' Another side to the story of Kosovo

L'Chaim

Jewish World Review April 19, 1999 / 3 Iyar, 5759

Another side to
the story of Kosovo


By Pauline Dubkin Yearwood


BETSY LALICH CAN NOW HOLD a telephone conversation without breaking down in tears. A week ago, that wasnít the case.

Lalich is a Chicagoan who is both a Serb and a Jew. She is the head of the Chicago chapter of the Serbian-Jewish Friendship Society, an organization whose name, right now, seems like an oxymoron.

Since the United States and its NATO allies began military intervention in Kosovo last month, representatives of American Jewish organizations have spoken out strongly in support of the action. American Jews -- like most other Americans -- see the Serbs as villains who are engaged in ethnic cleansing of Albanians just as the Nazis engaged in ethnic cleansing of Jews. TV images of helpless, homeless Albanian refugees have brought the world to tears.

Numerous high-profile Jews have compared the current situation in Kosovo to the Holocaust. Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel last week expressed his whole-hearted support for the NATO bombing, stating, "...if the world had reacted (during World War II) the way we are reacting now, many tragedies would have been prevented." Organization by organization, the mainstream Jewish community has declared its support for NATOís intervention in Kosovo, frequently citing parallels to the Holocaust, some comparing Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic to Adolf Hitler.

Lalich sees things differently.

"Serbia was a welcoming country," she says. "Jews lived there while the peoples around them were not treating Jews well at all." Now, she and others in the organization believe Serbs are being demonized -- by Jews as well as other Westerners.

Econophone But she believes -- knows, she says -- that there is another side to this story. She and other members of the society are hoping to make their views known, but they are not sanguine about the prospect.

Lalich is a nurse by profession and a second-generation American Jew whose grandparents came from the part of the former Yugoslavia now known as Croatia. She doesnít pretend that her version of the story is easy to grasp. It is, she admits, a complicated scenario in a complicated part of the world. But she believes that Western media oversimplify events, allowing Americans and others to look favorably on a NATO bombing campaign that, she is convinced, will only make things worse for everybody.

"This war has been going on for 10 years," she says. "The Serbs were the real, last true Yugoslavs. The Serbs gave up a lot, lost a lot. Things happened to them that were just as hideous, more hideous, than the things they are accused of, and nobody in the outside world did anything."

Lalich harbors no love for Yugoslav President Milosevic, but says, "The people should get rid of him. We should get him out, but not by bombing. I donít think (NATO and the United States) are helping people. Weíre arming people and weíre making it worse. I hope all the Albanians come back, but they have to come back realizing this is Serbia."

She compares the situation to "having South Florida decide they are going to become part of Cuba, or Texas deciding to go back to Mexico and having an armed resistance."

Explaining her position, Lalich says that over the years, throughout the multiple lands that make up the country that was once known as Yugoslavia, Serbs were expelled from their homelands by the hundreds of thousands.

"That was ethnic cleansing that other people saw as positive," she says. "There was a campaign to get a quarter of a million Serbs out of Croatia. The U.S. didnít condemn that. They didnít want it to be known." Thousands more were expelled from Bosnia, she contends.

"Nobody thinks the Serbs are ever going to get (Croatia) back," she says. "Theyíre never going to get Bosnia back. The last thing for Serbs is Kosovo. The reason theyíre standing firm has nothing to do with (Milosevic). Kosovo is the heart and the beginning of Serbia. It is where Serbia started.

"For Serbs, Kosovo has been compared to Jerusalem. But itís more than Jerusalem. Itís also Masada." She tells of a battle that took place there in 1389 against the rulers of the Ottoman Empire in which many thousands of Serbs -- every Serbian soldier in the battle -- were killed.

In other ways, too, Lalich says, the Balkans are like the Middle East, with neighbor fighting against neighbor. A common saying there, she says, is, "Itís me against my cousin, and my cousin and me against the world."

Serbs and Albanians, she says, "have always stuck together when the outside world attacked them. Serbs feel a kinship with Albanians. They speak the same language, they like the same food. This is not about hatred. This is a civil war. Youíre trying to take my home, and Iím trying to protect my home.

"Itís part of the whole Balkan culture," she says. "Two young guys (on opposite sides of a war) can be shooting at each other and still asking, ĎDoes your mother have enough money? Iíll get your family some money.í " As is the case with Israel, she says, Yugoslavia is "always a place where people have wanted to take over. This recurrent victimhood is built into the psyche of the nation."

Throughout history, she says, the country has suffered under the rule of the Ottoman Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and later the Nazis. In Croatia, the Fascist Ustashe regime murdered an estimated 750,000 Serbs, 40,000 gypsies and 60,000 Jews, she relates. Lalich herself lost numerous relatives.

She recalls that during World War II, Belgrade was bombed for six straight days and suffered tremendous civilian casualties. The bombing began on April 6, 1941. "A lot of Serbs are remembering that now" because of the congruence in dates, she says. "We never forget what the Nazis did." The constant suffering "has made people defiant," she says. "When they feel attacked, they become a warlike nation." Lalich believes that Jews, in particular, should understand this mindset.

It was partially for that reason that the Serbian-Jewish Friendship Society was formed in Belgrade some 10 years ago, when the Soviet Union fell and Yugoslavia began to break up into separate countries.

When that happened, Lalich says, "there was a big campaign to separate the Serbs and the Jews, because people knew there was a common history and a lot of historical parallels."

The "friendship" in the name of the society is no accident, she says: Serbs and Jews have had a long-standing and friendly relationship, and in Belgrade, where the largest Jewish community was, Jews enjoyed cordial relations with non-Jewish Serbs.

"(Former Yugoslav dictator Marshall) Tito had not taken a favorable view of Israel," she says. "He sided with the Arabs, and a lot of the Serbian people didnít go along with that. The Serbian people never had ill feelings for Israel."

The Friendship Society has more than 5,000 members worldwide, Lalich says. Many are non-Jewish Serbs. In the United States, there are some 500 members, with about 100 in Chicago. There also are chapters in the New York area and in Los Angeles. The largest number of members are -- or were -- in Yugoslavia, particularly Belgrade.

The organization "focuses on issues that concern Serbs and Jews, and the parallels very often come up together," she says. "Over and over again, there are so many parallels. People who are Serbian and Jewish really notice it."

Members of the organization, both here and in the Balkans, have spoken out strongly against the NATO bombing campaign, appealing particularly to the Jewish community to listen to their side of the story.

A communication from Dr. Ljubomir Tadic, president of the Academy of Science and Art in Belgrade and a member of the board of the Friendship Society, reads in part: "We call upon the Jewish organizations in the world, associations and individuals, to raise their voices against the ominous fall towards the Third World War." The use of nuclear weapons has been made possible, he writes, because by bombing Kosovo, NATO member nations annulled "fundamental international conventions and accords."

"Now the Serbs are satanized," Tadic writes. "They are the victims of monstrous lies and accusations. The inflamed Serbophobia is a new, modern form of Nazi racism. What is happening to the Serbian people is an ominous sign."

The society issued another statement earlier last week to coincide with Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. "Today is Yom Hashoah," it begins. "Today the little nation of Yugoslavia is being bombed in a blitzkrieg more deadly than any the Nazis ever leveled at any nation in World War II. The Serbs, who were the only friends Jews had in Yugoslavia during World War II, have been demonized and accused of genocide.

"Cynical media manipulation has placed the American people on the side of this murderous policy," continues the statement, written by Heather Cottin. It contends that, in the early 1990s, the Croatian and Bosnian governments paid a Washington public relations firm to "come up with strategies to win over the Jews to their side."

But the main reason why Jews, in particular, have been sympathetic to NATO policy is because "(t)he Holocaust survivor experience, and the memories that we as a people share collectively, have been manipulated to make us view the Serbs as the new Nazis...

"We were satanized," the statement continues, "...for being Jewish. But Kosovar Albanians have experienced similar treatment at the hands of the Serbs, you say. Thatís what the media says. Thatís what the government says. This is simply NOT TRUE. While it is so that hundreds of thousands of Albanian peasants have fled from their homes in ... Kosovo, it is criminal and a grotesque distortion of the truth to compare their experience to that of the Jews in World War II."

The KLA, a "mercenary Ďliberationí army of Kosovo," was attempting to take over the province from the Serbs, the statement continues. "When the Yugoslavs moved in to put down the KLA Ďrebellion,í the U.S. cried Ďgenocide.í The Albanian peasants were in the crossfire, and when NATO bombing began to carpet their region with fire and death, they fled. But the media and Western governments call this ethnic cleansing," it states.

"Jews have a long tradition of respect for the creation of law," the statement continues. "Are we to abandon it when we are manipulated and lied to? ... Are we so dominated by the wishes of the German and American policy makers that we will accept the Shoah (Holocaust) comparison with what is happening now in Kosovo? ... Arenít we wary of systematized demonization of a people?...."

Cottinís words might be inflammatory, but some experts agree, at least in principle. Irwin Weil, a Northwestern University professor of Slavic Languages and Literature, commented that "the Serbs have suffered greatly in the past. The Ustashe (regime) murdered them during World War II just as they did Jews. NATO is trying to alter the internal balance of the country, and Iím not sure how wise that is," said Weil, who noted that he was speaking as an individual and not as an expert on the Balkans.

"The Serbs at the moment are behaving abominably and doing to others what they have had done to them," he said. "But two wrongs donít make a right, and what we are doing, what we hope to achieve with the bombing, I donít quite know."

Even Lalich agrees that there is "ethnic cleansing" occurring on the part of the Serbs against the Albanians, but she asks, "How extensive is it? It wouldnít have been to the extent it is now without the NATO bombing. (Serbs) might have been treated badly by Albanians in the past, and people get nuts from that."

Besides, she contends, some Albanians are "running from their own people, who are trying to terrorize them into joining the military resistance." But the mass exodus of Albanians "could never have been without this unbelievable, frightening bombing campaign," she says. "The innocent people in the middle are the ones who are traumatized."

She stresses that even though Serbs might seem to be terrorizing Albanians at the present time, in the past, the situation has been reversed. "The (Serbian) clergy were abused a lot by Albanians in the last 50 years, and they responded by fleeing from Kosovo," Lalich says, contending she knows about this not through the media but through personal contacts she has in Kosovo.

"Serbs were abused in Kosovo," she says. "There is a multi-ethnic society there and these extreme factions exist on each side. It is hard to fight extremism with moderation. But throughout history, a lot of powers have decided to side against the Serbs." Lalich believes most non-Serbian Americans donít even notice that the media is, in her words,

demonizing Serbs. "After 10 years of this, sometimes I feel numb," she says. "Iím always shocked when somebody takes a (favorable) view (of Serbs) without my solicitation. Iíve accepted that this is peopleís view."

She also believes that Americans could discover the truth about the situation in Kosovo if they took the trouble to look for it. "We make it very simple," she says. "People in America are very ignorant of history. Sometimes in an article there is a glaring truth somewhere, a doubt, but itís not the headline. Itís buried in the story. Why arenít we giving both sides?"

Answering herself, she says, "Itís part of our American culture. We like to win, to be on the winning side." Ambiguities, she says, are often lost. Yet she believes that "you donít have to be Serbian or Albanian to see that there is something not kosher about (the NATO bombing)."

As for herself, she will continue to try to get out the truth as she sees it, particularly to the Jewish community -- and sheíll keep on hoping that there might be something left of the country where her ancestors lived for thousands of years.

"I cry for the (Albanian) refugees," she says. "But this bombing is destroying the people in the Balkans. And those are my people, too."


Pauline Dubkin Yearwood is a contributing editor at The Chicago Jewish News.


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