Hamas started raining down bombs on Tel-Aviv this summer just as my plane departed for Serbia.
Israel was then beginning a campaign that a delegation from the European Commission would recently label genocide. It all made my long scheduled departure feel a bit like a getaway. My last visit to Serbia occurred just before the outbreak of war in 1990. Walking the streets of Belgrade, no one would speak with me, however good their English. The absence of anyone to tell me which food was vegetarian meant three days of surviving on McDonald’s French Fries and ice cream, before stumbling across two monks meditating in a park, who later took me with them to Greece.
There is a tension in the air just before war breaks out, and something of that tension was palpable in Israel in the few weeks before leaving. But whereas the war in the Middle East would come to consume my life, the Balkan wars fell off my radar. Watching from afar, war would morph into genocide. But it did not even occur to me until many years later, how close it had come to touching my life. Why some wars touch us and others do not can often seem arbitrary.
At the time, the Serbs identified with the Israelis. They too had suffered a genocide in the Second World War and were determined “never again” to let it happen. The Serbs suffered not at the hands of the Nazis, though, but rather the Croatian Ustashas. The genocide got so intense at one point that it even brought out the moderate in Hitler, who tried to tamp down Ustasha violence in an effort to bring stability to the region.
The Serbs were luckier than the Jews in the Second World War in that they had mountains to which they might retreat and build a resistance movement. They also had a long history of fighting back. And their largely communist movement would eventually go on to build the state of Yugoslavia. The state would carry out one of the most interesting experiments in worker-self-management ever to appear in the world before everything fell apart in the early nineties. History has a way of generating novelty in the midst of the same tragic repetitions, but sometimes the most interesting changes come with the cessation of violence.
Waiting in the airport lounge for the plane to Serbia, it was easy to imagine the trauma in the faces of my fellow passengers. Their parents and grandparents had suffered a genocide. And they and their parents had carried out a double ethnic cleansing of Bosnians and Kosovars in the nineties. The Serbs had besieged the Bosnian city of Sarajevo, a major European capital comprised mostly of Muslims, who were remnants of the Ottoman empire that had for centuries oppressed their forebears. The Serbs spent two years sniping at Sarjevan civilians in a modern siege similar to, but more deadly than, the Israeli siege of Gaza.
But Serbia has become more prosperous and stable since the wars were brought to a close in the late nineties. The genocide against the Bosnians and the later ethnic cleansing of Kosovars were both stopped by NATO bombardments. And the Serbian dictator, Slobodan Milosevic, was overthrown through a strategically brilliant movement for democracy in 1999. The leaders of that movement now consult with protest leaders around the world in an effort to foster democracy. And in spite of some setbacks in the last few years, the number of democracies in the world continues to rise.
Serbia and Bosnia are both now growing more prosperous. They are democratic, if quite corrupt. And they are largely stable. So, while the men in the airport waiting for the flight to Serbia were burly, they were also stylish. Europe is taking over in the Balkans and it is refreshing to see. The transformation may be exciting to watch unfold, but nice countries rarely make the news. Peace came like a thief in the night to the Balkans and now we take its stability for granted, as attention turns to the next latest disaster.
Most of us tend to turn our attention away just when things are getting good. The former Chief Economist of the World Bank, Paul Collier, once spoke with a group of Ugandan economists, who complained that no one would invest in Uganda. It turned out the only thing people knew about their country was Idi Amin, the near genocidal leader whose reign ended in the seventies. Genocidal states do change, just look at Germany and Japan. And ethnic cleansers are often removed from power in ways no one might foresee. But the fighting continues in our minds, sometimes more so in distant onlookers.
Great evils are difficult to sustain largely because they are so corrupting. The band of thieves will sooner or later fall out amongst themselves. This sort of moral decay can be seen today in Israeli society, where inequality and racism among Jews are on the rise. Since these sorts of forces can be so destabilizing, the harshest regimes are often the quickest to fall. The instability of brutal regimes opens up a space in which higher development might be fostered, though. As Israel becomes increasingly aggressive, it is into this wavering space of possibility where we might find hope—for both a better Israel and a more livable Palestine.
The passing of genocidal regimes can look from a distance much like the falling away of youthful fancies. Life goes on in Bosnia, Serbia, Germany, Japan, Rwanda, Uganda and Cambodia. Former victims and perpetrators of genocide alike often do quite well. For the human capacity for transformation is remarkable. And the nature of empathy is such that impossible chasms are often bridged through everyday activities.
Just tonight, as my weekly philosophy circle was closing a discussion on vices, a woman mentioned that she was Israeli, to which my Palestinian friend replied with a big smile, “I’m Palestinian, let’s fight.” As we all laughed off the absurdity of our own contingent identities, it was possible to catch a glimpse of how it all might end. Perhaps this seems a touch too idealistic, but if peace in the Middle East seems ever out of reach, it is good to remember that the Hutu and Tutsi of Rwanda do not only share a small and fast growing country together. They often live together on the same hills—victims and perpetrators sharing an uneasy peace that with every pass year becomes ever more lasting. We would all do well to occasionally step back and look at such successes.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Author: Theo Horesh
Editor: Travis May