by Donella Meadows
— April 1, 1999 —
Surprised citizens are flooding Congress with calls asking how this Kosovo mess came about and why we’re involved in it.
When I heard that, my first thought was, “Where has everyone been?” This storm cloud has been darkening the horizon for weeks, as genocide broke out in Kosovo and negotiations dragged to a predictable impasse in Paris.
My second thought was, “Not weeks, years.” From the first violence in Yugoslavia in 1990 everyone who knew anything about Serbia feared it would spread to Kosovo and from there to other countries. Our State Department’s explicit and now failed policy was not to let that happen.
I felt a surge of annoyance at the American people for paying so little attention to the world, followed by a surge of annoyance at the American media for informing us so well about trivial things and so poorly about crucial things. Then came a wave of understanding toward my fellow citizens. If I hadn’t spent much of my foolish youth in Yugoslavia (mainly kayaking its white-water rivers), I wouldn’t know its history either. I wouldn’t prick up my ears every time Bosnia, Serbia, or Macedonia comes on the news. I wouldn’t be overwhelmed with grief as such a beautiful place descends into barbarism. And I — a pacifist — wouldn’t be thinking, “finally, way too late, but better late than never, they’re going to blast Milosevic to smithereens.”
I don’t know that they’re going to do that, of course, and I’m horrified at my own barbarism. Hate is catching and long lasting. That’s why Kosovo is such an inflammable place.
“I do not think you will understand [Kosovo], because it is very personal to us Serbs, and that is something you foreigners will never grasp,” says Rebecca West’s Serbian friend Constantine in her romantic travelogue “Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.” “It is too difficult for you,” says Constantine. “We are too rough and too deep for your smoothness and your shallowness.”
Kosovo is sacred to the Serbs because it is their Gettysburg, their Waterloo, their Pearl Harbor. Constantine calls it “the plain where the Turks defeated us and enslaved us, where after five hundred years of slavery we showed that we were not slaves.”
The battle of Kosovo was fought in 1389. Six hundred years later it lives in poetry, song and legend. Kosovo is mostly settled by Albanians now, but it is the emotional heart of Serbia.
The great post-war leader Tito brought the Serbs, Croats, Slovenians, Montenegrins, Macedonians, and Bosnians to see themselves as Yugoslavs and to be proud of their diversity. When I was kayaking there, during Tito’s time, the place was poor but peaceful. Orthodox Serbs who used the Cyrillic (Russian) alphabet lived next door to Catholic Croats or Muslim Bosnians and Albanians with no problem. Until ten years ago when Slobodan Milosevic came along.
Alarmed residents of Belgrade warned the world loudly and clearly in 1989 about everything that has now come to pass. I remember shuddering as they described what Milosevic was broadcasting on the state-owned media. It was ethnic hatred. It was rabid nationalism. It was indistinguishable from Hitler’s first speeches as he was revving up the populace and establishing himself in power.
It has never been hard to figure out Milosevic. Peter Maass in his 1996 book “Love Thy Neighbor,” described him this way. “He looked me in the eye for ninety minutes and told one lie after another…. It was as though I pointed to a black wall and asked Milosevic what color it was. White, he says. No, I reply, look at it, that wall there, it is black, it is five feet away from us. He looks at it, then at me, and says, The wall is white, my friend, maybe you should have your eyes checked.”
Those of us, and there were many, who heard the warnings then — they were not secret, they were in the media — have been watching the script unroll ever since, watching the denial, the appeasement, the delays, the tide of atrocities advancing through Croatia and Bosnia toward Kosovo. As I watched and tried to speak out, I kept remembering Alfred North Whitehead’s definition of tragedy: “the remorseless working of things.”
It is hard for me to support violence of any kind, ever. I suspect, as many do, that the kind of high-tech violence NATO is now wreaking on Milosevic’s military installations will not stop him; it is certainly not protecting the people of Kosovo from Milosevic’s bands of by-now-well-practiced thugs. I have no idea what can stop this tragedy, now that it has come so far.
But I do have a few suggestions for a calmer time, when we try to learn the lessons of this disaster. We didn’t learn from Hitler; maybe we can learn from Milosevic. Genocide announces itself in advance. The time to intervene is when government-sponsored hate-talk starts, not after millions of people are homeless or dead.
We shouldn’t perpetuate the twisted language of dictators. (It is not “ethnic cleansing,” it is “genocide.”) We should not ferry brutes in limos to negotiations, treat them with respect, and expect them to stop being brutes. (Why is Milosevic the one glaring omission on the indictment list of the War Crimes Tribunal?) We should recognize that if there is any legitimate use of arms and armies, it is to protect innocent people from the misuse of arms and armies, even those of their own nation.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1999