Serbian writer Vladimir Arsenijevic has written a perfect little piece on Serbs and Albanians. If you have trouble understanding why everyone is being so unreasonable about this Kosovo thing, here’s a place to start.
Some excerpts and commentary below the fold.
Arsenijevic is an award-winning novelist. He’s 42 years old, so he spent about half of his adult life in Milosevic’s Serbia. I haven’t read his stuff, but I hear it’s good… if any of you have, I’d be interested to hear comments.
Anyway. Arsenijevic on the Albanians:
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.
It’s true. Up until around 1990, the image of Albanians for Serbs — indeed, for all Yugoslavs — was of backwards, simple primitives. The positive image of Albanians (insofar as there was one) was of docile workers in crappy jobs: the guys selling chestnuts in the snow, picking up the garbage, sweeping the streets. The negative images started with mockery and descended rapidly into overt racism of the ugliest sort: Albanians were dirty, diseased, willfully ignorant, and also violent, dangerous, and unable to control their sexuality.
So it was easy to segue from “vaguely amusing primitives” on down:
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”.
This is still true. An astounding lot of Serbs — especially outside of Belgrade — believe the Albanians are driven purely by malice, an inveterate hatred of Christianity and 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’.”
This goes beyond being a “legend”; for a while it was the formal position of the Serbian state. In the late 1990s, the Serbian Radical Party advanced a proposal to review the papers and citizenship of all Albanians, and expel those who couldn’t prove descent from residents of Kosovo before 1941.
It’s still hardwired into Serbia’s thinking today. A majority of Serbs believe that Kosovo was majority Serb before World War Two, even though Royalist Yugoslav censuses showed otherwise. The story — which is widely, almost universally believed — is that large numbers of Serbs were ethnically cleansed from Kosovo during or immediately after the war, and replaced by Albanians moving in from Albania. (Why Albanians would want to leave Albania for Kosovo is never made clear.)
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.
It’s pretty rare to find a Serb voice acknowledging what happened in the 1990s in Kosovo. As Arsenijevic says, Kosovo was turned into a place where Albanians had no rights. Tens of thousands were fired from their jobs; the Albanian-language university was closed, and high school systems rearranged to push out Albanian kids; Albanian language TV and papers were shut down. Albanians lost access to everything from clean water to basic medical care. Those who protested were beaten, arrested, or simply disappeared; an Albanian had no recourse whatsoever against the government.
It was an explicitly racist apartheid regime. Surprisingly few people realize this. So kudos to Arsenijevic for standing up and saying so.
At this point someone is going to point out that Albanian-dominated Kosovo is not exactly a model of racial harmony either. That’s right. The Albanians are not interested in treating the Serb minority fairly (Or their Roma minority either). It’s sad, because the Serbs of Kosovo were relatively reluctant to dump on their neighbors; they knew they’d have to live with them. The most vicious discrimination and the most brutal crimes were directed from outside the province. A great many of the Serbs of Kosovo are innocent victims who took little or no part in the oppression of their neighbors.
Depressing? He’s just getting started:
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…
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.
Hm. There’s no word for “denial” in Serbian? My Serbian has gotten pretty rusty… but maybe he’s right. Can anyone confirm this?
Anyway. That image of the man diving into the lake is dismal enough, but that’s not the end of it.
One of the things that struck me about Serbia, living there in the early 2000s, was how cosmopolitan people of a certain age were. There were lots of people in their late 30s and 40s who spoke perfect English, French or German; who had lived for years in Sweden or Holland, gone to school in Hamburg or Chicago, hitch-hiked from Belgrade to London. One kept meeting people who had been habitues of, say, the Edinburgh Fringe or the San Diego Comic Convention.
But when you looked more closely, you saw a sharp generation gap. The 35-50 age group was very cosmopolitan, but the 18-30 group was exactly the opposite. They were naive. Few had travelled abroad. A lot fewer spoke foreign languages. And a lot of them bought into the most vicious bigotry without a second thought:
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 â€“ 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 â€“ the only relatively large group of foreigners in our country â€“ 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.
I like Serbia a lot. I lived there for years, and would go back tomorrow. But sometimes it’s hard to be positive. Anyway. If you’ve read this far, click on the link and read the whole thing.
Me? I’m going to start looking for Arsenijevic in translation.