PRINT April 1995



AN ARRAY OF APPALLING IMAGES has been produced during the dismemberment of Yugoslavia, most showing carnage and destruction on an apocalyptic scale. In comparison, this still image looks quiet and mild—but it is one of the most frightening pictures that has resulted from the conflict. Taken from a Serbian TV broadcast, it shows captured Bosnian Muslim soldiers in the Bosnian town of Bihac. What can’t be seen here is the sound that goes with this picture, which was broadcast on American TV: the soldiers are being made to chant a funeral dirge for Bosnia’s enlightened multiethnicity. “Bosnia is for the Serbs,” they drone, in an uncanny mimicry of Orwellian dehumanization. “Bosnia is for the Serbs.”

Bosnia was once a model society for all three of the ethnoreligious groups that inhabited it, the Serbs as well as the Croatians and the Muslims. Its disintegration symbolizes something even larger than sheer factional butchery in the service of territorial acquisition: it signals the acceptance of fascist ideology as state policy within the European Community. This should strike terror into the heart of anyone who remembers World War II, or who is concerned with the fate of Greece, Macedonia, and any constituent parts of the former Soviet Union. But Western acquiescence in the face of genocidal aggression virtually guarantees that this will not be the last time violence is used to sort out the legacy of communism. Neither the EC nor the U.S. wanted to soil itself with what it likes to think of as a mere “Balkan” crisis—as if the Balkans weren’t in Europe, and therefore had nothing to do with “us.”

So Europe and the U.S. sat on their hands and pontificated about how the Balkans are too complicated and too violent for anyone else to intercede in their affairs. Yet it was the West’s quick recognition (led by Germany) of Croatia’s secession from Yugoslavia that made war a certainty. Rural Serbs in Croatia’s explosive Krajina region, where every man, woman, and child is armed (in a long-standing gun culture that would make the National Rifle Association ecstatic), revolted when Croatian President Franjo Tudjman and his urban-intellectual advisers ignored the peasants’ concerns about their safety in the new Croatian order. Anyone familiar with the area’s politics should have known that an armed eruption in that part of the country could only spread.

It was Bosnia-Herzegovina that had the most to lose in any violent realignment of Yugoslavia, as British journalist Misha Glenny spells out in his chilling book, The Fall of Yugoslavia: The Third Balkan War (1992). Although Croats, Serbs, and Muslims lived side by side in Bosnia, beginning in 1990 new political parties were constructed along ethnic lines, and when fighting broke out it assumed a nationalist form, with Muslim village battling Croat village or Serb village and neighbors battling from house to house. While the Croatians hoped to be absorbed into a larger Croatian entity, and the Serbs fought to enlarge their historical fantasy of Greater Serbia, the Muslims had no “greater Bosnia” to turn to or fight for. So Bosnia was made to shed its character as a multiethnic model and instead became defined as a Muslim state led by a Muslim president, Alija Izetbegovic. But a Muslim political entity in Europe proper was a repulsive concept for many Westerners, who simply watched as Bosnia was cut to pieces, with the Muslims holding ever-diminishing pieces of territory.

The West’s response was to produce two peace plans that carved Bosnia up into ethnic enclaves that reflected the aims of the region’s most reactionary political players. As the Yugoslav scholar Tomaz Mastnak has observed, “The European political elite has been offering, as the peaceful solution, the very same model that the Serbian—and now also the Croatian—military and paramilitary forces are putting into practice with genocidal war” (Lusitania, Fall 1993). The reason for this, Mastnak believes, has more to do with ethnic prejudice than with simple perplexity about what to do: for Westerners, he says, the Balkans are inhabited by “traditionally barbarous” peoples who cannot manage their affairs in a civilized way. But Western bigotry doesn’t stop with mere anti-Balkanism. If Bosnia were a Muslim state, Europe could see it as the enemy territory of the other—a potential cradle of Islamic fundamentalism within Europe. And if, as Mastnak puts it, “The Muslim is the symbolic enemy of Europe, ” this could not be allowed.

So the destruction of Yugoslavia actually serves Western European goals quite well: a racist belief in Slavic barbarity is reinforced with fanfare confirming Western superiority. At the same time, the Muslim presence in Europe is destroyed, fulfilling what Mastnak calls a “European dream.” But what the West refuses to confront is its own appeasement of fascism, a decision that will have no better consequences in the ’90s than it had 60 years ago.

Carol Squiers is senior editor at American Photo and a regular contributor to Artforum.