By Donella Meadows
–August 24, 1995–
A friend who is helping some Bosnian refugees knew I had spent time in what was once Yugoslavia, so she asked me to explain the turmoil there. We got out the map, and I started on the history of empires sweeping back and forth, leaving alphabets, converts, and rancor behind them. To explain atrocity in the Balkans, one always turns to history.
Here are the Serbs, I pointed on the map, remnants of the old Byzantine empire. They are Orthodox Christians like the Greeks; they use the Cyrillic alphabet like the Russians. In Serbia now their leader is Slobodan Milosevic
Here are the Croats, lorded over for centuries by Venetians on the coast and the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the north. Therefore they are Catholic and use the Roman alphabet. Their president now is Franjo Tudjman.
The Muslims, converted during the rule of the Turkish Ottoman Empire, are scattered all over, but mainly in the middle, in Bosnia. Their current president is Alija Izetbegovic. The leader of the Serbs in Bosnia is Radovan Karadzic.
All these people are Slavs. All of them have centuries-old memories of massacres at the hands of each other. They are the warring parties at the moment, but around them are the Slovenians, the fierce Montenegrins, the Macedonians down by the Greek border, the Kosovo Albanians, and the Voivodina Hungarians, any of whom could be drawn into the fray.
“What a mess!” said my friend. “No wonder they can’t get along with each other!”
“Right,” I said, for that is the usual explanation. But suddenly I didn’t believe it. The map was bringing up memories of Yugoslavia 25 years ago. The white bedrock of the seacoast, deforested by the Venetians, now so badly eroded that nothing grows there. The green mountains of Bosnia. The rich plains of Serbia. The farmers in whose fields we camped, who brought us apples and grapes. The fishermen, the nuns, the artists, the sophisticated people of the beautiful ancient cities.
They didn’t hate each other then. They knew the terrible history, but they lived side by side, intermarried, talked proudly of the diversity of their country. They lived together peacefully for 20 years before World War II and 45 years after.
The people have not changed. What has changed is their leaders. Tito, their war hero and dictator for decades, did not tolerate divisiveness. Now he is gone. So is the giant overshadow of the Soviets. Petty potentates popped up in their place, chief among them Milosevic in Serbia, who used the state-owned media to preach hatred and then authorized the army to practice it.
Just before World War II, in a book called Peace with Honor, the A.A. Milne (who also wrote Winnie the Pooh) carried out a thought experiment about leaders. I dug it out and read it to my friend, updating names like Hitler and Mussolini, editing to fit 1995. Here’s how it came out.
“I have a daydream in which Messrs. Karadzic, Isetbegovic, Milosevic, and Tudjman come to dinner with me. Fortunately they can all talk English. After dinner, I am allowed to make a speech.
“This (I say) should be a Peace Conference. The peace of Europe is in your hands. I mean just that. I do not mean that it is in the hands of Serbia, Croatia, or Bosnia. I mean that it is within the power of you four men. When you talk of “the intractability of Croatia,” it is the intractability of Mr. Tudjman of which you speak. The “menace of Bosnian Serbs” is no more than the menace of Karadzic. If you feel that you cannot trust “perfidious Muslims,” you are afraid that Isetbegovic will go back upon his word. If “Serbia’s need for expansion” is the danger, then the only real danger is Milosevic’s need for expansion. You are up against no urgent national forces, you are merely up against yourselves and each other.
“Sometimes (it sounds a strange thing to say), you seem to be unaware of your own importance; unaware that the happiness or misery of millions of people wait upon your word.
“You four men. It is useless to pretend that you are carried along by this or that “wave of national feeling.” Such waves are of your imagination or your creation. All the average person wants is to be left in peace. No Serb wakes up in the morning and says: “My God, we must expand!”; no Serb but Milosevic. No Christian wakes in the morning and says: “We must get rid of all these Muslims”; none but Karadzic and those whom Karadzic has ordered. If Tudjman wished for peace he could, with no difficulty, convince his people to stop fighting. You four men are at the mercy of no passions but your own. You can bully, charm, harangue your countrymen into a happiness or misery of your choosing.”
We outsiders like the historical explanation of genocide in the Balkans, because it allows us to shrug our shoulders and do nothing. How can we change millions of people and hundreds of years of history? But if a bloody history fated a land to never-ending brutality, the French and Germans would still be slaughtering each other. Northern Ireland would not be seeking peace. Mandela’s South Africa would be impossible.
History is not the problem in Bosnia. The problem is what the leaders are doing with history. If all we need to change is four men, then many solutions suggest themselves, and there is no excuse for standing aside.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1995