Monday, June 6, 2011

Fracture Zone: My Return to the Balkans, by Simon Winchester

While I was visiting Budapest, I saw the news that Serbian General Ratko Mladic had at long last been found and arrested and would be extradited to the Hague to face the war crimes tribunal.  It seemed an apposite time to read Fracture Zone by journalist, geologist and all-purpose polymath, Simon Winchester.

This blog is my personal diary, so with no demands for impartiality or objectivity, I freely admit that I worship Simon Winchester. Whether he's writing about the individuals who compiled the first edition of the Oxford English dictionary (The Professor and the Madman), a Cambridge don consumed by Sinophilia (The Man Who Loved China), the volcano that was seen and heard around the world (Krakatoa), his travels through a country that rarely gets any print (Korea) -- or a couple dozen more titles that I haven't yet read -- he never fails to enlighten, amaze and amuse me.  I pounce upon any of his books which cross my path, and I was sure he could help me make more sense of a very muddled region of the world.

Winchester had driven through Yugoslavia in the years before all hell broke loose and the country did its eponymous Balkanization. He returned during the chaos to try to get a grip on what he was reading in the press. The first thing that struck him was that all the combatants looked just like him -- European. I think it's difficult for Americans to grasp the impact of this shock to western Europeans.  The Balkans seemed, from America, still to be over there; the people were not us, but them.  As Winchester notes, the EU had diminished or dissolved borders between countries to the west, yet the former Yugoslavia was in a frenzy of creating new ones.  And the atrocities visited upon those who happened to land on the wrong side of the new borders were devastating, much too close for comfort:
And so my visceral reaction was simply that: That this was Europe, this was now, and here we were at the close of the most civilizing century we have known, and yet here before us was the diabolical, grotesque, bizarre sight of tens upon tens of thousands of terrified, dog-weary, ragged European people who were just like us, and who just a few short days before had been living out their lives more or less like us, yet who were now crammed insect-thick onto a carpet of squelching mud and litter and ordure and broken glass and dirt, while we climbed down from the kind of car in which they might have driven, after a breakfast of the kind that was customary for them to have as well, and watched and gaped and gawked down at them in uncomprehending horror and thought only, My God! This is too much. This is quite beyond belief.

Years before George W. Bush and his clique infamously and ludicrously underestimated the time it would take to convert Iraq into a peaceful democracy, the British general heading up the NATO troops confidently boasted that a few sorties would sort out the Balkan feuds.
“They’ll go back home, these people,” he said. “They’ll get their houses back, if I have anything to do with it. And we’ll find the people who drove them out. [These words spoken about two decades before Mladic's arrest...] A few weeks of bombing, believe me—that’s all. A few weeks and the Serbs will cave in. Then we’ll be taking these refugees back. By God, I hope so!” ...
Might it work? Could it take so short a time? The officer was confident. “Trust me,” he said. “These bombers are damn good.”

Winchester, sane man that he is, had his doubts, believing that the Balkan "fracture zones" (a term borrowed from his geological lexicon) had deeper, older origins.  The divisions between Serb, Croat, Albanian, Muslim, Catholic and Orthodox were not spats to be broken up by a playground monitor.  He suspected that the rifts began with the two empires on either side of the peninsula:  the Austro-Hungarian and the Ottoman. Thus he decided to make a crescent-shaped trek from Vienna to Istanbul, dipping southward into the Balkan states wedged between them.

In a Vienna coffeehouse, he chatted up some stately "ladies who lunch", reminiscing about the attempt the Ottomans had made to invade their fine city three centuries before.  Apart from fuzziness on one detail, the ladies -- waitress included -- spoke with assurance.
Those I talked to in the coffee shop that day seemed very well aware what was going on—and aware, too, of the extraordinary role that their city and their former Hapsburg rulers, as well as the sultans who nearly fell upon them, had played in bringing about this particular aspect of modern European history. Each nodded assuredly when I asked if there was a connection to be made between what was happening in Kosovo today and what had happened in Vienna three hundred years before. “Of course, of course,” one old lady said. “There can be no doubt. “Not for nothing had Metternich—oh, my, was it Mr. Metternich?” she asked the waitress, who shook her head “—said that the Balkans began at the Ringstrasse. Or was it Asia that begins at the Ring? Or the Orient? I can’t quite remember.”

In short, the Balkans occupied the buffer zone between the Ottomans and Hapsburgs yet were neither one nor the other, although both sides used them for this and that. Another of the ladies recounted the failed seventeenth-century invasion as if the smoke was still clearing.  Yes, we're definitely tied to the present-day mess...
"And then, we were very nearly over the edge, you know, in 1683... We all know that. We remember the Turks every day. The posters in the stores, and the bus stops. And then again things were bad for us in 1908, when we annexed Bosnia. Remember that? And once more in 1914, of course, when that Serb shot our archduke, in Sarajevo. And now here we are again today. All of it, everything going on down there, has something to do with the Viennese and the Ottomans. Or rather the Hapsburgs and the Ottomans. That’s why this is, for us, so very interesting.” And she smiled proudly at her eloquence, and puffed out her chest and looked most importantly Viennese as she asked the waitress for her bill.

Passages like these are why I keep coming back to Simon Winchester, again and again.  The image of these plump Viennese matrons will cement the memory of their words in my mind just as clearly as they seem to recall the defeated Turks dragging back toward Constantinople.  Winchester has a delicious fondness for the eccentric detail, and so he went from the cafe to the local museum to visit the head of the Grand Vizier Kara Mustafa, leader of the failed invasion.  He thought it would be a fitting way to start his journey to Istanbul.

The head, it turned out, was currently the subject of what he calls "a global sense-of-humor failure" on the part of the Turkish government. The Turks were demanding that the vizier's head be returned to Turkey for burial; the Austrians responded by moving it from its display case to a cardboard box in a storage room, carefully labelled with ballpoint pen, "Herr K. Mustafa".  Winchester recalls accounts of the Ottoman siege.  Although the campaign's failure cost the vizier his head (and that of his pet ostrich, whom he brought along), it did have its exotic aspects. It's no wonder that the Viennese were astonished.
What cannot be seen today, but is only known from contemporary accounts, are the Turkish encampments, with their enclosed gardens, mechanical fountains, the streams of perfumed water, the priceless carpets, the chandeliers, and the menageries with their exotic animals and birds (the soon-to-be decapitated ostrich among them) from which the old vizier was to take pleasure and relief. Both of these last were provided also by the vast personal traveling harem that Kara Mustafa brought to Vienna with him. Fifteen hundred compliant Turkish women, guarded by the usual elite corps of black eunuchs, were there to serve him day and night—their numbers topped up frequently with fresh supplies of captured Christian girls (who, according to the siege historian Thomas Barker, much preferred to stay with their captor than be returned to the miseries of the besieged city). When it was apparent that he had been defeated, and had to flee south and west back to friendlier lands, the vizier was said to be troubled by the possible fate of the woman he regarded as the harem’s most beautiful. To prevent her falling into the hands of the infidels he meted out the same fate as for his beloved ostrich, and had her head cut off as well.

While the people of the Balkans remind the western Europeans of themselves, the Ottomans (and their ostriches) were and are definitely other, and Winchester left Vienna with the sense that Austria still keeps a wary eye on its eastern border.

As he crossed the border into Slovenia, the author got his first taste of the disparate groups that Tito had bundled together as Yugoslavia.
These, then, were the first true Slavs we had encountered and if one wanted a reminder that the word Slav is a portmanteau term that encompasses as multiethnic and polyglot a group as it is possible to imagine, then this forlorn group of Slovenian frontier guards more than amply fitted the bill. One of them, the passport stamper, was very round and fat, with a shaved head, and he looked like an only very slightly animated potato.

The Slovenian guards, however, wore crucifixes around their necks and did not use the Cyrillic script, so were they really Slavs?   Or were they more like Serbs? No, not that either. This paragraph, written as Winchester first set foot in the Balkans on this trip, illustrates the tangle of identities that confounded him and pretty much anyone trying to gain some understanding of what the fighting is about.
So they may have been Slavs; they may have been, until 1991, part of the Federation of South Slavs that was called Yugoslavia, but they were not, in any sense, Serbs. The Serbs were Eastern Orthodox by belief, and such were their fraternal links with the Slavs of Russia they used Saint Cyril’s script as their own. In all other ways—except for their given names, which reflected their alternative pantheon of saints—the Slavs who were Serbs were the same people as the Slavs who were Slovenes, as here, or the Slavs who were Croatians, and whom we would encounter when we crossed their frontier in few hours’ time.

Perhaps his most poignant and downright tragic observation is that the divisions are in many ways artificial:
And this was one of the abiding complex absurdities of the Balkans: that almost all the people who have been so horribly at odds with one another are all, in essential ethnic terms, the selfsame people. This does not include the Albanians, as we shall see; but elsewhere, the Bosnian Muslims and the Croatian and Slovenian Catholics are of essentially the very same ethnic and genetic makeup as the Orthodox Christian Serbs—a people of whom, until lately, they were true and literal Yugoslav—south Slav—compatriots.

I confess that I finished the book still a bit confused by who hates whom in the Balkans and why. This is no fault of Winchester's. The larger and most vicious hatred of the Christian Serbs for the Muslim Albanians, dating back to the Ottoman invasions of the 17th century, stands out. One Serbian petrol station attendant spits out that the Albanians are "Turks, Muslims, Asians, godless fiends who have no business being in Europe in the first place."  The disputes, though, between various groups of Catholic and Orthodox Christians, while still resulting in atrocities and displacements, is harder to follow, since it pitted Serb against Serb. We have seen this type of intra-religion warfare in Europe before, of course, but Winchester insists that Northern Ireland has never approached the sheer brutality of  the Balkan conflicts.

At the end of his journey in Istanbul, he reflects that some places or states seem more able to accommodate a mixture of populations than others. He glances back at the glory days of the Ottoman empire.
For more than five hundred years, from before the Battle of Kosovo until well after the Treaty of Berlin in 1878, the Ottomans presided over vast tracts of territory—and, as the sultans liked to put it, seventy-two and a half races*—with magnificent and perfumed equanimity.
* the half a race was the gypsies 

The fracture zone of the former Yugoslavia has, as of today, produced 7 new nations:  Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia/Herzegovina, Montenegro, Serbia, Albania, and Macedonia (which the Greeks angrily refer to as FYROM, or the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, to distinguish it from their own region of Makedonia, as if that adds any clarity to the matter.)  Are things all settled now? Will these seven neighbours co-exist in peace?  Winchester doesn't seem confident.

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