Yesterday I found myself staring in amazement at the front page of the Toronto Star where I saw the very same barracks where I spent five months back in 1986. I had been conscripted into the Yugoslav Army--my home state of Croatia was then part of Yugoslavia--and sent to Pristina. By some cosmic poetic justice, the very place where I once suffered hellish mistreatment and Kafkaesque denouncement is in flames, fulfilling my prediction thirteen years ago that the only way to stop the chain reaction of Balkan tragedies, with Serbs at the epicenter of each conflict, would be by military force.
Kosovo means the 'place of crows'. Hilly landscapes, barren meadows, poor villages, skinny cows standing in black mud that stare back at you like humans. Poverty is everywhere--barefoot children, horse-drawn carriages, people in worn-out clothes, muddy streets.
Being a Croat and an intellectual was not a popular profile in 1986. I was part of a so-called 'squad of the punished'. We worked twelve hours a day, carrying 120-pound bags of rice or potatoes, barrels of oil, beans, cans of beef. We unloaded wagons from dawn to dusk, walking in a slow procession, our eyes cast down on the heels of the man in front. In the evening four or five of us snuck out to the village store to buy some good Albanian brandy, and then drank it sitting on a plank resting across a couple of concrete blocks over a black dirt floor, occasionally chatting with the passing locals. I wore the Serbian uniform, by then a worn-out piece of green burlap, the clothes of a laborer. It was evident back then that nothing good was in the offing. The Serbian authorities were treating the Kosovar Albanian majority with relentless harshness. Often I heard from the Albanians, "It's easy for you Croats, you are part of the West. But us, who will ever know what happened here?"
Their kids went barefoot, skinny, big-eyed and open-hearted. Sometimes through the barbed wire we'd give them money to bring us brandy, and they always brought back the exact change. I gave them baksheesh for the candy, or cans of food. The locals appreciated these gifts, and sometimes in the village store they'd insist on buying us beer, little as they could afford it.
On Sundays I got to walk the village streets, along with women in shawls watching over their remarkably subdued children. The soil was black but the vegetation sparse, a barren land of poverty. The streets I walked were cobblestoned, lined with brick wall fences, making me feel as if I were walking in a maze. The silence was eerie, as if in anticipation.
Our squad shared a dormitory with three officers' drivers. Conscripts like us, but clean, they were tall good-looking guys who drove the colonels and generals around in army-issue Fiats. The drivers were well-fed, well-informed and hated having to share the same dormitory with smelly scum like us. They were Serbs, two from Belgrade, one from Novi Sad. There was an incident once--some Albanian kids threw a stone at one of the army Fiats in which Dragan, the one from Novi Sad, was waiting for his colonel. Dragan complained to the colonel and the next day all drivers were issued pistols and ordered to shoot at kids who threw stones at them.
From those very same barracks that I saw burning on the front page of the Star I used to slide through a hole in the barbed wire to sneak into Pristina. Returning to the barracks, drunk, on a dark Sunday evening, bending down to squeeze through that same opening in the barbed wire, I heard a dry metal click, the sound of old M-48 rifle being repositioned. I lay down on the ground, knowing that a Serbian guard, a shepherd from eastern Serbia, was on duty.
"Is that you Mirche? It is me, Viktor. Don't shoot"
"It's me, Viktor. Don't shoot."
Still no reply. Then his voice out of the darkness: "Come on in." But something seemed fishy, and I remembered some talk I had overheard among the guards about weekend passes for those who shot intruders. I crawled back through the hole, walked around to the other side of the camp and found another hole in the fence.
Later Mirche admitted to me that the sergeant had promised to let him go home for the weekend if he shot me. Mirche desperately missed the roast lamb they made back in his village close to the Bulgarian border, and he would do anything to go home again.
Later on, when I was accused of being a spy for the West, Mirche testified that he had seen me reading Time and Beaux Art, and that the night I came back drunk from a pub frequented by Albanian separatists he would have shot me like a stray dog, if he could. He also said I was a chauvinistic Croatian and that I was guilty of ridiculing the Serbian nation. Mirche was eighteen at the time, I was twenty-seven.
I had a Serbian friend in Kosovo, a farmboy with the most the most wonderful sense of humor, warm as a woolen blanket. We spent numerous mornings together, routed out of our beds at 4:30 only to wait till 6:30 to hoist the flag and have breakfast. We'd spend the time telling each other jokes and laughing uproariously. He was a pure soul and a faithful friend. When I was in prison he brought my letters, phoned my father, and it is to him that I owe my ultimate release.
Leaving Pristina by train I spoke for several hours with an old Albanian man who remembered World War Two. He asked where I was from. Croatia, I said, and added, 'This situation with the Serbs is no good'. He shrugged, his tired but clear eyes laced with wrinkles, his skin brown from the wind and sun. He didn’t say a word about what would happen in Kosovo. Instead he spoke about German uniforms with hand-sewn buttons, two loops over every button on the uniform, practically untearable.
‘Ah’, he sighed, ‘I wore a jacket stripped off a dead German soldier until 1955, God bless him.'
In November, 1986 I was transferred from Pristina to Krusevac, in central Serbia. There I tutored the commander’s daughter in math and literature. She got good marks in school, and I was fed nicely and allowed to stay late in the local pubs.
I enjoyed the cuisine, all those roasted peppers filled with white goat cheese, and finely chopped salads. Serbian hospitality went beyond the ordinary, in the Western sense of 'hospitality'. I spent numerous evenings with the CO's family, talking about Croatia, a world they knew nothing about.
There in Krusevac I also befriended a Serbian veterinarian my age who was also a conscript. He had studied in Belgrade, and some of his colleagues lived in Krusevac. Often we would visit them and be treated to excellent Serbian cuisine with copious amounts of wine. During our endless discussions there was always one common thread--Kosovo was sacred Serbian land and Albanians would have to be killed or expelled. As blunt as that, the only solution being to 'cleanse' their religious cradle. I heard this pronouncement from illiterate conscripts and from intellectuals, from young hotheads and from old babushkas with soft warm eyes. I heard it from my own Serbian relatives.
Some of my Serbian friends who had studied in Belgrade were familiar with articles I had published in the Zagreb University magazine that was also distributed in Belgrade. They liked my wit and anticommunism. I even met one fellow who kept clippings of the articles. They liked to discuss my ideas and would get very exercised over my inability to see the validity of their own point of view.
Sometimes, when the plum brandy was flowing freely, I thought they'd surely rise up and skin me for being a seditious Croat. But I was part Serb myself, and an intellectual, and so worth converting.
Sometimes I would try to point out what the world would be like if we all claimed the right to lands taken from us six centuries ago, but I never got anywhere with that argument. Instead, I was reminded that Croats would have to pay for their genocide of Serbs during the Second World War.
In Krusevac, central Serbia, where young people dressed in the latest Italian fashions, (they had no hopes of ever owning any other significant investments) I met a young woman and was invited to her house for dinner. Her father was one of the new capitalist entrepreneurs. He owned a fancy house and enjoyed excellent food--roasted peppers, eggs filled with paste of parsley, diced ham, French mustard, fine meats--meticulous Serbian cuisine that required lots of slicing and dicing, their way of expressing respect and appreciation to their guests. Later, over good coffee and brandy, the conversation got heated. They were impressed with my knowledge of Serbian history and literature, and surprised that I personally knew a couple of Belgrade writers who were big names at the time. I said that the younger generation of Serbian writers (by which I meant Serbian Jews like Danilo Kish and David Albahari) were quite progressive. I meant it as a compliment. The young woman responded:
"But, of course, we are superior to Croats in every way."
On such occasions you try to remain calm and civil, talk quietly and slowly, and leave in peace. After all, the meal had been excellent and these fine people had even cracked open some Croatian wine for me. So I smiled, begged their pardon and said, 'What exactly do you mean by "superior", my dear?’
And then I heard it all: Serbian history, Serbian victories, Serbian superiority, a people chosen by heaven itself. Walking back to barracks later that evening I felt scared, scared that the war would start before I had a chance to get the hell out of there.
MY SERBIAN RELATIVES
My mother is half-Serbian and I have relatives in Serbia. Some of those aunts kept buying me books and encyclopedias, including Le Petit Larousse in Serbian, Francophiles that they were. I visited them every other summer. Culturally and by nationality I was a Croat, not a Serb. My aunt in Belgrade taught history at a local college. She was determined to teach me the 'truth' about Serbia: its sacred myths, the illusions about Serbian grandeur and its lost territories and inherent superiority. Half-truths and distortions of historical facts in the most blatant form, these were essentially the principles of the Nazis, also a superior race with the God-given right to dominate others.
I liked my Serbian relatives--an emotional lot, madly Slavic, refined and vulgar. I loved their crazy dirty jokes, their openness in expressing their feelings. If you were a friend they’d give their life for you. I still dream about them--my granny, the raspberries, the watermelons, and the incredible warmth they gave me and their own children. I think about my friends from Belgrade University, smart, funny, well-read people. Yet, their inability to see things fairly and objectively, to accept other nations as their equal, made the present-day tragedy inevitable. Despite a virtually common language, their mentality was totally opposite to my own. All those dear funny people, not just the bloodthirsty thugs among them, fell for the idea of a Greater Serbia at the expense of their neighbors. Even back then it was painfully obvious to me that the Serbian military would sooner or later have to be eliminated.
Today, with bombs falling all over Serbia, I think about the gentle faces of those old people as they spoke about how all Albanians would have to be killed. Many an evening I spent trying to suggest to them that this is the modern world, that we don't have to kill to prove our worth, that personal value now is in our ability to produce, to manage, to work, that there is no example in the modern world of genocide paying off. But they always fell back on history, what the Turks did to them in 1389 and for six centuries afterward. And they would say, 'We may not know how to work like you Croats, but we can fight'.
The distortion of reality became particularly absurd when the Serbian military started instigating one war after another in that region. When their army attacked Croatia, my Belgrade aunt phoned me. I told her that we were being bombarded by Serbs and had to take cover in shelters. She dismissed what I said as Croatian propaganda. She said that it was not happening.
IN THE END
What happened next is history now: the wars, the exiles, the pain of friends lost, the tears of silent despair, the poverty and madness, the emigration, my forecasts coming true to a painful detail.
I saw a Serbian woman on TV, in a shelter, saying that she can’t believe this is happening at the end of the millennium. My words exactly, murmured in a shelter in Zagreb some eight years ago as we cursed the West for doing nothing to help us. We died while Austrians skied their Alps and in Switzerland the production of soft cheese went on as usual.
I am sick from it all now, sitting broken in this little room, half a world away. Cynic that I am, closer to Beckett than to Brecht, bitter and resigned, disgusted with this world and what it has done to me, I nevertheless feel like sending a thank you note to the White House for the effort finally being made, for the understanding finally of what must be done. It's so unlike 1991 when we sat in those basements during Serbian air raids, so unlike the Bosnian war and its quarter of a million dead, so unlike the repeated appeasement of the killers and the policy of looking the other way typical of the previous French and British governments.
What is happening now is 500,000 corpses overdue. Unfortunately, we hear scarcely a voice from the Serbian opposition denouncing the leadership for ruining their country, for turning them into the pariah of Europe. And, in all frankness, it is not just the leadership who are at fault; it is the Serbs themselves, the people who accepted the mass psychosis of the big lie, of historical defeats remembered as victories, of the myth of superiority.
I have lived in a Kafkaesque Yugoslavian landscape. Today I am glad that the principles of humanity are being applied in the form of laser bombs and cruise missiles, heavenly reminders for a heavenly people that they are no better than their neighbors.
(Victor Car is 39, a native Croatian, naturalized Canadian. Writing has been his hobby since his early teens. He studied civil engineering at the University of Zagreb and also edited a university magazine there. Some of his short stories have been published in Web zines, and one in the Canadian literary magazine Blood & Aphorisms. "Some people characterize my writing as 'powerful fact based on poetic fiction,' others consider it quite illiterate.")