Thursday, July 24, 2008

Shame, Pain & Dr. Death

So, the arrest of Dr. Radovan Karadzic finally happened.

I find it hard to be joyful. The return of the mispronouncing newsreaders makes me wince slightly, but so does the knowledge that few things in the Balkans are entirely as they seem.

Western leaders have gone onto the television praising "a genuine breakthrough", conveniently forgetting they role that their countries played in the savage unwinding of what had seemed to be a modern, European society. The hypocrisy of Douglas Hurd, the sanctimoniousness of David Owen, all were impotent in the face of defiance and -yes, not too strong a word- evil.

The fertile plain of Slavonia and the high mountains of Krajina and Hercegovinia look very different, yet in both places I found the detritus of war. The smell of burning villages. The terrible noise. The terrible silence. The heartbreaking details: a dog's lead, fading photographs of families who would never come home again. The faces, taught with fear and pale with exhaustion. Burned cars. Empty fields filled with mines. Graffiti screaming out messages of hatred, or rage or ultimately despair: "we have gone to Split". "Find us in Zagreb". "We have gone to Banja Luka". "We may be in Pale or maybe Belgrade". "We will be in Tuzla".

The high plateau is mostly empty now. The roofless houses merging into the rocky ground. The ancient graveyards untended. The wind is cold and even the ghosts of centuries must be lonely.

Karadzic was probably sold by someone- maybe Mladic- for their own skin. Though part of me feels a grim satisfaction that he will face trial and be forced to account for his crimes, it changes nothing.

One evening around a camp fire, I listened to a Serbian playing the one-stringed fiddle of the Balkans, the gusle. The buzzing dissonance became hypnotic. The sobbing song- inevitably- was a lament for the Battle of Kosovo Polje, the cataclysmic Serbian defeat by the Ottomans on June 28th 1389. I reflected then that Karadzic, apart from being a psychiatrist, was also a poet, seeking to emulate his ancestor, Vuk Karadzic. It seemed surreal that such a man could contemplate the horrors that his snipers and artillery were inflicting on the City of Sarajevo. Perhaps, some said with bleak humour, that was why his poetry was so leaden.

The world has changed much since those days, and so have I.

I will not forget. The anger of frustration that no one could believe in 1990 and 1991 the scale of what was about to happen. The disbelief at the callousness of those at the Edinburgh summit of December 1992 who were soon prepared to ignore concentration camps at Prijedor and Omarska and the use of rape as a weapon of war. The refusal to stop the siege of Sarajevo which was to continue until February 1996- just short of four years. The profiteering of certain -frankly disgraceful- British politicians that I have noted in previous posts still fills me with disbelief, anger and shame.

So those in the media who want to cheer the arrest of Karadzic and doubtless Mladic as well, in due course, should remember two things. The first is that our country too contributed to the scale of the crime. The second is more difficult to convey: the thing I learned by a campfire: the long sense of continuity and of history and of culture, of pride, of shame, of honour.

It means that the effects of that cruel and brutal war will never be entirely healed.

Those who died. Those who fled. Those hurt. Those bereaved. Those raped.

Those who witnessed.


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Anonymous said...

On a point of fact ...

you say "Serbian defeat by the Ottomans". Of course history is a bit more complex than the way that Serb nationalists present it. (And many of us absorb such inaccuracies even when we reject the Serb nationalist project.)

The forces marshalled against the Ottomans were what we would now call multi-ethnic - they included Albanians.

Cicero said...

Yes Anon it did- in other posts on the subject I have of course noted this.