February 25, 2002
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I am tired.
It's been a long decade, and too much has happened in it. Before the last decade of the twentieth century was over, Yugoslavia, the country I was born in ceased to exist (in every atlas published since 1993, even in the Encyclopedia Britannica), its constituent peoples have been viciously turned against each other, and the West has played midwife, and continues to do so to this day, to a focused and brutal destruction of one of those peoples, the Serbs, whose crime appears to be quite simply that they were the stumbling block for the plans which the West had for the region that they happened to occupy.
The last time I visited the town where I was born, Novi Sad, before the whole country went up in flames was in the summer of 1991. I was there to watch Stipe Mesic, the then-President of the Presidium of Yugoslavia, announce on television that "his role was fulfilled," the disintegration of Yugoslavia begun. I was there to hear my grandfather say, "it won't happen, they won't let it happen. Europe won't let it happen."
By November 1991, my grandfather was dead; and a part of me is fiercely glad that he never lived to see the Europe he so believed in not only allow the destruction of the country he loved, but take a strong role in guiding, aiding and abetting it.
The early nineties saw the heating up of the cauldron -- the unilateral secessions of Slovenia and Croatia, the swift and unconditional acceptance of those two "nations" by the west, and the equally swift repudiation of what was left of Yugoslavia. Then came the bloody years, bearing names that would become bitterly recognizable to a world hitherto blissfully innocent of their existence -- Vukovar, the Krajina, Bosnia.
Then came the late nineties.
All through this time Serbs were being "ethnically cleansed" from Croatia and slaughtered in Bosnia with no more mention in the mainstream Western media than the average numbers of raccoons that end up as road kill in any given county of the United States of America. What did make the news, constantly and consistently, were the stories -- many of them pure fabrications, others containing just enough twisted truth to be dangerously 'verifiable' -- of "atrocities" perpetrated by the Serbs against everybody else.
And all through this time I, much like others in the Diaspora, had a full-time job wading through the lies and the half-lies and trying to present something remotely resembling what was actually happening in Yugoslavia and the reasons behind it.
Anyone arguing with me had the luxury of quoting whomsoever they pleased as source material and references. Not so myself and those who stood with me. Any material I quoted as backing me up could be dismissed (according to the rules of engagement) as tainted, damaged goods, as soon as it could be linked in any way to Yugoslav sources. So nothing that came out of Yugoslavia -- where the things I was talking about were going on -- was permissible. Any source with a surname ending in "-ic" was also immediately suspect, for the same reason (unless they happened to be spouting anti-Serb propaganda, in which case they could be quoted widely). I fought and argued in gatherings, in newsgroups, in articles written for the Internet and letters to the editor. I got phone calls from unidentified raspy-voiced individuals telling me they "knew where I lived." I got called the kind of names that sometimes reduced me to tears. I was a "defender of genocide," an "apologist for ethnic cleansing," and more personal things of a nature that impugned my provenance, my mother's honor, and my father's manhood. And still I fought on. Spoke on. Armed with history, with pride, and with a soul-deep knowledge that I was not what they called me, and that my people were not what they called them.
I got through, a few times. A very few times. People stopped to think, and thought things through, and came back to me and said, hey, it does look different from this point of view.
Other times things ended badly.
There was a dinner party I was invited to once, in New Zealand, to the house of an elderly couple who ran a small publishing business from their home. This (given that I was a writer) was how we had met. In our first encounter, before I quite realized that my new friend was originally from New York, I said with my usual blunt candor that I heartily disliked "modern" poetry, and especially modern American poetry, because it was more often than not meaningless and pretentious. My publisher friend patted me on the back and, after carefully informing me that he was in fact American, told me that most of the time he completely agreed with me. We became good friends, after this (nothing like a little honesty to clear the air) and he took a paternal sort of interest in me and my writing career. Sometime in the late nineties, when the demonisation of Serbia was already in full swing, they threw a small intimate dinner party in order that I could meet another young protégée of theirs, a writer whose recent book was gathering many accolades. They thought that the two of us, both young women, both writers who were making some kind of mark in the local literary scene in our own ways, would enjoy each other's company.
Perhaps we would have. But we would never know. She was polite, even friendly, for as long as it took her to find out who I was and where I came from. At this point all friendliness and politeness disappeared, and she moved in for a savage attack on me, and anything I had to say about Yugoslavia. Anything I said in response she dismissed with "This is my opinion, and I stand by it." After a while, it became obvious that she was a brick wall, impervious to reason or reasoning. I spent the rest of the evening being as polite as circumstances allowed; she was icy and dismissive. Our hosts were nonplussed and upset. I apologized for the atmosphere as I left their house that night; they wound up apologizing to me, explaining that had they known about her feelings "they would never have..." But in the end, it came down to her, not them. If she ever apologized to them for the atmosphere, I don't know -- but given her attitude it didn't seem likely.
And there are many of these brick walls. Too many.
In an essay I wrote back in 1992, which formed part of a small booklet subsequently sold for a nominal sum in aid of a the fund for Serbian refugees during the Krajina expulsions (it brought in the equivalent of £200 -- not a great deal, but not bad either, given that it was a single individual's contribution), I wrote this:
"There is a word, a French word, that denotes a military concept. The word is 'triage,' and it was coined by medical teams combing the battlefields of some other war. These people divided their findings into three categories: those who were beyond help, those who no longer needed help, and those who could, with help, survive. There are many, too many, in Yugoslavia who are beyond any help I can offer. Perhaps there are also far too many who do not need my help, for a dozen different reasons. For those who can survive given timely aid, I can lend my strength to those who, against the clock and the odds, are trying to provide that aid. That is what it means, to me, today, to be a Serb." ("What does it mean to be a Serb," South Africa, 1992)
But this was ten years ago. And there are times that nothing I have ever said seems to have done the slightest bit of good to anybody. I have seen things go from bad to worse to catastrophic where Yugoslavia was concerned. Sometimes things are so ludicrously bad that I don't know whether, somewhere along the line and all unknowing, I have crossed some line, gone through some mirror, and am living in a world which is thoroughly mad. In any normal world, surely, a court faced with an indictment for which the prosecutors could come up with no evidence would dismiss that indictment out of hand, not simply broaden the indictment to include a time when the indictee was a handy political ally of the indicters -- wouldn't it?... And yet, up in the hallowed halls of the "Tribunal" in The Hague, this is precisely what the court hasn't done. And the rest of the world finds nothing remotely disturbing in that fact.
I am tired. And my head sometimes hurts, badly, from being beaten against all those unyielding brick walls. And nothing has changed in more than ten years -- anything I say is dismissed and dismissible because of who I am.
It is late. It may already be too late. But I am who I am, what I am. And when I have rested, a little, I will go back and speak again -- in honor of the bones of those ancestors who once believed in justice and nobility and pride, and in the hope that Europe, to which those qualities were ascribed, will one day rise to reclaim them.
Alma Hromic, the author with R. A. Deckert of Letters from the Fire, was born in Novi Sad, Yugoslavia. However she has lived outside her native country for much of her life: Zambia, Swaziland, South Africa, the UK and New Zealand. Trained as a microbiologist, she spent some years running a scientific journal, and later worked as an editor for an international educational publisher. Her own publishing record includes her autobiography, Houses in Africa, The Dolphin's Daughter and Other Stories, a bestselling book of three fables published by Longman UK in 1995, as well as numerous pieces of short fiction and non-fiction. Her last novel, the first volume of a fantasy series, Changer of Days: The Oracle, was published in September 2001 by Harper Collins. Last January, Hromic won the much coveted BBC online short story competition. Her story, The Painting, was broadcast in the UK in the last week of January 2001.
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