June 30, 2008

The Road to Kosovo, Part II

My friend and traveling companion Sean LaFreniere and I awoke at first light on the shores of Montenegro. We originally planned to catch a bus or a taxi up the mountains into Kosovo, but we still had a few hours before it was time to drop off the rental car. So we took a brief detour into nearby Albania, the country that, at least until recently, had the reputation for being the most politically, economically, and criminally dysfunctional in all of Europe.

Robert Young Pelton's Web site Come Back Alive still warns would-be travelers about the region where Sean and I were headed: “In just a few short years Albania has had the distinction of changing from a country with the most paranoid and overcontrolled communist state ever to a country without a state. It was tricky, but Albanians have risen to the challenge to become Europe's most lawless people at the turn of the century…Being a foreigner, unless you happen to know a couple of the local banditos, you stand an excellent chance of being fleeced. The minute you walk in the door and open your mouth, the $ sign will start ringing for just about everybody there - except you.”

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Mountains, Northern Albania

Whether that was still true of Northern Albania or not, I didn't know. Neither did Sean. And we were going in there with Belgrade plates on the car, which might not have been the brightest idea we came up with on our trip. The majority of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo were displaced by Serb forces during Slobodan Milosevic's ethnic-cleansing campaign in 1999, so showing up in Albania with a Serbian car only made our detour more potentially dicey than it already was.

If you drive from Montenegro to Albania you will first pass through the beautiful and prosperous ethnically-Albanian region that straddles the border.

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The Albanian town of Ulcinj, Montenegro

The Albanians of Montenegro were lucky, I thought as we approached the customs agents, to live under Josip Broz Tito's relatively lenient communist system in Yugoslavia instead of suffering Enver Hoxha's full-bore Stalinist regime just a few miles away in Albania proper. Hoxha, who ranks among the most thoroughly oppressive tyrants in history, made Tito's dictatorship look libertarian.

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Rozafa Castle, Northern Albania

The most enduring physical legacies of Albanian communism are the remains of more than 700,000 military bunkers Hoxha’s regime installed all over the country as part of his mass mobilization campaign for the entire society. Everyday civilians were expected to hunker down in these things with machine guns and fight off an invasion from “bourgeois imperialists” or internal counter-revolutionaries. Rounded one-man concrete pill boxes still proliferate across the country in fields, in backyards, on the side of the roads, and even on beaches.

Post-communist Albania was an economic catastrophe, and what little progress had been made after the dismantlement of the regime came apart in the late 1990s when both the economy and the authority of the state unraveled. Albania – especially Northern Albania where Sean and I were headed – became by far the most lawless and chaotic place in Europe.

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Sheep, Northern Albania

The country now, though, is in a transitional period. The terrible extremes of both oppression and anarchic lawlessness are past.

“Bunkers!” Sean said.

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One of 700,000 bunkers built by Albania's communist tyrant Enver Hoxha

Sure enough, just up ahead, perhaps only a mile or so past the border, were a handful of Enver Hoxha's 700,000 bunkers.

I pulled over the car. We got out to take pictures. A large group of children and their schoolteacher excitedly ran up to and surrounded us.

“Hello! Hello!” the kids said. “Mister! Mister! What's your name?”

I felt like I was in Iraq – and I don't mean that in a bad way. I can't go anywhere in Iraq, especially not with my camera slung around my neck, without being mobbed by children. This never happened once in Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, or Montenegro, but it happened instantly upon arrival in Albania.

“There is a very nice view on top of this hill,” the schoolteacher said to Sean. “Follow us up, I will show you.”

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Bunker and kids, Northern Albania

So we followed the lady with the kids in tow up the hill above Hoxha's bunkers. Kids grabbed my arm and excitedly asked my name as we climbed.

“My name is Michael,” I said to a young boy. “What's yours?”

“Mario,” he said.

“Mister, where are you from?” said a little girl.

“America,” I said.

“Yay!” The kids cheered.

Albania is fanatically pro-American, which is perhaps a bit counterintuitive to many Americans since it is at least nominally a Muslim-majority country. The conventional assumption that Muslims hate Americans everywhere isn't true.

“You should have seen President Bush’s face when he came to Albania,” an ethnic Albanian man later said to me in Kosovo. “All over Western Europe he was met by protests, but the entire country of Albania turned out to welcome him. He was so happy. You could see it on his face.”

Albanian pro-Americanism resembles that of both Poland and Iraqi Kurdistan. The unspeakably oppressive communist regime pushed Albanians strongly into the U.S.-led Western camp, and the humanitarian rescue of Albanians in Kosovo from Slobodan Milosevic's tyrannical despotism bolstered that sentiment even more.

More kids tugged at me and wanted their pictures taken. It was overwhelming, and more than a little bit startling.

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Kids, Northern Albania

Slavs in Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, and Montenegro are friendly people for the most part, but they are not exuberantly so, at least not to strangers. They are a bit friendlier than Western Europeans, perhaps, but their temperament is still European. These Albanians, by contrast, at least these children, were as ecstatically friendly as Arabs and Kurds.

The view from the top of the hill was as expansive as Sean and I were going to see.

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Countryside, Northern Albania

We needed to get back in the car and head into the city of Shkodra for a brief coffee and breakfast before we ran out of time. Our rented car was due later that day in Podgorica, the capital of Montenegro, and we still had no idea how we would travel to Kosovo without our car.

Shkodra, by European standards, is not doing well. It's ramshackle. Many communist-era housing blocks are still run down and drab.

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Housing blocks, Shkodra, Albania

Others, though, have been improved slightly with coats of paint.

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Painted housing blocks, Shkodra, Albania

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Pharmacy and apartment tower, Shkodra, Albania

Many of the traditional buildings that weren’t bulldozed for the sake of “progress” are still a bit rough around the edges.

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Shkodra, Albania

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Shkodra, Albania

“It looks like Mexico,” Sean said.

I would not have thought of that, but I can see why he said it. The traditional architecture is of the Mediterranean style, as are traditional (Spanish) buildings in Mexico. The styles aren't the same, but they are recognizably similar.

Traffic was crazy, in both good ways and bad. Balkan people are notoriously bad drivers, but after living in Lebanon I thought traffic everywhere in the former Yugoslavia was perfectly civilized. Albanians drive like Lebanese – which is to say, more aggressively than drivers I have seen anywhere else in the world. Just to underscore the point, I saw a No Honking road sign. The only other place I've ever seen these things – and it was an exact duplicate – was in Lebanon.

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No Honking sign, Albania

I'll admit to enjoying that kind of traffic, however. The truth is that people in these countries are not bad drivers. They just look like bad drivers to people from outside. What they are is aggressive, and their reflexes and awareness are much more sharply honed that those of people who routinely drive in tame and predictable traffic. It’s fun to join in if you know how and are used to it.

Sean and I had no time to find food in Shkodra, so we decided to just stop for coffee.

“Hello, hello!” two men said as I sat in a metal chair at the table next to them in front of a small brightly painted coffee shop on a main road. They saw my camera and gestured for me to take their picture. So I took their picture. As it turned out, it wasn't just the children of Albania who were outgoing and gregarious with visitors.

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Two men, Shkodra, Albania

My chair was right next to a generator. I have no idea what shape Albania’s electrical grid is in, but the one in Kosovo is hardly more advanced than Iraq’s. Power cuts are common, almost daily, occurrences. Seeing a plugged-in generator outside a café was not a good sign.

When it was time to pay our waiter for the coffee, I realized we had no Albanian leks, the national currency.

“Do you seen an ATM around anywhere?” I said to Sean.

“You're going to go to an ATM just to pay for coffee?” he said.

“Well,” I said, “I have some American money. Maybe they'll take that.” I seriously doubted the waiter had any interest in currency from Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, or Montenegro.

I pulled an American twenty dollar bill out of my backpack and waved it at the waiter. “Will you take American money?” I said.

“I don't know how much that is,” he said. “What's the exchange rate?”

“I have no idea,” I said. “We just got here.”

“The coffee is from house,” he said.

“Are you sure?” I said. “Here, just take the twenty.”

“No, no,” he said. “I can't take your money. The coffee is from house. Welcome to Albania.”

It’s too bad we couldn’t have stayed longer. From the car it appeared Shkodra has a number of high-end restaurants and cool places to hang out, in addition having the usual European consumer goods for sale alongside more basic shops that cater to people who still have little money. Shkodra is a city in transition, which is often the most rewarding kind of place to visit.

There are many statues of national heroes in town, and the one of Isa Boletini, who led battles for independence in Kosovo against both the Turkish Ottomans and the Serbs in the late 1800s, stood out for its brazen militancy.

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Isa Boletini

Sean and I drove north out of town to catch the road into Podgorica, Montenegro’s capital.

“There's a lot more money in the countryside,” Sean said, “than there is in the city. It looks like everyone with the money to build a new house would rather build it out here.”

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Mosque and house, Northern Albania

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Church and house, Northern Albania

That seemed right. Shkodra wasn't a slum-ridden city, but it still looked a bit rough. The countryside just to the north of city looked solidly middle class and above.

More of Enver Hoxha's crazy bunkers were in place near the Montenegrin border – a lot more.

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Bunkers facing Montenegro, Northern Albania

Montenegro is a tiny country. Only half a million people live there today. The capital has fewer than 150,000. Of course Montenegro was part of the much larger and more muscular Yugoslavia when the bunkers were built, but it still struck me as patently absurd that all these pill boxes were set up along the border of such a moderate and non-expansionist country.

When I stopped the car and stepped out to take pictures of bunkers, two young Albanian boys said hello and posed for a photograph.

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Two boys, Northern Albania

Sean and I waited in line behind two cars at the border post. A handful of men stood around smoking cigarettes while waiting to get their passports stamped out. One glanced down at our license plate and went bug-eyed. He reminded me that we rented our car in Belgrade when he pointed at the license plate. “You took a Serb car to Albania?” I'm pretty sure that’s what he said. He might have said “You're Serbs and you went to Albania?” I can’t translate precisely, but it was one or the other.

“We're Americans!” I said in a cheery voice. “We rented the car in Belgrade, but we're Americans.”

“Aha!” he said and laughed, as if that explained everything.


“The price is one Euro per kilometer,” the taxi driver said at the Podgorica airport where Sean and I had just dropped off the car.

“You're kidding,” I said.

“One Euro per kilometer,” he said again. “It is the standard rate.”

The drive from Podgorica to Prishtina, Kosovo's capital, is around 300 kilometers.

“That's way too much money,” I said. Sean and I would be paying the guy almost one hundred dollars an hour. It was not going to happen. It would be better to take a bus or buy a plane ticket than hire a taxi into Kosovo if that's how much it costs. “We're going to have to discuss this,” I said.

The Europcar employee who met us at the taxi stand to pick up the car overheard our conversation.

“I can call a friend of mine,” he said quietly and conspiratorially. “This guy is charging you too much money.

“Terrific,” I said. “Yes, please call your friend.”

“Just don’t tell this guy I’m calling someone for you,” he said. “Tell him you’ll take a bus or something.”

So we got ourselves a licensed taxi driver who agreed to take us to Prishtina for less than half the amount we were first quoted. He spoke almost no English at all. His vocabulary was hardly better than my extremely limited knowledge of his. Sean and I more of less gave up trying to engage him in conversation and just let him drive.

The road to Kosovo from Montenegro is breathtaking.

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Canyon, Montenegro

Few places in the world can boast of such dramatic mountainous scenery. Several Serbs I met in Belgrade said Montenegro is the most beautiful country in all the former Yugoslavia, and from what I've seen, they're right.

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Canyon wall, Montenegro

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Canyon, Montenegro

Much of inland Montenegro looks like the Mediterranean region must have looked before the massive deforestation that disfigures most of it now. So few people live in this country that even alongside the major highway into Kosovo is mostly still pristine wilderness. I have never seen such expansive Mediterranean forest anywhere else.

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Mediterranean forest, Montenegro

Sean tried to ask our driver Ratko a few questions using simple words and improvised sign language. He made fists with both hands and placed them together. “Montenegro and Serbia,” he said, then pulled his fists apart quickly to refer to Montenegro's declaration of independence from Serbia two years ago. “Good or bad?”

“Good!” Ratko said.

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Ratko in the restaurant at the Hotel Afa, Prishtina, Kosovo

Sean did the two-fisted maneuver again, only this time he said “Serbia and Kosovo.” He was trying to figure out what Ratko thought of Kosovo's declaration of independence from Serbia.

“Good!” Ratko said again.

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Mountains, Montenegro

So far, everyone Sean and I spoke to in the former Yugoslavia thought Kosovo's newfound independence was a good thing – including the Serbs we had coffee with in Belgrade on two separate occasions. The Serbs we met, though – Filip David and Predrag Delibasic – are cosmopolitan writers and intellectuals who don't adhere to the Serbian Nationalist line.

“Montenegro and the European Union?” Sean said.

“No!” Ratko said. “European Union…big Yugoslavia.”

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Mountains, Montenegro

I have a hard time imaging how a tyrant and mass-murderer like Slobodan Milosevic would ever be in charge of the European Union, but Ratko’s skepticism still made some sense after his experience with an over-sized multinational federation and its violent disintegration.

Ratko took us to a Montenegrin restaurant in a cold valley far above sea level shortly before the sun went down.

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Mountain restaurant, Montenegro

After dinner I decided to take a nap in the car. I was tired and could no longer see the scenery anyway. Sean woke me an hour later just as we approached the Kosovo border.

“Mike,” he said and shook me awake. “I think if we keep taking this road we're going to end up in Mitrovica. Isn't Mitrovica that dangerous city in Kosovo that we’re supposed to avoid?”

“It's fine,” I said. “The road goes up to South Mitrovica, but doesn't cross into North Mitrovica. North Mitrovica is the place we need to stay out of.”

“Okaaaay,” Sean said. He sounded skeptical, but I knew South Mitrovica was fine. North Mitrovica was the place to avoid.

North Mitrovica is a bad place for Americans because it's the most politically radicalized of the Serb cities in Kosovo, and it's the most unstable and violent. Mitrovica used to be a relatively normal mixed Serb-Albanian city, but Albanians have since moved to the south side of the city, and Serbs live almost exclusively in the north across the bridge over the Ibar River that cuts the city in half.

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Ethnic map, Kosovo

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Mitrovica, Kosovo

Self-described Bridge Watchers – bands of political radicals, former paramilitary fighters, and garden variety troublemakers – have been standing watch on the Serb side of the bridge and harassing those who cross to the southern Albanian side. Sometimes those who attempt to cross are ganged up on by mobs and beaten up in the street.

Rioting exploded across the Serb side of the city in March when UN soldiers and police tried to clear out a courthouse occupied by Serbian Nationalists opposed to Kosovo's declaration of independence. Tanks were sent into the streets. More than 100 people were wounded in violent clashes. A Serb demonstrator was shot in the head. A police officer from Ukraine was killed by a hand grenade. Kosovo north of the Ibar isn't Iraq, but it's also not a place Sean and I had any business going without an escort, especially at night. Every single person I checked in with about traveling to North Mitrovica – including American soldiers and police officers stationed in Kosovo – warned me to stay out of there unless I was accompanied by soldiers from NATO.

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Tanks in North Mitrovica, copyright Getty Images

“I think we're almost to the border,” Sean said.

When we reached the last Montenegrin town before the border with Kosovo, Ratko found a civilian man on the sidewalk and pulled the car alongside him, presumably to get directions. The man on the street told Ratko which way to go and gestured left and right turns with his hands. Ratko then asked the man a question, and the man laughed and shrugged and appeared slightly nervous on our behalf. Sean and I assumed Ratko asked if it was safe for us to drive into Kosovo, and the man on the street figured it probably was, but he couldn't be sure.

After we left the last town in Montenegro, the road plunged rapidly from the Montenegrin mountains down toward the high rolling valley of Kosovo. We drove in absolute darkness. There were no street lights, no city lights, no front porch lights, and no oncoming headlights.

Towering Montenegro must make a spectacular backdrop to the west from Kosovo, I thought, and I anticipated looking back in our current direction in daylight from the country below.

We quickly cleared Montenegro's customs and got exit stamps in our passports. Then houses reappeared suddenly in the darkness before we reached the entry point on the other side.

“I guess we're in Kosovo now,” I said.

“Yes, Kosovo,” Ratko said.

I felt a small flush of excitement. Here was the country where Europe’s most recent conflict was waged. American soldiers are still stationed there to prevent another round of war and ethnic-cleansing. In that way, it’s the closest thing Europe has to Iraq. To paraphrase former Lebanese President Bashir Gemayel, Kosovo is not Norway, and it is not Denmark.

But where was Kosovo's entry point?

Ratko's headlights illuminated a sign welcoming us to the Republic of Serbia.

“That's strange,” I said to Sean. “Kosovo declared independence from Serbia, but they still haven't taken that sign down?”

“I'll bet that sign isn't long for this world,” Sean said.

We saw the entry point up ahead. A gigantic Serbian flag hung on a pole next to the customs house.

“Oh shit,” I said. “We went the wrong way. We aren't in Kosovo. We're in Serbia. This is the road from Montenegro to Belgrade, not to Kosovo.” Ratko thought he could take us to Prishtina by crossing the bridge from North Mitrovica – the one place in the country even American combat veterans from the Iraq war told us to stay out of. In all likelihood, it’s the most dangerous place on the continent for Americans.

A Serb policeman stepped out of the customs house. Ratko had been speeding down the mountain, and the officer held up his open hand for Ratko to stop and stared at him furiously for approaching the border post at such a high speed.

“This is what I tried to tell you when I woke you up an hour ago,” Sean said.

“Ah crap,” I said. “I was tired and didn't know what you meant. The road we were supposed to take goes to South Mitrovica, and that's what I thought you were talking about. That would have been fine.”

“We have to turn around and go back,” Sean said.

“It's too late now,” I said. “We're here. First we have to get away from the border post.”

Ratko stepped out of the car, spoke to the Serb police man, and handed over our passports. I heard him say “Prishtina.”

Great, I thought. Now the Serb police know we're trying to get to Prishtina. I hoped against hope that the border guard would tell Ratko about the Bridge Watchers and tell him we couldn’t pass. Ratko and I had no language in common, and I couldn't explain it. Serbia also bans entry to anyone with a Kosovo stamp in their passport. It was entirely possible that the border police would throw us out of the country before we could even get in.

The officer took Ratko inside the customs house.

“They're yelling at each other,” Sean said.

He was right. I could hear them. I sunk in my car seat and rubbed my eyes. This was not going well.

But Ratko came back a few minutes later with entry stamps in our passports. “Okay,” he said. Then he drove us toward Kosovo. I looked at my map and figured out where we were. Kosovo was only twenty or so miles away.

“We have to say something,” Sean said. “The police officer didn't warn him. He has no idea what he's doing.”

“I know it,” I said. I turned on the dome light, pointed at the map, and gestured for Ratko to pull over.

Ratko pulled over.

I didn't know how to tell him about the hazards of going through North Mitrovica. He hardly understood any English at all. So I traced the road on the map with my finger, and when my finger tip reached Mitrovica I made a slashing motion across my throat with my finger.

Ratko freaked out.

Of course I was exaggerating. No one would slit our throats in North Mitrovica. It isn’t that bad. But I didn't know how else to say “danger” in improvised sign language. Ratko and I shared at most two dozen words of vocabulary.

“No, no, no, no, no,” Ratko said.

“Yes, yes, yes,” I said.

I couldn't convince him, in part because he thought I was trying to convince him the situation was much more dire than it actually was.

Ratko pointed outside. “Kosovo,” he said.

“No,” I said. “We are not in Kosovo. We're in Serbia.” I pointed outside. “Serbia.”

He had no idea where we were.

I pointed behind us. “Serb police,” I said.

“International police,” he said.

“No!” I said.

“He wore a Serbian uniform,” Sean said. “The sign said Welcome to Serbia. They’re flying the Serbian flag. International soldiers wouldn’t do any of that.”

“If he were an international police officer,” I said to Sean, “he would have spoken English to us, not Serbian to Ratko.”

“Of course,” Sean said. “Doesn’t he get that?”

Ratko had an idea. He punched a number into his cell phone, spoke briefly to the person on the other end of the line, and handed the phone over to me. “Serbian friend,” he said. “English.”


I took the phone from Ratko.

“Hi,” I said to the Serb stranger on the other end of the line.

“Hello, Mister Michael,” the man said.

“Do you know what’s going on?” I said. “Ratko is trying to drive us to Prishtina from North Mitrovica. Do you know about the Bridge Watchers?”

“Yes,” he said. “I know.”

“Can you explain the situation to him for me please?” I said.

“Listen, Mister Michael,” he said. “I follow the news, I know what you are talking about. There was a problem with some extremists, yes, but the situation has been resolved.”

“Are you sure?” I said.

“Yes,” he said. “I am sure. I follow the situation very closely from Belgrade.”

It was certainly possible. Reporters often let the world know when violence and mayhem break out and rarely bother to fill the rest of us in when trouble quiets down. If it bleeds, it leads. If there are no more riots, beatings, or body counts in North Mitrovica, word doesn’t get out. Serb reporters, though, are more likely to cover the situation than Western reporters because Serbs are directly involved. So I crossed my fingers and hoped Ratko's friend in Belgrade was right.

I handed the phone back to Ratko. “Okay,” I said. “Let’s go.”

“What did he say?” Sean said.

“He said it’s resolved,” I said. “He’s sure of it. I don’t know, but somebody is about to be proven right or wrong by reality.”

We reached the entry point into Kosovo. It was manned by German army soldiers. Ratko rolled down the window.

“Hi!” I said to the soldier who spoke perfect English. “We're trying to get to Prishtina. Can we get through this way?”

“Yes, of course,” the soldier said. “You can pass.”

“There’s no more trouble on the bridge?” I said.

“Not today,” he said and handed back our passports. “The way is clear now. Enjoy your stay in Kosovo.”

Ratko slowly drove past a long line of tanks, armored personnel carriers, and other NATO military vehicles.

“Montenegro good!” Ratko said loudly after we cleared what briefly looked like a war zone.

Sean and I laughed. There are no tanks in Montenegro.

I felt relieved after talking to the German soldier. If the road was safe up ahead, he should know. But we still hadn't cleared the Mitrovica bridge into the Albanian region of Kosovo, and I couldn’t fully relax until we did.

Serbian national flags were flown from houses even though were no longer in Serbia. Serbs on both sides of the border insist Kosovo is Serbia even though it is not. Kosovo’s Serbs even voted in Serbia’s most recent election. They now have their own representatives in a foreign country’s parliament, as well as their own parallel institutions inside the country they live in.

We drove past a mosque with the top of its minaret blown off. It looked like a gigantic pencil that had been snapped in two. For all the talk of Israel’s supposed war crimes against Palestinians and Lebanese, I never saw anything like this in the Middle East. On the contrary, I saw a mosque in Hezbollah-controlled South Lebanon surrounded by rubble. But the mosque itself was not even scratched. Even Hezbollah mosques are considered inviolable by the Israel Defense Forces.

KFOR (NATO's Kosovo Force) billboards showing two NATO soldiers and a helicopter had been erected in this Serb enclave of Kosovo. I thought it highly unlikely that Serbs in North Mitrovica appreciated seeing those every day.

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KFOR billboard, Prishtina, Kosovo

“You know we're banned from going to Serbia now, right?” I said to Sean.

“What?” he said.

“We just got entry stamps into Serbia,” I said, “but no corresponding exit stamps. If we leave through the Kosovo airport and don't go back out through Serbia, they will know we visited Kosovo. And they won't let us back in.”

“Are you sure?” he said.

“Yep,” I said. “We'll have to do a stamp run to conceal our visit to Kosovo or we’ll be no more welcome in Serbia than we would be in Syria with Israeli stamps in our passports.”

Sean was disappointed.

“I wanted to show my wife Belgrade,” he said.

“Then you have to get a new passport.”

He needs a new one anyway. His current passport was stamped when he visited the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, so he's banned from visiting Greece. To my knowledge, Serbia and Greece are the only Balkan countries that act like Arab countries and ban even tourists with enemy stamps in their passports.

Ratko had no idea how to find the bridge in North Mitrovica to South Mitrovica, so he asked a random stranger, a young Serb man, in the middle of the night for directions. The young man told Ratko to follow him in his car, and we were taken to another bridge, a smaller one – not the infamous crossing guarded by the thuggish Bridge Watchers – and we crossed into the Albanian region of Kosovo.

“We made it,” I said when I saw a sign that said Kosova – the Albanian spelling.

A little more than an hour later, the brightly lit skyline of Prishtina loomed ahead just over a hill.

“At last,” I said. It was 2:00 in the morning.

Ratko didn't know how to find our hotel. I showed him my printed map, but it didn't help. None of us knew where we were. So he pulled into a gas station and asked the attendant for help. The attendant shrugged. A young Albanian man who looked like a soul-patched Seattle-area hipster stepped out of his car and came over.

“Hi,” I said. “We're trying to find the Hotel Afa. Do you know where it is?”

“Let me see,” he said and looked at the map. “Yes, I know where that is.”

Ratko spoke to the young man in Serbian.

“Um,” the Albanian man said. He understood Serbian, as do all Albanians in Kosovo who were schooled before the 1999 war. But they do not like to speak the language of their former oppressors. He looked at me with a pained expression on his face. “Does he speak...” he said. Then he sighed. “Never mind.” And then he spoke to Ratko in fluent Serbian.

“He's Montenegrin,” I tried to add helpfully, referring to Ratko.

“It's okay,” the man said, “it's okay.”

The young man got back in his car and escorted us all the way to our hotel.

“Thank you,” Sean and I said when we arrived. “Thank you so much.”

“Of course,” the man said and shook hands with all three of us. “Welcome to Kosova.”


Two days later, Sean and I met two American police officers in the charming Ottoman-era city of Prizren. He and I still hadn't figured out the real story in North Mitrovica, and figured these men might know. One was from Texas and spoke in a very slow drawl. The other was from Southern California.

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Prizren, Kosovo

“Was it dangerous for us in North Mitrovica?” Sean said.

“Yes,” the American police officer from California said. “There are some real extremists up there, and it only takes one to ruin your night.”

“The road is open now, though,” Sean said. “So the situation has been resolved?”

“No,” the officer said. “This is by no means resolved. Nothing in Kosovo has been resolved. We're at the very beginning of a new stage here.”

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All photos copyright Michael J. Totten and Sean LaFreniere

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 2:50 AM | Comments (19)

June 28, 2008

The Iraqification of Lebanon

Hezbollah is alarming its Lebanese opponents by expanding its territory through the purchase of property outside Shia areas in Lebanon. Former civil war-era President Amin Gemayel went on television Thursday and said what many Lebanese have feared for months now while this has unfolded.

“There is some sort of military preparation starting from Niha in Jezzine all the way across the entire Western mountain range with military surveillance posts set up from Jezzine to Sannine all the way up to Laqlouq,” he said.

If he weren’t talking about an army that really does build massive and sophisticated military infrastructure – including deep tunnels and a high-tech surveillance system in Beirut’s international airport, of all places – I might suspect he was paranoid or exaggerating.

Amin’s Phalange Party is a vehicle for mostly parochial and sectarian Christians, and it has a dark past, as do most parties in Lebanon. His concerns, however, are echoed at the more broad-based and mainstream online magazine NOW Lebanon. “These are preparations for war,” says an editorial earlier this week, “or rather preparations to ensure that if there is a war, Hezbollah’s adversaries won’t be able to fight one. The party knows better than to enter Christian, Druze or Sunni areas. So it has opted for control of the high ground – high ground overlooking the territories of its foes but also controlling lines of communication between mainly Shia areas in the northern Bekaa Valley, the southern Bekaa, South Lebanon, and Beirut’s southern suburbs . . . [W]hat is taking place today has so transgressed the red lines of all communities that what we will almost certainly see in the near future is a dangerous logic of communal self-defense taking over.”

Even if these moves by Hezbollah are being misinterpreted by the overly anxious, NOW Lebanon is correct to point out the danger for the simple reason that they are perceived as threatening. Everyone in Lebanon knows all too well why the “logic of communal self-defense” is an ominous development.

Communal self-defense means sectarian self-defense, and sectarian self-defense means exactly the same thing in Lebanon that it means in Iraq: militias. If the police and the army cannot or will not disarm Hezbollah – and they cannot and will not – then the only self-defense options remaining are personal and communal. Robert Heinlein famously wrote that an armed society is a polite society, but he didn’t know the Middle East very well.

Read the rest in COMMENTARY Magazine.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 12:52 PM | Comments (4)

June 26, 2008

How Kosovo Created its Own Liberal Islam

On February 17, 2008, Kosovo declared independence from Serbia. Some are concerned about what NATO, the United Nations, and the European Union have nurtured there since the military and humanitarian intervention in 1999. James Jatras, a U.S.-based advocate for the Serbian Orthodox Community, put it bluntly last year when he said Kosovo was a “a beachhead into the rest of Europe” for “radical Muslims” and “terrorist elements.” It’s an assertion without evidence. “We’ve been here for so long,” said United States Army Sergeant Zachary Gore in Eastern Kosovo, “and not seen any evidence of it, that we’ve reached the assumption that it is not a viable threat.”

Nine in 10 of Kosovo’s citizens are ethnic Albanians, and more than 90 per cent of them are at least nominal Muslims. Most are so thoroughly modern and secularised that moderate doesn’t quite say it. The only word that can fairly describe Islam as practiced by the majority of Albanian Muslims is liberal. No nation can be entirely free of extremists, but Kosovo is one of the least religiously extreme Muslim-majority countries on Earth. Radical Islamists aren’t there in significant numbers now, and they aren’t likely to be in the future. Some places may be fertile ground for radicalism in the future, but Kosovo isn’t one of them for many of the same reasons that Christian theocracy isn’t coming to Western Europe.

I arrived here shortly after the declaration of independence, and the first thing I looked for – as always when I visit a Muslim-majority country – was the treatment and status of women.

Women who dress with their hair, ankles, and sometimes even faces showing in places like Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the Taliban-controlled parts of Afghanistan are often beaten or worse.

In Kosovo, by contrast, almost all women, even in small villages, dress like women in the rest of Europe. Streets, cafés, restaurants, and bars are not all-male affairs as they are in much of the Islamic world, where women spend almost all their lives behind walls. If it weren’t for the occasional mosque minaret on the skyline, there is little visible evidence that Kosovo is a Muslim-majority country at all. Kosovo looks, feels, and is European.

A small number of well-heeled Islamic extremists from the Gulf states have moved into Kosovo to rebuild damaged mosques and transform liberal Balkan Islam into the more severe version found in the deserts of Saudi Arabia. They’ve had a small amount of success with a similar project in nearby Bosnia, but they’re meeting stiffer resistance from Kosovo’s religious community as well as from secular citizens.

“We are working very hard to stop these kinds of movements,” said Professor Xhabir Hamiti, of the Islamic studies department at the University of Pristina. “These kinds of movements are dangerous for all nations, for all faiths, for all religions. We are Muslims, but we think the European way. I am a Muslim, I am a scholar, I know how to deal with Islam in my country. There is no need for Arabs to come here. I have no need for their suggestions, no need for their explanations. We created our Islam ourselves here, and we can continue our Islam with our own minds.”

Read the rest in Standpoint Magazine.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 3:24 PM | Comments (22)

June 25, 2008

No Peace in Lebanon

You aren’t hearing about it in the Western media, but the truce agreement reached last month in Doha, Qatar, between the Lebanese government and the Hezbollah-led opposition is no more operative than the ceasefire between Israel and Hamas.

Fighting broke out in the northern city of Tripoli between Sunni supporters of the “March 14” majority bloc in parliament and gunmen from the Alawite sect loyal to the Syrian Baath regime and Hezbollah. We’re not talking about street brawling here. Machine guns, mortars, and rocket-propelled grenades were deployed. Several houses and a gas station were burned to the ground. Ten people were killed and at least 52 people were wounded.

One of Lebanon’s few pro-Syrian Sunni leaders, Omar Karami (he was prime minister during the Syrian occupation), said the Doha agreement was only a “temporary truce because historical grudges still exist.” [Emphasis added.] He is right about that much, at least. Historical grudges most certainly do still exist, even if the ceasefire doesn’t.

Rifaat Eid, who represents Lebanese Alawites, claims radical Sunni remnants from the terrorist group Fatah al Islam were involved. “Armed groups from outside the region come to Bab al-Tabbaneh, open fire in our direction and leave,” he said. “The fighting was premeditated given the kind of weapons, their quantity, and the Islamic extremist factions that are joining the fighters . . . Is Fatah al Islam gone? I doubt it.”

Read the rest in COMMENTARY Magazine.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 2:01 PM | Comments (7)

June 23, 2008

The Road to Kosovo, Part I

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A gigantic poster of genocidal Bosnian Serb war criminal Radovan Karadzic hung on the outside wall of a hideous communist-style apartment block.

“Get a picture of that,” I said to my friend and traveling companion Sean LaFreniere as I drove our rented car through the outer suburbs of Serbia's capital Belgrade. I had the wheel and he had the camera.

“Too late,” he said.

We were driving fast on a four-lane road and were almost out of the city. Our road trip from Serbia to Kosovo via Bosnia, Croatia, and Montenegro was just beginning.

“That’s okay,” I said. “We’ll probably see another one.”

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Housing blocks, New Belgrade, Serbia

We didn’t, however, see another one, not anywhere in Serbia or in Bosnia’s Serb-controlled Republica Srpska. Europe’s worst living political leaders still have a base of support among Serbs, but it’s slowly dwindling.

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Communist architecture, New Belgrade, Serbia

Outer New Belgrade looks more or less like what I expected in a post-communist city in Eastern Europe, but Old Belgrade is beautiful, sophisticated, stylish, and fun. Neither Sean nor I had any idea what to expect from Serb villages aside from the fact that they’re in no way cosmopolitan as the capital is. Small Serb towns and villages – especially in the Republica Srpska – were also the least friendly places for any Americans brave enough to visit the former Yugoslavia as it violently came apart at the seams in the 1990s. Serbian-American relations are tense again since American-backed Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in February this year. Extremists in the capital responded by firebombing the American Embassy and a McDonald's.

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Countryside, Serbia

The countryside beyond the city limits was flat agricultural land that looked more or less like the American Midwest. Sean and I could have been in Iowa or Illinois. Bosnia, we knew, is famously much more rugged, and we'd be there in less than two hours.

“We have to stop before we reach the border,” Sean said. “I still have thousands of Serbian dinars.”

“Just exchange them in Bosnia,” I said.

“You can't exchange them in Bosnia,” he said. “You can’t exchange dinars anywhere outside Serbia.”

“You can’t?” I said. “Are you sure?” I hadn't heard that before and it didn’t sound right. He had a wad of dinars worth almost 200 dollars, though, so I pulled off the highway into a small town that looked just barely large enough that it might have a bank.

“Want to find a bar and drink some slivovitz with the locals?” I said. I was kidding slightly, but only slightly.

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Serbian village

“Hmm,” Sean said. He didn't know if he wanted to down slivovitz with drunk villagers or not. Neither did I.

We both wondered, though, how well we’d be received if we sidled up to a bar in the Serbian countryside and asked for shots of slivovitz in American English. With only a single exception, everyone we met in Belgrade was perfectly friendly and pleasant despite Serbia's sometimes primitive anti-Americanism.

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Orthodox church, Serbia

Sometimes I’m not sure what to make of even the primitive anti-Americanism, let alone the moderate variety. I later met an Albanian woman in Kosovo who frequently travels to Belgrade to visit friends. “I go there all the time,” she said. “I have friends there. I’m not paranoid about it. We go out and have a good time. But in the back of my mind I remember they are Serbs. One night I met a Chetnik guy. He couldn’t believe it when I said I was from Prishtina. He said Oh, I killed you during the war. I yelled at him. I screamed at him. I got so mad and felt my eagle coming out. But at the end he wanted to marry me.”

Our randomly selected small Serbian town had only one main street. Maybe we would see a bank and maybe we wouldn't.

“There,” Sean said. “On the right.” They did have a bank. “Park.”

There was nowhere to park in front of the bank, so I found a place a few hundred feet down the road.

A badly dressed scruffy Serb man in his fifties who had not shaved in days stared holes through me as he walked toward our car. Sean paid no attention to the man, flung open his door, and started toward the bank by himself. I guessed that meant I would stay with the car.

Scruffy Guy came up to my driver's side door. I looked around. Was I illegally parked? Was I in front of his house?

I stepped out of the car. He said something to me in Serbian.

“Do you speak English?” I said. “Do I need to move my car?”

He pointed to the license plate of the car and jabbed his open hand at me as though I owed him money.

“No,” I said. He wasn't a parking attendant. “I am not giving you money.”

Scruffy Guy pointed at the license plate again.

“Beograd,” I said. “The car is from Beograd.” That was obvious from the “BG” on the plate. “So what?” I knew he couldn't understand me, but I had to say something.

He demanded money more aggressively this time.

“No!” I said.

Scruffy Guy spat out an insult in Serbian and shuffled off. I impatiently spun the key ring around my index finger while waiting for Sean to change his money when Scruffy Guy grabbed the arm of a younger man on the sidewalk, turned him around, pointed at me menacingly as if I were a hated witch or a leper. He said God-only-knows-what in Serbian. He probably said “foreigner” in there somewhere, but I can't be certain. The younger man narrowed his eyes at me briefly, then contemptuously brushed off Scruffy Guy and walked away.

Scruffy Guy wanted money or worse, and he wanted help from his townsfolk. So he pointed his finger at me and yelled something awful in Serbian. Heads turned from every direction. I had no idea what to expect, and I prepared to jump back in the car and lock the door if even a single person approached me.

I no longer had any interest whatsoever in drinking shots of slivovitz in a run-down bar in this town with these people.

Nobody approached me, though. All eyes turned from me to Scruffy Guy, whose reputation in town – I'd be willing to bet at this point – is worse than the reputation of travelers from outside like Sean and myself. His fellow citizens seemed initially startled by my presence, but they seemed to have no interest in doing or saying anything to me. Scruffy Guy was clearly frustrated by his inability to gin up a big scene.

Even so, I was relieved when Sean came back after changing his money. I faced hostility the instant I stepped out of the car, and I was worried he might have run into some trouble as well. He didn't.

We crossed the border into Bosnia on a small village road in agricultural country. No cars were ahead of us in line at the remote border crossing, and none were behind us. The border police at each stop on our way out of Serbia and on our way into Bosnia stamped our passports without saying a word.

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Serbian village

Bosnia didn't look or feel like a new country at first. We had only crossed into the Serb-controlled Republica Srpska. This region of Bosnia now has a Serb majority because they ethnically-cleansed it in the mid-1990s.

Sean and I tried our best to follow the map from the border to Tuzla, a city outside the Republica Srpska where we could easily find the main highway to Bosnia's capital Sarajevo. Almost every road sign, though, was in Cyrillic. Neither Sean nor I recognize most of the letters. It's an easy enough alphabet to learn, and we were both able to decipher some of the letters and read it slightly, but the signs were still not what I would call helpful.

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Most road signs in Serbia proper are written in both the Cyrillic and Latin alphabets, but the Serbian government in the Republica Srpska couldn't bother with that courtesy even though the majority in Bosnia-Herzegovina use the Latin alphabet. I didn't see a single road sign anywhere in Republica Srpska that pointed toward Sarajevo in any language or alphabet. All signs, instead, pointed to Belgrade or to small nearby villages.

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Countryside, Republica Srpska, Bosnia-Herzegovina

And so we got lost. Thanks only to the location of the sun in the sky could we tell that we were heading north toward Croatia instead of south toward Sarajevo. We need to stop for directions, so I pulled into the parking lot at a gas station.

“Let's both go inside,” I said and braced myself for another hostile encounter. Serbs in Bosnia tend to be more nationalistic than those in Serbia proper, and we had already had a few minor issues over there.

The station owner didn't speak a word of English, but he understood where we needed to go. He pointed at the map and used hand signals to give us directions to Tuzla. He was perfectly pleasant and charming, but another younger man coldly sized me up from head to toe and let his eyes linger on my watch. I smiled at him as though he hadn't just done that, but he kept up the Balkan Stare until Sean and I headed back to the car.


“Hey,” Sean said after another hour or so of driving. “There's a mosque.”

On the hill to our left was the first Muslim village we had seen since we entered Bosnia almost two hours before.

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Muslim village, Bosnia-Herzegovina

“It looks like a nice little town,” I said. It was just off the main road to Tuzla and Sarajevo, yet we both wanted to take a look and compare it with the Serb towns we had been driving through all day. So I turned off and drove up the hill toward the village with a mosque in its skyline.

The instant we entered the village we saw bullet and shrapnel holes in the walls.

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Mortar or artillery scars, Muslim village, Bosnia-Herzegovina

None of the Serb towns or villages we passed through bore a single scar from the war that we could see, but the minute we saw a mosque, bang, just like that, we found ourselves in what was a war zone. I'm accustomed to seeing this sort of thing in the Middle East, but this was Europe.

Bosnia is a far cry from Iraq, though. Half the people we drove past on the village road were women. In an Iraqi village, all or nearly all would have been men. Women hardly ever leave the house in villages in most Arab countries. None of the women we saw in this Bosnian Muslim village wore an Islamic headscarf. In Iraq, all or nearly all village women wear an enveloping head-to-toe black abaya. This was the most outwardly secular Muslim village I had ever seen in my life, but it was typical of Muslim villages in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Albania as I would later see for myself.

The village was small and there was little to see, but neither Sean nor I were completely sure we had just pulled off the road to Tuzla. Perhaps we were lost again and didn't know it. So I pulled into a car repair shop and rolled down the window to ask. A man stepped out of the shop and frowned slightly when he saw the license plate on the car. The first letters were “BG,” which told him we were driving a Serb car from Belgrade. Here we go again, I thought.

“Hi!” I said and tried to sound as aw-shucks American as possible. We aren't Serbs, was what I meant to convey. We aren't the people who shot up your houses. We're from a country that kinda sorta helped you a little during the war.

The man smiled. He didn't speak English, but he understood when I told him we were driving to Tuzla and he verified that the road we had just turned off was the right one.

So we continued driving toward Tuzla, in Bosnia proper outside the Republica Srpska, and wherever we saw mosques we also saw blown up houses.

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Destroyed House, Bosnia-Herzegovina

There was pain and suffering on all sides during the war. No faction was entirely innocent. I take seriously the following observation written by Rebecca West in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon shortly before the outbreak of World War II: “English persons...of humanitarian and reformist disposition constantly went out to the Balkan Peninsula to see who was in fact ill-treating whom, and, being by the very nature of their perfectionist faith unable to accept the horrid hypothesis that everybody was ill-treating everybody else, all came back with a pet Balkan people established in their hearts as suffering and innocent, eternally the massacree and never the massacrer.”

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Minefield warning, Bosnia-Herzegovina

Nevertheless, it's obvious just from driving around that the Muslims of Bosnia really got hammered the hardest in the last war. I don't mean to pick on the Serbs, but the visual evidence, as well as the documented evidence, is just overwhelming.

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Destroyed house near Tuzla, Bosnia-Herzegovina

Two years ago Sean and I drove on a lark from Istanbul to Iraq, and we passed through dozens of Turkish towns in the countryside on the way. Many Bosnian cities looked awfully familiar. “Welcome to Turkey,” Sean said. “We're in Turkey.”

We weren't, of course, in Turkey. But Bosnia was part of the Turkish Ottoman Empire for hundreds of years. The similarities didn't surprise either of us in the slightest. There would hardly be any Muslims in Bosnia at all if it hadn't been for the Turkish Empire's expansion into the Balkan Peninsula.

Turkey is politically secular, and culturally secular to an extent. The Muslim parts of Bosnia are noticeably much more so. I don't know why. Maybe it's because Turks were Eastern Muslims before they ever pushed into Europe while Bosniaks were Europeans long before they converted to Islam. Perhaps the answer is simpler than that, or more complicated. I'm no expert in Balkan history, especially not ancient Balkan history, but I know what an Islamist environment looks like and Bosnia isn't one of them. Wahhabi Islamists are trying to radicalize Bosnia, and they are a bit of a problem, but in no way did Bosnia remind me of heavily Islamist areas I've visited, such as Egypt and the Hezbollah-occupied regions of Lebanon.


We drove past a post-modern mosque outside Sarajevo.

“I want a picture of that,” I said and pulled the car into the driveway. Sean and I got out. A Muslim man walking out of the mosque flicked his eyes downward at the license plate and jabbed three fingers at Sean, muttered something rude-sounding in Bosnian, and walked around the car.

“Hi,” Sean said. “We’re Americans.” The man just walked on.

“What was that about?” I said.

“He just stuck three fingers at me,” Sean said.

“Like this?” I said and made the tri prsta, the three-fingered Serbian Nationalist salute.

“Yeah, that,” Sean said.

“Why the hell would he do that?” I said.

The tri prsta means different things depending on who you ask, but they’re all related in one way or another to Serbian Nationalism. Predrag Delibasic, a half-Bosnian and half-Serbian writer Sean and I met in Belgrade, told us the three fingers stand for the Serbian Orthodox Church, the Academy of Science, and the Military.

“Maybe he thought we’re nationalist Serbs,” Sean said, “and he was mocking us?”

I don't know. Maybe he didn't really mean to jab three fingers, and maybe he was just annoyed that I stopped the car in his walking path. Either way, I didn’t like how so many people looked at the license plate on the car to figure out who we were – or supposedly were – but I found myself doing the same thing to other people and their cars after I saw that they did it to us.

The next day Sean and I drove up one of Sarajevo’s big hills to get a look at the city from above.

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Communist housing blocks from hill, Sarajevo

A defunct Austro-Hungarian military fort still sits up there, and it looks like it was used recently by at least one armed faction in the Bosnian War. We saw several mortar-sized holes in the walls.

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Austro-Hungarian fort on hilltop overlooking Sarajevo

I parked the car in front of some residential homes at the steps leading up to the fort. A group of young Bosnian men sat at a table in the yard right in front of the car.

“Hi!” I said in English and tried to sound as American as possible. “How are you guys?”

“Hello,” one of them said.

I wanted them to know we weren’t Serbs in case they looked at the license plate. I wasn’t paranoid and thought it awfully unlikely that they would key the car or worse if they actually thought we were from Belgrade, but it only took one second’s worth of effort to make sure they didn't.


“We need to stop in Mostar,” Sean said on our way out of Sarajevo toward Dubrovnik. “We have to see the Mostar Bridge.”

I wanted to see it, too. It's a famous bridge built by the Turks in the 16th Century, and it was recently rebuilt after being destroyed by the Croatian Defense Council during the Bosnia War in 1993.

“We also need to get to Dubrovnik before dark,” I said. “This might be the only time we'll ever get to see it, and I want some pictures.”

Dubrovnik is a spectacular walled city on the Croatian coast near the border with Montenegro. We booked a hotel room in Montenegro and needed to leave for Kosovo first thing the next morning, so there would be no time to go back to Dubrovnik if we missed it during daylight.

There was no time to stop for proper food in a restaurant, so we pulled into a gas station to stock up on road food. I hoped oranges, bananas, or anything that had some nutritional value would be available, but gas stations all over the world sell little other than junk food, it seems. They had peanuts and pistachios, but the rest of our stock was a pile of cookies, potato chips, chocolates, and croissants. And the croissants were really just Twinkies from Turkey in the shape of croissants.

Sean and I wanted to speed through Bosnia and get to Croatia as quickly as possible, but the Opel we rented in Belgrade drove like it was built with a moped engine. Step on the gas and nothing much happens unless you're at a dead stop on a flat road. Passing slow trucks was impossible if there was a bend in the road anywhere in the same time zone.

The destruction wrought from ethnic-cleansing, including mass graveyards as well as blown-up houses and villages scourged by artillery fire, stretched from one end of Bosnia to the other. It was horrible.

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Destroyed Muslim village, Bosnia-Herzegovina

In one otherwise beautiful town on the shore of a lake we drove past a mosque minaret with its top shot off.

“Let's drive to that mosque,” Sean said. “I want a picture of that.”

“No time,” I said. “We have to get to Dubrovnik before dark.”

“It will just take a second,” he said.

“Would you rather photograph that mosque or Dubrovnik?” I said.

“It will just take a second!” he said again. “Just make a left here.”

I made a left.

“You have a second,” I said.

I gave Sean a hard time, but was quietly glad he talked me into it. I wanted to be talked into stopping at least once in a while. We were short on time, but neither of us wanted to see Bosnia beyond Sarajevo only from the inside of a car.

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Destroyed mosque minaret, Bosnia-Herzegovina

The top of the minaret just above the muezzin's speakers for the call to prayer had been blown clean off. Seeing destroyed churches and mosques in the Balkans reminded me of the Taliban's destruction of Buddha statues at Bamiyan with anti-aircraft guns. Two blocks away from the decapitated mosque was an intact Serbian Orthodox church. This town may once have been a model of inter-religious co-existence, but it's not anymore.

“Okay,” I said. “Let's get to Dubrovnik.”

This time Sean got behind the wheel. I had done much of the driving and needed a break.

Bosnia is a troubled country with a dark recent past, but it's also extraordinarily beautiful. For some reason that I can't quite explain, it's hard to imagine such a terrible war erupting amid such breathtaking scenery. Sean nearly ran the car off the road when we drove through a canyon between Sarajevo and Mostar. “Oh my God,” he said, “look at this place!”

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Canyon between Sarajevo and Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina

I was glad he was driving or I might have actually gone off the road while gawking at the mountains and canyons.

Mostar, also, is stunning. Sean and I couldn't just drive through it without stopping, at least briefly. And besides, we were tired of road food. Potato chips and chocolate chip cookies could pass for lunch when we were in college, but not today.

So we sat at an outdoor cafe near the recently repaired bridge, ate Bosnian kebabs, and drank from bottles of locally brewed beer as the muezzin's haunting call to prayer from local mosques echoed off the looming walls of the mountains.

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Mostar Bridge, Bosnia-Herzegovina

Parts of Bosnia look and feel like Turkey, but Mostar looks and feels like nowhere other than Bosnia.

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Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina

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Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina

It's a beautiful place and, aside from the mosques and a few blown-up buildings that hadn't been fixed yet, it felt no different from anywhere else in Europe. Westerners who may be afraid of Bosnia for its Islam, and who may worry that places like Sarajevo and Mostar might resemble Iraq or the rough and reactionary immigrant neighborhoods in cities like Paris and London, have no idea what they are missing. We saw no hijabs or bearded fanatics, but plenty of liberated women and their hipster boyfriends drinking beer and wine and having a wonderful time. Bosnia, despite its troubled past, is benign.

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Young people, Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina

“Let's go,” I said. “Mostar is great, but the sun is going down and we don't want to miss out on Dubrovnik in daylight.”

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Catholic Church, Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina

We weren't far from the Croatian coast. It was obvious that many Catholic Croats live in Mostar and in the surrounding region. We saw lots of Croatian flags flying from houses and draped over electrical wires as we moved to the edge of Bosnia and toward the Croatian border.


The coastline of Croatia is extraordinary. Steep hills and mountains rise sheer from the shores of the sea. Wooded islands just off the coast mean the view is stunning in every direction.

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Croatian coastline

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Croatian coastline

The sun went down just as the outskirts of Dubrovnik came into view.

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Sunset, Croatia

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Dubrovnik, Croatia

“We're just minutes too late,” I said and sighed. “Out pictures are going to suck.” I almost said we shouldn't have stopped in Mostar, but it would have been a mistake to skip Mostar. What we needed was more time.

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Old city walls, Dubrovnik, Croatia

Perhaps it was just as well. It's impossible to capture the magic of Dubrovnik in photographs. The medieval walled city on the water is gorgeous and perfect from every possible angle, but what's really special is the feel of the place as an organic whole.

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Stairs, old city Dubrovnik, Croatia

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Old city, Dubrovnik, Croatia

“This is the most amazing place I have ever seen,” Sean said.

I almost objected. Paris is amazing. Istanbul is amazing. The old city of Jerusalem is amazing. Is Dubrovnik really better than those three? I couldn't bring myself to object, though. If Dubrovnik isn't the most amazing place I've ever seen, it certainly ranks at the top with the others.

We both kept saying “wow,” around every new corner and wondered why on Earth it took so long to finally visit. I should have gone to Dubrovnik years ago, just after the war ended.

You would not have wanted to be there during the war. At the gate leading up to the old city walls is a map that shows every site that was hit and how much damage it caused.

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“Grad Dubrovnik,” it says. “City map of damages caused by the aggression on Dubrovnik by the Yugoslav Army, Serbs and Montenegrins, 1991-1992.”

Dubrovnik was listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site twelve years before the Yugoslav Army shelled and burned it. Aside from the map, however, I saw no evidence that it had ever been under siege during the war. The reconstruction job in Sarajevo impressed me, but they have done an even better job in Dubrovnik.

Many Croatians still nurse a grudge against Serbs – and many Serbs answer in kind – for what happened during the violent demise of Yugoslavia. Some Croatians would like to secede from the region altogether and claim that they are not Balkan people at all.

Croatia, however, is part of the Balkan Peninsula – at least its southern half is.

And Croatia was involved in two of the recent wars in the former Yugoslavia. They were victims of ethnic-cleansing and mass-murder by Serbs, but they dished out the same treatment to both Serbs and Bosniaks in Croatia and Bosnia. They haven't liberated themselves from geography, nor have they exempted themselves from the rough and dirty politics of the region.

Even so, the minute Sean and I stepped inside the walls of the ancient city of Dubrovnik, I felt that at least this part of Croatia really was different, even though it lies below the Danube-Sava-Kupa line that commonly defines the region. For the entire trip so far I had half-jokingly called Bosnia and Serbia the “Middle East of Europe,” but the joke is I was only half-kidding. Politics in Serbia uncomfortably resembles politics in the Arab world. Bosniaks share the religion of most of the Arabs. Belgrade and Sarajevo felt unmistakably Eastern in different ways.

Dubrovnik, though, looked and felt emphatically Western. I felt like I had passed through an invisible barrier in the dimension and had returned “home” the instant I walked through the gate. I can't tell you what, exactly, made me think of Dubrovnik as “home.” I had never been there before, I knew almost nothing about the place in advance, and I stayed for such a brief period I had no time to get past the disorientation and confusion of being in a strange new city and country. But I know what “home” looks and feels like when I freshly return from somewhere else -- especially while my heightened sense of stranger's awareness is still at its peak.

Historian Peter F. Sugar notes Dubrovnik’s unusual history in the region in Southeastern Europe Under Ottoman Rule, 1354 – 1804. “The relationship between the little city-state and the large empire,” he wrote, “is extremely interesting and sui generis. Dubrovnik was the only vassal state of the Ottoman Empire whose territory was never invaded during its long vassalage, in whose internal affairs the Ottomans did not once interfere, and whose status was ambiguous from the point of view of Muslim-Ottoman jurisprudence.”

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Dubrovnik, Croatia

Most churches in Croatia are Catholic. Maybe it was all in my head, but I felt closer to Italy on the other side of the Adriatic than I did to Bosnia even though Bosnia was less than five miles away. More tourists poked around Dubrovnik than I had seen in Sarajevo or Belgrade. Much of the city inside the medieval walls was designed on a grid pattern. The city once rivaled Venice, and it looked the part.

Still, there was an elusive and undefinable X factor about the place that was unmistakably Western, and I couldn't pin down what it was. I do not know why, but it was somehow obvious to me that, unlike much of the Balkan Peninsula, Dubrovnik had never been culturally transformed by the Turks. Dubrovnik's compass points only West. The East is at their backs just over the mountains.


Montenegro didn’t strike me as Western the way Dubrovnik had just done. Montenegro is just…Montenegro.

Montenegro means Black Mountain. In the local language, Black Mountain is called Crna Gora. The Turks absorbed Montenegro into their empire, but it remained a largely autonomous island of Christianity in a sea of Muslim rule – much as Maronite Catholic Mount Lebanon did. Its mountains – which are actually green with forest – are so tall and so sheer that it must have extraordinarily difficult to safely send ground forces in and keep them there if their purpose was to put the country’s people under the boot. Anyone who would have wanted to forcibly oppress Montenegrins would have been wise to look upward in terror and say never mind. The Ottomans were, in fact, thrown out entirely at the end of the 17th Century.

Sean and I couldn't see Montenegro yet, though, because we drove along the coast in the dark. It's spectacular. I knew that. I've seen the pictures. But we drove along some of the world's most extraordinary coastline on a moonless night and missed it entirely.

Well, almost entirely.

“Look at that!” I said.

What looked like a well-lit Great Wall of China shot straight up the side of a mountain.

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Kotor Wall, Montenegro

The wall rose above the ancient city of Kotor, presumably to prevent any hostile force from raining hell upon the townsfolk from higher ground. I wished we could have slowed down and seen Montenegro properly in the daylight, but we had to content ourselves with seeing part of it the next afternoon as we took the winding narrow road up into Kosovo.

The country is tiny, but it seemed like it took us all night to reach our hotel on the dark and twisting coast road.

“Where exactly is our hotel anyway?” Sean said.

“It's just outside Bar,” I said.

“Bar?” he said. “The town's name is Bar? I don't trust a city with only three letters.”

Montenegro Map.JPG

Kotor. Budva. Ulcinj. Bar. Who outside of the Balkans has heard of these places in Montenegro? I knew the capital of the country was called Podgorica, but it wasn't until I actually went to the former Yugoslavia that I had a clue how to pronounce it. (Pode-gore-EET-suh.) If I weren't a long-time geek about the Balkans, and if I didn't have a jones to see these countries for myself, I would not have heard of any of these places in Montenegro.

The only thing we really saw of Montenegro on our single night in the country was our hotel room that looked like the inside of the Brady Bunch house.

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1970s hotel room, Montenegro

I unfolded our map to plot our route for the next day. Sean and I noticed that if we cut short our sleep time we could make a quick detour around Lake Skadar inside Albania before heading up into Kosovo.

“We could have breakfast in Shkodra,” Sean said.

“Shkodra,” I said. (The city is also known as Shkoder.) “It sounds exotic and strange. Like a city named by Klingons.”

Lake Skadar Map.JPG

Many cities and countries in the Balkans have strange-sounding names in their original languages. Most Westerners couldn't even name which continent they belong to if their names were not translated. Some are straightforward enough: Serbia is Srbija, Kosovo is Kosova, and Macedonia is Makedonia. But Croatia is locally known as Hrvatska. (I like that name, Hrvatska. It's fun to say, and it has more gravitas than Croatia. I think we should all start calling Croatia Hrvatska.) Montenegro is Crna Gora. Albania is known by Albanians as Shqiperia. Its name means Land of the Eagles.

“I should call up my mother,” Sean said, “and tell her we just left Hrvatska, we're in Crna Gora, and we're on our way to Shqiperia. What? she'd say. Where the heck are you? I thought you were in Europe. We are, I'd say. These are countries in Europe. No they aren't.”

Neither Sean nor I knew the first thing about Shkodra, the mysterious-sounding place in the supposedly wild north of Shqiperia where tourists just do not go. Hardly anyone went anywhere in Albania until recently. Most outsiders' mental maps of the place might as well have been marked with the words Here There Be Dragons. All I knew then is that Northern Albanian had a reputation as the most lawless place in Europe after a devastating economic and political collapse in the late 1990s.

Robert Young Pelton's Web site Come Back Alive still warns would-be travelers about the region where Sean and I were going under his heading Dangerous Places: “In just a few short years Albania has had the distinction of changing from a country with the most paranoid and overcontrolled communist state ever to a country without a state. It was tricky, but Albanians have risen to the challenge to become Europe's most lawless people at the turn of the century...Being a foreigner, unless you happen to know a couple of the local banditos, you stand an excellent chance of being fleeced. The minute you walk in the door and open your mouth, the $ sign will start ringing for just about everybody there - except you.”

Whether that was still true of Northern Albania or not (it isn't), I didn't know. And neither did Sean. And we were going in there with Belgrade plates on the car.

We left first thing the next morning.

To be continued...

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All photos copyright Michael J. Totten and Sean LaFreniere

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 2:26 AM | Comments (100)

June 19, 2008

Don't Miss the Zohan

If you’ve seen the trailer for Adam Sandler’s new movie You Don’t Mess with the Zohan, it may be tempting to write it off as yet another low-brow comedy aimed at fifteen-year-old boys and best avoided by everyone else. But wait. After Hollywood’s recent spate of dour axe-grinding films about Iraq, a fun movie featuring an Israeli counter-terrorist as the protagonist is a refreshing change, even if it is no more serious or realistic than a cartoon.

Sandler plays Zohan, an elite Israel Defense Forces commando who feels no pain, can do push ups with no hands, and can catch bullets fired at him in his nostrils. He’s a superhero, basically, and his oddly likable Palestinian nemesis (“the Phantom,” played by John Turturro) is an equally indestructible comic book arch-villain who also feels no pain and can defy gravity. Zohan’s trouble is that he’s tired of chasing bad guys, even though he’s very good at it. He would rather live in the United States and work in a hair salon. So he fakes his own death and smuggles himself to New York to get away from it all and live the American dream. There’d be no movie, though, if it were that easy. Zohan is spotted by a Palestinian taxi driver, and buffoonish Arab terrorist wannabes plot to take down the Zohan at his place of employment.

The film’s lead actor and co-author is a Republican, but of the Rudy Giuliani-supporting “South Park Republican” variety. Andrew Sullivan coined the phrase after South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker outed themselves as irreverent anti-leftists a few years ago. Matt Stone is a registered Republican, and Trey Parker famously said “I hate conservatives, but I really f***ing hate liberals.”

This, then, is no Mel Gibson movie. Gibson’s politics, in fact, are swiped at in this movie. No cultural conservative could possibly have written You Don’t Mess with the Zohan. Sandler’s character becomes the most sought-after hairdresser in New York City because he joyfully includes sexual favors for senior citizens as part of his salon service package. At no point in the film is there even the slightest suggestion that there’s anything wrong with promiscuous sex or brazen prostitution.

There’s a seriousness, though, beneath the surface of what is otherwise a ridiculous and crude cartoon with live actors. Israelis are portrayed as the good guys, which is not exactly what might be expected from Hollywood these days. Jokes are made at their expense, but the humor is not politically charged. Zohan brushes his teeth with hummus, for instance. His dad stirs it in his coffee.

Read the rest at COMMENTARY Magazine.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 11:03 AM | Comments (5)

June 18, 2008

The Olmert Show

Don't miss my friend and colleague Noah Pollak's latest at COMMENTARY magazine. I haven't studied Israeli history closely enough to decide whether or not Ehud Olmert is the worst prime minister in that country's history, but if he isn't it's a near miss.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 1:52 PM | Comments (12)

June 17, 2008

No More Gazas

Robert Dujarric and Andy Zelleke challenge Senator John McCain in the Christian Science Monitor. They ask three important questions that everyone in the United States ought to have answered before casting a vote in the November election.

Senator McCain has yet to give the American people clear answers to three fundamental questions: What, exactly, are the political objectives of keeping large numbers of American soldiers in Iraq for years to come? What plausible outcome would benefit the United States enough to justify the wrenching costs of achieving those objectives? And what, concretely, is the strategy for getting there?

I am not affiliated with the McCain campaign in any way and cannot be considered one of its spokesmen. These are important questions, however, and Senator McCain shouldn’t be the only one with some answers.

First let’s get something out of the way. Not every war is fought for the purpose of achieving something good or creating something new that has never existed--an Arab democracy in Iraq, for example. Wars are also fought to maintain a status quo and to prevent a bad outcome.

Dujarric and Zelleke are understandably skeptical about the emergence of a democratic Iraq friendly to the United States in light of Hamas's victory in the last elections in the West Bank and Gaza. But let’s set aside the fact that Iraq isn’t Gaza. Let's also assume, for the sake of argument, that Iraq will never be a light unto the nations or a shining city on a hill in the Middle East. Even if Iraq never becomes a model democratic state in the Arab world--which would benefit Americans and Arabs alike--far worse outcomes are possible than a limited victory, a stalemate, or even several more years of relative dysfunction and chaos. The worst case scenario would be, as Dujarric and Zelleke imply, the transformation of Iraq into a California-sized oil-rich Gaza.

The quickest and most reliable way to get from here to there would be for the United States military to step out of the way now and let the most ruthless factions violently take over the country without interference. Iraqis are most unlikely to vote themselves into a Gaza scenario. The insurgent groups, remember, are those that lost the elections and can only acquire power through force. Even if an unambiguous victory is impossible in the short or medium term for the United States and the elected government of Iraq, a victory of any kind for Al Qaeda in Iraq or Moqtada al Sadr’s radical Mahdi Army militia is likewise impossible while American forces remain on the ground and in the way.

Read the rest at COMMENTARY Magazine.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:20 AM | Comments (83)

June 16, 2008

Back from L.A.

I spent much of last week visiting my wife’s family in Southern California, so I’m behind schedule. Feel free to use the comments section as an open thread. Have you read anything interesting lately? What did I miss while I was offline?

I’m back now and will have more material as soon as I can write some. Don’t go away.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 11:33 AM | Comments (21)

June 10, 2008

A Dark Corner of Europe, Part II

Destruction Central Sarajevo.jpg

“The Balkans produce more history than they can consume.” – Winston Churchill

“Sarajevans will not be counting the dead. They will be counting the living.” – Radovan Karadzic, Bosnian Serb leader, war criminal, fugitive

Sarajevo can be startling for first-time visitors. Shattered buildings, walls riddled with bullet holes, and mass graveyards are shocking things to see in a European capital in the 21st Century. The war in Bosnia-Herzegovina was more violent than the others in the former Yugoslavia, and it shows. If I believed in ghosts I'd say Sarajevo must be one haunted place. At the same time, the reconstruction and cleanup work is impressive. The destruction gave me a jolt, but at the same time I was slightly surprised I didn't see more of it.

Bosnia is a troubled country with a dark recent past, but it is no longer the war-torn disaster it was. Sarajevo was under siege for almost four years by Bosnian Serb forces on the surrounding hilltops who fired mortar and artillery shells and sniper rounds at civilians, but it’s over and it has been over for more than a decade. Most damaged buildings have been repaired, and many neighborhoods look almost as though nothing bad ever happened to them.

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I was on my way to Kosovo to investigate the world's newest country after its declaration of independence from Serbia on February 17, 2008. It made little sense to visit only Kosovo without taking at least a brief look at some of the other countries in the former Yugoslavia to get a little on-the-ground regional perspective.

My long-time friend Sean LaFreniere joined me on the road-trip portion of the trip from Serbia's capital Belgrade to Kosovo's capital Prishtina. It is of course impossible to acquire anything like a masterful understanding of the contemporary Balkans on a whirlwind trip in a rented car, but that wasn't the point. Both Sean and I have wanted to visit the region for personal reasons for more than ten years. And I knew I could see Kosovo, the focal point of my trip, with clearer eyes if I first had some context and could compare and contrast the brand-new country with some of its neighbors.

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Sarajevo, though, is a bewildering place for a first-time visitor trying to get a handle on things, much as Lebanon was the first time I traveled there during the twilight of the Syrian occupation. Out-of-date books and simplified media reports for distant foreign consumption can only help so much in these kinds of places, I'm afraid. There is a great deal of local detail rarely covered by foreign correspondents that can only be absorbed through immersion. Acquaintances of mine who live or have lived in Syria say the same is true there, and I believe them. It’s probably true almost everywhere.

“Maybe in twenty years Bosnia will be nice again,” said a Bosnian I know who lives now in Oregon.

“I love Sarajevo,” an Albanian woman in Kosovo later told me, “but I was there recently and saw on their faces that they are unhappy, more than they were a few years ago. You could see it and feel it.”

On the other hand, Sean and I met a man named Avdo in the Turkish Quarter of the old city who says the situation is bad but getting better. His biggest complaint wasn't about politics, but the exorbitant price of real estate in the city.

Whether it's getting better or worse, I can't say. Serbian writer Filip David's basic diagnosis seems to be right, though. “In Sarajevo it is not a good situation,” he said to me and Sean in Belgrade the day before we left Serbia for Bosnia. “My friends who are Croatians and Muslims, they are not satisfied. It doesn't function. Serbs, Croatians, and Muslims in the [government] that must decide, they can't decide anything. Everybody must say yes.”

Bosnia-Herzegovina is ethnically divided between Orthodox Serbs, Catholic Croats, and Muslim Bosniaks. No group commands a numeric majority. Muslims makes up a plurality of the population at just under one half, but everyone is a minority. The country is also politically divided between the Serb-controlled Republica Srpska and the rest of the country. Bosnia, Herzegovina, and Republica Srpska aren't three separate regions, however. Republica Srpska itself divides both Bosnia and Herzegovina. The map is a mess, and so is the country.

Bosnia Map Emphasis Bosnia.jpg

Bosnia Map Emphasis Srpska.jpg

It doesn't feel like a mess on a brief visit, though, the way Baghdad does, for example. The Bosnian war was ferocious – worse than Iraq's – and seeing Sarajevo in reasonably good shape was a welcome reminder that terrible wars end. I could not have imagined Sarajevo looking the way it does now in the middle of the 1990s.

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Some of my friends and family thought I was a bit strange for wanting to see Bosnia, even though the war has been over for more than ten years. The truth is that Sarajevo is great for cultural and historical tourism. Belgrade is sometimes described to would-be travelers as an undiscovered jewel of the Balkans, and it's true that the place is a bit underrated for what it has to offer, but that goes at least double for Sarajevo. Serbia is still known for extreme politics, but that won't affect visitors. Bosnia's former reputation as being go-there-and-die dangerous is a much harder one to live down no matter how out of date.

Lamp Sarajevo.jpg

It’s a beautiful place, actually. Not only is it worth seeing, it is worth going to see. Sarajevo’s old city center is unique. One part looks and feels like Turkey, another like the defunct Austro-Hungarian Empire. There aren't many cities in the world where in less than five minutes you can walk from an Eastern urban environment to another that is unmistakably Western. Sarajevo reminded me of Beirut in both good ways and bad. Bad because, like Beirut, parts of it are still shot full of holes despite the massive and impressive reconstruction since the war ended. Good because, also like Beirut, there are sizable numbers of mosques and churches in a city that has been a civilizational crossroads for centuries.

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Orthodox Church, Sarajevo

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Inside a Catholic church, Sarajevo

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A mosque minaret and a clock tower, Sarajevo

Before the war, the percentages of Muslim and Christian inhabitants of the city were more or less even, with Christian Serbs and Croats together just barely eking out a majority. The war changed the demographics, though. Sarajevo is mostly Muslim Bosniak now. That’s fine as far as it goes, but the city sadly no longer is the same kind of living example of inter-religious tolerance and co-existence that it once was. Nationalists like Slobodan Milosevic, Radovan Karadzic, and their ilk made sure of that.

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Sarajevo war cemetery, photo copyright New York Times

Aside from some of the architecture, however, Sarajevo doesn't necessarily look or feel like a Muslim-majority city. In this way it resembles Istanbul, only from outward appearances it is even more secular. Most Bosnians aren’t demonstrative about religion.

Old Buildings and Hills Sarajevo.jpg

I saw very few women wearing Islamic headscarves. Alcohol is no less available than it is anywhere else in Europe – or in Turkey for that matter – for those who want it. It is hardly an Islamist environment. Sarajevo is a city of both the East and the West, but it is wholly European at the end of the day.

Sean and I stayed at the Holiday Inn, a hotel made famous by war correspondents in the mid-1990s. It looks like a modernist cube from the 1970s, though it was built in the 1980s. It fits in rather well in a part of the city near the center that is dominated by other modern buildings. Some are generically international while others look explicitly communist.

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Holiday Inn and nearby towers, Sarajevo

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View from inside the Holiday Inn during the siege of Sarajevo. Photo from the Bosnian Institute

The war never left my mind while Sean and I were in Sarajevo. Something that struck both of us at once upon arrival in the city is how narrow it is in the old part of town. Serb snipers took up position in houses on the tops of the hills and fired at anyone they saw moving, including, of course, fellow Serbs who decided to stay. The infamous “Sniper Alley” was right outside our hotel. The narrowness of the city – you can walk from one edge at the bottom of one hill to the other side in just a few minutes – means the snipers always were close. If you can see the hills, the hills can see you, and the hills loom beautifully but ominously over everything.

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That night I dreamed I was trapped there during the siege, scrambling to find a place where I couldn't see hills.


“[Serbs] say Republica Srpska has the right to separate from Bosnia,” Filip David said to me and Sean, “but they stopped because the United Nations asked them to stop. If Serbs speak in that way, they have no right to protest Kosovo.”

“So now they've realized the contradiction and quieted down?” Sean said.

“Yes,” David said. “They stopped in this moment, but in the future nobody knows. The Croatians in Bosnia are not satisfied. They [also] ask for their own territory and government.”

“So it may yet split into three,” Sean said.

I have no idea if Bosnia will ever actually split into three. Dividing it up peacefully, equitably, and in a way that would satisfy everyone wouldn’t be possible. Partitioning unevenly mixed countries, especially those with so many mixed families like Bosnia and Iraq, is a nasty business. Kosovo’s break with Serbia was a lot cleaner than what could be done in Bosnia or what could be done anywhere in Iraq south of the three Kurdish autonomous provinces. James Longley captured the gruesomeness of the idea well in his documentary film Iraq in Fragments. “The future of Iraq will be in three pieces,” says an old man. A young child, perhaps the man’s grandchild, answers him this way: “Iraq is not something you can cut into pieces. Iraq is a country. How do you cut a country into pieces? With a saw?”

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A steep hill in Sarajevo leads to a war cemetery in a residential neighborhood

It's on the minds of some in Bosnia, though, and Kosovo's declaration of independence makes the question more complex than it already was.

Sean and I met with Samir Beglerovic from the Faculty of Islamic Studies in Sarajevo and asked him what he thought about it.

“What does the Muslim community of Bosnia think about the independence of Kosovo?” I said.

“I think everyone can support this independence,” he said. “Everyone who knows the situation in ex-Yugoslavia knows that Kosovo had maybe the worst position in ex-Yugoslavia before the 1990’s. So there is support for them. In the beginning all Kosovo wanted was to be a republic within Yugoslavia. They didn’t allow that, so then the problem began and they wanted independence, and finally they got it. People from Bosnia – Muslims and Croatian people – they are supporting this.”

“Does anyone here who isn't a Serb support the Serbian side?” I said.

“There was some talk,” he said, “[about whether or not] it was good for Bosnians for Kosovo to seek independence now. Some thought it would be better if they waited three, four, or five years because we don’t have a clear situation [in Bosnia]. They say that now, by giving Kosovo independence, Serbia is sending a clear sign to the Republica Srpska that they can do the same thing to Bosnia. And now Bosnian politicians think from this perspective it would be better for us if they didn’t do it now.”

While it may seem reasonable to let the Serbs in Republica Srpska leave Bosnia if they want to, as many think it is reasonable to accept Kosovo’s independence from Serbia, there are grounds for rejecting the idea, and not just because it would be messy. There are also issues of justice.

“49 percent of Bosnia is Republica Srpska,” Beglerovic said. “But from 80 percent of it, people were killed and expelled from their lands. This is territory they won by war, nothing more.”

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Ethnic map, Bosnia-Herzegovina, 1991

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Post-ethnic cleansing map, Bosnia-Herzegovina, 1998

As you can see from the maps, Serbs made up an ethnic majority only in parts of what is now Republica Srpska. Kosovo never expanded its borders through war inside Serbia proper before the declaration of independence, but the Bosnian Serb Army and affiliated paramilitary units used mass murder and ethnic-cleansing to bring as many Serbs as possible inside Bosnia within geographically contiguous territory purged of Croats and Bosniaks.

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An ethnic map of Yugoslavia in 1994. Notice the relative homogeneity of Kosovo compared with Bosnia

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National Library of Bosnia-Herzegovina, shelled, burned, and gutted by Bosnian Serb forces during the seige of Sarajevo in 1992

Sean and I met Predrag Delibasic, a half-Serbian and half-Bosnian writer and film maker, in Belgrade the day before we arrived in Sarajevo. He told us about his childhood in Bosnia where his group of closest friends were from different ethnic backgrounds. They were the subjects of a documentary film he made called Maturity Exam.

His friends then and now were from different backgrounds. Filip David introduced me and Sean to Delibasic and the rest of his crowd who meet every day at the same cafe downtown. Members of their group hail from Serbia, Bosnia, Montenegro, Macedonia, and Kosovo.

“Everyone here is of the same opinion,” David said. “We are all in favor of good relations with Kosovo and each other. We have only one Serb, and he is an anti-nationalist.”

“We are all friends,” Delibasic said. “We don't care about ethnicity. But others, people around here...it's hard. The radish is too deep. It cannot be uprooted.”

Many at the cafe didn't speak English, so Sean and I spent most of our time talking to David and Delibasic, who did.

“My best friend now is a Serb who married a Bosnian woman,” Delibasic said. “Jovan Divjak, the Serb defender of the city of Sarajevo.”

General Jovan Divjak was the highest ranking Serb officer in the multi-ethnic Bosnian Army during the war. His very existence shows that even then the liberal idea of a cosmopolitan and ethnically-mixed Bosnia was still alive in the hearts and minds of some of its people. Not every Serb agreed with Slobodan Milosevic's and Radovan Karadzic's genocidal ethnic nationalist campaign, and some fought and died to put a stop to it. Many were singled out and publicly executed by nationalist Serb forces for resisting and for refusing to fight Bosniaks and Croats.

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Sarajevo's Eternal Flame, a memorial to the military and civilian dead in Bosnia-Herzegovina during World War II

“Do you know who that man is?” Delibasic said and gestured behind him. “The man at that table there with the white hair?”

I looked to my right and saw who I thought he was talking about four tables down.

“The man sitting with the young woman?” I said.

“He was Tito's general,” he said.

Yugoslavia's communist dictator Josip Broz (Marshall) Tito must have had more than one general. “Which general?” I said. “What's his name?”

“He is General Jovo Kapicic,” he said. “His son owns this cafe. We are good friends.”

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General Jovo Kapicic

One of the small pleasures of traveling to the small capital cities of small countries is how easy it can be to meet important people even by chance. Sean and I didn't want to talk about Tito's general, however. We wanted to talk about Bosnia, where Delibasic grew up.

“When I was a kid in Sarajevo,” Delibasic said, “some visiting Montenegrin nationalists asked me, who are you? I had no idea, and I didn't care. So I made up an answer. I am Jewish! I said. My mother said no, no no. But I didn't know or care. My friends were Jews, Muslims, and Catholics. After I was told I wasn't Jewish, I said I was a Muslim. But that wasn't right either. So after that I've always just said I am a Yugoslav. If I could, I would take citizenship in Slovenia, Croatia, and Montenegro, as well as in Bosnia and Serbia. But I can't. I still call myself a Yugoslav, but the census-takers won't accept that as an answer.”

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Predrag Delibasic

Explaining the crackup of Yugoslavia as a natural resurgence of “ancient hatreds” in a post-communist ideological vacuum is tempting for many observers, but it's wide of the mark. It's true that Tito kept a lid on nationalist sentiments in its varied republics during the communist era, and it's also true that the Balkans in general have a long bloody history. But nationalism, in particular Serbian nationalism, was deliberately crafted as a replacement ideology by Slobodan Milosevic and like-minded political leaders desperate to cling to power and grab onto whatever they could as the country came apart.

Milosevic's, though, wasn't the only violent nationalist movement in Yugoslavia’s history that Predrag Delibasic personally had to contend with. He is old enough to remember World War II vividly, and he told Sean and me about his experience with the Ustasha – the armed Croatian fascist movement aligned with the Nazis.

“Armed and drunk Ustasha men came to our house when I was thirteen years old,” he said. “They demanded our papers and couldn't find them. My mother was very brave. She screamed at them and told them it was their fault because they messed up the house. The commander put a gun in her mouth. I grabbed the man's gun and said Kill me, not my mommy!

He and his mother were then taken to prison in Visegrad, just inside Bosnia near Serbia. They managed to escape and were smuggled across the border with the help of a train conductor. His family reunited in Uzice where his father waited for him and his mother.

Later he joined Tito's Partisans. “I was a member of the Communist Party,” he said. “But I was ideologically quiet.”

He didn't fare any better with the communists than he did with the Ustasha.

“I was falsely accused of being a Stalinist,” he said, “after Tito broke with Stalin in 1948. Only recently, almost sixty years later, did I finally receive a document explaining exactly why I was arrested.”

As it turned out, according to the document, Delibasic was accused of being a Stalinist because he met with a visiting film student from Moscow.

“They sent me to Goli Otok,” he said. “Tito's concentration camp.”

Goli Otok was a prison on an island in the Adriatic, now part of Croatia. It's name means Naked Island. The island is mostly bare, as were its prisoners. “They made us march naked,” he said, “and do forced labor.”

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Communist architecture from a hilltop in Sarajevo

“That must have made you re-think communism,” Sean said.

“Yes,” Delibasic said and nodded as he widened his eyes. “The camp was run by Tito's general.”

“Which general?” I said. “Him?” Was he talking about the man he had just pointed out less than a half hour before? The man I had taken a picture of who was still sitting just a few tables down? Whose son owned the cafe?

“Yes,” Delibasic said and gestured by nodding his head in the direction of General Kapicic. The old gulag chief nursed his coffee only a dozen or so meters away. “It was the hardest time of my life. I could not believe that my beloved Partisans would build such an infernal place.”

I could hardly believe he was friends with the general who ran it, who made him work and march naked for meeting a film student.

Just a few minutes later, General Kapicic got up to leave and stopped by our table on his way out. Delibasic introduced me and Sean to him.

“He is a good friend to me,” Kapicic said to us in English, “and now to you. He is a very smart professor, and you should listen to him.”

After the general left, I had to ask. “How can you be friends with him? After what he did?”

“You heard what he said,” Delibasic said. “I accept it, and I don't hate anybody.”


Around a thousand Arab veterans of the insurgency against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan volunteered to fight a “jihad” against Serbs in Bosnia. The Bosnian Army was desperate for help at the time. European countries imposed an arms embargo on Yugoslavia which severely degraded the Bosnians’ ability to defend themselves. The Serb forces had most of the weapons, and the embargo preserved the imbalance of power. As it turned out, though, the Arabic mujahideen from the Middle East had no more effect on the war in Bosnia than they had when they ran off to Afghanistan. In each place they were basically tourists with guns who made little or no impact on the outcome of the war, or even the outcome of major battles. Some of these characters stayed in Bosnia where they still live today.

Bosnia has a bit of an Islamist problem, but they aren't its biggest cause. Saudis and others from the extremist Wahhabi school of Islam swooped in after the war ended to rebuild damaged mosques in their own severe style and to impose their rigid interpretation of religion, as much as they can, on culturally liberal Europeans.

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An Ottoman-style fountain in the courtyard of a mosque, Sarajevo.

Stephen Schwartz – journalist, author, and Executive Director of the Center for Islamic Pluralism – has done a much more thorough job documenting the phenomenon that I could even attempt here, but I wanted to ask Samir Beglerovic about it since he lives there. He's a Sufi and therefore detested by Wahhabis as much as Christians, Jews, and other so-called “infidels” are.

“How much of a problem is this?” I said.

“We have a problem and I think it is obvious,” he said. “In the beginning, during the war, mostly people didn’t realize what was going on. They had their priorities to deal with – how to survive, how to do this, how to do that. And after the war I think the majority somehow didn’t recognize what was going on. We have seen some changes, we have seen some things we didn’t know about before, different approaches, different attitudes. There is something we didn’t have before in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Mostly they were targeting the common people, not intellectuals as much. They were students that had gone to study in other countries in the East, and when they had received their MA or PhD they came here to Bosnia.”

“Do you think it is a big problem,” I said, “or a small problem?”

“It depends,” he said. “As far as individuals are concerned, we have to accept everyone, but regarding organizations, movements, we have to be very careful. As far as an individual is concerned, it is his choice, but if he wants to work within society, with students, you have to stop it, or you have to direct it through our traditional institutions.”

“What is it exactly that the Wahhabis are trying to do here?” I said. “Are they trying to make Bosnian Muslims more conservative, or do they have a bigger agenda?”

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Samir Beglerovic

“They say We have to Islamize you,” he said. “That's the notion they are using, to Islamize. They think that even the practicing Muslims – that means going to mosque, praying – they think they are not good enough, they have to be better. And also that our perception of Islam is wrong.”

“What is your perception of Islam according to them?” I said.

“I don’t know what they think,” he said. “They say it is full of innovations, things you cannot find in Islam. We made it up or got it from the interactions with the non-Muslims living traditionally here in Bosnia-Herzegovina, here in this part, especially from Europe. So it is a religious position, the Islamization. You are not Islamic enough, we have to Islamize you more.”

“What is it about your version of Islam that they don’t like specifically?” I said.

“Every segment of it,” he said. “Meaning our clothes, we are dressing like Europeans, the way we look, we don’t say you have to wear a beard, or that it doesn’t have to be long. It’s also the literature we are using because mostly we are leaning on the traditional scholars of Islam while they are leaning on the so-called reformers. There are lots of things. The logical aspects of Islam, the interior and exterior of the mosques, everything. Almost everything we do is wrong. It's very hard to recognize why and from where they get this kind of attitude.”

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Post-modern mosque, Sarajevo

“How popular are they here?” I said.

“We don’t have statistics,” he said. “That’s our major problem. We don’t do statistics. 1997 and 1998 were very hard years here in Bosnia, after the war. In 1996 it was still a kind of war. Sarajevo hadn’t been integrated yet in the first half of 1996, so 1997 was the year, you could say, you could begin to live a normal life. Or try to live a normal life. And then the first shocks came to you – you do not have a job. If you want to repair your house, repair your apartment, send your kids to school, go to school yourself, you need money. Therefore you need a job, and they were hard to find. So in the beginning people were mainly disappointed with the new aspects of life in Bosnia, post-war life, when everyone was expecting that the government would support people somehow, and we wouldn’t be having trouble with food and schools. And then there was this group that came in and started criticizing anyone who had any important position in the community, the government, or the political parties. The best way to recognize their strength may be from the newcomers on the Web sites, because in the print media they don’t have much space. We now have very strict regulations.”

“Today?” Sean said.

“Yes,” Beglerovic said. “In Bosnia-Herzegovina the Regulatory Newspaper Agency, the RAK. Radio stations and TV stations have to get a license from them.”

“After that are they monitored?” Sean said.

“Yes,” Beglerovic said. “They are monitored. And in the beginning if you do something wrong, first you pay, then you can be banished. There are a lot of inter-religious and nationalist...let's call it bad words.”

“So if you incite amongst the public,” Sean said, “the government will be upset with you.”

“Yes,” Beglerovic said. “There are some standards we didn’t have before.”

“This is a problem for the Wahhabis?” I said.

“For everyone,” he said, “but also for the Wahhabis because you are asking about them. The only space they can get is on Web sites.”

Turkish Quarter River Sarajevo.jpg

“What do Bosnian Muslims think of NATO and the US?” I said. “I know most Serbs don’t like us, but what about your community?”

Albanians in Kosovo love the United States for saving them from the mass murder and ethnic cleansing campaign waged against them by the Milosevic government. Bosnians, though, were left to twist in the wind and face Serbian guns alone for years with very little assistance. I would not expect Bosnian Muslims to feel the same way about Americans that Kosovar Albanians do, but some help is better than nothing, and it has not gone unnoticed.

“We consider NATO the only way for feeling secure in our land,” Beglerovic said. “And it’s said that the only friend we have is the United States. So that’s why each time when someone like Richard Holbrooke says that Bosnia could be a place for Al Qaeda, it scares us. It can mean that we lose our only friend.”

“It won’t happen,” Sean said.

“Historically,” Beglerovic said, “we had our friends in Austria and in Germany. But the only practical support we get is from the United States. I mean, okay, Germany accepted a lot of Bosnian refugees, and everyone helped in a way, but the most practical help is coming from the United States.”

I have no idea where all this is going, if Bosnia will be okay or if it won't. Will the country split into pieces? Will there be more fighting? Will the Islamists become dangerous to those who live inside and outside the country? I can't say, and I won't even guess. I've learned to be wary about predicting events in the Middle East – a part of the world I'm much more familiar with – so I know better than to guess what will happen in always-complicated and hard-to-read Bosnia. There are too many unresolved problems and too many variables. But the fact that it resembles, in some ways, a Yugoslavia writ small did not leave me feeling as optimistic as I would have liked. History there isn't over, that much is certain.

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Posted by Michael J. Totten at 12:34 AM | Comments (130)

June 9, 2008

Another Wave of Afghan Arabs?

Arabic mujahideen famously volunteered to fight in Afghanistan during that country’s insurgency against occupying forces from the Soviet Union. Many so-called “Afghan Arab” veterans of the war, including Osama bin Laden, later went on to found the Al Qaeda terrorist army.

Eli Lake reports in the New York Sun that Sheik Ahmad al-Rishawi from Iraq’s Anbar Province is now volunteering to do something similar, only in reverse. He’ll lead a new contingent of “Afghan Arabs” into Afghanistan to help fight against Al Qaeda and their Taliban allies.

WASHINGTON — The leader of the tribal confederation that has fought to expel Al Qaeda from most of Iraq's Anbar province is offering his men to help gin up a rebellion against Osama bin Laden's organization along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

In an interview, Sheik Ahmad al-Rishawi told The New York Sun that in April he prepared a 47-page study on Afghanistan and its tribes for the deputy chief of mission at the American embassy in Kabul, Christopher Dell. When asked if he would send military advisers to Afghanistan to assist American troops fighting there, he said, "I have no problem with this, if they ask me, I will do it."

The success of the Anbari tribal rebellion known as the awakening spurred Multinational Forces Iraq to try to emulate the model throughout Iraq, including with the predominately Shiite tribes in the south of the country. Today, the tribal-based militias formed to protect Anbaris from Al Qaeda are forming a political alliance poised to unseat the confessional Sunni parties currently in parliament in the provincial elections scheduled for the fall and the federal ones scheduled for 2009.

During his nomination hearing for taking over the regional military post known as Central Command, General David Petraeus said one of the first things he would do would be to travel to Pakistan to discuss the current strategy of the government in dealing with Al Qaeda's safe haven in the Pashtun border provinces. A possible strategy for defeating Al Qaeda would be an effort there along the lines of the Anbar awakening to win over the tribes that offer Osama bin Laden's group protection and safe haven.

"Al Qaeda is an ideology," Sheik Ahmad said. "We can defeat them inside Iraq and we can defeat them in any country." The tribal leader arrived in Washington last week. All of his meetings, including an audience with President Bush, have been closed to the public, in part because the Anbari sheiks, while likely to win future electoral contests, are not themselves part of Iraq's elected government.

Of his meeting with Mr. Bush, Sheik Ahmad said he was impressed. "He is a brave man. He is also a wise man. He is taking care of the country's future, the United States' future. He is also taking care of the Iraqi people, the ordinary people in Iraq. He wants to accomplish success in Iraq."

When Sheik Ahmad's brother, Sheik Sattar, met with Mr. Bush in Anbar last fall, he told the president that he dedicated his victory over Al Qaeda to the victims of the attacks of September 11, 2001.
Posted by Michael J. Totten at 11:29 AM | Comments (16)

June 7, 2008

Assad in the Driver’s Seat

I don’t know what is going to happen in Lebanon in the short or medium term, but whatever it is, it isn’t likely to be good. Michael Young’s latest column in Beirut’s Daily Star is a sobering read. It’s impossible to summarize, so you’ll have to read the whole thing, but here’s his conclusion:

Resolution 1701 has been in the crosshairs of Iran, Syria, and Hizbullah for some time. With the Bush administration on its way out, the Europeans ripe to end Syria's isolation, Syria's Arab foes anemic, Israel little interested in reinforcing the UN's credibility in Lebanon, and the Hariri tribunal looking like an afterthought, now may be the ideal time to begin chopping down the edifice built up in Lebanon by the Security Council between 2004 and 2006. Assad is in the driver's seat and no one seems willing to stop him.

UPDATE: Lebanon's "elected" moderately pro-Syrian president Michel Suleiman had predictably caved on the disarmament of Hezbollah, either because he sincerely supports Hezbollah's "resistance" or because he knows the state is too weak to do anything anyway. Whatever. It makes little or no practical difference what his reasons are. There will be more war in Lebanon, and there will be a lot of it. I often miss the place, but I'm glad I don't live there anymore.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 7:59 PM | Comments (17)

June 2, 2008

A Dark Corner of Europe, Part I

Double Headed Eagle Belgrade.jpg

“If Yugoslavia was the laboratory of Communism, then Communism would breathe its last dying breath here in Belgrade. And to judge by what [Slobodan] Milosevic was turning into by early 1989, Communism would exit the world stage revealed for what it truly was: fascism, without fascism's ability to make the trains run on time.” - Robert D. Kaplan

“You bombed my country.” These were the nearly first words I heard after clearing passport control on arrival in Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, from a taxi driver who flagged me down inside the airport. “Fifteen countries bombed my country.”

I didn't know what to say. Neither did my American friend and traveling companion Sean LaFreniere.

“Why are you here in Serbia?” the driver said.

“We're tourists,” I lied. I didn't want to say I was an American journalist on a trip through the former Yugoslavia with an end destination in Kosovo. Serbia's last war of ethnic-cleansing was fought there, and it only ended when NATO, led by the United States, bombed Belgrade's tyrant Slobodan Milosevic into submission. That was nine years ago, but just three months ago Kosovo declared independence from Serbia. A mob of Serbian nationalists answered by fire-bombing the American embassy. The U.S. responded by evacuating its non-essential employees.

“If people ask what two tourists are doing here,” the driver said, “where you are from, you say you're from Holland.”

From a distance, the latest news out of Belgrade made the place look like a reactionary Middle East capital on a bad day, but this was still Europe. How dangerous could Serbia possibly be? Tensions are higher now than at any time since the 1999 war, but I wasn't going to lie about where I'm from. Whatever ails the country right now, it hardly compares to Iraq.

Sean and I tossed our bags in the trunk of the taxi and collapsed into the back seat. It was midnight and there was no traffic. I figured the ride into town should cost around 20 dollars, and I expected the driver would rip us off and charge something like 40. We had no idea what the exchange rate was, so I just pulled out a wad of bills from an ATM. I knew better than that, but was too exhausted to care. We paid 4000 Serbian dinars, and only later found out that meant 80 dollars for a fifteen minute cab ride.

“I cannot go to America,” our driver said as he hurtled us at top speed down the freeway while driving half in and half out of his lane. “America will not give visa. America closed to us in Serbia.”

“Sorry,” I said. “It’s probably because of the war. Thank God that's over.” Firebombing our embassy didn't help either, but I wasn't going to antagonize a man who almost certainly wasn't one of the arsonists.

He was a Serb, but he looked like a Turk. Ethnicity in the Balkans, as in the Middle East, has nothing to do with biological characteristics. Expanding and contracting empires of both the East and the West have mixed up the gene pools everywhere in those regions. American-style racial categories make even less sense there than they do in the U.S. An Orthodox Christian in the former Yugoslavia who speaks Serbo-Croatian as a first language is a Serb no matter where his ancestors may have lived hundreds of years ago. That's true whether he attends church or not. Religious belief as such is no more relevant to ethnicity in the Balkans than it is inside Israel. Dark-eyed or dark-skinned Slavs are even more common in Serbia than white-skinned or blue-eyed Arabs in North Africa and the Levant.

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The view of New Belgrade from Old Belgrade

Most of the city's hotels are in so-called New Belgrade. They are overpriced, far from the city center, and surrounded by communist-era monstrosity architecture. Downtown is better. It looks and feels like a proper European environment. So instead of staying in a five-star hotel in a communist-era neighborhood, we stayed in a communist-era hotel in a five-star neighborhood.

The Hotel Royal was established in 1886, but you wouldn't know it from the look of the place. It couldn't have been upgraded much, if at all, since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

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My room in the Hotel Royal, formerly the Hotel Toplice

The red carpets were badly stained. Sean kept banging his head on the poorly affixed reading lamp next to his bed. Shower curtains were missing half their rings, and only stretched half-way across the tub in any case. An ankle-busting open drain threatened bare feet at all times. Beds were too hard, too short, and too narrow, yet still the stiff sheets barely fit. The screen on the TV was smaller than the one on my laptop, there was no cable or satellite, and there were only two volume control settings: too quiet to hear, or loud enough to disturb the neighbors even at noon. Towels were hardly more absorbent than rubber sheets. Everyone should stay in a hotel like this once in a while to gain a little appreciation for Motel 6.

We walked the streets of old Belgrade after midnight and searched for whatever cafes or bars were still open. Sean said at once the city reminded him of his trips to cities in Russia, though it's a bit more prosperous and less sketchy.

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Belgrade after midnight

The karaoke bar on a corner might not have been our first choice during the early evening, but it was one of the few places still open after midnight on a holiday weekend. We stepped inside. Beautiful and fashionably dressed young Serbian women and men sang songs in their native language with their arms around each other, empty shot glasses and crumpled packages of cigarettes before them on the tables. Except for the bartender whom we spoke to in English, no one in the establishment could tell we weren't Serbs. The atmosphere in the bar was one of energetic and joyous camaraderie. I was happy to be there. Serbia didn't feel remotely sinister, and I chuckled to myself as I remembered our taxi driver's warning.

“I could live here,” Sean said. I was tempted to agree as I took a swallow of my locally brewed Serbian beer. Belgrade was my kind of place – intriguing and troubled, yet attractive, cultured, and fun.

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Belgrade during the day

Then we found a Turkish-themed bar in a basement, and I reconsidered somewhat.

This place was quiet. Two young men brooded over beers in a corner, and two young women at the bar laughed at the bartender's jokes. The other tables were empty. I was surprised to find an Istanbul-like establishment in a country so violently anti-Islamic, but old Turkish style is warm and sophisticated, and Serbs do have good taste.

“We should order some of their plum brandy,” Sean loudly said as we leaned against the bar.

“You mean slivovitz?” I said.

Everyone heard us, dropped their conversation in mid-sentence, and stared. Their looks weren't hostile, exactly, but they weren't friendly either.

“Can we get some slivovitz?” Sean said to the bartender.

“I'd also like a beer, please,” I said.

The Balkan Stare abated, and the bartender smiled. He seemed happy that we knew of their national drink and wanted to have some. The handful of Serbian patrons switched to talking about us instead of staring at us.

Not until we sat down with our drinks did I remember an obvious and very important fact for the first time since we landed. Americans are not only the ones who bombed Belgrade. American soldiers in Kosovo are currently occupying part of what Serbs insist is their country. Most of Yugoslavia dismembered itself, but from the Serbian point of view, Americans were instrumental in the dismemberment of Serbia, which is something else.

It was a strange twilight zone feeling, and it didn't seem real. The only places I've seen American soldiers are in the U.S. and in Iraq. Europe is often thought of as a post-historical paradise, yet a place that looks like a banged-up version of Vienna if you squint at it hard enough in the dark got what was basically the Saddam Hussein treatment.

I sipped from my shot glass of slivovitz. It tasted of sweet plums and fire, but mostly of fire.


Sean is my oldest friend, and we're accustomed to taking road trips together that our friends and family tend to think are ill-advised. Our most infamous was a trip I wrote about a few years ago that we took on a lark from Istanbul, diagonally across Anatolia in a rented car, and into Iraq. There's no “beating” that, but we've wanted to road-trip across Yugoslavia together ever since Bosnia came apart at the seams. It is one of the most important, and historically violent, civilizational crossroads in the world.

The medieval Kingdom of Serbia lost its sovereignty to the Turks when Tsar Lazar’s army was defeated on the Field of Blackbirds, near the town of Kosovo Polje, in 1389. The tragic dissolution of Serbia, and it annexation by the world of Islam, was deeply traumatizing to the Serbian national psyche. The recent crimes of Slobodan Milosevic and his band of like-minded war criminals shouldn’t obscure that, even though they were not justified by it.

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Old Belgrade

Serbia may be mostly Christian, but it’s no less Eastern than Turkey. (Christianity is itself a Middle Eastern religion by origin.) Serbia did not belong to the Western half of the Roman Empire with Rome as its capital. It belonged, instead, to the Eastern half of the empire whose capital is now Istanbul.

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The Western and Eastern halves of the Roman Empire with their capitals in Rome and Constantinople-Istanbul

Most of the Balkan Peninsula was part of the Turkish Ottoman Empire for hundreds of years. It did not belong to the West. It was the northern-most region of the political entity that included much of the Arab world, and it was anchored there for longer than the United States has existed as a country. The region of the South Slavs is European by geography and in some ways by culture, but for the last half-millennium much of it has been ruled by Easterners and Muslims more often than not. Belgrade belonged to the same political entity as Mecca, Medina, Jerusalem, Cairo, and Baghdad.

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The Turkish Ottoman Empire, which included Serbia as well as much of the Arab world

Serbia did not take part in the Renaissance, which spread from Italy to much of Europe, but not to Ottoman lands.

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Italy during the Renaissance, when Serbia belonged to the Turks

Serbia was beyond the reach of Napoleon and his code, which strongly influenced the rule of law.

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Napoleon’s Empire did not penetrate the Balkans beyond the Dalmatian coast

Serbia likewise missed the Western European Enlightenment, subsumed as it was in the world of the East and Islam at the time.

The Ottoman Empire disintegrated at the end of World War I, but many of its unstable former pieces – from Israel and Cyprus to Lebanon and Iraq – are still at war with themselves and with each other. The unraveling of Yugoslavia has more in common with patterns of post-Ottoman crackup elsewhere than many people outside the region have stopped to consider.

The Kurds of Iraq, I discovered, provide a useful and instructive foil for Arabs. So do the Turks, Serbs, Bosnians, and Albanians in that strange region between the Middle East and Western Europe where civilizations overlap in bizarre and often counter-intuitive ways. The former Yugoslavia is not the Middle East, but it’s an eye-opening crossroads where East and West meet and bleed into each other like artifacts in a painting by Salvador Dali.

Sean and I met one of Belgrade's most famous writers, Filip David, at a cafe downtown across the street from a small park. You may know him as the writer of the award-winning film Cabaret Balkan (or, The Powder Keg in its original Serbo-Croatian), a disturbing Altman-esque kaleidoscope of intertwined stories set in Belgrade on the eve of Yugoslavia's violent unraveling.

Cabaret Balkan.jpg

He wanted to get one thing out of the way before Sean or I asked him anything.

“I must say that I opposed from the first moment the Milosevic regime,” he said, “from the beginning of the 1990s. I was in non-government groups and organizations that were opposed to Milosevic and the nationalistic policies of Serbian power.”

“Did you spend time in prison?” I said.

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Filip David

“No,” he said, “because Milosevic was very clever. He let dissidents stay free so he could always say to people outside Serbia, here is democracy. You could see these small groups, but they were without any real influence. But when he saw that it could be dangerous, he stopped the TV and radio stations. He stopped newspapers, and so on. I did lose my job, though. For 25 years I was the head of the drama department at TV Belgrade.”

TV Belgrade, at the time, was the only Serbian channel. It was Slobodan Milosevic's very own Pravda. Now, though, Serbia has many channels. And even during the Communist era under Josip Broz (Marshall) Tito, Western newspapers and magazines were available.

“The political situation is not okay,” David said. “It has not changed from the time of Milosevic, you know.”

“Really?” I said. I was slightly surprised to hear this, and I'm not sure he's right. Serbia's election a few weeks ago produced a better result than either David or I expected when we met. Boris Tadic's pro-European Democratic Party got less than 50 percent of the vote, but still garnered a bigger share than any of the individual nationalist parties. Serbian Nationalists outnumber internationalists overall, but they're somewhat disorganized and they certainly are not starting wars anymore.

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A Democratic Party billboard

“Milosevic is dead,” David said, “but his ideas and Serbian Nationalism is still very strong.”

That much at least is true. Serbia's full-blown nationalist parties – the Radicals led by Vojislav Šešelj, currently in the dock in the Hague for war crimes and genocide – and Milosevic's old Socialist party, are supported by roughly half the population. A smaller base of support for Vojislav Kostunica's more moderate party, which is still nationalist and anti-European, place Serbia's supporters of Westernization and liberalism in the minority.

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Posters for the Serbian Radical Party, Tomislav Nikolic (left) and Vojislav Šešelj (right)

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Radical Party leader Vojislav Šešelj before his imprisonment in The Hague

The Communist era's Marshall Tito was awfully liberal as far as Marxist dictators go, but Serbia's nationalists are more extreme than any others in Europe. As Paul Berman put it, “the best communism led to the worst post-communism.” The French National Front, led by Jean Marie Le Pen, may wax nostalgic for the extremist actors of yesteryear, but the head of the Radical Party is headed by present day war criminals who plotted and carried out genocide against both Muslims and Catholics.

“What put Yugoslavia together was communism,” David said. “There was an ideological base, there were communist parties in Serbia, Croatia, everywhere. But after the fall of communism, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, they lost their ideological base. Milosevic was a real communist, but also a pragmatist. He knew what to do to keep his power. At first he was against nationalism.”

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Former Communist Party Headquarters

“You mean after Tito?” I said.

“After the fall of the Berlin Wall,” he said. “But communists in Serbia had to fall also. So very soon Milosevic became a Serbian Nationalist. You must understand that Serbian Nationalism is also a totalitarian ideology.”

“So it's not that hard to go from one totalitarianism to the other,” Sean said.

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Sean LaFreniere

“He was not really a nationalist,” David said, “but he had to do this to keep his power. The problem with Serbs then was that Serbs controlled the Yugoslav Army. At that moment he went all over Yugoslavia and raised the issue of nationalism. He was sure that because the Serbs in the Yugoslav Army controlled everything, he could control Yugoslavia. And he then began to attack Croatia, Bosnia. The army was already there, everywhere were people opposed to his regime. That was the beginning of the end of Yugoslavia.”

The dénouement was a long one. The end of the end of Yugoslavia only came to pass three months ago when Kosovo declared its independence.

“I'm on the political committee of a small party,” David said, “the Liberal Democratic Party. In the opinion of some people, especially outside Serbia, this is the only party that's based on the real situation. We say Kosovo has separated, it is now a new state, and we should have good relations with them.”

“You recognize this?” I said.

“Yes,” he said. “100,000 Serbs still live there, so we have to have good relations with Albanians.” 90 percent of Kosovo's people are ethnic Albanians. “But we're only a minority here in Serbia. Maybe six, seven, or eight percent of people agree with this. The rhetoric here is very high in the media that Kosovo is Serbia. Of course they say they will defend it with diplomacy. We have no strength to fight for it. But who knows, they say. Maybe one day in the future.”

It Will Be Serbian.jpg

“The people in Kosovo,” David said, “the Albanians don't want to live in Serbia. Before the Milosevic regime we had no connection to Kosovo. They had their own parallel institutions. They were already outside Serbia. I am sure that some of our politicians are happy that it has separated, but officially they speak differently.”

“You mean, privately they're happy?” I said.

“Yes,” David said.

“They've removed the problem,” Sean said. “It's been cut loose.”

“Kosovo was only part of Serbia after the First World War,” David said. “It was not forever even though they say it was forever.”

Many Serbian Nationalists are fixated on the battle near Kosovo Polje when Tsar Lasar's forces were defeated by the Turks on the Field of Blackbirds in 1389. But Kosovo was mostly Albanian then, as it is now.

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The city center is full of Communist architecture

“And when you have myths,” David continued, “they are based on emotions, not on facts. Hitler has in Mein Kampf one very important sentence. He said his National Socialist movement was not based on facts, but on emotions, and that no facts can destroy it. And if you base your power on emotion, people will stay there and it will be forever. I asked myself, how did things change in Nazi Germany? With a complete catastrophe. We haven't had one. And I don't want one because I live here.”

NATO's bombing of Serbia and Montenegro in 1999 was a catastrophe of a sort, but of course it hardly compares to what happened to Germany and Japan in the 1940s.

“I can't say, yes, that's the solution,” David said. “But in some way you must begin from zero.”


A large number of Europeans, contrary to conventional wisdom, have been anti-American for most of America's history. The problem, however, is confined, to an extent, to Western European elitists. Eastern Europe is different, as Donald Rumsfeld bluntly pointed out with his now infamous quip about New Europe and Old. Serbia, though, is different from both. Anti-Americanism runs much deeper there, and it’s partly based on recent and current grievances as well as the usual conspiracy theories and phantasmagoria. It is much more vicious than what you'll find in the cafes of Paris.

Outdoor Cafe Belgrade.jpg
An outdoor cafe in Belgrade in front of the Hotel Moscow

“What do most Serbs think of Americans now?” I asked Filip David.

“Very bad!” he said and laughed. “There is very messy propaganda, you know. Here there is no private opinion, only public opinion. During Milosevic they said for four years that there was no alternative to war. And after Dayton, the next day, they said that peace has no alternative. Everyone changed their mind overnight. The influence of the media is very very strong. And now they say Americans are our enemies.”

“They actually use the word enemies?” I said.

“Yes,” he said. “You also have some kind of stereotypes. The first is that there is an international conspiracy against Serbia, and that behind that are Americans and Jews with the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”

“Oh, you're kidding,” Sean said. He spent six months in Denmark while I was in Lebanon, and he never heard that kind of thing there.

“Really,” David said. “They say Jews control America.”

Sean couldn't help but laugh at the absurdity.

“And the second,” David said, “is that all independent journalists and non-government members are traitors who are paid by the West. These two stereotypes exist now, in this moment. I am against this, you know, because I am Jewish.”

“Is that a problem for you here?” I said.

“It's an attack on international Jews,” he said, “not Jews here, because, you know, in Serbia there are only 2,000 Jews. A lot of people who attack Jews and are anti-Semites, they have never seen in their lives any Jews. In this moment, we have over 100 anti-Semitic books. A lot of them are reprinted books that were written during the Nazi occupation of Serbia during the Second World War. They are trying to explain how it's possible that Serbia lost all its wars. They are saying that it's an international conspiracy. And people believe it. You know, the bombing of Belgrade. It's true that in the American administration you have lots of Jews. But they are Americans, they act like Americans, not like Jews. I think so.”

“And the honest truth,” Sean said, “is there aren't that many.”

“Most are Christians,” I said.

“Henry Kissinger,” David said. “Hal Holbrook, Wesley Clark.”

“Wesley Clark isn't Jewish,” I said. “He's Christian.”

“He's not a Jew,” Sean said.

General Wesley Clark was NATO's Supreme Allied Commander of Europe when the U.S. went to war against Yugoslavia – which was really just a war against Serbia since what was left of Yugoslavia at the time might be better described as the Serbian Empire. (Yugoslavia was derisively described by many of its citizens as Serboslavia even long before the rise of Milosevic.) It wouldn't be reasonable to expect many Serbs to admire Wesley Clark, but accusing him of being a Jew seemed a bit much.

“Yes,” David said, “but he was born a Jew and adopted by some family. It's not important whether it's true or not. People here say someone is a Jew when they don't like him.”

I decided to fact-check this just in case I was wrong. And according to Wikipedia, Wesley Clark has a Jewish great-grandfather. That doesn't make him Jewish according to Jewish law, but it does make him Jewish according to Hitler's definition and, apparently, according to the Serbian definition as well. When General Clark ran for president in the Democratic primary in 2004, the American media let this factoid languish in relative obscurity because hardly anyone in the United States would find it interesting or relevant.

I assumed it was nonsense because Belgrade's propaganda industry has been manufacturing lies about its enemies for a long time. Republican Senator Bob Dole was widely accused in Serbia of being secretly an Albanian Muslim, for instance. Kosovo's current prime minister Hashim Thaci, who really is a bit sketchy, was recently and absurdly accused of harvesting and selling Serb body parts. When you throw The Protocols of the Elders of Zion into the mix, it’s a good idea to fact-check what you hear – which is frankly good advice in the Balkans in general, not just in Serbia.

“Everybody tries to make their identification with Palestine or with Jews to explain what happens here in Serbia,” David said. “People very often can't understand what happens here. We who live here can't always understand. During Tito's regime there wasn't any kind of anti-Semitism. Tito had good relations with Israel. But with the rise of nationalism everywhere we have the rise of anti-Semitism everywhere. In Slovenia they have maybe 50 Jews, but they have problems with anti-Semitism when there are problems with the economy.”

“So basically,” Sean said, “anti-Semitism is used here, right now, in the exact same way it was used in Nazi Germany.”

“That's the problem,” David said.

“What do Serbs think of Israel?” I said.

“It's mixed,” he said. “Sometimes they praise Israel and say we too must defend ourselves with arms. But other times they say We are like Palestinians, and that Israel is an extension of the United States.”

“So sometimes Serbs identify with Palestinians,” I said. That comes across just from walking around. I saw three Serbs wearing Palestinian keffiyehs downtown just that morning. At the same time, Serbia is the most violently anti-Islamic country in Europe.

“But it's also not so simple,” he said, “because Palestinians are Arabs. And they don't like Arabs because Arabs are Muslims. That's why I say there is so much confusion here about political life, cultural life, and economic life. You can be very surprised by what people say here, and the next day they will say the exact opposite.”

Not everyone in Serbia hates Americans, though.

“I supported Americans from the first moment here,” David said. “I mean, you can criticize Bush or some aspects of his politics, but without the United States we couldn't have resolved any of the problems in the former Yugoslavia. Because European countries have no strength. When the United States came, all the problems were resolved. It stopped. It stopped the fight. Yes, the United States is some kind of policeman, but you must have some kind of policeman in the world who is ready to stop, to intervene. We had that kind of situation in the Second World War, too. When Americans came, it was finished.”

“But we're very conflicted about it,” Sean said. “We don't want to be the world's policeman, but we keep having to do it.”

“It would be very dangerous for the entire world if there was complete isolation of America,” David said. “If Americans said they were no longer interested in Europe, it would be a catastrophe here.”

“You think?” Sean said.

“Yes,” David said, “because Europe can't stop anything.”

“Is there any talk that if you joined the EU that the economy would take off?” Sean said.

“Yes,” David said, “but these are facts. These are facts. People in the Democratic Party are saying so, but others are saying they would rather us be very poor and have our dignity.”

“That's very much like the Arabs,” I said.

“Yes,” David said. “In some ways.”

“I don't mean to be offensive when I say that,” I said.

Military Hardware Belgrade.jpg
Serbia likes to show off its military hardware in public. “They're just like Russians,” Sean said and laughed when he saw this. “And Arabs,” I said.

“If you have no facts, you play on dignity,” David said.

“But you know what?” Sean said. “Cash buys a lot of dignity.”

“Without cash you have no dignity,” David said. “Yes, that's normal. You know, when we were under sanctions we had so much inflation. You can't imagine. If I didn't send a letter to my friends in the morning, in the afternoon it cost in the millions. It was the highest inflation in the world during Milosevic. In shops you couldn't buy anything. They were completely empty. But because we are an agricultural country, we could eat. Pensions were less than one deutschmark per month. Less than one. Money completely lost its value. If I had my pockets full of money, I couldn't even buy cigarettes. Nothing. You can't imagine that kind of situation. It's like living in some absurd galaxy.”


Neither Sean nor I had been to Belgrade before, and Filip David offered to take us on a bit of a walking tour. We set out from our downtown cafe and walked toward Belgrade TV, David's old employer before Milosevic fired him and before the headquarters was bombed by the Americans.

Parliament Belgrade Sean and Filip.jpg
Sean LaFreniere (left) and Filip David (right) in front of Serbia's Parliament

David showed us the Serbian parliament building, orthodox churches, the old Marx and Engels square from the communist days, and other various landmarks. I saw virtually no evidence that Belgrade had ever been bombed. Serbs suffered much more in Croatia, where they were ethnically-cleansed from the Krajina region in one of the most under-reported atrocities of the war.

Block Buildings Belgrade.jpg

“During the bombing here,” Sean said, “how bad was it?”

“I have very contradictory feelings,” David said. “On one side, I knew, I was sure, that Milosevic wouldn't resign without bombing. The resignation of Milosevic was a result of the bombing. On the other side, I was with my family here, my boy, my girl, you know, and they were afraid. My son lived 100 meters from Belgrade TV, which was bombed, and I lived 200 meters, and I begged him to stay with me because we knew it would be bombed that night. He said no, that he passed all these buildings that were bombed and he saw that the Americans were very precise.”

“But it's still dangerous,” I said.

“Sometimes they bombed the wrong thing,” he said, “but here in Belgrade they were very precise. It was not the kind of bombing as in the Second World War where they were bombing everything.”

“We will never do that again,” Sean said.

“You could see,” David said, “you could predict, they said what they were going to hit before they hit it. But it became very dangerous because they bombed all the official buildings and then they didn't know what to do next if Milosevic wouldn't resign. But Milosevic stopped at the right time.”

The bombed-out Belgrade TV station building wasn't far from our starting point. It stood out as one of the few remaining demolished buildings from the air campaign. It seems to be left as a showpiece. It's hard to say, though, if this building was left in its condition to wave the bloody shirt against Americans or against the Milosevic regime.

TV Belgrade.jpg
Belgrade TV, bombed by Americans in 1999

“We predicted it would be bombed because it was a massive propaganda mission,” David said. “And I was very sorry because 16 people who were innocent in that building were killed.”

“People chose to stay in it?” Sean said.

Sean and Filip Belgrade.jpg

“No,” David said. “It was not by choice. The conclusion was that if people were killed, we would have an argument against the West. The man who was the general director at that moment is in prison because of it, because he gave orders to put people there.”

A memorial to the dead is placed across the street from the vertical rubble. All sixteen names are engraved in the stone. Above the list of names is written one simple question: Why?

Names of Dead Belgrade.jpg

But the truth is, everybody knows why. Civilians killed by Americans make for great propaganda. Journalists like Robert Fisk predictably complied and blamed NATO. It didn't matter at the time that Americans hit the building at 2:00 in the morning when no one should have been in there. It occurred to few that Serbian authorities might want to cynically parade the corpses of their own innocents in front of the cameras, though an old Middle East hand like Fisk should have known it was at least possible.

General Manager Dragoljub Milanovic was handed a ten year prison sentence in 2002 for forcing these sixteen employees to remain behind and get killed.

“He knew it would be bombed,” David said. “That's how this government thought.”

There's a lot of that going around. I've seen it in Lebanon, too.

“Hezbollah thinks that way,” I said.

“Yes,” David said. “In some ways.”

It's tempting to think that Serbia has changed, especially now that Milosevic is dead and the pro-European Democratic Party won more votes than the Radicals in the recent election.

“What do people here think of Milosevic now?” I said.

“He isn't so popular now because he lost all the wars,” he said, “not because of his politics. He didn't fulfill what he promised. But all these parties now say what he said about Kosovo, about the United States, about Russia. The rhetoric didn't change. But he lost, and he lost the support of the people because of it...We are afraid of the Radicals because we know what they did. They were in a coalition with Milosevic, you know. They did awful things. Their rhetoric is still war rhetoric.”

“I was very critical of Milosevic,” Radical Party leader Tomislav Nikolic said just a few weeks ago. “He had stopped short all Serbian actions, which benefited our enemies. I would have done many things differently. I would have gone all the way.”

How Nikolic would have gone further than Milosevic, whose ethnic-cleansing campaign turned 90 percent of Kosovar Albanians into refugees, isn't clear. There wasn't much more that could have been done short of defeating the United States and NATO in battle, or killing the Albanians outright so they could never go home.

The Radicals aren't gearing up for yet a fifth Serbian war. They can’t. Nikolic is trying to rhetorically out-Slobo Slobo as a way to make up for his own party’s impotence on the Kosovo question. A huge chunk of Serbia’s population hasn’t moderated their views an iota. “After 11 September 2001 the world seemed to forget about the Balkans,” Asne Seierstad writes in her excellent book With Their Backs to the World: Portraits from Serbia. “The reporters who used to cover the region left for other, bloodier parts of the world, but all the while Serbia stayed on its crooked course.” Only their behavior has mellowed, but in the end that is what matters most.

“I feel like we're safe here,” I said to David. “Is that true?”

“Yes,” he said. “Generally. But sometimes you will have somebody say they don't like you if they hear you speak English.”

I'd seen some looks of surprise and the occasional uncomfortable stare, but no one had been verbally rude to either Sean or me yet.

“Our taxi driver from the airport told us not to say we're Americans,” Sean said, “but to say we're from Holland.”

“That seems paranoid,” I said.

“Maybe that was his impression,” David said. “Or maybe he didn't want to say directly that he doesn't like Americans, but in that indirect way he said you are not welcome here. You may meet some people who say, fine, you're Americans, and others who say they hate Americans. But you could say you support the Radicals, that you came here to support Šešelj and Milosevic.”

Sean and I laughed.

“What if we say we support Kosovo?” I said.

“That would be dangerous,” David said.

To be continued...

Coming up: a visit to war-shattered Bosnia, a road trip to Kosovo, Albanians who rescued Jews from the Nazis, activists for the eviction of the United Nations, American soldiers hailed as liberators by Kosovo’s Albanians and as protectors by Kosovo’s Serbs, Israelis who live among Muslims, and victims of the Bin Ladens of the Balkans.

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Posted by Michael J. Totten at 12:09 AM | Comments (156)