'Weep Wretched Man' - Civil War in Poetry

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* I remember meeting a Conservative politician in Vienna in 1989 who told me that there was going to be a large political upheaval in Yugoslavia, which could lead to the most horrific happenings. Living in what was the capital of the Habsburg Empire, he had a knowledge of the history of the Balkans which we had either not learnt or forgotten. In the heady days when the Berlin Wall was literally torn down, and Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Romania were breaking free from Soviet and Communist domination, it seemed to many in the West that the same peaceful transition would occur in Yugoslavia, which had slept so happily under Marshal Tito.

This was not to be. The centuries-old jealousies, hatreds and injustices had not all evaporated in the sunny days of a tourist paradise. The nationalist, racialist and religious passions, which had been the curse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, flared up and consumed the Balkans in a series of civil wars which reminded the world that civilisation can be a thin veneer and the barbarian in ourselves is always at the gate. The whole world has now seen on television the barbarism in Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia. A new phrase, `ethnic cleansing', was coined to describe the cold, calculated murder of whole communities, when all the males in a village -- boys, men and pensioners -- were taken off in trucks to remote fields and slaughtered. The mass graves reveal the evidence and the war trials tell again of these atrocities.

In my anthology The Faber Book of War Poetry, published in paperback last month, I have included a poem by a female victim of the Bosnian war. She had been repeatedly raped by a gang of `freedom fighters' who stubbed out their cigarettes in her hair. They then cut off the head of a farmer to use as a football. She says:

I knew the farmers They were

Neighbours colleagues relatives

Just a few weeks ago I knew most

Of the soldiers too They were

Neighbours colleagues relatives They were

Men like you

Holger Teschke, `The Minutes of Hasiba'

All war has its horrors, whether it is the 1914-18 trench warfare, or Tamburlaine sweeping across Central Europe and leaving in each town a pyramid of skulls, but it is civil war, when neighbour kills neighbour, that seems to inspire the most vicious and cruel acts of revenge.

NATO and the West are trying to bring the authors of the Bosnian atrocities, particularly Karadzic, to trial, but among his own people he is a hero, a legend? even a poet. He must answer for what he perpetrated, for the conscience of the world has demanded it. What makes this barbarism even worse is that it happened in a country which had schools, hospitals, factories, banks, churches, mosques, hotels, tourist agencies. It did not happen in Rwanda, nor Northern India, nor Indonesia, nor in Cambodia: it happened here on our own doorstep in Europe. So my friend in Vienna was right: history was on his side. Over the last 300 years, every country in Europe has suffered from civil war: Germany in the Thirty Years' War; France in 1870; Spain in the 1930s; and the first dews which Hitler killed were German citizens. England has suffered in two civil wars: for forty years in the Wars of the Roses, and for eight years in the struggle between king and Parliament in the seventeenth century. Henry Tudor ended the Wars of the Roses in 1485 by defeating the Yorkist king, Richard III, but there was no vindictive slaughter, instead a royal marriage uniting York and Lancaster. …