I still remember seeing him in my parents’ garden, fresh from a trek from hell, running for his life. What remains seared in my memory is how swollen his feet were — covered in sores and too big to fit inside a new pair of shoes without causing him more pain than he could bear. It was the summer of 1992, and the young man I shall call Sasha, then barely 18, had walked from Sarajevo to Italy, in a roundabout way that took him through central Europe and Austria.
His younger brother had arrived earlier with his mother, before civilisation abandoned their native Sarajevo and Yugoslavia, their country of birth, which was vanishing on the TV screens before their eyes. They had come because the younger boy had been diagnosed with bone cancer at 14. My hometown, Bologna, is the home of one of the most renowned orthopaedic centres in Europe. They had been recommended there. They left home and family to seek treatment and, while away, they had become refugees. Somehow, my parents adopted them.
The elder son followed later, to escape forcible draft into the Bosnian army to fight a war that was not his own. The father came last — years later, a pale shadow of the man he must once have been. He died young, never able to reconstruct the life and accomplishments he had in his native home. His family never returned to Sarajevo.
Their lives were shattered by the break-up of their country. The parents had been affluent and well-placed professionals in the twilight of Communist Yugoslavia. They were educated and had good jobs. Their children were on course for a successful future, all gone, crushed and forgotten by the grand scheme of history.
Today, many citizens of former Yugoslavia have put their ordeals and thousands of other personal tragedies behind them. Slovenia and Croatia are success stories — one an EU member, the other about to join. Montenegro and Macedonia are booming. Serbia, despite a decade of convulsions following the collapse of the Communist federation, has emerged from two wars and, in time, may join the other former republics as a member of the EU. Kosovo is stable. Only Bosnia-Herzegovina remains fragile — its patchwork of ethnicities held together by a complicated framework presided over by a benign European commissar backed by military presence.
I am reminded of their stories and the Balkan wars as I watch the bloody unravelling of another country: Syria. The Balkans and the Levant are thousands of miles apart and have little in common, yet something eerily similar lingers on from my memories of watching Sarajevo die live onscreen, in the daily dispatches of the Syrian inferno.
For starters, there is the televised butchery.
Even though the conflict in Yugoslavia happened before the onset of the digital world — the internet was still in its infancy and media was still very much printed or televised — the rape of Sarajevo occurred in the age of CNN. There was no YouTube, but the heartbreaking images of death and destruction populated the living rooms of every European household at lunch and dinner. Sasha and his brother sat in my parents’ television room and pointed at the screen as buildings came down — they spoke to one another sombrely, naming the landmarks they recognised as man’s fury turned them into rubble.
Then there was the indifference.
It was summer, and desperate civilians seeking to escape were pressing at the borders of Europe. In Italy, we watched. We watched and opined, much like everyone else across the continent, and wondered whether we should lift a finger. US President George H.W. Bush’s Secretary of State, James Baker III, had famously said that America did not “have a dog in this fight”. Britain’s Conservative prime minister, John Major, thought much the same way. Nato, fresh from winning the Cold War, had no plan to intervene in a fratricidal war that no one seemed to understand. The logic for non-intervention was compelling — realism told us we had no strategic interests at stake. The Soviets were gone. Communism was gone. Balkan ethnic hatred was too complicated to disentangle. So were the populations. We watched. They died.
And finally there were the belated pangs of an international guilty conscience.
It took three years and a new American administration to change all that. President Clinton embarrassed Europe into intervention. Europe realised, much too late once again, that it could not preside over another genocide on its soil — history’s lessons had to be enforced. Eventually, the guns fell silent. Yugoslavia’s dismemberment was brought under an orderly transition. But by then the ethnic mosaic that entangled Bosnians, Croats and Serbs in the central areas of the former Yugoslavia had been shattered by the gruesome logic of ethnic cleansing. Stability and good neighbourly relations eventually returned — but only because the mosaic had been broken. Despite agreements and solemn promises, by and large Muslims did not return to Serbian or Croatian territory and vice versa.
Why is this relevant for Syria?
Much of the Levant, like the Balkans, was a mosaic of ethnicities and religious groups for centuries. Minorities lived side by side on relatively harmonious terms. What changed, then, in recent times, that triggered such ferocity among erstwhile neighbours?
The harmony of bygone eras, much as it was romanticised by our short memory, existed within the framework of multi-ethnic empires where authoritarianism left room for limited autonomy for minorities — the lack of modern state infrastructure and the use of the state treasury mainly to fund armies and royal extravagance left minorities free to worship and educate according to their own customs and culture, as long as this did not lead to sedition and rebellion. But more recently multi-ethnic states have found themselves ruled by more modern authoritarianism — one that is ill at ease with the even limited nature of religious or cultural autonomy.
Thus, the Soviet Union kept non-Russian minorities under the boot. Yugoslavia discriminated against non-Serbians. Arab nationalism crushed Kurds and Berbers, and sought to expel Jews, Armenians, Greeks and Westerners. Iran’s Islamic Republic trampled on any effort to assert Baluchi, Azeri, Kurdish or Arab identity because nationalism ran contrary to Islam’s universal message. Never mind, of course, that message’s tendency to support Persian dominance, much as in the workers’ paradise of the Soviet Union where Russian chimed with Communism and non-Russian often became synonymous with subversive.
Part of the reason why the former Soviet Union and the former Yugoslavia disintegrated then was that decades of repressed aspirations by minorities led to a nationalist backlash. In Iran it has not happened yet only because the Islamic Republic is still successfully keeping it under the boot. In Syria, by contrast, the story seems to be following the Balkan script.
The Assad family has naturally stoked sectarian hatred in the hope of riding the storm as the defender of stability and guarantor of survival for those minorities that would feel most threatened by the president’s demise. But the more corpses pile up, the harder it is to presume that national reconciliation and a multicultural mosaic can be achieved the day after Assad goes.
As we watch and they die, as we did 20 years ago with Bosnia, I am reminded that conscience, at the collective level demanded for state action, usually kicks in when it is much too late — not just to spare individual tragedies on a grand scale, but also to preserve the territorial integrity of disintegrating multi-ethnic states.
Looking at the Middle East, there is not much in terms of borders that makes sense — they neither reflect national divisions, nor religious ones. They are lines in the sand — the legacy of a rapacious colonial era kept together after the colonial powers left by even more rapacious dictators.
The only exception is Israel — but that is another story, and its success rests with the secrets of the modern nation state, where democracy roughly coincides with ethnicity. Everywhere else, stability was bought at the price of oppression — which made stability fragile and ultimately untenable — or ethnic cleansing. Cyprus is stable today because the warring tribes have been forcibly separated, both physically and politically. Lebanon hangs by a thread, with everyone ready to retreat to the hills and pull out the guns at a moment’s notice. Iraq could explode again soon: its ethnic mosaic cannot be easily disentangled, but then again, one could have said the same of Yugoslavia in the 1980s.
Stability returns to such places after the grim harvest of ethnic hatred leaves no room for survivors to return to their former homes.
Could this tide be stemmed in Syria?
Early on in the crisis, it could have been, at a high price, had we had a dog in the fight, or one that we wanted to claim as our own. But the West decided, as in the former Yugoslavia for three long years, to sit this one out. The new order will thus not be created by idealists intervening. Ethnic cleansing will eventually draw the new borders as Syria falls apart.
President Obama justified America’s backing of Nato’s intervention in Libya on humanitarian grounds. Speaking to the nation on March 28, 2011, the president said: “If we waited one more day, Benghazi, a city nearly the size of Charlotte, could suffer a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world.” There is no guarantee, of course, that Libya’s factions will not turn against one another — but a slaughter on a scale such as Syria has experienced would have been a near certain guarantee that Libya would disintegrate.
Incidentally, Syria has several cities the same size as Benghazi. Unlike Benghazi, they have suffered massacres that will continue to reverberate across the region, leaving indelibly stained consciences — although whether that includes the world’s is debatable, given continuing international indifference to the suffering on the ground. When the dust settles, ethnic cleansing is likely to have happened and it will not be reversible.
The opportunity for concerted efforts to pilot a peaceful transition from dictatorship to multi-ethnic democracy, if it ever existed, has now gone. And perhaps, with an eye to the rest of the region, it is time finally to discard our grand illusions of saving the state system which has been in place since the end of the Ottoman Empire.Kinship, once frustrated by oppression and enraged by the call for revenge over spilled blood, is stronger than any diplomatic aspiration to preserve the status quo.
When the dust settles, after we have watched thousands more die, the patchwork of ethnicities will probably look simpler. The boundaries that included them without acknowledging them will have been overrun by history. Unless we can stop the bleeding now, we might as well accept that nothing will be as it once was, and that the rough coincidence of boundaries with ethnicity, once established, may offer the best guarantee for a kinder future.