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The Anatomy of Ethnic Conflict
by Chris Hedges

Ethnic conflicts, whether between Serbs and Muslims or Hutus and Tutsies, are not religious wars. They are not clashes between cultures, nor are they the result of ancient ethnic hatreds. They are manufactured wars born out of the collapse of civil societies and perpetuated by fear, greed, and paranoia. They are run by gangsters who rise up from the scum of their own societies and terrorize all, including those they purport to protect. Hatred is methodically manufactured to give credibility to the nationalist myth that venal warlords and demagogues use to ride into power.

Undermining Ambiguity
It took Slobodan Milosevic four years of hate propaganda and lies, pumped daily over the airways from Belgrade, before he got one Serb to cross the border into Bosnia and begin the murderous rampages that triggered the war. Although the war was painted as a clash of rival civilizations, the primary task of Milosevic in Serbia and ethnic leaders elsewhere was to silence their own intellectuals and writers, and replace them with second-rate pawns willing to turn every intellectual and artistic endeavor into a piece of ethnic triumphalism.

The great writers and intellectuals in Serbia, such as Danilo Kis and Milovan Djilas, are unread. It is now hard even to find their books. Writers and artists are inconvenient: they deal with ambiguity, puncture holes in popular myths, and deflate heroic rhetoric. These ascendant states and parastates must destroy their own cultures before embarking on the task of exterminating their opponents.

People speak in the language they are given, and in the Balkans today the only language people have is nationalist. Most do not understand why they are fighting. They are unable to articulate another belief system, even as they are disillusioned with the nationalist forces that have destroyed their lives.

Ethnic chauvinism allows most Serbs to view those outside the clan as a subspecies: there is little pity in Belgrade for the plight of the Kosovar Albanians or for the Muslim and Croat dead in Bosnia. This is not to say that many in the opposing ethnic groups do not find the dark elixir of nationalism intoxicating. The poison of triumphalism lies hidden in every human heart and is unleashed when peoples feel threatened or when economic and political situations reduce them to desperation. Milosevic has raised a generation of Kosovar Albanians to hate as fiercely as the Serbs. Seventy percent of all ethnic Albanians are under 30, and most no longer speak Serbo-Croatian. Most have had no contact with the Serbian state other than its jails and roadblocks.

Fair Policing
As soon as a police force falls into the hands of one ethnic group, as the police in Kosovo in 1989 became the domain of the Serbs, the opposing ethnic groups can no longer find justice or protection outside the clan. The seizure of the organs of security is one of the primary tasks of the ascendant nationalists. It guarantees conflict. If a Kosovar Albanian knows it is useless to appeal to a police force made up of Serbs, he will turn for protection to the local militant leader of the Kosovo Liberation Army. What saves tensions in multi-ethnic societies from evolving into war is the maintenance of the organs that uphold a civil society. It was the collapse of these organs that led to the carnage in Rwanda, Liberia, the Congo as well as the Balkans.

Ethnic wars, despite the distinctions drawn by participants, are essentially fratricides. Neighbors murder neighbors. People who are indistinguishable racially or linguistically kill each other over absurd differences. At first these wars are waged by gangs who have more interest in looting than fighting, but as they kill and pillage they create "facts" where there were none. The piles of corpses spread fear, panic, and a thirst for revenge. The barbarity becomes the rationale to continue the conflict and destroys all hope for a return to a multi-ethnic community. Nationalist movements feed off of each other. Such intoxication is always easier to bear than reflection, honesty, and self-criticism.

Swallowing Myths Whole
We are quick to accept the facile ideological veneer wrapped like a mantle around the thugs who prosecute the slaughter. We based all of our responses in Bosnia on such myths: the myth of the Serbian warrior who would fight to the death against overwhelming odds; the myth that the Croats, Muslims, and Serbs (who speak the same language and are indistinguishable) are a different people; and the myth that Yugoslavia, a country Tito had made an important player in international affairs, had failed to give its citizens a national identity. These myths, swallowed whole, permitted us to stand by as 250,000 were slaughtered and Sarajevo spent three-and-a-half years under siege. In part we do this to avoid intervention, but also because the media often lacks the perspective and analysis to debunk the myths served up by opposing sides.

In the final months of the siege of Sarajevo television crews, many of whom showed great courage, recorded scenes of carnage on the city streets. They filed their footage but were usually told it would not be aired because it was stale: it was too familiar. Pictures of bleeding women and children, cut down by snipers as they tried to get water at UN-administered taps, were much like images filed weeks, months, and years earlier. As Bruno Bettelheim noted: "A few screams evoke in us deep anxiety and a desire to help. Hours of screaming without end lead us only to wish that the screamer would shut up."

By failing to explain the origins of these conflicts, we have turned the participants into aliens. They do not belong to us because we do not understand them. We do not understand them because we live in a world where less and less is explained, where we respond to images rather than information. As images quickly lose their power, we lose interest.

Unable to grasp the complexities of these conflicts, we paint the victims as innocents, abetted by most of the electronic media, and while the testimony of victims needs to be heard, victims usually demonize their oppressors. However understandable this is, it does not help us dissect what went wrong: why these conflicts took place and how we should respond.

How to Respond
There is a belief among victims that they are the only ones who can understand their particular page in history and that they alone have the moral authority to condemn, usually en masse, the state or group in whose name the atrocities were committed. This turns very human crimes into unassailable monuments, which only compounds our alienation. It turns the world into one of absolutes where oppressors are inhuman and victims are on the side of the angels. The result is to push the antagonists into an amoral universe that does not belong to us. Suddenly the evils of the past and of the present that should speak to our human condition, to our capacity for evil, lie beyond us.

The truth is, there is nothing intrinsically Balkan or German or African about evil. It lurks within all human hearts. But since we know little, and what little we do "know"is usually wrong, the most important lesson of such wars is lost on us. We may not all have it in us to be camp guards, but most of us do have it in us to be silent accomplices. Totalitarian regimes rule through fear, and fear is a very effective inducement to adopting the compliance necessary for self-preservation. We fail to understand how tyrants like Milosevic rule through a network of terror and how national myths can deform a society, even to the point of suicide.

To intervene in the world's fratricides--and as one of the world's wealthy nations that consumes a disproportionate share of resources, we have a responsibility to intervene--we must first master the intricacies of the conflicts we see. We must also accept that massive force alone will cow these gangsters. In Bosnia we arrived too late, in Rwanda not at all. In Kosovo, misreading the Serbs, NATO forces intervened with a tepid bombing campaign that increased the suffering for both the Albanians and the Serbs until we were willing to launch more punishing strikes.

To halt genocide we must first understand the lies that perpetuate genocide. We must work hard to shore up the organs of civil society. And in the final resort we must be willing to use the massive force necessary to break the tyrants who wage conflicts, and especially conflicts with the outside world, to prop up their regimes. Ignorance, and acceptance of the myths these nationalist leaders peddle, leave us often waking up too late--or not at all.

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