PRINT May 1992


IN NOVEMBER 1991, some five months after Slovenia and Croatia had declared independence from Yugoslavia and touched off a “civil war,” a relation of mine called from the besieged Adriatic town of Zadar. As we talked I could hear gunfire and the thud of distant shelling. “Tell your friends this is not Kuwait,” he said. “This is a war of vampires and cutthroats.”

Tens of thousands of Iraqis were killed in the laser show over Baghdad and the chalkboard war in and around Kuwait, but in Croatia death is a more intimate affair. In Zadar, neighbors who had been at relative peace just a short time ago were suddenly committing unspeakable crimes in each other’s back yard. So the vampiric imagery wasn’t just folklore and fear-mongering. If anything, it confronted the present without bitter allusion to the past: the 1918 unification of the South (or Jugo) Slavs under the Serbian Karadjordjević dynasty, and the horrors of World War II, when the Nazis installed a puppet regime in Croatia, which butchered Serbs and Jews at Jasenovac and other death camps. They also established a protectorate state of Serbia, with camps on the outskirts of its capital, Belgrade.1 Josip Broz Tito’s band of multiethnic communists sprang up as a resistance movement, but so did Draza Mihailović’s četniks, royalist insurgents who murdered Slavic Muslims, collaborated with Nazis and fascists against Tito’s “partisans,” and advanced their own Greater Serbian agenda.

Ten years after Tito, it is once more obvious that South Slavic unitarism was a bad idea. Made and remade from charnel-house remnants of World Wars I and II, Yugoslavia was always a patchwork monster, not unlike the alien son assembled by Dr. Frankenstein. When the federal army trained its guns on “rebel” Croats and the European Community doddered on the sidelines and bargained in bad faith, hoping that the swath of destruction wouldn’t spill over into other countries, I thought of Mary Shelley’s friendless and unwanted freak come back to plague its creator and exact revenge on his family. And when the army fanned out in Croatia, “protecting” Serb minorities for whom all the old dead were a living presence (vampirism as a mnemonic trope), I thought of Udo Kier’s bungled attempt to create a “Serbian master race” in Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein.

Last November 22, the gothic gallery expanded, as it was taken over by the Western news media. A drawing of two faces set nose to snout illustrated a New York Times op-ed piece on the conflict. On the left was a head with human brow above a jaw elongated into a snarling wolflike muzzle; on the right, the grimacing, clean-shaven jaw and mouth of a man whose furry pate and peaked ears announced a lycanthropic twin. These metamorphoses of homo hostilis followed an Associated Press photograph published two days previously, showing an unshaven, gap-toothed, shaggy-haired Serb irregular celebrating the fall of Vukovar, the eastern-Croatian city that had been under assault for 86 days. The losing side might have smiled bleakly at the opportune image presented by this jubilant conqueror draped in yards of cartridges and bellowing like a beast: here was one of the werewolves sent from the Serbian backwoods to sack Dubrovnik, descend on Diocletian’s palace in Split, and push the battlefront toward Zagreb, the Croatian capital.

Incapable of consulting the historical record, which long precedes World War II’s nazification of Yugoslavia, the Western media took on the formidable task of stereotyping and equalizing the opponents. But the warring sides sometimes made the job that much easier. The AP photo was reprinted in full color as Soldier of Fortune’s February 1992 cover. Just a month before, the same space had featured a Croatian “partisan” posed like a pinup idol for fascist veneration, and in this earlier image, the editors were clearly playing with 20th-century constructions of “Aryan” glamour. Here were a pair of bronzed forearms and black-leathered fists clasping a “World War II–era Thompson submachine gun” across the chest; silver-rimmed sunglasses over a relaxed but resolute visage staring back into the heavens; and a black beret pinned with the age-old Croatian coat of arms, or grb—a red-and-white checkerboard.

The Croatian grb is an easy propaganda target, having appeared on the flag of the fascist Ustaša movement, which the Nazis sponsored. For Serbs, it is outstanding proof that the Croats were and remain “genocidal.” When Vukovar fell, the New York Times reported Belgrade television’s unsubstantiated claim of Croatian atrocities in a nearby village, and of the Serbian reprisals that followed—the execution of 80 Croat men, “all Ustashe,” in the words of a Serb “volunteer” who had just photographed the bodies for the educational benefit of future generations.2 Refugees and survivors to whom the Serb “volunteers” were quite clearly četniks were apparently unavailable to the Times for comment. Their testimony might have been helpful, if only to point out that a number of Yugoslav Army soldiers were wearing the Serbian grb when they moved in to mop up.

This grb, a Greek cross superimposed on a two-headed eagle, was the basis for the state seal of Karadjordjević Yugoslavia. Knowing this, it is hard to take at face value the words of George Tomashevich, an anthropologist at SUNY-Buffalo. A Times article in which Tomashevich goes on record as “seven-eighths a Serb and one-eighth a Croat” ends with an astounding trope for the mutual “tragedy” of the two nations whose blood he embodies: “The Serbs and the Croats are like Siamese twins. They are joined at the hip with intertwined intestines but unfortunately also with two heads.”3 This, of course, is the Serbian grb transformed. The “Siamese twins” are the effect of an ornithological mutation that subsumes the Croat difference and “unifies” the two peoples under an age-old Serbian aegis.

Neither Siamese nor vampiric, the victors of Vukovar were enthusiastic exterminators of those elusive Ustaša who were said to be lurking everywhere: hiding in church towers, or holed up in schools, hospitals, and cultural edifices. Since apparently every living Croat is a potential fascist, the Yugoslav army and the government of Serbian President Slobodan Milošević had to work in tandem, the former regaining regions from the secessionist government of Croatian President Franjo Tudjman, the latter resettling captured areas with Serb civilians. Hence the logic of “liberation” across a broad front—as in Vukovar so also in Laslovo, a town housing 25 Serbian and 700 Croatian families, according to Matthew Fisher in a Toronto Sun column of December 19 titled “Each Horror Story Has a Twin.” Asked where Laslovo should be according to new, postconquest borders, a 76-year-old Serb answered, “It was liberated by Serbians so it should stay Serbian.” Given lines like that, Yugoslavia could indeed be portrayed as a seething cauldron of “ethnic animosities,” or a Balkan playing field being leveled by its own savage ironies.

Certain omissions, however, are more devastating than the ironies. The Western press has pointed out that before the current war the Victims of Fascism Square in Zagreb had become the Square of the Sovereigns of Croatia, and that Serbia is not officially at war with Croatia. But it hasn’t been much discussed that President Milošević plied the rhetoric of Croat exterminism while pursuing a Stalinist policy toward the huge Albanian majority in Serbia’s Kosovo province. Or that Belgrade’s capacity for “Yugoslav” state violence assured both Croats and unwilling Serb conscripts that they could be fresh additions to the country’s long list of victims. The trickiest example of spin management and half information was a commentary by Nora Beloff in the Washington Post of last November 19. When not blaming Tito for having created conditions that made Milošević necessary, and not condemning the Croatian “regime,” Beloff is treacherously tactful. Instead of operating as Belgrade’s expansionist Serbian instrument, the Yugoslav army is only “committed to preserving Tito’s federation.” Mihailović's četniks, with their collaborationist history, are portrayed simply as “pro-allied” “activists” “loyal to the king.” And present-day Serbian repression of Albanians in Kosovo is explained by the recollection that in 1968 Tito “transferred power” “to a corrupt group of Albanians” who allowed “their compatriots to take revenge on the Serbs.”

Then there’s the matter of Dubrovnik, which Beloff does not designate a Croatian city and a bastion of ancestral Croatian culture, but gives passing mention as an “Adriatic port” and “this little Venice.” In which case she might be anticipating a “liberation” scenario that would justify calling it a “South Slav Athens,” as CNN did on February 18. Why not hand Dubrovnik and environs, with more than 56,000 Croats, over to 8,000 Serbs and other sundry “Yugoslavs”? That way the federal army could lift the siege and stop lobbing shells at the old town. We wouldn’t have to witness a “crime” against Western civilization, and there would be no more effusions of knee-jerk sympathy for the plight of the underdog whose experiment with modern statehood in World War II bears repeating by rote.

None of this seems to matter to the Bush administration, which isn’t about to embark on a crusade against “naked aggression,” or to sort out the conflicting claims. Lawrence Eagleburger, deputy secretary of state for Bush, maintains the Administration’s Yugoslavist line, but won’t comment on his past business ties with a U.S.-based Yugoslav bank and with Yugo (auto) of America. David Anderson, who in 1981 took over Eagleburger’s four-year stint as U.S. ambassador to Yugoslavia, has appeared in the Wall Street Journal carping about Balkan tribalism rather than informing readers that Yugoslavia was never a homogeneous whole and that no group could claim numerical majority status when counted against the rest. The “Yugoslavs,” he wrote, “are a perverse group of folks, near tribal in their behavior. . .friendly on the outside but very cynical within, ever ready for a war or battle. . .and completely incapable of coming to grips with the modern world.”4 Anderson’s “modern world” is none other than the “New World Order,” where a political fiction named “Yugoslavia” is treated as an ethnic designation for diverse peoples who should know better than to seek unsanctioned escape from an obsolete geopolitical paradigm. A “plague on both houses,” says the former ambassador, and concludes that the whole “unholy mess” might in part have been averted by “better diplomacy by a disinterested Western Europe and the U.S.” It’s always charming to hear of U.S. “disinterestedness,” particularly from an ex-envoy who reduces independence (Croatian) and expansionist (Serbian) movements to the same difference. But then, a nation of warrior tribes is bound to fight a “civil war”—all the way into Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Lorenzo Buj is a writer who lives in Windsor, Ontario. He is preparing a longer essay on the Yugoslav breakup for the Toronto journal Public.



1. See Martin Gilbert, Atlas of the Holocaust, Oxford: Pergamon Press, 1988, and Bogoljub Kočović, Žrtve drugog svetskog rata u Jugoslaviji, London: Veritas Foundation Press, 1985 (in Serbian).

2. Chuck Sudetic, “Croatian Cityscape: Stray Dogs, Rows of Wounded, Piles of Dead,” The New York Times, 21 November 1991, pp. A1, A6.

3. George Tomashevich, quoted in William Honan, “Dubrovnik, a Cultural Hostage in Yugoslavia’s Civil Turmoil,” The New York Times, 2 December 1991, p. C14.

4. David Anderson, “A Diplomat Explains Yugoslavia,” The Wall Street Journal, 21 February 1992, p. A14.