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Memories of being in a war zone

Memories of being in a war zone
June 03
18:04 2020

SAEED NAQVI

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 organize celebratory mass for Croatia’s Nazi collaborators during WW-II. This, when the world is celebrating the 78th anniversary of Victory 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 pulverized 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 center 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 maneuver — 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?

Let me now revert to the Croat Church’s misdemeanor 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 “OK” to recognize 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 brutalization 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 at Oslobodjenje 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.”

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