September 4, 2000
Note from the Editor: "One at a time, if that's what it takes. One at a time," once said a friend of ours, Alma Hromic, the co-author of Letters from the Fire (with R.A. Deckert). When even works of fiction now appearing in our bookstores carry to the mainstream culture the message that has been propagated by "Officialdom" for the past decade, that Serbs are real demons, that Serbs = evil, what else to say? The American and European public respond to all evidence to the contrary with complete indifference or total disbelief. But if we can dispel one myth, change one person, just one human being, one at a time, it makes our work and our persistence all the more important.
Aleksandra Priestfield puts her formidable writing talent to work, showing all of us how a disparaging myth is being created right in front of our closed eyes. And as she's done in the past (see the links at the end of this article), the points she makes, the issues she raises are vital to the very notion of humaneness (ponder her last paragraph). Reading Priestfield's piece reminded us of the dedication of Letters from the Fire that simply reads, "To the victims of war: Human beings, Human constructs, Human ideals."
One at a time!
The bombing may have stopped over a year ago but the war in Yugoslavia has not stopped. On the contrary; the latest salvo was fired just the other week, when the United Nations-led occupying force in Kosovo suddenly woke up to the "fact" that the smelter servicing the Trepca mine in Kosovo was polluting the air so badly that it required shutting down immediately, with the (Serb) workers being paid off with severance pay of something like $24 per man. The pollution story is a bit rich, coming from the very people who firebombed refineries and industrial sites into so much reeking poisonous slag, and who to this day cannot say just how much depleted uranium was sown into the soil of Kosovo. It is a matter of time before the mine, properly "cleaned up" to UN standards, is sold for a pittance to a foreign conglomerate which can then exploit, unhampered by issues of sovereignity, the mineral riches of a state not their own - or handed to the KLA-led Albanians in Kosovo to run it for them, completing the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo from its Serb population.
The mainstream media has only just started waking up from its stupour on the subject. British newspapers -- no less than the Guardian -- have started publishing damning reports of what was known and covered up before and during the NATO strikes. But even these reports - most of which point the finger away from the Serbs and into a number of other interesting directions - manage to conclude with at least one sentence slipped in there somewhere: that, despite everything detailed in the story, the UN troops were there in response to the "alleged atrocities committed by the Serbs against the Albanian population". At least there is that "alleged" there, for what it's worth - but it isn't even seen any more. So ingrained has the idea of "Serb=evil" become that it is taken for granted that the atrocities happened. A recent discovery of a mass grave in Kosovo has gone all but unreported by the big media conglomerates - why? Because the grave contained 160 Serb bodies, and explaining that, in terms of Serbs as the perpetrators of atrocities, would have been just too hard.
The public mind has already cast the Serbs, as a nation, as a people, in the role of cut-throats and blackguards - with no evidence, no proof, nothing except kangaroo courts and semantic juggling in the relevant media - that the idea has become accepted as standard history. So much so that it is starting to creep into literature now.
A recent novel by two well-respected writers is a case in point. "Household Gods" is a tale of time-travel, written by Judith Tarr (whose earlier brilliant historical fantasies I have devoured with great admiration) and Harry Turtledove (whose recent reputation rests on a series of acclaimed 'alternative history' novels). It concerns a young American woman, Nicole, who rashly asks that she be taken out of the humdrum and the stress of her modern 20th century existence in Los Angeles. Her prayer is answered by the ancient gods, who transport her back in time to the Roman Empire in the time of Marcus Aurelius. On the face of it, none of this has anything to do with the Balkans, the Serbs, or their reputation in today's world. Or so one would think.
Lo and behold, our heroine gets trapped in a Roman city sacked by the German barbarians. She witnesses these men perform a particularly vicious gang rape upon a neighbour, after casually despatching the husband who came dashing out to help his screaming and doomed wife. Afterwards, the rapists abandon the woman out in the street where they raped her and take to a tavern where they boast to each other about their exploits during the sacking of the town. Our heroine takes the time to reflect:
And would anything change, really, in eighteen hundred years? Never mind the small scale of fraternity hazings and barroom gang rapes. The twentieth century had institutionalised slaughter and turned rape into a science. Serbs massacred Croats in Bosnia Herzegovina and drove women into rape camps. [she'd be willing to bet that] they boasted of the horrors they had committed, and sat around in bars and cheered one another on.So - this now is an attempt to ground the narrative, to link it to our times, using "real history". Except that this "real history" is a racial and ethnic slur second to none. If this had been said about the Jews or the American Blacks, there would have been book burnings in the street - but it is the Serbs, just the Serbs, and everyone knows that they are evil. The absence of evidence of their "crimes", the very ones that our heroine would be "willing to bet" that the Serbs sat in bars and boasted to each other about, is taken not as evidence of possible innocence but of an even blacker guilt - not only were the crimes committed but steps had been taken (successful ones, obviously) to hide the fact that they had been committed. The heroine of the book "knows" what the Serbs have done, without any doubt whatsoever. Perhaps, sometime during her life, her household gods had transported her back to witness the horrors of "rape camps", too. The only problem with that scenario is that she would have seen a lot of things done to Serbs which would have turned her stomach just as badly, if she was less fastidious about which side she took in a conflict which she palpably knows nothing more about than the fact that the Serbs were the bad guys. Not only this, but an even blacker slur is practised here, and that is that the authors of the book equate the Serbs, a people fighting for their existence on their own land, with barbarians who overrun a "foreign" city and put it to the sword just for the sake of rape and pillage. So the Serbs become not just evil, but evil barbarians. This, about a nation which was shiningly civilised before our American heroine's ancestors knew how to eat with a fork.
The authors continue,
Of course the Germans would lay hold of all the food they could -- hadn't they done it already? Of course they would treat the people of Carnuntum, the people who actually belonged in the city, as expendable. Yes, it made perfect sense. The Serbs in Bosnia wouldn't have needed it spelled out for them.So civilised is she, that she can once again think about an entire people as a single black hearted entity without taking a single second to reflect upon her action.
The heroine of this book starts out as someone who, on more than one occasion, came close to making me throw the book across the room in frustration at her hide-bound ignorance and utter conviction that she and she alone was absolutely correct. In her mind, spanking a badly misbehaved child is instant child abuse. She flies in the face of everything she is told about the society in ancient Rome, and insists that her household drink water instead of wine - which brings on a case of gallopping dysentery for everyone as they ingest the teeming microscopic life inherent in the somewhat less than salubrious water supply. She redeems herself somewhat by cogitating that she may, just MAY, be wrong on these issues, and a few other ones. But in a manner sadly typical of a modern American she already knows what she knows and she will let no inconvenient facts change her mind.
At least the authors let her retreat from some of her more extreme prissynesses, thus giving her back the privilege of being called a human being. But I am sadly disappointed that writers of the calibre of Tarr and Turtledove seem to use the Serbs as a convenient whipping boy without even a hint that there may be - as there incontrovertibly is - evidence to the contrary. This skates close to libel. The last time a group of people was treated in this way, six million of them perished in camps like Bergen and Auschwitz. Now the very people who raised their voices in a grim chorus of NEVER AGAIN when they opened the gates of German death camps and released the pitiful living human skeletons penned within are raising the barbed wire themselves, around another group of people.
Before condemning without evidence, writers like Tarr and Turtledove, and the countries whose mentality they represent so reprehensibly in this book, should reflect on a matter of simple projection. If the Serbs are the Jews of the twenty first century holocaust, what does that make their persecutors….?
Swans' columnist Aleksandra Priestfield can be reached at Swans
Rewriting History by Aleksandra Priestfield
Animals at War by Aleksandra Priestfield
Resources on the War in Yugoslavia and its Aftermath
Articles Published on Swans Regarding the War in Yugoslavia and its Aftermath