Leading Article: Tyranny's disguise

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The Independent Online
ON THE border between Bosnia and Croatia lies an obscure town called Bihac. It contains 75,000 people and, so far as we can tell, has done nobody any harm. Its only offensive weapons are a few old rifles. And yet for the past two months the Serbs and their artillery have been shelling Bihac. They do it casually but regularly, almost like a hobby. As Tony Barber reported in yesterday's Independent: 'Every day the Serbs send over more shells, some in the morning, some in the afternoon, some at night.' On the day Barber was there the shelling lasted from 6.40pm until after midnight. According to United Nations observers posted in the town, 52 civilians have been killed and another 250 wounded since 12 June. Several of the dead are children. There is no military logic at work here: Bihac is not offering serious armed resistance. But the people of Bihac are Muslims, and their town is among the last in northern Bosnia not to have fallen to Serbian ground troops. The purpose of the gunfire is to frighten them out of their houses and into Croatia. Then Bihac will be 'ethnically cleansed'.

Bihac is perhaps not the most vivid, and therefore not the most shocking story to have emerged in recent months from the Balkans. But for that reason it is worth imagining. There are the Serbian artillerymen three miles away in the hills, smoking and talking in the shade, and rising every now and then to screw their heels on the cigarettes and load the breech of their guns. There are the citizens of Bihac down in the valley, scurrying from house to ill-stocked shop and back again, wondering where and when the next shell will land. Then, a thud-thud-thud from high in the woods followed by the sound of terrifying crashes in the town. Bricks and mortar, furniture, and shards of shattered glass and human being fly through the air. Sometimes, as a woman told Barber, it takes hours and hours to wash away the blood.

How can people hate each other so much? Or rather, how can one group of people hate another group of people simply because in some way, not necessarily obvious, they see a life-threatening difference between the two groups? This is an ancient and universal question with some ancient and universal answers: revenge, malice, wickedness, mania, greed, the necessity to suppress ordinary fellow-human feeling for a self-interested cause perceived as just and vital. Sometimes - though rarely - history shows that suppression to have been worthwhile. More often, we look back in puzzlement. How could the people of Europe have sleep-walked their way into the First World War: and sleep-walked, as it were, cheering?

So it is also with current wars, when they involve other countries and other flags. From here the war in the Balkans looks like a waste of time, money and life. But not apparently to the Serbs. Given that most of the military aggression comes from them (though not all; the Croats are fighting the Muslims too), the further question arises: are the Serbs simply more wicked, more cruel than the Muslims and the Croats? Even if one takes the long discredited racist view - that some races are genetically crueller than others - that would hardly hold good in the Balkans tragedy. Croats, Muslims, Serbs - they all belong to the same Slavic race. Nor are there remarkable differences in their language or culture. The answers have to come from political

history and in particular from one word:


It is easy in a country such as Britain to think of nationalism as an idea as old as the sins mentioned above; in Britain the nation (or nations) and the state have a nicely congruent boundary - the sea - and a history which, omitting the Irish question, is a long unbroken line of relative civil peace. In fact, however, nationalism is a fairly new political idea. As a word it first appeared at the end of the last century to describe groups of right- wing ideologists in France and Italy who were, in the words of Professor Eric Hobsbawm, 'keen to brandish the national flag against foreigners, liberals and socialists and in favour of (an) aggressive expansion of their own state'. The new assumption, again to quote Hobsbawm, was that 'national self- determination' - the political will of a group of people who thought they possessed a common ethnicity, language or culture - could not be satisfied by any form of autonomy less than a fully independent state.

This is a powerful idea, but sometimes, as in the Balkans, an inconvenient one. Not all Serbs live in Serbia. Serbia therefore must expand to include them. Nationalism, posing as the liberator to some, has once again become the tyrant to many others.