We went and spoke to editors, tried to show them photocopies of documents of Serbs who were photographed looking emaciated in refugee camps but the media claimed they were Muslims in Serbian concentration camps. A few journalists were sympathetic but the editorial line was clear – Serbs were the villains and no other angle was to be reported.
Throughout this account, I failed to report on my feelings about the war in Yugoslavia. I’m Serbian and I have spent the entire 1990s listening to systematic propaganda against my people, which was traumatising, considering that the Serbs were victims of genocide in the WWII, when Croatian Nazi state executed hundreds of thousands of my people, including children. Both my grandmothers spent some time in concentration camps and watched their parents and siblings perish, and I grew up with the spectre of this crime looming over my family. So I can only speak from the personal – which is to say biased – perspective, since my life and lives of my family and friends have been defined by the genocide Croatian Nazis enacted against Serbs, and the conflicts which stemmed from that.
The hatred of certain members of Croatian society toward Serbs as a nation has plagued the Balkans for centuries. Theories as to why are many, but it possibly dates to the eleventh century and the Great Schism, when the Christian church – and the Balkan people – split into Orthodox and Catholic, and more recently, the creation of Military Frontier, a large boundary zone within Austro-Hungarian Empire where Serbs who fled before the Ottoman invaders were encouraged to settle, and participate in defending the Christian West from the Ottoman invasion.
While the facts from this time remain scarce, politicised and hotly disputed, we know that Croatian and Serbian population lived in the Military Frontier (Vojna Krajina or Krajina for short) in roughly equal numbers, and that the existing religion-driven animosities were probably exploited to ‘divide and conquer’ in order to stave off revolts against Austro-Hungarian occupation. Croats have lost their independent statehood centuries ago at that point, and they struggled to maintain their national identity in a Germanic empire that treated them as vassals and even forbade their language at times. History of Croatia is filled with peasant revolts and striving for pan-Slavic unification with the other Balkan nations. However, their belonging to the cultural bloc that birthed fascism and later, nazism, meant that Croats were conscripted into Germanic armies, while the Serbs fought against them. This is how Serbia, after expelling the Ottomans and winning the First World War alongside other allies, ended up a politically dominant nation in the early 20th century Balkans. Recognising the centuries-old pan-slavic tendency of all Balkan tribes to unite and cast off the chains of chronic foreign occupation, the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes was established. However, due to the violent history and my people’s wariness and distrust of the Croats and Muslims who lived on the territory of Yugoslavia, it was Serbian royal family who were in charge. This naturally bred resentment, which culminated in the policy by the German-allied independent Croatian state to “exterminate a third, exile a third and convert a third of Serbian population to Catholicism”. In my family, one of my grandmothers had been converted to Catholicism in the concentration camp for children, while many others were exiled or perished. This genocidal plan has haunted Yugoslavia ever since.
Yugoslavian partisans won WWII and Nazi-allied states such as the Independent State of Croatia got subsumed into the post-war communist Yugoslavia. However, the nationalistic hatred caused by the genocide, in which nations such as Jews, Roma and partisans of all nationalities also perished but the main target and by far most numerous victims were ethnic Serbs, was an enduring problem that was dealt with by removing religion from state influence and promoting the doctrine of “brotherhood and unity”. Seventy relatively peaceful and prosperous years ensued. Nationalism and religion were frowned upon and everyone was educated about the genocide, with the goal to ensure it never happened again. Unfortunately, as soon as the Soviet Union fell and the Independent Bloc countries were attacked for their oil, we were next.
In 1991, the “democratic” independence elections were engineered in Croatia, where Serbs were a “constitutive nation” which is to say that Serbian majority was needed for Croatia to be allowed to gain independence again. This was a failsafe mechanism designed to prevent another victimisation of Serbs by the independent Croatian state. The referendum was held and although majority of Croats voted for the independence, most Serbs – some 15% of the total Croatian population but a majority in some parts of Krajina – did not. Yugoslavian constitution was clear on this and Croatia was told that they could not have independence without either allowing areas populated by majority Serbs to remain in Yugoslavia or granting them significant autonomy. All this was disregarded when first Germany, and then the rest of the Western world, recognised Croatian independence. Attacks on Serbian civilians by Croatian paramilitaries quickly followed, as my grandparents and other family who fled Croatia experienced first hand. In response, Serbs dug up old weapons they kept hidden since WWII, they blockaded the roads, declared independent Republic of Serbian Krajina and mounted a defense in order to protect themselves.
At that time, nobody who lived in Yugoslavia, or who was familiar with its history, was unaware of the historical context of the emerging war. Croatian political elite encouraged or at least tolerated symbols and dehumanising rhetoric directed toward the Serbs as a nation, that was reminiscent, or at times identical, to the symbols and rhetoric of the nazi state of Croatia which led to the genocide. However, if you lived in the West, you would never have known this, because the official narrative was that the Serbs were the aggressors and that’s all there was to it.
The propaganda in the West was so bad that at times the subtitles on Australian television, when they would interview refugees or people at a funeral for example, would say the exact opposite of what the people in the footage were saying. A family burying a Serbian father who had died defending their village from Croatian paramilitaries – you could easily tell this by the Cyrillic writing on the grave and Serbian military insignia – would magically become a “Croat family burying a brave warrior who was murdered by the Serbs”. For a while I watched the CNN obsessively but they would often change the story as the night went on, and what started off as a truck with Red Cross markings smuggling weapons being seized by Serbian forces, would magically become a humanitarian aid truck by the morning, and Serbian border patrol would be cast as villains.
In the early 1990s, Serbian community in Australia tried to get journalists to report on the war truthfully. There was a bloody civil war involving three nations in the Balkans – Croats, Serbs and Muslims (Muslimani were a nation in Yugoslavia and they mostly lived in Bosnia). Atrocities were being committed by all sides, and Serbs were victims too. What purpose ignoring Serbian suffering could possibly serve? We went and spoke to editors, tried to show them photocopies of documents of Serbs who were photographed looking emaciated in refugee camps but the media claimed they were Muslims in Serbian concentration camps. A few journalists were sympathetic but the editorial line was clear – Serbs were the villains and no other angle was to be reported. Several journalists lost jobs over trying to report truthfully. The longer this went on, the fewer people were willing to listen to us. In order to preserve my own sanity, I had stopped following reports on the war in my country around 1997.
However, in early 1999 things escalated once again, this time in the Serbian province of Kosovo, which borders with Albania. Suddenly, Tony Blair and various US generals featured prominently on the news, where they were demonising Serbs once again, ignoring the context of ongoing conflicts, and urging the West to bomb Serbia.
If you lived in Yugoslavia throughout the 1980s you would have witnessed escalation of Albanian terrorism in Kosovo, on the background of the centuries-old animosity between the two nations, mainly dating back to the Ottoman conquest and the fact that Albania sided with Austro-Hungary and nazi Germany during the two world wars. Kosovo is also a site of an epic battle that led to a demise of the medieval Serbian state, and it still holds large amounts of Serbian cultural heritage. The population of Kosovo had been equally mixed Serbian and Albanian for a long time, however, after WWII, Yugoslav president Tito allowed Albanian civilians who fled the hard-line communist regime of Enver Hodza, to settle in Kosovo. Over the years, due to unrestricted immigration as well as Albanian families typically having many children, Albanian population enlarged.
During Yugoslavia, Kosovo was a bi-lingual, autonomous province where Albanian cultural heritage and language were allowed to thrive. But this was not enough. Thanks to the old ambitions to renew the Great Albania by taking over territories in the neighbouring countries, groups of Albanian separatists carried out terrorist attacks with a goal of ethnically cleansing Serbs from Kosovo. Serbian population dwindled as families abandoned their homes, sometimes selling them to Albanians for big amounts of money, sometimes fleeing from violence.
By mid-1980s, Kosovo became a war-zone with impoverished, conflict-ridden towns and ancient Serbian graveyards and churches scattered throughout the landscape. Shortly before my family emigrated, Slobodan Milosevic, who was the president of Serbia at the time, decided to crack down on Albanian terrorism in Kosovo. He sent police to disarm the terrorists and attempted to expell illegal immigrants. The violence in Kosovo decreased during 1990s civil war, however, the sentiment among Serbs, and the tolerance for the genuine Albanian cause such as was epitomised by the peaceful efforts of Ibrahim Rugova to negotiate some kind of compromise, was at an all-time low. No further negotiation would take place, Kosovo was Serbia and Albanians can either fall in line or go back to Albania. This was spun internationally as unprovoked war of aggression by the Serbs. The war in the 1990s had been mainly focused on the regions of former Yugoslav republics of Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, however, as more or less peaceful solutions started to be negotiated in those areas, the Albanian terrorism escalated again, this time with the political support of NATO countries.
The narrative in the western media ignored the history of this long-standing conflict and alleged that Serbs were engaged in a genocidal campaign against ethnic Albanians, which Serbia denied. They threatened Serbs with bombing even though such an assault was ruled to be illegal by international courts. And then the real humanitarian catastrophe struck. As the NATO started to bomb Kosovo, hundreds of thousands of people – most of them ethnic Albanians because Serbs have left a long time ago – fled to the neighbouring countries. The West blamed Milosevic regime for everything. The Chinese embassy in Belgrade was bombed, and then a neonatal hospital, murdering dozens of staff and newborns. And so it went. Civilian targets, infrastructure, agricultural land, all demolished before the eyes of the civilised world, using depleted uranium bombs.
Depleted from a decade of war, Serbian army fought back. They famously grounded a stealth bomber and a bunch of villagers released a photo online that showed them standing on the aircraft and saying “Sorry, we didn’t know it was invisible”. It was a boost to the morale but eventually Serbia capitulated and the US established Army bases in Kosovo.
In the new millennium, many Serbs, Croats, Bosnian Muslims as well as Albanians who were involved in military efforts, have been arrested and tried in Hague. In the aftermath of the bloody massacres in Kosovo, it became apparent that many people of both Serbian and Albanian nationality disappeared or were murdered, and many more were treated inhumanely in detention camps controlled by both Serbs and Albanians. A lot of Serbian cultural heritage was destroyed and the health of people of all nationalities had suffered due to depleted uranium as well as destroyed economy and infrastructure.
Proceedings at the war crimes tribunal in Hague were far from perfect. When the ruling that Croatian wartime leadership engaged in joint criminal enterprise in Serbian Krajina, with a goal to commit ethnic cleansing, was overturned on appeal, and several judges described this as a miscarriage of justice, it contributed to the general feeling among the Serbs that our lives and suffering weren’t important to the international community. Indictments and trials against some of the Albanian leaders of Kosovo Liberation Army were particularly difficult to carry out due to combination of politicising of war in Kosovo and campaigns to intimidate witnesses. In 2020, several Kosovo Albanian politicians have been indicted for war crimes by a separate tribunal and the proceedings there are still ongoing link link .
The result of long-standing ethnic cleansing of Serbs in the Balkans can be glimpsed from demographic data. In Croatia, Serbian population has dwindled from 12% pre 1991 to just over 4% in 2011. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbs managed to negotiate autonomy of Republic Srpska, a Serb-controlled territory from which majority of Croats and Bosnian Muslims were expelled during 1990s war, and where most Serbs who were expelled from regions controlled by Croats and Bosnian Muslims escaped to. In Kosovo, the 1939 census records 276,000 Serbs and 167,000 Albanians as living there. Following WWII, that ratio flipped to 287,000 Albanians and 127,000 Serbs and in 2011, population of Kosovo consisted of 92,93% Albanians and only 1.47% Serbs. Although Kosovo is still technically in Serbia, the North is under control of the Serbs, while in the Albanian-controlled South, Serbs are forced to live in protected enclaves.
Over the years, people like Harold Pinter (who protested the bombing of Serbia and Kosovo in 1999), John Pilger (who wrote extensively about the conflict in the left-wing press, such as in ‘How Yugoslavia Was Destroyed‘) , Noam Chomsky (whose writings on this topic were published in ‘Yugoslavia: Peace, War, and Dissolution’), Nora Beloff (who wrote ‘Yugoslavia: An Avoidable War’), Carla de Ponte (former chief prosecutor in Hague who wrote ‘The Hunt: Me and War Criminals’) attempted to offer a more balanced analysis of the 1990s Balkan wars, and to draw attention to the role western propaganda played in these conflicts, but their attempts were denounced and failed to gain prominence in the mainstream.
In the new millennium, the Serbs became stock bad guys in Hollywood movies and the western mainstream media became a well-oiled propaganda machine that came to control the narrative with regards to political hot topics such as NATO imperialistic wars, the recession, austerity crisis and more recently – gender ideology.
But to go back to my fifth year of medical school. I got my driver’s licence back, however, the hospital parking spaces were too scarce and expensive and as a student I could not get a parking permit, so I was struggling a lot getting to and fro. Australia is very big and spread out, not to mention unbearably hot on occasion, and public transport isn’t the best, so I just remember being tired and worn down, carrying my books, walking for miles every day. This came in addition to the ever worsening flashbacks and nightmares, poor sleep, inadequate nutrition, abusive situation at home and impending bombing of my country.
I remember the morning when I learned that bombs finally started to fall on Serbia. I was sitting in the waiting room of some surgeon’s outpatient clinic, waiting for a tutorial. I was numb and could barely look up. All the propaganda around Serbs resulted in several older male consultants making inappropriate jokes and allegations at my expense. They would typically ask me where I was from because I had a foreign accent and a strange surname, and when I told them, they would theatrically jump back and say things like “Oh, right, then I better watch my back!”. I wasn’t even angry. I had lost all faith in the international community and people in general. I was only comfortable when I was doing my job, my heart still open to people who were suffering and in need of medical care. Being faced with a patient would instantly focus my attention on helping alleviate their pain and concerns, no matter who they were or what they’ve done.
I was feeling so utterly dejected about everything, when a Jewish girl from my year came up to me and lifted my chin with her hand, so she could look me in the eye. She said that Jews knew what was being done to Serbs was a terrible injustice. She told me they were talking about it in the synagogues and that there were demonstrations in Tel Aviv against NATO assault on Serbia. She hugged me and told me, heart to heart, that both our people suffered so much but that we were strong and would stick together. I didn’t cry until I came home, but after that, my heart had thawed just a tiny bit and I will never forget the kindness and friendship that Jews had shown me and my people.