For Many Serbs, No Sense of Guilt Over Atrocities


Dragan Antic is appalled by what Slobodan Milosevic did to Kosovo and bold enough to say so in public. Standing in a downtown Belgrade square with 200 other defiant Serbs, he accused the Yugoslav president by nickname.

"It's Slobo who is guilty!" he shouted as police stepped in to break up the rally here in the capital.

Milosevic has been indicted by an international war crimes tribunal for atrocities carried out by Yugoslav army and Serbian police forces against Kosovo's ethnic Albanians. President Clinton has appealed to Serbs to "come to grips with what Mr. Milosevic ordered in Kosovo" and dump their elected leader.

But that's not what bothers Antic. Far more than the slaughter and mass expulsion of Albanians, the 44-year-old lawyer says he is furious about the messy surrender that swept him and other Serbs out of Kosovo on the heels of Milosevic's retreating army.

Defeat in NATO's 11-week air war has left Serbs feeling more angry than ashamed, more like victims than perpetrators. While their reaction is a threat to Milosevic's hold on power, it hardly begins to address the painful question of responsibility--individual or collective--for Kosovo's bloody spring.

The few Serbs trying to ask this question in public argue that Serbia cannot become a democracy or break the cycle of ethnic violence and revenge in the Balkans until it starts a soul-searching process such as Germany's denazification after World War II.

Such a moral reckoning is inhibited, however, by violent Albanian reprisals against the dwindling Serbian minority in postwar Kosovo and by a wall of denial in the rest of Serbia.

There have been no stories in Serbia's media over the past weeks and little public discussion as NATO peacekeepers sealed off mass burial sites and foreign journalists gathered accounts by ethnic Albanian survivors of the rampage of killing, burning, looting and rape in Kosovo.

Opposition Focuses on Damage to Nation

Nearly two-thirds of Serbs do not believe that such atrocities occurred, according to an opinion poll published last week in the Belgrade newsmagazine Nin. Most opposition leaders avoid the subject, preferring to emphasize the high price that Serbs are now paying for Milosevic's latest military defeat.

"What was the purpose of fighting this war if we had to give Kosovo away?" Antic asked at the rally last week. "Before the war, we were living in our own homes. Now we have nothing more than the clothes you see on our backs."

Antic is one of about 80,000 Serbs who have fled Kosovo since the North Atlantic Treaty Organization stopped bombing Yugoslavia last month and began escorting ethnic Albanians back home to the Serbian province where they form the overwhelming majority. Serbia is the Yugoslav federation's main republic.

When separatist Albanian guerrillas poured into his native Prizren along with the returning refugees, Antic shed his army reservist uniform, turned in his gun and fled. "I didn't kill anyone," the lawyer insisted in an interview, "but an Albanian neighbor told me I would never be safe in Kosovo. I am a victim of their ethnic cleansing."

It matters little to Antic that many more Albanians--close to a million--fled under a Serbian assault that by all accounts was far more brutal, direct and systematic. In his view, the guilt and suffering on both sides negate each other. "They were victims, and then we were victims," he said. "It was a war, and the victors dictated their revenge."

Scores of Serbs interviewed during and since the war echo this zero-sum conclusion about a slaughter that, according to Western officials, claimed about 10,000 Albanian lives. Ask a Serb why the nation cannot bring itself to condemn its killers, and you're likely to get a long explanation that starts, "It's all very complicated."

In the Serbian mind, the "complications" go back a long time.

Albanian and Serbian clans in what is now Kosovo have fought each other on and off for centuries. Most Albanians are Muslims, like the Turks who occupied Serbia for half a millennium, whereas nearly all Serbs are Orthodox Christians. Albanians and Serbs speak different languages, and there is almost no intermarriage. The ethnic gap--and animosity between the two peoples--is among the greatest in the Balkans.

During World War II, some Albanians sided with the German occupation army that killed tens of thousands of Serbs in Yugoslavia. Under Serbian rule after 1946, Kosovo went through alternating periods of relative freedom for the Albanians, then Serbian police repression, then Albanian retaliation.

In this decade, Serbs saw themselves as the chief victims of Yugoslavia's violent disintegration as Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina gained independence. Many Serbs embraced Milosevic's aggressive nationalism, applauded when he canceled Kosovo's political autonomy and elected him to office three times.

What little sympathy existed in Serbia for the peaceful separatists among Kosovo's ethnic Albanians evaporated as soon as the Kosovo Liberation Army emerged in recent years to start a guerrilla war. And any whisper of moral outrage here over the purge of Kosovo this spring was drowned out by a chorus of Serbian protest against NATO's bombs, which killed 2,000 civilians, according to the government.

For the most part, Serbs find it difficult to make a moral distinction between Serbian soldiers gunning down Albanian villagers in a guerrilla-held region and NATO pilots bombing Serbian civilians in an effort to destroy Milosevic's war machine. Many Serbs viewed NATO's assault as collective punishment by the West on behalf of an ethnic Albanian population that, in their minds, was collectively hostile to Serbia.

Public Opinion Mirrors State Media

"I'm sure a lot of dirty things happened in Kosovo, but the Albanians started it," said Djordje Cvejic, an industrial plastics importer in Belgrade, which is the capital of both Serbia and Yugoslavia, who supports the democratic opposition. "They sided with the West against us, just as they sided with the Nazis. How can we feel sorry for them?"

Most Serbs get their news from state television and tend to buy the government line: Nearly all ethnic Albanian civilians died or fled because of the bombs, except for a few who were killed by "rogue" soldiers or policemen acting on their own.

Such propaganda can be quite effective; to this day, many Serbs here refuse to believe that Serbian forces in Bosnia spent much of the early 1990s shelling the Muslim-run capital, Sarajevo.

But denial is also common among those Serbs able to watch or read Western accounts of the atrocities in Kosovo. Allegations that Serbian soldiers committed rape couldn't possibly be true, argued one well-read Serbian man in Belgrade, because Albanian women are too ugly.

"Your TV is more sophisticated than our TV, but it's still propaganda," said Branislav Savic, an economist who monitored the war from Belgrade's Internet Cafe. "There's far too much generalization."

Seeking the truth on her own, Serbian human rights activist Natasha Kandic traveled to Kosovo during the bombing and came back with carefully documented evidence of three fresh graves containing the bodies of 94 Albanians near the city of Pec.

Not a single Belgrade newspaper or newsmagazine would touch her story, not even those critical of Milosevic. "Some Serbs are angry at me because I say Albanians were the victims," she said. "Official propaganda is too strong, and fear blocks people's minds."

A few others are trying to speak out, led by the Serbian Orthodox Church, which has denounced "the evil and suffering that the Albanian people endured in Kosovo" and urged Milosevic to resign. Father Sava Janic of the monastery near Pec has raised questions about the church's complicity.

"Perhaps there was more silence than there had to be," he said Monday. "People are slowly understanding; it's the painful waking up from a nightmare that lasted 10 years. We have been brainwashed. . . . We have the projection of one perverted mind of a political leader onto the whole nation."

Most such reflection is going on in private. Biljana Srbljanovic, a Serbian playwright who visited Germany this month, said she concluded after long discussions with German friends about the Nazi era that all Serbs must admit some responsibility for Kosovo so that such a tragedy is never repeated here.

"Many Serbs feel, if not terribly guilty, a little upset and embarrassed about what happened to the Albanians, to the extent that they're aware of it," said Belgrade historian Aleksa Djilas. But Western leaders should accept their own share of blame for Kosovo, he warned, and not preach about repentance to the Serbs because "they are the world's most contrarian nation and will do the opposite of anything they're asked."

Milosevic's political rivals are cautious. Vuk Draskovic, who was fired as Yugoslavia's deputy prime minister in April, is suggesting that blame for atrocities should fall on Vojislav Seselj, his extremist rival in the wartime government, rather than on the president or the military.

"Frankly, we want to avoid the whole subject," said Slobodan Vuksanovic, vice president of the opposition Democratic Party. "Among our supporters are families of people killed by the Albanians. If we say something about our atrocities, they will ask about their atrocities. State TV will present only part of our speeches, and propaganda will destroy us."

For now, Milosevic's opponents are focusing their criticism on other fallout from the war--Serbia's wrecked economy, its isolation from the West and the dubious claim of its leaders that the country is rallying to mend itself.

"What you'd like is for Serbs to realize that their leaders are genocidal maniacs, that they've tarnished the name of Serbia, but it won't happen that way," said Zarko Korac, a Belgrade University psychologist. "The leaders will go because they lost the war, because they're corrupt, they're inefficient . . . and people are tired of all that.

"Only . . . after they're gone from power, and if we have a democracy, can we hope that those questions [about war crimes] will be raised and the guilty held accountable."

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