Drawing Lines In The Balkans

Nova Matica Magazine, Zagreb – 16-11-1992

By Christopher Long

As I write this article my BBC colleagues and I are mourning the death of yet another unarmed, innocent professional in this appalling Balkan tragedy.

But, by the time you read this, 25 year-old 'Tuna', one of Croatia's most talented TV cameramen, will be just another name on a list of forty or fifty members of the local and foreign media who have been killed here [over seventy by 1996] – and we have now lost count of the total. When I say killed I should, of course, say murdered. In the whole history of official war reporting (which began in the Crimea about 150 years ago) this is the only place in which journalists are specifically regarded as 'legitimate' targets.

Paradoxically, news of Tuna's death in Hercegovina (while filming British UNPROFOR activity in the disputed HVO/Bosnian Serb/Muslim region of Vitez and Travnik) came to me during a brief, week-long visit to London. It left me feeling guilty and uncomfortable. It reminded me too of the death in January 1992 of a British colleague, Paul Jenks, a 29 year-old freelance photographer. He was allegedly killed by a [Serb] sniper in the Croatian village of Tenski Antonovac, south of Osiek [but more probably assassinated by a local Croat]. Again I was on a brief visit to London when a heart-broken colleague rang me at home within one hour of Paul's death to tell me the tragic news. Then too, I felt guilty, uncomfortable and desperate to be back here. I stayed in London long enough to write his obituary and then flew back to Zagreb – only wondering why as I felt the chill of blind terror when I reached the front and wished I was back in London.

Why? What is it about this truly horrible, sickening, sadistic and quite unnecessary war that has such a hold on us. If I really knew the answer I probably wouldn't be here now. I suspect that, like horror films, nightmares and sexual fantasies, they lose their fascination when you can logically analyse their origin and appeal.

But it's not quite as simple as that. What I have been witnessing here since 'the war' began – and not only at 'the front' – has been a real, live, technicolour, 3-D, 20th Century vision of those worst aspects of West European and North American history which we only know about from school text-books, old paintings, epic films and faded photographs – the atrocities that people often commit when they lose, or are deprived of, personal or national identity.

Let's not kid ourselves, the English Civil War of the 17th Century, the French Revolution of the 18th Century, the American Civil War of the 19th Century and the Spanish Civil War of the 20th Century were just as callous, brutal, indiscriminate and obscene as anything we witness here. You will be able to fill out the list yourself – to include Vietnam, the Lebanon, the Spanish conquest of South America or the current mayhem in many republics of the ex-USSR.

Four years ago I found myself, by chance, in Macedonia just as the small 'war' in Kosovo was taking place. There I met a charming, intelligent professor of history from Skopje university.

"You know," he said, "we have very difficult times ahead of us – quite soon, I think. And the problem is all to do with maps. People have always wanted the security of ethnic identity, religious identity, cultural identity. It's normal. But when it became possible to mass-produce printed maps in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries we invented a problem. How do you draw a line on a map that allows me to be who I am and lets you, my neighbour, be who you are? Where shall we draw the line."

That was four years ago. Today we are watching the Balkans trying to draw lines on coloured maps that illustrate identity – trying to create visual evidence of something which in reality is private and deeply personal: Who Am I? It has happened everywhere in the world and usually with bloody, tragic results.

Two months ago, as so often before, I watched men with masks over their faces dig out the bodies of hastily-buried, murdered and mutilated civilians. Soon after I spoke to a teenage Muslim girl with a 9mm. Mauser hand-gun in a plastic carrier bag who was planning to shoot a particular Serb male if she got the chance.

This was not because she herself had been multiply raped for two days in a village south of Mostar, nor because they had hoped she would get pregnant with a half-Serb child – not even because her mother and 13 year-old sister had been required to watch – but because one of the Serbian 'boys' involved, a neighbour, had been going out with her best friend, also Muslim, for several months until he joined the local militia earlier in the year.

And have no doubt about this, such things can happen on all sides in this war. It's just like every other war in which young civilian men suddenly find themselves a long way from home in the uniforms of undisciplined, unprofessional armies or freelance militias with no clear military objectives and for whom personal fear turns to personal anger against anybody and everybody – man, woman or child – who could conceivably be a threat or to blame.

Add to this the effects of alcohol, drugs and a willingness to believe any irrational propaganda to feed the growing hatred and then you have mass insanity on a truly awesome scale.

Looking from the predominantly Croat west bank to the predominantly Muslim east bank of the River Neretva in Mostar, in 1993. It was this bridge, which was replaced in 1994 by the famous British army Bailey bridge, which was an attempt to link the two sides in a viciously divided city. The east side of the city was almost entirely destroyed during 1992-93 in a systematic campaign of shelling from Croat and Serb military positions on the surrounding mountains though the greatest damage resulted from the deliberate use of dynamite by the occupying forces. The aim was to drive Muslims from the city or at least to wreck their economic potential – the east bank having always attracted huge numbers of tourists. Serb artillery and mortar positions are just beyond the mountain tops visible in the picture above.

Churches and mosques are destroyed. Peasants are required to watch their livestock killed before their eyes and their houses burnt down as they wait to see what fate will befall them too. Unarmed civilians are abused, mutilated or shot. Pathetic groups of fleeing refugees are blown apart by tank shells on mountain roads. Whole communities which two years ago sat around televisions together and cheered the performance of the Yugoslav football team in the European Cup are today slaughtering each other – people who read the same books, went to the same schools, saw the same films, worked together and married each other. And all these things happened between Catholics & Protestants and between Royalists & Parliamentarians in England 350-500 years ago. They happened in the southern states of what is now the USA not much more than 100 years ago. They are happening today in black South Africa.

Almost exactly a year ago I met a refugee from Osijek, in Croatian Eastern Slavonia, then under bombardment from Serbian positions to the south. She had spent many days in a cellar with about twenty other terrified young women and their babies. They ate, slept, cried, washed and urinated side-by-side, taking it in turns to risk the shooting to collect water. Some women breast-fed the babies of other mothers too traumatised to produce milk of their own. One day the Serbian JNA arrived, put them into lorries and drove them to a disused meat-packing factory where they were lined up for inspection.

"Which of these women is Ustache?" a Serbian officer demanded. There was silence because, of course, if you had been a fascist sympathiser in World War 11 you would need to be a great-grandmother today. So he asked again.

This time one of the women stepped forward and pointed to three of the women with whom she had shared so much and so little for so long.

"Her, her and her," she said.

The three were taken away and their whereabouts are still unknown. This can happen to people who lack any sense of identity and fear above all else that they will be wrongly identified. Just such things happened in the Spanish Civil War almost 60 years ago.

Tonight I met a design studies graduate from Zagreb university who may be willing to be my interpreter. Apart from the money, I wondered why she wanted the job.

Because it would improve her English, she said, and she hoped to go to London soon.


She wasn't sure but there's no future for her here apart from waitressing if she's lucky.

Yes, OK, but why London?

Because you can do what you like. It's international, cosmopolitan.

Besieged towns such as Mostar were reduced to printing their own siege currency – in deutschmarks.

No banking facilities or other state institutions existed and most of the town's buildings had been looted and destroyed.

Contact with the outside world was minimal and the activities of the mafia had soon extracted all cash and savings.

But surely ex-Yugoslavia was international, the one place in Europe where all the great cultural traditions of Eastern Europe met and intermingled: the Slavs of north-east Europe, the Germanic peoples of the north-west, the Hellenic peoples of the south, the Mediterranean peoples of Dalmatia and the Islamic peoples of the Orient from the east. Could she honestly say that she doesn't have the blood of all those great traditions in her veins after so many thousands of years of shifting empires, migration and inter-marriage. Didn't she think that half the attraction of London, Paris or New York is that they have such rich cultural diversity?

Yes, she said, but she is a Croat and she wants to be a Croat and the war is nothing to do with her and she just wants to be a Croat a million miles away from the chaos, the corruption, the nepotism, the nationalism, the inflation, the unemployment and the brutality... She wants to be a Croat in a country which doesn't give a damn who she is or where she comes from. And it's all quite illogical and I understand everything she's saying. I even understand it when, in almost the same breath, she says she really loves Croatia and doesn't want to live anywhere else.

Meanwhile, just 25 miles away to the south, thousands more Muslim refugees are pouring into the already over-crowded camps. Croatia says it has no room for them. They say they want to go home to Bosnia or else emigrate to Germany, Britain, the USA or Australasia. The West says it hasn't room either and that if they are allowed to emigrate then the aggressors in Bosnia-Hercegovina will have been allowed to succeed.

God knows where they will end up but even I know that just as Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia are trying to establish a sense of identity that can be drawn on a map, the Muslims are losing theirs. And we all know what happened to the Palestinians after the civil war in Palestine less than 50 years ago and the terrorism that resulted from the Israeli search for an identity that can be drawn on a map within the last 20 years.

So, why are we journalists drawn back, time and again to the pointless horror of this Balkan tragedy?

In my case it was inevitable because I had already made the Balkans a speciality – but then I have to admit that it's also because I am intrigued by my own reactions to what I see and hear, however painful and despite the frequently bone-chilling fear. Perhaps I too am discovering something about my identity. But, like most of my colleagues, I'm sure the job of trying to convey and explain the complexity, the horror and the futility of these wars provides one of the best and most challenging opportunities for any reporter, photographer or cameraman.

And significantly, I think, this nightmare is the nearest any of us will ever get to seeing with our own eyes the sorts of events that had to take place in the creation of our own countries, maybe centuries ago.

The paradox is, of course, that the superb and disturbing photographs and film taken by my murdered colleagues Paul Jenks and Tuna, among too many others, will soon become the 'faded sepia prints' of tomorrow's history lessons, the ammunition for ambitious politicians (remember all those Partisan films?), the only source material for historical novels and macho epic Hollywood films.

They will tell us, of course, that it's evidence of a rich, romantic cultural past. We'll pay to buy the book, to see the film and enter the theme park. We'll believe them and we'll forget.

And none of us knows where the lines on the maps will have been drawn by then.

Most photographs courtesy of Rosie Goodman and Zeljko Kvesic.

© (1992) Christopher Long. Copyright, Syndication & All Rights Reserved Worldwide.
The text and graphical content of this and linked documents are the copyright of their author and or creator and site designer, Christopher Long, unless otherwise stated. No publication, reproduction or exploitation of this material may be made in any form prior to clear written agreement of terms with the author or his agents.

Christopher Long

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