The Darkness Of Memory

Beyond The Speeches And Newsreels, Historians And Journalists Try To Shed Light On The Causes Of Violence In Kosovo.

By Gregory McNamee

Hearts Grown Brutal: Sagas of Sarajevo, by Roger Cohen (Random House). Cloth, $27.95.

Kosovo: A Short History, by Noel Malcolm (New York University Press). Cloth, $28.95.

Between Serb and Albanian: A Short History of Kosovo, by Miranda Vickers (Columbia University Press). Paper, $18.50.

THE YUGOSLAV nation lasted for a mere 73 years, about the life span of an average person in the developed world, roughly coinciding with what historians have called "the short 20th century" from the onset of World War I to the end of the Cold War. And when the tenuously constructed nation of Yugoslavia finally did die with the collapse of communism, giving rise to the splintered state of Serbia, it took with it the lives of untold average persons; according to Roger Cohen, at least 200,000 of them.

Books Cohen, a New York Times correspondent and bureau chief, observed the fall of Yugoslavia first hand, dutifully filing newspaper reports of ethnicide and civil war. Given greater narrative liberty at book length, Cohen unleashes a fury of his own in the pages of Hearts Grown Brutal. The West, he writes, allowed "Europe's worst war since Hitler's war" to unfold unchecked, allowed Serbian aggression in the neighboring confederate states of Bosnia and Croatia to proceed with only half-hearted challenges until nearly a quarter of a million innocents had died and 2.7 million civilians had been driven from their homes.

Cohen, like many other Western analysts of the Yugoslav civil war, observes that the clash between Muslim Bosnians, Catholic Croats and Orthodox Serbs had been in the making for hundreds of years. But he locates the origins of the recent "collective madness"--as one Serbian leader called it--in World War II, when Croatia sided with the Nazis and Serbia took the opportunity of the German invasion, which it resisted valiantly, to settle old scores against Croats, Muslims, Jews and Gypsies. (Not all Serbs succumbed to the madness, of course, and many were exemplary in, for instance, hiding Jewish refugees from the advancing Nazis.)

Cohen centers his narrative largely on survivors of World War II, the ordinary men and women of Yugoslavia who committed extraordinary acts of inhumanity against one another during the war against Hitler. They recapitulated those actions when civil war gave them license to hate one another anew: when Serbia struck out at Bosnia and Croatia, all three nations fell into a frenzy of slaughter, for which the repercussions will be felt for generations to come.

The failure of the West to react decisively against Serbian aggression and genocide, Cohen writes, puts the lie to any notion of a "new world order," the rule of law over the rule of terror. Hearts Grown Brutal is a somber, horrifying indictment of all involved, and it stands as an essential work of contemporary history.

Kosovo, a little corner of southern Serbia bordering Albania and Macedonia, should by all rights be a historical and political backwater. The 55-mile-long plateau lies far from world centers of government and commerce, and not much has happened there of major international significance since the Ottoman Empire fell at the beginning of the present century; a Bulgarian geographer who visited Kosovo during World War I remarked that it was "almost as unknown and inaccessible as a stretch of land in Central Africa."

The geographer would not have known it, but the comparison would prove apt, for Central Africa and Kosovo have lately been killing fields, scenes of ethnic hatred and genocide of the deepest international significance. Noel Malcolm, a British historian and journalist who has written extensively about the Balkans, provides an overview of Kosovo's long-standing cultural divisions in his "short history" (at more than 500 pages, a not-so-short book). His major concern--and one that will be of most pressing interest to readers following the unfolding war in Kosovo through newspaper and television coverage--is to explore the reasons ethnic Albanians and Serbs are struggling so violently to command the small region.

Kosovo, Malcolm writes, is the birthplace of Serbian nationalism, the scene in 1389 of a great defeat of Serbian forces by Turkish troops. That defeat would eventually lead to Turkish domination of the Balkans, and with it the conversion of the ethnic Albanians (who make up 90 percent of Kosovo's population) to Islam. Kosovo remains emblematic, for the Serbs, of the loss of their medieval empire, and the contemporary warriors of Serbia are, in Malcolm's eyes, evidently attempting to reverse the course of history by reclaiming the land from its Turkish conquerors--that is to say, the Muslim Albanians who, then as now, make up the vast majority of the region's inhabitants.

Malcolm's lucid text shows again and again that the ethnic conflict in Kosovo is less a battle over bloodlines and religion and more a result of differing conceptions of national origins and history. "When ordinary Serbs learn to think more rationally and humanely about Kosovo, and more critically about some of their national myths," he concludes, "all the people of Kosovo and Serbia will benefit--not least the Serbs themselves."

Miranda Vickers, the leading English-language student of Albanian history, also does much to clarify the situation in Kosovo with her account of the tiny region, which is a fertile, mountain-ringed plateau whose name means "place of the blackbirds." That bucolic place name does not speak to the violence that's been visited on the land for centuries, however. Kosovo, as Vickers writes, has long been the site of inter-ethnic warfare, a place where different cultures--Slavic, Albanian, Jewish, Turkish and Central Asian in origin--have met and, at times, either peacefully coexisted or battled bitterly. The lines of division, Vickers proves again and again, have never been clearly drawn.

At issue in the Middle Ages, and now, is which group has the clearest ancestral claim to ownership of Kosovo: the Muslim Albanians, who trace their heritage to the ancient Illyrians, hold that it is theirs; the Orthodox Serbs similarly claim that their long presence in the region gives them dominion over it--a claim that, Vickers writes, "derives purely from history and emotion."

History and emotion are powerful engines of human behavior, and the Serbian nationalists who now seek to thwart ethnic Albanian attempts to unite Kosovo with Albania itself are driven by them. (Many of those Serb fighters are not native to the region, but are instead displaced, fortune-seeking veterans of the now-dormant civil war in neighboring Bosnia.) Long inhabiting parallel worlds, in Vickers' useful metaphor, these two groups are now drawing on the memories of centuries of conflict to shape the present.

The result is a continuing legacy of bloodshed and hatred that, at least for a while, has captured the attention of the world. TW

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