The dictionary says what it says.
Main Entry: bal-kan-ize …
Inflected Form(s): bal-kan-ized; bal-kan-iz-ing …
Etymology: Balkan Peninsula …
1: to break up (as a region or group) into smaller and often hostile units
Obviously, this word exists for a reason.
Anyone who knows anything about the Balkans knows that the ethnic and religious conflicts in that region are complex beyond belief, with roots that dig deep into centuries of bloody earth. The question is how journalists can describe these conflicts in language that can be understood in daily news accounts (or on the Daily Show, for that matter). How much context is enough?
Obviously, I bring this up because of the waves of headlines coming out of the Balkans right now linked to the declaration of independence in Kosovo. Obviously, before others click “comment” to note this, I should also say that I am an Orthodox Christian.
Here is my question: What do readers need to know in order to understand the emotions that are currently being unleashed in Serbia and in Kosovo, especially in northern Kosovo?
I have found myself thinking about the late A.M. Rosenthal of the New York Times. Here is my attempt, in a 1999 Scripps Howard column, to put one powerful Rosenthal remark into some historical context. The crisis mentioned in this text is, of course, linked to the hellish regime of the Communist thug Slobodan Milosevic.
The roots of this crisis are astonishingly complex, ancient and bloody. … In 1389, Serbian armies fought — virtually to the death — while losing the Battle of Kosovo, but managed to stop the Ottoman Empire from reaching into Europe. The Kosovo Plain became holy ground.
Leap ahead to World War II, when Nazi Germany tried to use Albanian Muslims and Catholic Croats to crush the Serbs. Then Communists — such as Milosevic — took over. In the mid-1990s, the United States all but encouraged Croat efforts to purge Serbs from Krajina, where they had lived for 500 years. The West has been silent as Turkey expelled waves of Eastern Orthodox Christians.
Since morphing from Communist to nationalist, Milosevic has skillfully used Serbia’s array of fears, hatreds and resentments to justify terror in Kosovo and elsewhere by his paramilitary and police units. The Serbian strongman knows that Kosovo contains 1,300 churches and monasteries, many of them irreplaceable historic sites.
Retired New York Times editor A.M. Rosenthal, who once won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting in Eastern Europe, put it this way: “I do not get emotional about the history of Kosovo. I am not a Serb. Serbs do. … Serbs are as likely to give up Kosovo willingly because the Albanians want it as Israelis are to give up Jerusalem because the Arabs want it.”
For legions of Serbs the ultimate problem centers on those 1,300 churches and monasteries and the graveyards attached to them. We are dealing with haunted and holy ground.
A newspaper reader has to look long and hard to find out anything about this side of the story. The Times does include this material in the background section of the main story:
In the 1980s, Mr. Milosevic used Serbs’ enormous sense of grievance that their ancestral heartland was now dominated by Muslim Albanians to come to power in Serbia. By 1989, he had abolished Kosovo’s autonomy, fired tens of thousands of Albanians from their jobs, suppressed Albanian language education and controlled the territory with a heavy police presence.
Ten years ago, Mr. Milosevic’s forces moved against the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army, killing a guerrilla leader and his family at their compound. As violence escalated, NATO intervened in a 1999 bombing campaign, causing hundreds of thousands of Albanians and Serbs to flee. An estimated 10,000 civilians were killed in the 1998-99 conflict, many of them Albanians, while 1,500 Serbs died in revenge killings that followed.
That’s essential information. But that is just part of the context for the emotional scenes we are seeing in the Balkans right now.
The Washington Post story, to its credit, goes much further and, near the top, mentions the specifics.
Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica said his country, which regards Kosovo as the cradle of its civilization and home to some of its most treasured Orthodox churches and monasteries, would never recognize the unilateral declaration.
“For as long as the Serbian nation exists, Kosovo will remain Serbia,” Kostunica said in a nationally televised address from Belgrade, Serbia’s capital. “We do not recognize the forced creation of a state within our territory.”
That states the issue in broad terms. Later, reporter Peter Finn hits us with one specific detail, to balance a number of telling anecdotes about the joy felt by the Albanians:
The NATO troops that moved into Kosovo after 78 days of airstrikes have since become guards around sealed Serb enclaves, home to 120,000 people. At a Serb monastery in Pec, called Peja by ethnic Albanians, Italian troops protect the holy site, which is surrounded by a massive new wall to shield elderly nuns from stone-throwing and other abuse by passing ethnic Albanians.
“We don’t have eye contact with them anymore, so things are better,” said one Serb woman at the church, who declined to give her name.
There are horrors on both sides. Treasures have been destroyed on both sides. Yes, on both sides.
The question is whether readers here in the United States have any idea why this issue is not going to go away, why northern Kosovo matters so much to its Orthodox minority. Can people live in peace under current conditions?
Look at it this way. Humanitarians around the world screamed in outrage — with good reason — when the Taliban destroyed the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan. These statues were, literally, irreplaceable.
Now, click here and tour some of the destruction in Kosovo. Yes, this is a one-sided, pro-Serbia site. But just think of this in terms of art and history — like the Bamiyan Buddhas. These holy places are also irreplaceable.
Again let me state that these Serbian church websites documenting the destruction tell only part of the hellish story that is post-war Kosovo and Serbia. Of course. But the destruction goes on and the churches and the monasteries cannot be replaced. That is part of the story.
Search the news reports in the next few days and look for the material on these treasures of art and faith. While many are celebrating, others are — sheltered in tiny enclaves protected by foreign troops — in mourning. Are there enougn troops to guard all the churches in northern Kosovo? Does anyone in Europe care? How about the United States? This is part of the Kosovo equation that should be included in balanced, accurate mainstream reporting.