The Pendulum Swing

The Pendulum Swing

Posted on March 2 by Eliott Behar in Non-fiction
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It is a curious thing about the Balkans that they seem to swing from being forgotten and ignored by the rest of the world to becoming abruptly and frighteningly relevant. Each time this happens we end up rushing back to understand the battle lines of the latest conflict and scrambling to re-learn the broad strokes of the larger context. We are told about the “blood-soaked” history of the region, lying as it does at the “intersection of east and west.” We are told about the propensity for any conflict here to spiral into larger wars, and reminded that it was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo that saw the entire world pulled into the First World War. We are reminded of the nightmares that unfolded here in the 1990s: the slaughter of 8,000 Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica, the return of detention camps, the prolonged and brutal siege of Sarajevo, and the rapid unravelling of a sophisticated civil society into a morass of inter-ethnic violence. How strange, really, that so many of us still need to be reminded that America went to war, in the heart of Europe and just two years before September 11, to protect a threatened Muslim population from ethnic cleansing.

Yet we seem, again, to have forgotten our history. Perhaps because these events seem not just far from our shores but far from our experience. Because it is difficult to imagine events this nightmarish unfolding closer to home. Or because we make the mistake of thinking that the human psychology that led to these spiralling events is somehow different from our own. In each of these respects, we are fundamentally mistaken.

Bertrand Russell once observed:

Americans and Englishmen, when they become acquainted with the Balkans, feel an astonished contempt when they study the mutual enmities of Bulgarians and Serbs, of Hungarians and Rumanians. It is evident to them that these enmities are absurd and that the belief of each little nation in its own superiority has no objective basis. But most of them are quite unable to see that the national pride of a Great Power is essentially as unjustifiable as that of a little Balkan country.

Mr. Russell was on to something, though he did not go far enough. Because there is, and always has been, much more at play here than nationalism and pride. The history of violence and division in the Balkans is the product of a human psychology that is as relevant to global events today as it has ever been.

My own introduction to the Balkans came in 2008, when I left my job as a criminal prosecutor in Toronto to prosecute war crimes at the International Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. My team prosecuted the former Serbian Chief of Police for his role in orchestrating a widespread campaign of ethnic cleansing across Kosovo, and for overseeing an enormous cover-up operation in which the bodies of murder victims were loaded into refrigerator trucks and hidden hundreds of kilometres away.

I was struck, as I listened to our witnesses testifying to the terrible violence they had survived, by the profound importance that the act of telling could have. The trials were about much more than just determining whether an accused could be held responsible. They were also, fundamentally, about identifying injustices through the telling of stories about what had happened — in an environment where these acts could then be weighed and judged.

What I found most surprising, however, were the narratives that fuelled the perpetrators of these crimes. What became inescapably apparent, upon listening to the perpetrators up close, is that the men who had orchestrated these appalling acts of violence were themselves motivated by what they perceived as injustices that their own side had suffered. It was, in other words, their own sense of justice that called for these acts of violence and that was used to justify them.

This was — and still is — a difficult notion to confront. But the more I listened, and the more I looked, the more the connection between notions of justice and the outbreak of collective violence became inescapable. What also became inescapable was the realization that these same impulses have been responsible for propelling, and justifying, each of the darkest and most violent chapters in our modern history — from Rwanda, to Cambodia, to the Holocaust, to the violence of Islamic fundamentalists. I began my exploration of these “two faces” of justice in my first book, Tell It to the World: International Justice and the Secret Campaign to Hide Mass Murder in Kosovo, and I am continuing to deepen and broaden that exploration.

Ethnic and political tensions in the Balkans are beginning to make waves in the global news cycle once again. Last month, Serbia sent a train into Kosovo — to the town of Mitrovica, populated largely by ethnic Serbs — emblazoned with the slogan “Kosovo is Serbia” in twenty languages, decorated with Serbian Orthodox religious icons, and painted in the colours of the Serbian flag. The act was an obvious and very deliberate provocation, the intent of which was to rile the Kosovo Albanian leadership, provoke a response, and then react as victims to that response. The intended outcome was an escalation in tensions and the creation of a perceived entitlement to use force.

Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of Serbian history should be particularly wary of this type of deliberate governmental action, given that Slobodan Milosevic rose to power on the back of a similar provocation play in Kosovo. In 1987, Mr. Milosevic deliberately stoked feelings of injustice by declaring that Kosovo’s Serbs were being beaten by ethnic Albanians and that they would “never be beaten again.” He rode that wave of victimhood, indignation, and anger to the highest seat of power — and what followed was an unprecedented escalation of violence on multiple sides that tore the former Yugoslavia apart.

Tensions in Kosovo, Serbia, and Bosnia have remained on a low simmer for years. Under previous American administrations it was understood that any provocation or aggression in the region would be met with a strong global response. But with Mr. Obama now out of office, replaced by an administration that appears to be disturbingly entwined with Russia and generally disinterested in global human rights, there are good reasons to fear that the restless nationalists in the region may continue to flex their muscles.

If and when this happens, the world will need to take notice and remember what is at risk. Violence in the Balkans has always presented a frightening risk of contagion and disruption beyond its borders. The psychological mechanisms at play here lie at the root of all collective violence, and we are long overdue to start recognizing these signs and acting on them — early and quickly. When we allow one injustice to justify and propel the next, the descent into seemingly unthinkable cycles of violence never ceases to surprise us.

Eliott Behar

Posted by Dundurn Guest on December 6, 2014
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Eliott Behar

Eliott Behar grew up in Toronto. A long-standing interest in human rights and criminal justice led him to a career as a Crown prosecutor. In 2008 he became a war crimes prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague. He lives in San Francisco.