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Bound In Strife : Two journalists' accounts condemn a Western complacency that dismisses the conflict in the Balkans as 'too complicated' to sort out : SLAUGHTERHOUSE: Bosnia and the Failure of the West; By David Rieff (Simon & Schuster: $22; 240 pp.) : SARAJEVO DAILY: A City and Its Newspaper Under Siege; By Tom Gjelten (HarperCollins: $24; 208 pp.)

March 05, 1995|Slavenka Drakulic | Slavenka Drakulic is a Croatian journalist and novelist now living in Vienna. Her most recent books are "Balkan Express" (HarperCollins, 1994), "How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed" (HarperCollins, 1993) and a novel, "Marble Skin" (Norton, 1994). and

I have to admit that in the four years since the war in the Balkans began, I have slowly developed an aversion to reading books on the topic. Perhaps I just got tired of them, of words in general--mine as a skeptical Croatian writer as well as someone else's. At a certain point you feel saturated by words, you feel that nothing more could be written on--or read about--the war.

After such poignant lamentations for Bosnia (and for civilization) as Roy Gutman's "A Witness to Genocide," Zlatko Dizdarevic's "Sarajevo: A War Journal" and Noel Malcolm's "Bosnia: A Short History," one wonders: Are there surprises to come in these genres? Even a surrealistic "Survival Guide for Sarajevo" has been published, which includes recipes for how to bake a cake without flour, or listen to the radio when there is no electricity.

I thus thought twice before I decided to read two of the latest books on the war in the Balkans: David Rieff's "Slaughterhouse" and Tom Gjelten's "Sarajevo Daily." Both authors are known for writing and reporting that one can trust. But for this very reason I felt nervous: I knew that I would not forgive them for their mistakes.

Media coverage at the beginning of the war was understandably confused. Should it be marginalized because it was only a civil conflict? Or was the Serbian aggression--first in Slovenia, then in Croatia and finally in Bosnia--a menacing precedent for the other post-Communist countries, a prelude to the Apocalypse? It took some time until the world understood who the Croats, Serbs and Muslims are and learned how to pronounce their strange names. It took some more time until Sarajevo became a sad metaphor for the war in Bosnia.

Today, I can say that reports from the war zone have generally been fair and accurate. Yet, one thing often has been missing: context. People have been able to see (through the lens of CNN) but not to understand.

Without a clearly established context as well as a background to the war, all news and political analysis easily gets lost or simplified in spite of good reporting. It was only too easy to perpetuate cliches about "ancient hatreds," "tribal mentalities" and a thirst for blood afflicting every second or third generation; or to support myths about "Muslim fundamentalism" and "Serbian heroism." The cliches implied that nothing could be done anyway: that the violence is but a form of congenital madness endemic to the region.

This kind of biologism proved to be an especially useful justification for a noninterventionist policy. Somehow, along the way, the fact that those madmen had lived together in peace for almost 50 years was quickly forgotten, or was simply explained by the iron grip that President Josip Broz Tito held over the nationalisms of Yugoslavia since founding the republic in 1945. The result was that the war, and especially its beginning, got even more obscured and therefore difficult to understand.

But in my view, the war is not difficult to understand at all: There existed a Serbian political elite determined to start a war; it controlled the powerful Yugoslav Federal Army (JNA); it controlled the media and it had four years of systematic nationalist propaganda behind it. This is all it takes to start a war. If there is one thing that I have witnessed, it is how easy it is to start a war.

The important thing to understand--and both Rieff and Gjelten make no mistake here--is that the war descended upon people in Yugoslavia. Ironically, it was conceived at the very top, as everything under communism was, and it then worked its way down, until there was mass bloodshed: the point of no return.

That blood fell on fertile soil. Yugoslavia had a long history of clashes and dormant nationalism. But it also lacked any institutions of civic society, which proved to be fatal. The notorious history of conflicts in the Balkans that almost every writer refers to started to play an important role only after war had already broken out, when the history was misused for propaganda, to keep the war going on.

It is important to understand that nationalism did not produce this war; on the contrary, the war, the politicians' war, triggered the violent nationalism we are now witnessing.

When I started to read "Slaughterhouse," I was shocked by its emotional tone and its bitterness. David Rieff's book is indeed a very bitter one. He starts his book at the end: The war in Bosnia is over, he says. Even if it goes on, it is only a question when and how the partition will be formalized. The independent, multiethnic and multicultural republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina is dead, and the Bosnians are confined to a Gaza Strip "unable to sustain itself economically and militarily, dependent on international assistance for everything, and at the mercy of Serbia."

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