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Blood on the Balkans : THE FALL OF YUGOSLAVIA: The Third Balkan War by Misha Glenny , (Penguin Books: $10; 194 pp.) : A PAPER HOUSE: The Ending of Yugoslavia by Mark Thompson , (Pantheon Books: $23; 346 pp.) : SERBS AND CROATS: The Struggle in Yugoslavia by Alex N. Dragnich , (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: $22.95; 160 pp.)

February 07, 1993|David Rieff | David Rieff, whose forthcoming book is "The Exile:Cuba in the Heart of Miami," has reported on the Balkans for The New Yorker.

Apart from one's life--and more journalists have been killed during the war in former Yugoslavia than in any conflict since World War II--perhaps the hardest thing to preserve while covering and writing about what Misha Glenny rightly calls "the Third Balkan War" is one's lucidity. After almost two years of war, the experience of being among the combatants--Serb, Croat and Bosnia Muslim alike (in this respect if in no other there is little to differentiate among the various factions)--is so intense, and the scenes of suffering and devastation so horrible, that the temptation to become a polemicist pure and simple becomes harder and harder to resist. But as books about the war by foreign observers begin to appear, what is surprising is how much objectivity most have managed to retain.

Two of the best works to appear so far are "The Fall of Yugoslavia" by Glenny, formerly one of the BBC's principal correspondents in Eastern Europe, and "A Paper House" by Mark Thompson, a British writer who works for the Slovenian magazine "Mladina." One of the worst is "Serbs and Croats" by the American academic and former diplomat Alex Dragnich.

The Glenny and Thompson books are exemplary in their intelligence, depth and dispassion. Far from being exercises in taking sides, both writers bend over backward to insist that although the Serbs are more at fault than anyone for the Yugoslav tragedy and, since the war began, have committed the bulk of the atrocities, no side is blameless. Such evenhandedness has earned Glenny almost as much hostility from the Croatian authorities as from the powers that be in Belgrade and Serb-occupied Bosnia.

In contrast, Dragnich's book seems so resolute in its portrayal of the Serbs as the most injured party that it is hard to imagine anyone in power in Belgrade finding fault with it except on the most trivial point of detail. Dragnich has taken such an extreme stance that it is hard to see how his arguments will contribute much to anyone's understanding of the crisis: He claims that Serbs held the key positions in Yugoslavia's prewar governments because "to a large degree this was forced on them," for instance, and that the Albanians of Kossovo have suffered at least in part because "they are victims of the highest birthrate in Europe, which to no small extent explains their poverty" (as if the apartheid state the Serbs have imposed in Kossovo did not exist).

To a large extent, the Glenny and Thompson books complement each other. "The Fall of Yugoslavia" was written quickly, and, if it has a fault, suffers from Glenny's attempt both to understand the causes of the war and to portray the reporter's experience of covering it. The difficulties inherent in trying to combine these two projects are obvious, and it is to Glenny's credit that the joins between his two narratives are for the most part camouflaged very successfully. In any case, it would have been folly for him to have chosen between his historiographical and reportorial hats.

Few journalists were as well-placed as he during the early days of the Yugoslav break-up, the 1991 battles between Serbs and Croats and, the following year, the martyrdom of Bosnia. Writers like myself who came later to the conflict--and came without Glenny's erudition in Balkan affairs, or his remarkable bravery--can attest both to the accuracy of what he had written and pay homage to the skill with which he has succeeded in moving from the anecdotal to the analytic, from an account of some encounter with a drunken, homicidal irregular at the front line to shrewd renderings of political jockeying in one of the belligerent capitals.

Glenny has the rare gift of being able not only to make his readers see but also to make them understand. Most reporters returning from former Yugoslavia have had the desperately frustrating experience of being told, even by their best-informed, most politically aware friends, that the war in the Balkans is simply too complicated to make sense of. Now, instead of drawing maps of former Yugoslavia on tablecloths or trying to give an overview of Serbian history at the dinner table, those of us just back from the Balkans can keep our pens in our pockets, and, rather than disrupting social occasions with our baroque, horrific tales, can simply press a copy of "The Fall of Yugoslavia" upon those of our acquaintances who really are curious about what is going on.

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