Books: Truths the Serbs weren't told

KOSOVO: A Short History by Noel Malcolm, Macmillan pounds 20
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YOU BECOME accustomed to it. During even the briefest visit to the Balkans, there always seems to be that map-in-the-notebook moment. Mid-conversation - in a cafe, in an office, on the street - somebody grabs for your pen and notebook, and declares: "Let me show you. It's like this, you see." They proceed to draw a map which demonstrates that all this - and this, and this - was part of their country, in 13 hundred and something. As a result, it is also rightfully theirs today.

Then - in the next cafe, the next town, or the next valley - the procedure will be repeated in reverse. Somebody from the other ethnic side will draw a map showing how, as far back as 11 hundred and something, "This was always our land." My crumpled red notebooks are sprinkled with such sketches, showing the mutually contradictory high-water marks of regional history. Serbs say they should have most of Croatia; Croats say they should have most of Bosnia; Macedonia belongs to whoever last spoke.

Nowhere have the contradictions been more glaring than in Kosovo, whose standard between-commas description, an "Albanian-majority Serb province", already hints at the essential paradox. Serbs and Albanians alike believe that this is "our land". Medieval Serb monasteries were built here, and Serbs see the region as their (mostly unvisited) "heartland". Serbs constantly look back to the battle of Kosovo Field in 1389, regarded by Serbs as the historic defeat which paved the way for every other bad moment of history in the past 600 years. The Albanians emphasise that they have been in the majority for hundreds of years.

Noel Malcolm, author of a respected history of Bosnia, has now tackled the formidable task of disentangling the conflicting myths that have grown up, producing a "short history" (492 pages, including 120-odd pages of notes and bibliography) of Kosovo. The early chapters, admittedly, can sometimes seem daunting for all except the most dedicated Balkan or linguistic anorak. But this laborious process of chewing over facts and not-quite- facts for pages at a time turns out to be part of the point. Malcolm makes a unique attempt not just to describe what one side perceives as the reality, but to give an accurate account of What Really Happened.

It is a remarkable task, given the speed with which myths take root. Travelling around Kosovo in recent weeks, I found it bewilderingly difficult to establish an accurate picture of what had happened the previous day or week - never mind 600 years ago. Serbs and Albanian villagers alike lie cheerfully and brazenly. When caught in a particularly egregious invention, they are almost unfazed, since they regard their version of events as having a validity of its own.

In these circumstances, Malcolm's task of painting a balanced picture deserves special praise. It would be a contribution to mutual understanding if his scrupulous book became a set text in Serb and Albanian classrooms alike. In a debating-society forum, Serb children would explain the Albanian point of view, and Albanians would argue things from the point of view of the Serbs. Dream on. For both sides, the idea of dialogue is incomprehensible and absurd.

"All origins become mysterious if we search far enough into the past" Malcolm argues, early in Kosovo. He is capable of devoting much energy to exploring a single historical detail, only to conclude: "Without further evidence, the precise truth may never be known." That uncertainty becomes part of the message. Even the story of the battle of Kosovo Field is much muddier than is generally recognised. All that can usefully be done is to avoid mythologies and leave the past behind.

The careful narrative of the early chapters quickens its pace in the twentieth century, as the Serb lunacy becomes indisputable. In 1912, the Vienna-based journalist Lev Bronshtein (later better known to the world as Leon Trotsky) reported Karadzic-style ethnic cleansing for his Ukrainian paper: "The Serbs, in their national endeavour to correct data in the ethnographical statistics that are not quite favourable to them, are engaged quite simply in systematic extermination of the Muslim population." An international commission agreed with Trotsky's assessment. "Houses and whole villages reduced to ashes, unarmed and innocent populations massacred ... such were the means which were employed and are still being employed by the Serb-Montenegrin soldiery."

In Tito's post-war Yugoslavia, the Albanians received a better deal. But it was only a brief window of hope. The Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic stirred up nationalist feeling in Kosovo to begin his swift rise to power a decade ago, fraudulently declaring: "Every nation has a love which eternally warms its heart. For Serbia, it is Kosovo." As a sign of that love, Albanian rights have been trampled wholesale in recent years. As Malcolm rightly notes, "arbitrary arrest and police violence have become routine". Such were the tensions in the late 1980s that many expected that Kosovo was where the Balkan wars would begin. In reality, a policy of passive resistance helped to prevent the outbreak of war. Recently, Albanian forbearance has partly snapped. Low-level armed resistance has begun, even as Serb police and army tactics become more brutal than before. Thus, Milosevic's intransigence may be about to unleash the last and bloodiest Yugoslav war of all.

There is a grim timeliness to Malcolm's book, which appears to have been completed before the latest upsurge of violence in recent months, but which vividly demonstrates the hopelessness of the refusal to compromise. "Not everything the Serbs have been told about the history of Kosovo is false; what is needed, however, is an ability to accept that there are other truths which they have not been told." Most importantly, none has benefited from the policies of intolerance: "Beneficiaries certainly do not include the ordinary indigenous Serbs of Kosovo, whose lives have been darkened and distorted by unnecessary political conflict; nor, obviously, the Kosovo Albanians; nor even the Serbs of Serbia proper, whose hopes of genuine democratic development have been poisoned by the constant reintroduction from above of a politics of fantasy and hatred." Hear, hear - except that nobody is listening. In Kosovo, optimism and tolerance are now in hideously short supply.