Journalists in war zone produced daily from a basement for years

Journalists in war zone produced daily from a basement for years
What does one make of it - this singular absence of even a column-inch worth of interest in this land of Vasudev Kutumbakam, when Nazism in its raw, naked form comes riding on the back of the Croatian Catholic Church to organise celebratory mass for Croatia’s Nazi collaborators during WW-II. This, when the world is celebrating the 78th anniversary of victory against fascism in Europe.

There has been worldwide condemnation officially and in the media, but our disinterest disturbs me for two reasons: tolerance for fascism anywhere will, over a period of time, spur cantering majoritarianism here into a gallop.

The second reason is that it brought back memories of the horror perpetrated by the Serbs and Croats on the Bosniacs. I saw it from all angles – Zagreb, Sarajevo, Mostar and Pristina, capital of Kosovo. I visited Belgrade later, after the 72-day NATO bombing of Serbia pulverised Slobodan Milosevic and created the independent state of Kosovo. It is an unusual country in several ways. It is the only Muslim country with an avenue named after a US president, Bill Clinton. It was during the Clinton period that the bombing of Serbia eased Milosevic’s stranglehold on Kosovo.
Clinton bombed Serbia to stop Milosevic from ethnically cleansing the Muslim population from Kosovo. The irony is that Kosovo happens to be the centre of Serbian religious and historical lore

Before US intervention, Pristina was an apartheid city. A school has a wall separating the well-furnished Serbian section from the Kosovar-Albanian part, unbelievably run-down. The solitary telephone is in the Serbian principal’s office. The Albanian vice-principal has no telephone. The contrast is like travelling from Israel to Gaza.

Clinton bombed Serbia to stop Milosevic from ethnically cleansing the Muslim population from Kosovo. The irony is that Kosovo happens to be the centre of Serbian religious and historical lore.

Little wonder the Serbs have held onto the 200,000 strong Serb enclave of Mitrovica, abutting Serbia. When the US was creating independent Kosovo, why did they leave Mitrovica in local Serb control even though the enclave is part of Kosovo?

Big powers, while helping carve out new enclaves, always leave behind some issues for future manoeuvre – Palestine, Ulster, Kashmir. Also, freeing Mitrovica of Serb control or joining it with Serbia would have invited a vicious Southern Slavs backlash with active support of the Orthodox Church, powerful in Serbia, Macedonia, Russia, Greece etcetera.

And yet, there are so many monasteries and monuments holy to the Serbs that it is impossible for them to wrench themselves emotionally from Kosovo, a Muslim majority state which is historically their holy land. Note the confusion.

Serbs anchor their nationhood to the monument outside Pristina, which reminds them of the battle of Kosovo (1389) a battle they celebrate even though they lost it to the invading Turks. They see defeat as a moment of glorious martyrdom: by their fierce fighting they blocked Turkish advance towards Europe.

It is a Serbian belief that the best wine in the world is distilled by the monks of the great 14th century, Serbo-Byzantine monastery in Decan, near Pristina. How precariously Orthodox-Turks are poised is symbolized by a regular ritual: at dusk every day, a young, muscular priest, circles the main Church vigorously rotating a giant wooden rattle called tallantone, a sort of warning for the inmates to remain alert against the Turks.

This being the state of play between the two faiths, does the international community envisage a permanent role for KFOR, the NATO led peacekeeping force in Kosovo?

So proud was Secretary of State Madeline Albright of the Clinton-Albright intervention in Kosovo, that she asked her Policy Planning Chief, Morton Halperine, to initiate “A history of Kosovo project.” Prof. Richard Ullman of Princeton University, former Editor of Foreign Policy, led a high powered team on the subject. I wonder what happened to the study?

Let me now revert to the Croat Church’s misdemeanour in Bosnia which was the starting point of the story. No sooner did I reach Zagreb than I found my way to the office of Cardinal Kucharij in the Cathedral which dominates the city square. I was met by Father Juraj Jezerinac who, after pouring out a shot of traditional cherry brandy, became the willing source for stories.

First he confirmed that Cardinal Kucharij, after a visit to the Vatican, had obtained the Pope’s consent to recognise Croatia as soon as Yugoslavia began to break up. The EU, which had come into being to keep the intra-European peace, was keen for coordinated action on Yugoslavia. But a secret “OK” from the Vatican was a signal German Foreign Minister, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, did not fail to pick up. German recognition of Croatia, ahead of other Europeans, set the cat among the pigeons. An imaginary Axis-Allies line began to surface. The brutalisation of Bosnian Muslims did not ruffle London, Paris or New Delhi. No one in New Delhi even took note of the fact that General Satish Nambiar was abruptly replaced from the UN Force in Bosnia by European officers as soon as UK and France began to throw their lot behind the Serbs, WW-II allies. The observation by a senior Foreign Service officer in Paris will remain indelibly etched on my mind. “The balance of power shifted away from the Christians in Lebanon; it is shifting away from the Muslims in Bosnia.”

The four year siege of Sarajevo was of no interest to my friend in Paris. Equally, it disturbed nobody’s equanimity in South Block. Whatever the Serbs did in Kosovo or Bosnia was of no consequence. The logic advanced was that New Delhi’s relations with former Yugoslavia were in the context of the Non Aligned movement: New Delhi considered Serbia and Belgrade as inheritors of that legacy.

The editorial staff Oslobodenje demonstrated the kind of heroism probably impossible to come by in the annals of journalism. I had met the Editor, Kemal Kurspahic, at the last Non-Aligned Summit in Belgrade attended by Rajiv Gandhi in 1989. His office in Sarajevo was now in a nearly inaccessible basement enclosed on three sides by the rubble of bombed out structure. “How did you bring out the paper, every afternoon in a war zone?” He pointed upstairs. “God.” I asked: “who financed you?” He fixed me in a gaze. “George Soros.”

The writer is a journalist based in India

The writer is a journalist based in India.