Magazine article The Spectator

Bosnia: Saying the Sayable

Magazine article The Spectator

Bosnia: Saying the Sayable

Article excerpt

AN UNMENTIONABLE thought is troubling me, one that I have hardly dared articulate for several months. It is that the charming, influential and respected Matthew Parris is not the witty, refreshing, independent voice that I had supposed him to be. Rather he is in important respects a voice of the Establishment his strictures about the British press, for instance, are not those of a hack among other hacks - and, more importantly, a columnist who sometimes articulates the Establishment's prejudices.

Don't misunderstand. In general, I am a great believer in not weighing down the fine impressionistic sweep of a column with fact. There are, however, occasions when an imperfect understanding can have horrible consequences and should, accordingly, not be flaunted. The war in former Yugoslavia is one such instance. Mr Parris gave a fine example of just such imperfect understanding in The Spectator last week.

`An unmentionable thought has long troubled me,' he writes. `With elections in the former Yugoslavia over, it is time to mention it. Perhaps the people in the Balkans really do want to kill each other. Perhaps it isn't just fear which has made them nasty, and insecurity which exacerbates their nationalisms. Perhaps when . . . order has returned to their lives they will not abandon, but return, reinvigorated, to the old hatreds which . . . tore apart their world. Perhaps it's what they desire.'

The trouble is, opinion journalists are sometimes so captivated by having unmentionable thoughts, they forget to ask the more fundamental question: are they true? And in the case of Mr Parris's unmentionable thought, it is not true. People in former Yugoslavia did not kill each other because their moral condition falls lamentably short of that of Mr Parris. The war happened because of the particular aims of particular politicians, notably the policies of Serbian hegemony adopted by Slobodan Milosevic, backed by the Yugoslav Federal army. The cynical, immoral opportunism of the Zagreb government, once the dismemberment of Bosnia had taken place, worsened the problem.

In Britain, I find, people instinctively make for the middle of the road; taking sides, even the right side against the wrong, is seen as simplistic, and therefore an error of taste. Mr Parris accordingly warns us against `the cult of the Victim. To any conflict, one side must be an unwilling party, the other an unprovoked aggressor. By demonising one of the players we exonerate the others.'

Well, yes. There was a victim and an aggressor in this war. Some 70 per cent of Bosnia at one time was conquered by Bosnian Serb forces and all but a small number of non-Serbs were cleansed from that territory. The majority of these people were Muslims, mostly of an easy-going kind. They did not prepare for the war, they did not want the war; the war came to them when their neighbours, with weapons provided by the Federal army, directed by paramilitaries and mobilised by state-run media, arrived at their homes in force they killed many of them, others were taken to concentration camps or prison, or simply brought to the front line and pushed over to the other side. Prijedor, Foca, Bijeljina, Brcko and Doboj are now almost wholly Serb precisely because of the phenomenon of unprovoked aggression in 1992. …

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