhaps, the most under appreciated story of the war. Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators turn out for candlelight vigils and demonstrations at public buildings, the Orthodox Metropolitan, and the Beograd television station. In nearby Pancevo, Serbs cut out yellow paper stars and pinned them to their chests to protest extremist attacks on their Croat neighbors and friends. "If the Croats go," these brave citizens declared, "we will go with them."

Journalists, I think, have remained indifferent to these actions because the media is committed to promoting military intervention. It sells papers and increases the ratings. Anything which takes the knives out of the hands of the Serbs and gives them a human, compassionate face threatens the Western media by denying it sensationalist tidbits. The danger is that when we depict the Serbs as killers, we are preparing ourselves to be killers.

When I returned to Zagreb from my first trip to Serbia, I talked for awhile with a young Croat American at the International Press Office. "I keep hearing these stories about all the resistance to Milosevic," he said to me. "But what I want to know is why all these brave Serbs don't throw Milosevic out." Later he wanted to know whether "the Chetniks" were still marching down the streets of Beograd "like Nazis".

I had to disappoint him with my report: I saw nothing of the sort during my visit. Today, after my second trip, I would add that I still saw no marching Chetniks in Beograd. Zagreb, on the other hand, boasts the fortified headquarters of the ultra-right paramilitarist organization HOS. Mercenaries, proudly wearing iron crosses and other Fascist insignia, hold drunken parties in Trg Jelacica on some Saturday nights. Emblems associated with HOS, Fascism, and the infamous Black Legion are favorite souvenirs in the main city marketplace. Stepanovic Drusko, the Serbian Socialist Party hack from Subotica [see MIRacles No. 8], impressed me with his deceptions and doubletalk, but he was right about one thing: you do not see the kind of militarist nationalism in Beograd that is everywhere in Zagreb.

Many Croat sympathizers and the world press want inhuman Serbs. The noblest and most dangerous response to this war that any peace activist -- be he or she pacifist or anti-militarist by inclination -- can make is to challenge this myth. This is not to deny Serbian attacks on Vukovar and Sarajevo: rather it is to reject simplifications and to affirm the complexity of the situation. It is to insist on peaceful solutions instead of military ones. Zagreb has been a place of pilgrimage for the Western peace movement. Beograd sees nearly no one. Our vision cannot help but be distorted by one-sided "peace tours". As Americans, as Europeans, as Asians or Africans we must have the courage to visit Serbia, to engage her people, to challenge her politicians -- both the good and the bad --, to support those laboring for reconciliation, and to do all that we can to seek a peace that will come through means other than genocide.