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"Our negroes, our enemies"

Serbian writer Vladimir Arsenijevic outlines the calamitous relationship of his compatriots to the Albanians.

For all ex-Yugoslavs, but particularly for the Serbs, the Kosovo Albanians used to be simply "our negroes." Nowadays, however, they are cast as Serbia's arch-enemies – a myth ruthlessly exploited by nationalist politicians, even as negotiations take place over the future of the southern Serbian province of Kosovo, which has been under UN administration since 1999. If anyone in Western Europe asks how all this could have happened, I can tell them, for I have watched and listened to this story unfolding in my country.

The country that used to be mine, the former Yugoslavia, was ethnically and culturally extremely diverse. Marshall Josip Broz Tito used to call this diversity our Yugoslavian "melting pot." In reality, though, it was never that. After Tito's death the country's diversity was tragically instrumentalized; it became socially divided, split ethnically and culturally into sub-groups and economically into a hierarchy of better-off and worse-off regions. Post-Tito Yugoslavia thus became a proverbial European vertical.

At the top of this vertical, in the far north on the border with Austria, was the economically most advanced republic Slovenia. In a certain sense Slovenia stood for the permanent "high" in what was then the common homeland. You then moved on down through Croatia, Bosnia-Hercegovina and Serbia in the centre to Montenegro and Macedonia in the far south, the chronic "low" of our former country. "The further south, the more deplorable" ("Sto juznije to tuznije") was the popular saying used to describe the ladder along which a specifically Yugoslavian brand of racism was always directed at those who were on the next rung down geographically and economically. Hence the Slovenians showed the contempt they felt for the country bumpkins, idlers or failures of the other republics most clearly towards the Croatians; the Croatians for their part passed it on to the Serbs; and the latter, in turn, took pleasure in making fun of the Macedonians or Montenegrins. The Bosnians, on the other hand, as the people who inhabited the centre of the Republic of Yugoslavia, were the object of mockery from all sides.

But right at the very bottom came the Albanians who lived in the southern Serbian province of Kosovo. Their language wasn't a Slavic language. They were poorer than the rest of us. Their culture was pretty alien. In the motley collection of different kinds of Yugoslavs they, as the southernmost ethnic group, were condemned to play the role of the absolute outsiders.

Anything that the rest of us in former Yugoslavia claimed to know about the Albanians was put together from a hodgepodge of offensive cliches. They were generally referred to derisively as the Siptari or the shiptars. If we didn't hate them openly, it was only because we did not consider them worthy of our hatred. Even at the best of times there was never any dialogue between "them" and "us."

The Kosovo Albanians were for us just a bunch of primitive, at most sometimes comical golliwogs, our Uncle Toms. In other words, they were our negroes. Yet just as the existence of the despised Albanians scarcely penetrated the consciousness of the average Yugoslav of the Tito era, so the casual cultural racism of that time seems, from today's perspective, rather harmless compared with the violent, murderous hatred of the "shiptars" that seized the Serbs following the death of Tito and after the first wave of "unrest" in Kosovo at the end of the twentieth century. This resentment became particularly intense throughout the phase of burgeoning nationalism in all the republics, during the brutal tyranny perpetrated by Slobodan Milosevic, who set out to ruthlessly tear apart the common state. During the 1990s politicians and the media also began using the colloquial and derogatory term "shiptars," a label that increasingly stuck to make them the object of our paranoia. More and more often people began to speak of them as though the only reason they existed was to crush and annihilate "us Serbs".

One of the legends that did the rounds in Milosevic's version of the news was a historical myth that went roughly like this: "Once there were far fewer Albanians than Serbs in Kosovo. But over the years (by means of a miracle that has never been fully explained! V.A.) they came to Kosovo across the Albanian border and just settled here in our country, before our very eyes, without so much as a 'by your leave'." Equipped with what in our eyes were positively animal-like qualities, they developed the collective determination of termites and, what is more, bred like rabbits. Their uncontrollable virility and high birth rates made us shiver, indeed we shuddered with disgust. At the same time the Serbs were constantly being publicly entreated to profess their hatred of the "shiptars." No Serb was considered worth his salt unless he cherished this hatred. Thus official propaganda during the Milosevic era, supported unerringly by the media, declared the "shiptars" to be the Serbs' archetypal enemy; indeed, without this enemy the Serbs' own existence would have been practically unthinkable. For where would Batman be without his Joker? Now the "shiptars" were no longer pathetic Uncle Toms. On the contrary, they had transformed themselves into terrifying, dangerous demons, intractable and persistent in their mission to take over our historic territory, to snatch away from us the Kosovo Polje, the Kosovo Field, "the cradle or our culture," to steal our myths, to rob us of that which belonged to us by "historic right". (More here)

Determined to settle scores with these "shiptars" once and for all, our President Milosevic conceived a fantastic plan. In his murky empire of evil, poverty, ethnic hatred and hyperinflation, the army and the police aided by the mass media were to be allowed to discriminate against and humiliate the Kosovo Albanians without incurring sanctions. The Albanians would be able to be arbitrarily dismissed or arrested, their property plundered, their families and villages destroyed. Absolved of any responsibility and encouraged by popular support, the president for many years painstakingly put his plan into action, bringing violence and destruction first to Kosovo and then to the whole territory of Yugoslavia. Following the Dayton Agreement in December 1995 there was a brief ceasefire, but in 1999 the spiral of violence finally led Milosevic back to where it had all started, back to Kosovo.

Yet Kosovo was also the place that was to seal Milosevic's fate after thirteen years of his destructive rule. When NATO began bombing the main culprit, Serbia-Montenegro, at the end of March 1999, it destroyed some more of the infrastructure and claimed hundreds of civilian victims. Yet what followed was the end of Serbian state power in the province of Kosovo. At the same time the roles of perpetrator and victim were once more reversed in this hapless place. There was an exodus of thousands of Serbs and Roma and a rampage of revenge by the victors; and once again the victims were almost exclusively innocent civilians. The hope of any normality between ordinary Serbs and Albanians, of them being able to live side by side in the foreseeable future, was gone.

Milosevic had played his game so cunningly that only one kind of epilogue was possible: the UN war crimes tribunal for ex-Yugoslavia in The Hague. Nevertheless, even then, Milosevic managed to escape the place where justice might have been done, if only by suffering a heart attack. By eluding justice he left us with the question of blame. Not least for this reason the citizens of Serbia are burdened with guilt and shame, whether we accept it or not.

A few years ago the Serbian media reported for months on end on mass graves whose dead had been identified by forensic experts as Kosovo Albanians. One of the most horrific images was that of a refrigerated lorry out of which murdered Kosovo Albanian women, children and old people were disposed in Lake Perucac, near the mouth of the river Derventa. On our screens we saw half-decayed, clothed corpses being pulled out of the water, we heard the shocking confession of the driver, who had been told to transport the dead out of Kosovo in order to cover up the crime. At the time a Belgrade television station broadcast an interview with a man bathing untroubled in this beautiful lake from whose green waters the corpses had just been pulled. When the reporter asked whether this bothered him the simpleton stood there shaking his head as the water dripped off him. Blinking innocently and smiling laconically, he looked at the camera and said without turning a hair: "To be honest, I don't believe all that," and dived defiantly back into the water.

The guy is mad, you might think. But actually the opposite is the case. His reaction is absolutely understandable. Serbian citizens have a decade of brainwashing by politicians and the media behind them, a decade of lessons in how continuous lying can eventually make people believe their own lies. The bathing man was simply using that acquired skill.

Denial is one of the central new Serbian qualities. It is so new that we don't even have a proper word for it, and those who realize what is happening simply use the English word instead. Denial. This denial, coldness in the face of human suffering, an inability to show the most rudimentary empathy, shows that we as a society are in a no-man's land. Sometimes it seems as if we did not want to escape the maelstrom of the past. The question of the status of Kosovo, and at least as important, of our future relationship with the Kosovo Albanians, are among the most decisive questions of all, and they could be used as a measure of our political maturity. The reasons why we don't take a constructive approach to them are more profound. Today's Serbian society is tired of politics. It is tired of lost wars, exhausted by chronic poverty and the feeling that the Serbs must see themselves either as victims or as the guilty party. It fears change and shirks responsibility.

In other words, events have ensured that our view of the Kosovo Albanians will remain unchanged for a long time to come. To the traditional resentment there has simply been added the subliminal rage of the loser, which is vented in self-pity and may be coupled with the mystical idea of being inherently in the right. Indeed, the unavoidable loss of the former southern Serbian province of Kosovo is in certain circles of our society perceived as tantamount to an apocalypse. Not long ago the centre of Belgrade was plastered with posters designed to fool us: "There is no Serbia without Kosovo!" But whoever says that is lying, and many people fundamentally know this – for despite everything it is becoming increasingly evident that the status of Kosovo is becoming marginal in the everyday life and concerns of the Serbs. In fact many citizens – our young particularly – disappointed by all sides, seem to have decided that they don't believe in anything any more, like that simpleton bathing in the lake.

But what can one expect from a generation that has been raised amid war and destruction, fed with a policy of overt hatred, and that can't get a visa to become acquainted with other countries and cultures? Unfortunately, probably not very much. Our young people have begun to hate again, without inhibitions, with a frivolous delight. Surveys of school students are enough to make your hair stand on end – and they confirm the impression one gains from everyday life. More than 30 percent of the pupils at Serbian middle schools believe that one "should neither become friends with Albanians nor visit them." Almost a third of young people believe that the Chinese – the only relatively large group of foreigners in our country – should have their residence permits removed, even if they obey the law. Every third teenage boy and every second teenage girl is looking down on homosexuals and people infected with HIV.

The thought of the ghastly success with which contemporary Serbian society has deformed the thoughts and emotions of young people makes one shudder. Maybe the solution is simply to wait stoically and be patient. Maybe one only needs to hope that a new generation will grow up under more peaceful and healthier circumstances. Perhaps the only thing left for us is to believe that our grandchildren will be our real children.


Vladimir Arsenijevic was born in 1965 in Pula/Croatia. His prize-winning novels have been translated into many languages. He lives in Belgrade.

This article orignally appeared in German in Die Zeit on 20 September, 2007.

Translation: Melanie Newton

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