The other day on the BBC news I saw a young, educated and eloquent Serbian woman speaking about the life of ordinary citizens under the NATO bombing. The Serbian citizens are afraid, she said. Normal life is more and more difficult. There are power cuts, and people are forced to go several days without access to the Internet. There is also a cigarette shortage. But yes, they are trying to live normally. They go to work, they shop, and they sit in cafes. Of course, the bombing turned the Serbian citizens against NATO, not against Slobodan Milosevic. After all, “bombs are dropping from the sky.”
Clearly, this young woman, like so many Serbs, does not want to understand that her country is at war. They still seem to be thinking, What has all this to do with me? I know this mechanism of denial, because I have seen it before. Serbs by and large ignored the wars in Croatia and Bosnia. It was always happening somewhere else, to somebody else, and they were not involved. It was the Serbian army, the police, the paramilitaries, but not them, the ordinary citizens. But now, when it is happening in Serbia and affecting all of them, they are still somehow surprised.
The young woman on TV used the expression “Serbian citizens,” but her use of this phrase suggested that these Serbian citizens are people struggling to maintain the normality of their daily lives. By “Serbian citizens” she evidently meant only Serbs. Others–that is, Albanians–are simply never mentioned in that context. Their problems are not addressed, by her or other Serbs. In the perception of ordinary Serbs, Albanians are not included in the category of Serbian citizen and therefore are absent from the language as well.
Why? The problem is that Serbs–or anyone else, for that matter–cannot identify with the suffering of others if they are not able to see them as equals. In Yugoslav society Albanians were never visible. There was no need to construct their “otherness”–as, for example, with Jews in prewar Germany or recently with Serbs in Croatia. The Albanians were never integrated into the country’s social, political and cultural life. They existed separately from us, barely visible people on the margins of our society, with their strange language that nobody understood, their tribal organization, blood feuds, different habits and dress. They were always underdogs. What was their place in the Yugoslav literature, in movies and popular culture? What famous Yugoslavs were Albanians? Because of that estrangement, not many voices were raised in protest during the past ten years, when Albanians in Kosovo lived practically under apartheid.
For the older generation, the only visible Albanians were people in white caps coming from Kosovo to their cities to cut wood in the winter. For my generation they were people selling ice cream all over Yugoslavia. They spoke our language with a funny accent and never could pronounce “lemonade” properly. They lived among us, but we chose to ignore them. If we did happen to notice them, we despised them, laughed at them, told jokes about them. I never had an Albanian friend in Zagreb. No one I knew married an Albanian. But the difference between Croats and Serbs was that Croats did not really have to deal with the Albanians; we had no Kosovo.
It was clear that they belonged to a different category from Serbs, Croats, Macedonians, Montenegrins or Slovenes. Serbs could even fight a war against Croats, but they never perceived each other in the same way they both perceive Albanians. The prejudice against Albanians can be compared to that against Jews or blacks or Gypsies in other cultures. Today every Serb will tell you that Albanians multiply like rabbits–that this is their secret weapon in the war they are waging against Serbs in Kosovo. This is not nationalism; this is more or less hidden racism.
The woman on the BBC the other day may be only an ordinary person, but there are other Serbs who should know better and who can’t use the excuse of innocence so easily. They are the people in the opposition. But all one hears from them is their lament about the destruction of democracy and civil society in Serbia. The NATO bombing is to them a savage attack, a terrible act of aggression against a sovereign state–they all use the language of Milosevic’s propaganda. There is “the other Serbia” they say, a better Serbia of the brave people who fought Milosevic all along.
Surely there is another Serbia that will surface once Milosevic is gone. And surely everyone can understand that opposition people are afraid now. One is tempted, however, to ask, Exactly what opposition, what civil society, what “other Serbia” are we talking about? The one that for more than a decade was not able to produce a democratic alternative to Milosevic? The one that never established contacts with Albanians from Kosovo in order to work together for the common future of both nations? If the opposition, political as well as intellectual, ever had anything in common with Milosevic, it was in its attitude toward Kosovo. Kosovo Albanians were a litmus test for the opposition all these years, and they always failed it. Now they are engulfed in self-pity.
An open letter from Vladimir Arsenijevic, a young Serbian writer of some renown, circulating on e-mail, is a striking example of this invisibility of Albanians. In his answer to a friend from Zagreb, who reproached Serbs for their lack of remorse over the situation of the Albanians, he wrote: “On account of lack of pity for the fate of Kosovo Albanians, I know (from my own experience–and I know that I have no bad feelings whatsoever directed toward anybody, least of all Albanians) that it is very hard to care about somebody else’s problems if you are personally experiencing major problems of your own at the same moment. There is no favoritism in this society. Everybody is too busy surviving here to be able to feel any remorse…. Remorse is a privilege of the well-nourished, clean and civilized. And we are all Albanians here. All of us: Serbs, Montenegrins, Hungarians, Slovaks…. Poor, underfed, degraded, oppressed. And I mean ALL of us, even those who have supported Milosevic with all their heart through all these years of terrible hell.”
There is something almost obscene in this sudden “visibility” of Albanians, in the Serbs’ desire to achieve the status of victim through this kind of identification. Albanians remain an abstraction, an empty notion with no real substance, used solely as a means of adding visibility to Serbian suffering, thus denying the Albanian identity once more. I can see this young writer sitting at his computer (there must have been no shortage of power then) in his Belgrade apartment: He sends his e-mail letter, checks the latest war information on the Internet and goes to bed. Meanwhile, his Albanian counterpart, with whose suffering he identifies so much, sits in a tent somewhere in Albania or stands in the mud, waiting to cross the Macedonian border. His house is burned down, his computer–if he ever had one–has been taken by Serbian paramilitaries and he doesn’t know where his family is.
If the young writer considers himself an Albanian, why is he not fleeing to Macedonia or Albania as well? How cynical–or young or innocent or perhaps stupid–do you have to be to say that? It is as grotesque as if the Germans, after World War II, had said, “We were all Jews.” After all, had they not suffered occupation, bombardment, rationing?
The writer means to say that if the Serbs are victims, then how can they possibly have anything to do with the responsibility for this war? Or for the Milosevic regime? War goes deeper than bombardment, and the more we pretend it doesn’t concern us, the more it invades us. War is destructive of the human soul. It corrodes human beings, bringing out things we didn’t know about ourselves. And when he says that remorse is a privilege of civilized people, he puts himself and his nation on the level of people without pity. He is justifying the inhumanity of his people, and that is terrible.
This is what the war is doing to the young writer. But like the woman on the BBC, as well as ordinary people and opposition intellectuals, he is not able to realize that. Precisely this denial, blindness, unconscious racism and cruelty toward other human beings, this lack of remorse (but no lack of self-pity!), is what war is doing to Serbs, and it is much more devastating than NATO bombs. Living with Milosevic’s regime and the war for so long takes its toll. It has changed Serbs in the past ten years, and the rest of the world is witnessing this only now, still puzzled and bewildered by it. It is hard to understand that our acquaintances, our lovers, drinking buddies, philosophers, our once dear friends, are different people. It is even harder to understand that they themselves let that change happen.