Robbie Low looks at the situation in Yugoslavia

THIRTY YEARS AGO I made my first trip to Yugoslavia. A year out from school and three months from the start of university, a friend from the same history scholarship class and I set off to explore those mysterious names from old and well worn textbooks. A patchwork quilt of nations, a kaleidoscope of tribal loyalties, a place where empires met, where neighbourly quarrels became blood feuds and resistance to oppression was measured, not in individual battles or even wars, but in centuries.

A mountainous haversack each and a thirty-six hour train journey – interrupted by a super efficient German ticket inspector reminding us that we had not paid to sleep and should sit to attention in an otherwise empty carriage – and we trundled into a grey dawn in northern Slovenia – now a republic and even then scarcely distinguishable from the Austria we had just left. We hitched and bussed to the nearest Croatian port and began an idyllic fortnight of drifting down the Dalmatian coast on the cargo ferries. Two pounds ten shillings for the whole trip – no matter how many times you broke your journey. And we did. The Roman ruins of Zadar and a room in the apartment of an elderly Serb widow, the warm and dusty ancient welcome of the Imperial Palace at Split, the handkerchief size tent under the open sky of the beautiful island of Korcula, the lightning cracked night and torrential storm over Hvar and down into the beauties of mediaeval Dubrovnik and a room in a friendly Croat’s hillside villa.

Between the two of us, using rusty German, French and Latin we began to glean the stories – the histories, triumphs and disasters, resentments and determinations, personal and national that slept unquietly under the restraining hand of a centralised Communist state.

My travelling companion did not want to leave the coast. So I set off inland alone. A rickety superannuated bus with bald tyres boasting horizontal cracks took me over the winding mountain passes beyond Titograd down into the earthquake wrecked city of Skopje and the gentle but profound poverty of Macedonia. At the end of a mud track, amidst hundreds of others displaced by disaster, I found the two room shed that was home for the family of a friend, eight people. The local truck driver’s son gave me a floor for my bed roll and I spent a week with the local youth, much like us but troubled, too poor, no escape – unsettled by the constant influx of Albanians whose own country’s poverty made Skopje seem rich pickings. There was fear on the streets then and distrust of the other. It is usually the slum dwellers who have to make work the social experiments devised by the governing classes who live at the end of long private drives. Crime was high – feuding rife.

Through the heartland, night journeys warmed by Slivovica, Pristina, the Sanjak of Novi Pazar, Kraljevo through to the urban bleakness of Beograd (Belgrade) and the long road to Zagreb. Step by step, house by house, contrasting cultures unfolding – the Turkish style markets from the days of Ottoman rule, the redoubtable fortress monasteries, the last great echoes of Byzantium and the markers of resistance in the northward sweep of Militant Islam to Europe’s borders, the peasant villages, the choking industrial towns through to the highly westernised streets of the Catholic north and west where the welcome for Hitler had set back Orthodox/Catholic relations beyond the grasp of even this age’s great adventurer for Christ.

It was for me the beginning of a long-distance love affair. I have returned since, as a Christian, and seen other sights and heard other stories. But my first encounter has never left me for I travelled then, belonging to no man or faith, able to hear the histories without any agenda of my own and to marvel at the fragile balance that held this unlikely state together in a peace which, while it lacked prosperity, was not ruinously poor.

Thirty years on, we are at war in Europe. The combined might of nineteen of the world’s most advanced countries, formed in a defensive alliance against the former Soviet Empire, has been unleashed, without the consent of the United Nations, against the central remnant of this dismembered country, now in the last stages of a gruesome civil war. The casus belli is humanitarian and the pictures flooding over media convince many of the rightness of NATO action.

If I am less sanguine about the simplicities of all this, it is not because I am unpatriotic or unhumanitarian. Indeed thirty years on I find myself in a very strange situation. My parish contains a large armed services patch – the men who plan and execute our military strategy. They are friends and a good number in the congregation. They have the task of bombing other friends of ours in Serbia – many of whom fled home in exile from the last round of civil war. Our parish and a local Baptist church have just raised £25,000 towards rehousing these forgotten exiles living in sheds. Meanwhile our parish sisters have turned their efforts to organising relief work for Kosovan refugees. The last reports were of more misery and exile. Further south a tidal wave of human misery is being driven across borders into provinces and states whose ethnic balance is already precarious and who fear the spread of the contagion of hatred into their own dominions. The people fleeing south and west are the same people whose hospitality and friendship I first enjoyed so long ago. Hospitality for them is at the mercy of unnerved border guards and the next aid agency airdrop.

One of the problems for us in Britain is that Yugoslavia, over the years, has scarcely made a mention in our newspapers until the fateful descent into civil war after the disintegration of Communism. Our education has been sudden and brutal, often presented by way of justifying successive government policies made on the hoof. For example most modern day Britons are completely unaware of how great an affection Serbs have held for us down the years and how incapable they are of comprehending this “betrayal”. This incomprehension is shared by the most democratic opponent of Milosevic. Such incomprehension may seem incredible and unwarranted to many but it is real and, I believe, only when we understand it can we, as a church, be ready to play our part in the ministry of peace, reconciliation and rebuilding that will, inevitably, have to follow this bloody and unnecessary war.

The long years of western support for “the Sick Man of Europe” (the 19th century Ottoman Empire) as a bulwark against Russian expansion gradually gave way to realism with the dawning nationalisms of long suppressed lands. The Great War saw a landmark as the great Empires of Turkey and Austria-Hungary lay in the dust and the fanatical half century of German expansion was turned back. To the Balkan peoples, Britain’s part in this was a massive step towards freedom.

The Second World War again saw the Slavs at war against German militarism, losing over a million lives to the Nazi regime. The Croat fascist state (Ustase) swore to kill a third, convert a third and drive out a third of all Serbs. Ethnic cleansing is not new here. The Serb Patriarch, Gavril, and the great bishop Nikolai were both sent to Dachau. The Serbs have never forgotten and such memories were seminal in their reaction to the “Slovene Spring” of 1988 and the emergence of Croatian nationalism in 1989. Serb resentments were deep. Croatia and Slovenia had co-operated with the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Bosnia, in order to retain its lands, had largely converted to Islam. When Communism finally held sway, it stripped the Orthodox church and deliberately weakened the hands of the majority Serbs as a matter of policy. “Weak Serbia – strong Yugoslavia” was the catchphrase of the Tito years.

It is difficult for us, as an island nation with a thousand years of liberty, to understand the mind set of a Serbian national. Perhaps the most powerful picture that sticks in my mind was from a trip I made twenty years ago – standing in the great monastery south of Kraljevo. Every face on the ikon mural had been chiselled out, soot stains flared up the walls and a regular line of holes perforated the crucified at chest height. I asked Bishop Stefan, a resistance hero, what happened. He replied: “The Turks smashed our ikons, the Austrians tried to burn us down and the Nazis shot our priests – but we are still here.”

Being beaten doesn’t mean you surrender – a curious thought to a western mind set – but veterans of World War II will know just how many Nazi divisions were tied down by a “defeated” enemy. Historians will recall that though Kosovo fell to Muslim armies in 1389, Smederovo did not fall till 1451 and Belgrade held out until 1521.

The position of the Orthodox church in all this may be critical to the future. Firmly a national church, it has laboured long under the unfavourable conditions of Communism and now rampant nationalism. Its relations with the Church of England were always close and affectionate. We shielded many of its sons in exile, helped train its priests and restocked its libraries after the war. Of all churches, we are uniquely placed to speak to our brothers and sisters in Christ there. Upon the strength and intimacy of our contacts today may depend the effectiveness of our ministry in years to come.

The roots of the present Kosovo crisis predate the Croatian and Bosnian successions and civil wars. The 1974 constitution weakened Serbian hold on its southern province and demography continued to do the rest to what Serbs regard as the cradle of their civilization and the seat of their patriarchate at Pec. Kosovo Albanians enjoyed virtual autonomy and, after Tito died, they took to the streets for independence in 1981. Serb nationalism in the province kindled. (Later, in the post ’88 ruins of the great international Communist experiment, nationalism would be adopted by the Party as its raison d’etre.) But nationalism was not a solitary child in Yugoslavia. Slovenia embarked on a heady rush to independence complete with the bizarre mixture of western liberalism and radical youth bands dressing in Nazi uniforms and celebrating Youth Day with Hitler Youth posters. Llubljana started to be called by its German name, Laibach.

Curiously, though furious with this, the central government in the end did little to prevent Slovenia’s secession – there were virtually no Serbs in the province. When Croatia began to move in tandem towards independence in campaigns funded by foreign money, the Serb population of Croatia got nervous. The revival of the hated flag of the fascist wartime government inflamed a difficult situation and when the Croat leader Tudjman addressed an international congress of ex-pat Croat sponsors with these words, the writing was on the wall.

“Our opponents see nothing in our programme but the claim for a restoration of the independent Croatian Ustase state. These people failed to see that it was not the creation of fascist criminals; it stood for the historic aspirations of the Croatian people for an independent state. They knew Hitler planned to build a new European order.”

This new European order cost a million Serb lives, some half a million Serbs, Jews and Gypsies in the concentration camp at Jasenovac alone. (Genscher, the German Foreign Minister, was first to encourage Slovene independence and, in the end, railroad the EU into recognizing Croatia in 1991. On retirement, he declared his greatest achievement to be the destruction of Yugoslavia. Serbs got the message.)

The fuse was lit; the Serb rebellion in the Kraijina broke out and the long bitter attempt to establish the linking corridor through Bosnia could not be far behind. Curiously, though many forget, the leader of Croatia held Bosnians in contempt and was prepared to split their province between himself and the Serbs. If Yugoslavia was broken beyond repair, then Serbs wanted to be in one state.

Eight years on, there are over a million refugees in the former republic’s divided provinces. Half a million Serbs, homeless and stateless, from the Kraijina amongst them. Many other victims are spread throughout Europe with no realistic hope of return. That part of the bloody and inconclusive war has left 30,000 troops permanently stationed in an unstable Bosnia and an uneasy peace on the back of multiple atrocities committed by all sides. This latter may come as a surprise to western eyes as war reporting was almost exclusively of the siege of Sarajevo.

None of the above excuses the beastliness of war or the wickedness of man. None of the above is a justification for the barbarities committed in this horrific civil conflict. Sin is sin and whether committed by friend or foe it is a matter of deep regret. But, now we are witnessing the latest round of atrocities on our nightly news bulletin and at present unanswerable questions abound, political, military, philosophical and religious.

Politicians ask privately :- Has Nato ceased to be a defensive alliance? Will it now act consistently as a world policeman? What are the new criteria for intervening in a foreign country? How great is the commitment and how many years will we have to patrol Kosovo? The military obfuscate when asked about political control of the campaign. Old soldiers know that you can’t have a clean war, that war costs lives, that you can’t limit your options and inform the enemy of your intentions, that you cannot expect governments that have never served under arms to comprehend fully what they are doing, that a campaign without achievable objectives is courting disaster.

The philosopher and humanitarian will ask:- If we knew this was coming why did we make no provision for refugees and aid? If ethnic cleansing is to be reversed where else will it apply and will it apply retrospectively? Will Jews reclaim property and land in Germany? Will the Palestinians get their houses back or the Red Indians reclaim America? (Surely one of the most thorough and successful ethnic cleansings in history.) If it is a humanitarian war why haven’t we been in Rwanda, Turkey or Indonesia in recent years?

The religious will wrestle with all these questions and will probably find no more satisfactory answers than our fellow men and women. But we will continue to pray, to plead the sacrifice of Christ for the suffering, to work practically to send aid but, uniquely, I hope keep the lines open as only we can. The Roman Catholic Church, deeply distrusted by the Serbs has continued initiatives for peace. Can we, as old and trusted friends of the church of this troubled nation, take our courage in our hands and walk across the lines for the sake of peace and the future of all the land?

When the war ends – as it must one day – some company on the road of repentance and rebuilding of reconciliation and peace would be welcome.
Robbie Low is Vicar of St. Peter, Bushey Heath in the Diocese of St Albans