By Donella Meadows
–August 13, 1992–
Almost thirty years ago I spent my honeymoon in Bosnia-Herzegovina. My husband and I and a group of Europeans kayaked the Drina river, which runs north from the heights of Montenegro and eventually joins the river Sava just before it flows into the great Danube at Belgrade, capital of Serbia — the source of the current trouble.
Our group assembled at the colorful farmers’ market in Sarajevo, where now, says the evening news, there are no more vegetables for sale, only grass. We loaded our kayaks onto a bus and then onto a horse-drawn cart to take us up beyond the town of Foca to the place where the Drina begins. After ten days of rapids and canyons, of sharing roast lamb with villagers, of hearing shepherds singing in the hills at dusk, we took our boats out of the river at Zvornik, A dam was under construction there to provide power for the proud young nation of Yugoslavia. Its reservoir eventually drowned the rapids and the canyons. We were one of the last groups to kayak the wild Drina.
Everywhere we went on that journey, we were conscious of layers of history — the medieval walled city at Dubrovnik, the Muslim minarets at Sarajevo, both now targets of Serbian shells. The south Slavs have endured a long series of conquerors, most of them bloody-minded. They have occasionally been bloody-minded toward each other as well.
On a Sarajevo streetcorner we gaped at the footprints, cast in concrete, of Gavrilo Princip, the 19-year-old Bosnian Serb who, standing on that spot in 1914, shot Crown Prince Franz Ferdinand of Austria. To the Austrians in our group this was the place where their empire fell. To us Americans it was where the First World War started. To the Yugoslavs it was where their nation was born. Now it is where their nation is dying.
In Foca they told us of the day the Nazis came, gathered up all the men and boys, marched them to the edge of town, and shot them.
Herzegovina is dotted with the strange stone tombs of the Bogomils, a sect of Manicheans who fled from Serbia because the leaders of the Orthodox church there declared them heretics and ordered their tongues to be cut out.
In Visegrad we floated under the magnificent bridge constructed by the Turks and commemorated in one of the grisliest books ever written, Ivo Andric’s The Bridge Over the Drina. Andric describes the Turkish practice of sealing rebellious workers inside the bridge — or of impaling rebels on stakes, to die slow, horrible deaths, depicted by Andric in detail, page after unreadable page.
Thank God those times are over, I thought, naively, on my honeymoon, almost thirty years ago. Thank heaven the Yugoslavs no longer have to fight the Venetians, Turks, Hungarians, Austrians, Germans, Bulgarians, or each other. Everyone we met back then could recite the new litany of Tito’s union — “six republics, five nationalities, four languages, three religions, two alphabets, one Yugoslavia.” Said our guidebook, “One of the prime problems of any Yugoslav government must be to harness the strength that comes from this diversity.”
The government of Slobodan Milosevic failed to solve that problem, or more accurately never tried. Yugoslavia has fallen apart. Brutality is repeating itself in scenes that are hard for Europeans and Americans, who associate Yugoslavia with honeymoons and winter Olympics and summer beaches, to believe.
Every part of the world has blood in its history, but some parts have reached a stage where assassination, massacres, torture, and genocide are almost unthinkable (though those same parts have participated eagerly in the design and stockpiling of weapons of total destruction). Those of us who are privileged to live in what we call civilization are now stuck with a problem that will keep returning until we learn how to solve it. What to do about a ruthless, barbaric leader, an Idi Amin or Slobodan Milosevic or Saddam Hussein? How to support the people who suffer under his cruelty?
After a year of carnage among Croatians, Serbs, and Bosnians, our leaders are finally focusing on this problem. When there is oil involved, they pay attention more quickly. But even then, there is no code, no agreement about what to do, as if such a situation had never occurred before and will never occur again.
It should be the first priority of the supposed new world order to drop the pretense that a nation’s domestic affairs are of no concern to the world community. There should be worked out, in international discussion, a list of criminal behaviors on the part of governments toward their own people. The list should stipulate the international sanctions and remedies such behaviors will invoke. The sanctions should be automatic, quick, not subject to political debate, and severe enough to stop present violence and deter future violence. We shouldn’t have to wait for proof of maltreatment of political prisoners before acting against a nation that has been for a year shelling either its own people or a neighboring country (depending on which side you listen to).
Yugoslavia is a place many Europeans and Americans know from proximity, from history, from family connections, or from holidays. If any good can come out of its present suffering, it will be that our empathy for the Bosnians will produce an international order that will protect all people — Somalis, Kurds, Chinese, Azeris, Cambodians — whoever falls into the grasp of viscious leaders, whether we know them, whether we have skiied their mountains and kayaked their rivers, or not.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1992