Russell Brown's HARD NEWS

23rd March 1999

Copyright © 1999 Russell Brown

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well, War in Europe. If nothing else, it puts the political spin-jobs and TV newsreader soap operas that we think of as news in these parts into perspective, doesn't it?

But I suspect I'm not alone in finding it very hard to crystallise my thoughts on this. On the one hand, the bombing of Yugoslavia is already a total bloody disaster. As if it's some wholly independent and unstoppable process, it grinds on, night after night - a grim accompaniment to breakfast and morning tea in this part of the world.

The bombs and missiles aren't as clinically accurate as the sales pitch proclaims. Even though only strategic targets are being attacked, innocent civilians who happen to be in the wrong place are being killed and injured.

Bloodlust in Kosovo - the very thing the bombing was supposed to prevent - appears to have been unleashed. The Serb police have been able to shed the last veneer of propriety and are now simply killing people - mainly Albanian men of fighting age, but by no means exclusively. The fun-loving terrorists in the KLA, who helped spawn this mess, are presumably doing the same, although doubtless with fewer resources.

And worst of all, there doesn't seem to be an exit strategy, or a next step.

And yet, having made an effort in the past few days to plug into the Balkans dialogue, to follow debates on the Internet and to try and see both sides, I'm personally surprised at how difficult I find it to feel sorry for the Serbs.

I'm disturbed by the near-universal indifference of individual Serbs to Albanians, or any other ethnic group for that matter, by their endless desire to blame other people for their problems, to endlessly cast themselves as the victims of various conspiracies and by their blithe ability to deny the atrocities of past decade.

Apparently sane citizens seem to hold to the idea that the whole thing, rather than being the culimination of a sordid series of events that began with the death of Tito, is a plot on behalf of America and its friends to exterminate the Serb people.

And, like the protestor holding a placard marked "Understand history before you pass judgement," they seem to find vindication in events that happened years, decades and centuries ago.

History, in this case, is the Slav defeat by the Ottoman Turks in 1389, in what is now Kosovo. This, to the Serbs, is symbolic in their role as the bulwark of Christianity in Europe, of the seawall which will turn back Islam. They seem to seriously believe Turkey is preparing to invade Greece in order to extinguish Orthodox Christianity.

In 1999, with Turkey in NATO and pitching for membership of the European Union, this makes less than no sense. Europe is moving into the future and Yugoslavia might have joined it, rather than collapsing into a dark mediaeval nationalism.

Even as the world watched the Berlin Wall coming down and wondered what hopes it might unleash, Croatia's Franjo Tudjman and the Serb leader Slobodan Milosevich were rising to unleash something else.

If Tudjman started the bloodbath around Bosnia - and, it should be noted, expelled or killed tens of thousands of Serbs, Milosevich picked this fight in 1989, when he withdrew the autonomous status Kosovo had enjoyed since 1974.

Although an "underground election" in 1992 and a similar poll last year indicated that Kosovo's 90% Albanian majority wanted independence, most would probably have settled for the autonomy they'd had before.

But in the absence of any self-determination there rose a bunch of violent crazies called the Kosovo Liberation Army,who wanted full independence and were prepared to kill a few people to get it. They, too, did their ethnic cleansing, driving Serbs out of some parts of the province altogether. They took advantage of an earlier ceasefire to rebuild their resources.

In a police state where the police and the Army were controlled by the 10% minority Serbs, it wasn't hard for the KLA to find a few rebels, but they remained a fringe terrorist group. All the Serbs began doing last year, by their lights, was putting down the terrorist threat.

But every major European nation has endured internal terrorism in recent decades. Only Serbia dealt with it by going house-to-house and burning out, expelling and killing people because they speak the wrong language, and by making about a quarter of a million people homeless.

Having sat on its hands while people slaughtered each other over Bosnia, having applied all the economic sanctions it could against what remains of Yugoslavia, having issued one ultimatum after another, and having failed to get the Serbs to sign a peace deal that provided for Nato peacekeeping troops - it wasn't, it must be said, a ideal deal for the Serbs - Nato left itself no choice but to act in defence of its own credibility.

Is there a double-standard here? You betcha. The Serb reverence for the Kosovo province isn't that different from the Jewish attachment to Jerusalem, and, like the Serbs, the Israelis aren't very concerned with the human rights of ethnic groups who happen to be squatting on their holy land.

The Israelis haven't copped any cruise missiles, and neither have the Turks, who demonstrate a similar contempt for the perennially benighted Kurds and, of course, invaded Cyprus to defend Turks there. It's a messy world.

But here, where news is the Prime Minister's latest photo opprtunity, Phil Goff's barbecue, the bloody Britomart, the ridiculous Roger Estall and the Act party's latest desperate, cynical attempts to find a political market by bashing solo parents, promising forced labour for beneficiaries and snuggling up with the gun lobby, it doesn't make any sense.

Here, for all that we can try and grasp it, what has happened in the Balkans just seems like medieval lunacy. People with educations and consumer goods, formal political systems - and, let's be honest, white skins - seem prey to something that just has no place in the modern world. Far from understanding history, it's hard to escape the feeling that the people of the region need to get over history.

It's tempting to be trite about it . The idea of sending Geneveive Westcott into the middle of it as a correspondent, along with Julie Christie, Geoff Steven and anyone else associated with 'You be the Judge' has been playing on my mind.

But of course it's not funny. It's terrible. Remember how, at the beginning of this decade, with the Iron Curtain torn and Mandela walking free, we thought a new era had begun? How Francis Fukoyama wrote a book farewelling war called 'The End of History' - and people believed him?

It's not the end of history - although I'm beginning to think that it might be a good thing if, as the clocks tick over at the end of this year, history could be rebooted


    ==  ==      Russell Brown
  [ @ / @  ]                      
     /        ________________________________________
    (_)         "The views expressed on this programme
    ____)       are bloody good ones." Fred Dagg, 197?

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