The 'collateral damage' of yesterday are heroes today

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The Independent Online

Last year we hated them. Now we love them. The bestialised Serbs who chose to "support" Slobodan Milosevic were "collateral damage". Now they are the saviours of Europe's "newest democracy". Less than 18 months ago, I saw the beheaded corpse of the local priest at Varvarin, the blood of a young mathematics student smeared across the road, the body of Milena Malobabic in the grounds of the Surdulica hospital, all victims of Nato, all deaths that Nato dismissed as the regrettable side effects of war, all killed by Nato pilots. But now their relatives have, most of them, voted for Vojislav Kostunica - and so they have become our allies and friends, our partners in the soon-to-be reconstructed Balkans.

Last year we hated them. Now we love them. The bestialised Serbs who chose to "support" Slobodan Milosevic were "collateral damage". Now they are the saviours of Europe's "newest democracy". Less than 18 months ago, I saw the beheaded corpse of the local priest at Varvarin, the blood of a young mathematics student smeared across the road, the body of Milena Malobabic in the grounds of the Surdulica hospital, all victims of Nato, all deaths that Nato dismissed as the regrettable side effects of war, all killed by Nato pilots. But now their relatives have, most of them, voted for Vojislav Kostunica - and so they have become our allies and friends, our partners in the soon-to-be reconstructed Balkans.

Is it healthy, this amnesia of ours? I doubt if the Serbs share it. I don't think the people of Surdulica are going to smash the war memorial in their village to the dead of one of Nato's last air raids. And, given his track record, I doubt if Mr Kostunica is going to share it. What was it that George Robertson, our former secretary of state for defence and now Secretary-General of Nato, said about Kosovo scarcely a year and a half ago? "Serbs out, Nato in, refugees back." Only after the "ethnic cleansing" of the Kosovo Serbs began under Nato's eyes - at the hands of the Kosovo Albanians - did Mr (now Lord) Robertson choose to explain that he meant only Serb paramilitaries. Too late. What is Nato going to say if our favourite, moderate president of the new Serbia demands the return of all Serb refugees to Kosovo?

And what of the Serbs who were in Kosovo during the war? The paramilitary war criminals butchering and expelling the Albanians may have been too drunk to vote. But we are assured that most of the army's conscripts voted for Kostunica (which is why Milosevic allegedly sent them home before his proposed second round of elections). Were these not the same army conscripts who served in Kosovo during Nato's bombardment? Were they not the same conscripts who watched - if they did not participate in - the massacres? So do we hate them still? Or do we love them?

All civil conflict ends messily. The two biggest thugs in Bosnia - Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic - are still at large. In post-war Lebanon, all bar one of the men with blood on their hands ended up in government. And on Friday night there was an intriguing comment from the State Department's James Rubin, who last year was so keen on a war crimes trial for Mr Milosevic. Asked if the Serbian dictator would be heading for the Hague war crimes tribunal, Mr Rubin paused for a moment, and then said - note these words - that it was "a question of sequencing".

Sequencing? Who invented this word? Where does it come from? Well, it seems that Serbia - once it is back in the family of nations - may have to address Mr Milosevic's guilt, but only (I quote Mr Rubin again) in "some legal process". The Americans, it seems, are going to let the Serbs do what they wish with Mr Milosevic, just as long as he accepts that Mr Kostunica is president. Which he does. So perhaps he's got away, our Beast of Belgrade; perhaps he's not heading for the Hague, after all.

Can it be - can it possibly be - that the man we once reviled as the "Butcher of Belgrade" (he was actually referred to in that form by BBC World Television on Friday) is also going to be turned into a lamb, an intriguing relic who will occasionally give us an interview or two, recalling his negotiations with Richard Holbrooke at Dayton and explaining how misunderstood he has been?

We will not love him, of course. But perhaps we may just ignore him. Just as we will ignore all those friendly conscripts who witnessed the Golgotha of the Kosovo Albanians and - at the least - did nothing, but who have now loyally voted for the opposition parties that Nato nations funded.

Yes, it is true that we always said we were fighting only Mr Milosevic, not the Serbian people. We said the same before we bombed Libya in 1986 and Iraq in 1991 (and, by chance, Egypt in 1956). But we killed the Serbs with ever greater impunity as Nato's targets became more and more civilian-orientated. Now they are our heroes - just as they were in two world wars. For the sake of reality, one can only hope the Serbs feel the same way about it.

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