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”:http://www.naharnet.com/domino/tn/NewsDesk.nsf/getstory?openform&84C5EC2CE1C1A494C2257475001CE552.

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”:http://www.nowlebanon.com/NewsArticleDetails.aspx?ID=49010. “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”:http://www.commentarymagazine.com/blogs/index.php/totten/13661.

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”:http://www.standpointmag.co.uk/node/157/full.

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”:http://www.commentarymagazine.com/blogs/index.php/jpodhoretz/13131.

“Fighting broke out”:http://www.nowlebanon.com/NewsArticleDetails.aspx?ID=48559 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”:http://www.dailystar.com.lb/article.asp?edition_id=1&categ_id=2&article_id=93486 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”:http://www.nowlebanon.com/NewsArticleDetails.aspx?ID=48482 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”:http://www.commentarymagazine.com/blogs/index.php/totten/13301.

The Road to Kosovo, Part I

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A gigantic poster of genocidal Bosnian Serb war criminal “Radovan Karadzic”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radovan_Karad%C5%BEi%C4%87 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”:http://seanlafreniere.blogspot.com/ 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”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chetniks. 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”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flag_of_Albania 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”:http://www.michaeltotten.com/archives/001119.html, 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”:http://books.google.com/books?id=qTLSZ3ucaZMC&pg=PA148&lpg=PA148&dq=croatia+%22not+part+of+the+balkans%22&source=web&ots=pQxaDiAGPO&sig=K2ONNTgXBFFPhzLizPPABMKvi3s&hl=en&sa=X&oi=book_result&resnum=9&ct=result#PPA148,M1.

Croatia, however, is part of the Balkan Peninsula — “at least its southern half is”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Balkans.

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”:http://www.amazon.com/Southeastern-Ottoman-1354-1804-History-Central/dp/0295960337/ref=sr_1_5?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1213929121&sr=8-5 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.”

Black and White Dubrovnik.jpg

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”:http://www.houseinmontenegro.com/images/montenegro-houses.jpg “the”:http://www.montenegrotravel.net/wp-content/uploads/2007/05/montenegro-photo1.jpg “pictures”:http://www3.nationalgeographic.com/places/images/photos/photo_lg_montenegro.jpg. 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.

Kotor Wall Montenegro.jpg

Kotor Wall, Montenegro

“The wall”:http://images.google.com/imgres?imgurl=http://www.discover-montenegro.com/Foto/Kotor/Stari%2520Grad/Kotor-City-Walls.jpg&imgrefurl=http://www.discover-montenegro.com/kotor_stari_grad.htm&h=357&w=530&sz=43&hl=en&start=4&sig2=cE_0DiJYksXr8D3Vp6wRXw&um=1&tbnid=OBd7G7lxz9o0pM:&tbnh=89&tbnw=132&ei=EiBXSKSePIGaoQSl6PiBAw&prev=/images%3Fq%3Dkotor%26um%3D1%26hl%3Den%26client%3Dfirefox-a%26rls%3Dorg.mozilla:en-US:official%26sa%3DG rose above the ancient city of “Kotor”:http://www.welterbestiftung.org/images/Kotor-gross.jpg, 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.

Cheesy Hotel Room Montenegro.jpg

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”:http://www.comebackalive.com/df/dplaces/albania/index.htm 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

Don’t Miss the Zohan

If you’ve seen “the trailer for Adam Sandler’s new movie”:http://www.apple.com/trailers/sony_pictures/youdontmesswiththezohan/trailer1/ 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”:http://www.commentarymagazine.com/blogs/index.php/totten/12311.

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”:http://www.commentarymagazine.com/blogs/index.php/pollak/12251.

No More Gazas

Robert Dujarric and Andy Zelleke “challenge Senator John McCain”:http://www.csmonitor.com/2008/0617/p09s02-coop.html 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”:http://www.commentarymagazine.com/viewarticle.cfm/no-more-gazas-11464.

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.

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”:http://www.nysun.com/foreign/help-against-bin-laden-is-proffered/79524/ 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.

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”:http://www.dailystar.com.lb/article.asp?edition_id=10&categ_id=5&article_id=92744:

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”:http://www.beirutbeltway.com/beirutbeltway/2008/06/suleiman-to-pos.html, 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.

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”:http://seanlafreniere.blogspot.com/.

“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.

Looking at New Belgrade.jpg

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.

Belgrade Hotel Room.jpg

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.

Belgrade at Midnight.jpg

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.

Downtown Belgrade.jpg

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”:http://www.michaeltotten.com/archives/001119.html. 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.

Old Belgrade.jpg

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.

Western Roman Empire Map.jpg

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.

Ottoman Empire Map.jpg

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.

Italy During Renaissance.JPG

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”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Napoleonic_code.

Napoleon Empire.JPG

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”:http://www.azure.org.il/magazine/magazine.asp?id=407. 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.

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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”:http://www.boston.com/news/packages/iraq/globe_stories/041303_ideas.htm, “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.”

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“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.

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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”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wesley_Clark, 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.

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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.

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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.

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“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.

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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.

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“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?

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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”:http://www.michaeltotten.com/archives/001361.html.

“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”:http://ap.google.com/article/ALeqM5iArhY3fcJ4FyWN5YQbhAIx-oUfQAD90GD7780. “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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Hezbollah’s Downfall?

Beirut’s David Kenner thinks Hezbollah’s latest move “will ulimately lead to its downfall”:http://www.tnr.com/politics/story.html?id=0167bb3d-56de-4354-89f7-bc885f0e7f00.

I think he’s right, which is what I was getting at when I wrote in COMMENTARY that “Hezbollah’s power is now at its apogee”:http://www.commentarymagazine.com/blogs/index.php/totten/7881. Hassan Nasrallah isn’t likely to ever be stronger than he is right now. It’s all downhill from here. It would be foolish to expect him to fall in the short or medium term, but Kenner’s piece is especially worth reading if you’re worried that Lebanon will become the next Gaza.

UPDATE: See also “Michael Young’s latest column”:http://www.dailystar.com.lb/article.asp?edition_id=1&categ_id=5&article_id=92514 in Beirut’s Daily Star, which contains this humorous tidbit: “Thanks to the Israelis, who may soon hand a grand prisoner exchange to Hizbullah, Nasrallah may earn a brief reprieve for his “resistance.” It’s funny how Hizbullah and Syria, always the loudest in accusing others of being Israeli agents, are the ones who, when under pressure, look toward negotiations with Israel for an exit.”

Introducing Standpoint Magazine

Daniel Johnson just launched an impressive new magazine in the U.K. called “Standpoint”:http://www.standpointmag.co.uk/. His deputy editor Jonathan Foreman asked me if I’d like to contribute a story for the second issue, and I said sure without even seeing the magazine. Now that my first dead-tree version has arrived in the mail and the Web site has been launched, I’m happy to say I’ll be associated with them in some way and I’m honored to be invited.

Here’s the description on the “About Us”:http://www.standpointmag.co.uk/about-us page:

Standpoint’s core mission is to celebrate our civilization, its arts and its values — in particular democracy, debate and freedom of speech — at a time when they are under threat. Standpoint is an antidote to the parochialism of British political magazines. It will introduce British readers to brilliant writers and thinkers from across the Atlantic, across the Channel and around the world.

In a market swamped by the journalistic equivalent of fast food, Standpoint offers the discerning reader a feast of great writing, properly edited and presented in an elegant design that makes even longer pieces a pleasure to read. Unashamedly highbrow in an era of relentless ‘dumbing down,’ it responds to the unfulfilled needs of the educated public.

“Take a look”:http://www.standpointmag.co.uk/. And for an on-topic piece, here is a dispatch from Beirut by Michael Young. “Hariri: An Assassination Too Far”:http://www.standpointmag.co.uk/foreign-june-hariri.

Home Again

By Michael J. Totten

I’ve returned home with quite a lot of fresh material, mainly from Kosovo, but also from Serbia, Bosnia-Hercegovina, Montenegro, Macedonia, and Albania. I spoke to religious leaders, American soldiers, political dissidents, Israelis, current and former ambassadors, and all sorts of other interesting characters.

I initially thought the former Yugoslavia might be a bit far afield from my usual beat in the Middle East, but the more time I spent there, the less I thought so. The troubles that wrack that part of the world really are identical to many of those in the Middle East. This should not be surprising. Most of Europe’s Balkan peninsula belonged to the Turkish Ottoman Empire and was cut off from the West and rest of Europe for hundreds of years. The peoples of Belgrade, Sarajevo, and Prishtina belonged to the same political entity as most of the Arabs for a longer amount of time than the United States has existed as a country. Al Qaeda and like-minded fanatics insist the region will belong to their future caliphate once again.

The stories I have in store for you are more varied than what I’ve been publishing lately. I felt like I was writing different versions of the same story over and over again in Iraq. There isn’t much going on there right now that I haven’t already written about. Perhaps at the end of this year that will change, and I will go back. Lebanon has changed, and I’m more likely to return there in the meantime. We’ll have to see.

Stay tuned. I finally have time to sit down and write, and it seems jet-lag has spared me this time. (I can barely write when I’m jet-lagged.) Hopefully you’ll find my new material entertaining as well as informative.

Hezbollah’s Victory

by Michael J. Totten

Lebanon’s “March 14” majority coalition in parliament managed to hammer out a temporary agreement with the Hezbollah-led opposition in Doha, Qatar, but that doesn’t mean it’s time to raise a toast to the new peace in Beirut just yet. The streets are quiet and normal again for the most part, but none of Lebanon’s most serious problems have been resolved. While diplomats from Washington to Riyadh are pretending, for form’s sake, that this is a terrific breakthrough for stability and national unity, Charles Malik “put it more bluntly and honestly”:http://lebop.blogspot.com/2008/05/all-over.html at the Lebanese Political Journal. “The Doha negotiations were never meant to solve everything,” he wrote. “They were meant to stall the violence until after the summer tourist season is over.”

Supposedly this agreement, like most of Lebanon’s arrangements, is a compromise that leaves both parties unsatisfied. But I’m having a hard time figuring out what, exactly, Hezbollah has to be gloomy about. Eighteen months ago thousands of Hezbollah supporters built a tent city downtown and forced the semi-permanent closure of much of the city center. They demanded enough seats in the cabinet to wield veto power over any decision the government makes, despite the fact that they couldn’t win enough seats in the last election to earn it. Well, they finally got their long-demanded blocking minority status in Doha, so they happily took down their tent city. If this weren’t a victory, they’d still be seething downtown.

And it’s a dangerous precedent. A year and a half of mostly non-violent resistance yielded Hezbollah bupkis. After one week of murder and mayhem, the Lebanese government caved. The lesson for Hezbollah is clear: when things don’t go your way, take the rifles out of the garage, hit the streets, and start shooting people and burning down buildings.

“Read the rest in COMMENTARY Magazine”:http://www.commentarymagazine.com/blogs/index.php/totten/7881.


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