How and why the Serbs of Yugoslavia were pushed to genocide against Muslims

Kosovo - how myths and truths started a war by Julie A. Mertus. Pub: University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 1999. Pp: 378. Pbk: $19.95.
Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Usman Abdul-Hadi

Rajab 22, 1420 1999-11-01

Book Review

by Usman Abdul-Hadi (Book Review, Crescent International Vol. 28, No. 17, Rajab, 1420)

A number of works on different aspects of the Balkan wars have highlighted the role of the Serbian nationalist media is misinforming the Serbian people of what was really going on, and of preparing the ground for the genocide of the Bosnian Muslims by demonizing them. Norman Cigar, in his excellent Genocide in Bosnia, compared to the effect of the Serbian media’s coverage with that of allowing the Ku Klux Klan to control all news reports in the US.

Julie Mertus’s book, published immediately after the west’s attack on Yugoslavia earlier this year, ostensibly to protect the Kosovars from the Serbs, addresses similar issues in more detail. On the basis of interviews and fieldwork in Kosova during a series of visits during the 1990s, she seeks to examine the very different ways in which different communities in the region see the same events, the reasons for their divergent interpretations, and the implications of their understandings. It is these she refers to as ‘myths’ and ‘truths’ - the same versions of events being both, depending on whom one asks and whom they prefer to believe.

Mertus is blunt in blaming the conflict on unscrupulous Serbian politicians who manipulated information and experience for their own political benefit. However, being judgemental is not her intention; indeed, her efforts to appear balanced, despite a clear sympathy for the Kosovars, sometimes confuses her work, as she seeks to avoid reaching conclusions which are self-evident in the material she is presenting. Her main aim is to trace and delineate the paths through which the strategy worked. “Much has been said about the recent rise of Balkan nationalisms...” she writes, “but few commentators have focused on the Truths that are the fodder of power-hungry nationalists, nor have they explored the processes by which these Truths are perpetuated in preparation for war.”

In examining the development of these myths/truths, Mertus focuses on four key episodes in Serbian-Kosovar relations: the student demonstrations in Pristina of 1981, which ended with the deaths of hundreds of Kosovars as Yugoslav authorities cracked down on Kosovar students demanding greater political freedoms; the case of Djorde Martinovic in 1985, when a Serb farmer in Kosova claimed to have been attacked by Albanians trying to force him out of his home, while Kosovars accused him of inflicting the injuries on himself; the ‘Paracin massacre’ of 1987, when a Kosovar soldier in the Yugoslav army allegedly opened fire on his fellow soldiers for political reasons; and the suspected poisoning of Kosovar school-children by Serbian authorities in 1990, which led to Kosovars pulling out of the state system and establishing their own parallel system.

In each of these cases, Mertus reviews the circumstances in which the controversy arose, traces the facts of the matter as best she can, and presents the different understandings and positions taken by various parties, which almost invariably divide along communal lines. Her presentation is cool and non-judgemental, but her sympathy for the Kosovars and suspicion of the Serbs’ position is clear in most cases.

Very usefully, she has also interviewed people some years after the events (mostly in 1995-96) to see how various people remember and understand the events in hindsight. She demonstrates convincingly that the attitudes, fears and responses of both sides were similar.

The key conclusion she draws is that ordinary people on both sides are convinced that their understanding of events is correct, and that this provides a rational basis for the confrontational positions they take. Their convictions are entirely understandable given their experiences and the information they are receiving through the media and other sources.

It is interesting to note also that precisely similar processes took place on both sides of the Serb/Kosovar divide, the key difference being that the Serbs were reacting to an imagined Kosovar threat, and in the process created a genuine threat to the Kosovars, to which the latter reacted in turn.

Mertus’s conclusion, that the main responsibility for the polarization in the community, with its near-genocidal consequences, lies with Serbian politicians, is not remarkable, but her demonstration of the mechanics of the process, and the way in which ordinary peoples’ fears and prejudices were manipulated, is revealing indeed.

This is not an orthodox history tracing the origins of the conflict in Kosova, which many people will probably be looking for after this last summer’s events. But it goes beyond a mere chronological analysis to show how ordinary people understood the events around them, and contributed to their development.

Muslimedia: November 1-15, 1999

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