Tuesday, May 11, 2004
During my first full day in New York, I went to the W Hotel's "underbar" at Union Square. A friend had told me that it was de rigeur if I wanted a very good martini, which I did. (He also gave a soliloquy on the waitresses there, but that's another subject.) I brought my notebook (later lost, sadly), and sitting at the bar I scribbled notes for the next book, sometimes chatting with the bartender, but generally remaining antisocial. It was afternoon (and these drinks were prepping me for the Partners & Crime Edgars Party, which was a hoot) and the bar was pretty empty. Enter a stocky man, soberly dressed, who joined me at the bar. He seemed to want to chat, but no one (least of all me) was giving him the time of day. So upon ordering my second martini, I finally gave him a smile and we began to chat. His name was Benny. He had an accent, so I asked where he was from.
"From a long way away."
"Yeah, but where?"
"Ok, right. Where in Europe?"
He looked at me strangely, then said, "Kosovo."
Which was a coincidence, because over the previous couple weeks I'd talked a lot with my girlfriend (as mentioned below, a Vojvodina Serb) about Kosovo. I don't know if the US papers carried it, but there was a spate of violence in that southern ex-Yugoslav province, in which local Serbs were attacked and churches burned to the ground. The provocation? An allegation that six Serbian men with dogs drowned three ethnic Albanian children in a lake in mid-March. The violence that followed killed nearly 30 people and drove 3,200 from their homes. Since then, a UN probe has been unable to find evidence that this actually occurred. (See the UN Mission in Kosovo news page.)
Now, the Balkans are a tough thing to get hold of, so I was interested in discussing it with Benny. But he admitted it was just as hard for him to understand, despite having grown up there. History rules the present in the Balkans, and to say that the violence happened simply because of these six men is just foolishness. In reaction, violence pops up everywhere, even in my girlfriend's quite liberal hometown of Novi Sad, where ethnic Serbs attacked Hungarian shops. "Why Hungarian shops?" I asked her. Because, she told me, there weren't any Kosovars around, and at least the Hungarians were "foreign" (despite having lived there all their lives).
The provocation for this recent spate of violence reminded me of an incident cited in the 1990s (which I read about in--shameless plug, I know the guy--Adam LeBor's Milosevic) as a provocation by Serbs: A 56-year-old farmer was injured by a broken bottle while in his field. The story in the Serb papers was that he'd been attacked by ethnic Albanians, who forced him to use the bottle on himself sexually. Later, though, the farmer, upset by the press, admitted that he'd done it to himself, alone. However, this revised news didn't make most of the papers.
Benny's contention is that the UN will never create peace in this region because they refuse to understand that the past cannot be simply cleared away. These grotesque "provocations" are, and have always been, excuses for those who want to see history (or history as they view it) rewritten, to erase a past national shame they feel personally. (And the countries around Hungary feel similar animosity against the long-dead Autro-Hungarian Empire, just as Hungarians proudly point out that back in 15th Century they had "three seas".) As an American, this kind of logic is beyond me. I'm used to cutting away the past when it suits me, which is probably why I move around so much. It's also the luxury of affluence to ignore the past. My girlfriend, though, is seldom surprised, though she's often disappointed, by such outbreaks of Balkan violence. She shrugs and says to me, "What else would you expect them to do?"
And I don't have an answer for that.