THE WAR IN KOSOVO : Pacifism & Ethnic Cleansing

By Egan, Eileen | Commonweal, June 18, 1999 | Go to article overview

THE WAR IN KOSOVO : Pacifism & Ethnic Cleansing


Egan, Eileen, Commonweal


The long line of the newly homeless, the men, women, and children brutally thrust from their homes in Kosovo, Yugoslavia, face us in the press and fill television screens. Harrowing scenes fasten on the heart, the agony of a weary old woman being trundled in a wheelbarrow or that of a young woman giving her breast to her baby while continuing the march. An answering agony springs up in the viewer.

The ethnic Albanians, almost all Muslims, are being systematically expelled from Kosovo in an ethnic cleansing devised by the regime of Slobodan Milosevic and carried out by the army of Serbia. Now almost 1 million refugees are begging for entry into the poor places of Europe- Albania and Macedonia. They tell of rapes, executions, and massacres by the soldiers. The Serbs, fiercely loyal to the Orthodox church, see in their Muslim neighbors a reminder of the Serb defeat by Muslim armies six hundred years ago and their long travail in subjection to the Ottoman Empire. The holy places of the Serbs, and the place from which they take their identity, are in Kosovo.

My mind travels back to an earlier ethnic cleansing. I refer to the mass expulsion from Eastern Europe at the end of World War II more than 12 million people of German ethnic origin. They were herded into a destroyed and truncated West Germany. The sufferings and uncounted deaths of the expellees were given minimal attention in the press. Their fate had been decided, along with the redrawing of borders, at the Yalta Conference. As a member of a voluntary agency, Catholic Relief Services, I was present in West Germany in those years, and I heard accounts of the horrors inflicted on these people, and the immeasurable sufferings they endured.

The situation of the uprooted in 1999 is mightily different. The compassion of millions around the world has been aroused by seeing at first hand what some human beings are forced to undergo when torn from their homes.

This time a remedy was at hand to stop the depredations of the Serb armies. Following sessions which were presumed to be negotiations, the NATO alliance decided to launch its first war. On March 24, with Americans flying most of the aircraft and firing most of the missiles, air strikes began against Yugoslavia. Many American citizens, as well as the citizens of such nations as England, Germany, and France, asked the question: Do not justice and a common humanity call for support of so just a cause? Are not nations justified in employing military means in a moral response to the evil of unchecked ethnic cleansing?

The answer, which may seem heartless, but which I give from the bottom of my conscience, is "No." On the pragmatic level, the air strikes initially increased the number of Kosovars made shelterless by army actions. The inacurracy of air and missile strikes soon became news. Errant bombs and missiles terrified the inhabitants of Kosovo as they landed on homes, markets, bridges, a hospital, and refugee convoys. One bomb strayed over the border into Bulgaria, another struck the Chinese embassy in Belgrade.

My refusal to accept the response of violence arises from my conviction, that of a pacifist, and by the grace of God, a Catholic pacifist. I am aware that the term pacifist is poorly accepted (and poorly understood) among Catholics. To many it denotes passivity, a refusal to struggle for God's kingdom and his justice along with the generality of citizens, in wartime, for example. In my vision, pacifism consists of the daily acceptance of the struggle for God's kingdom and his justice by nonviolent means. My response to a personal attack, or to a call for participation at any stage of the social organization known as war, would be the same: gospel nonviolence. What was problematic in the just-war tradition, which the church taught for fifteen hundred years following the nonviolent teaching of the first few hundred years of the church's existence, is that, regrettably, it was captured by the nations, as every war was declared just by the warring party, which was then empowered to draft its people to maim and kill in good conscience. …

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