LONDON — A dark shadow lies over Europe this Eastertide. It is no wonder that as the churches and cathedrals fill for the greatest festival of the Christian calendar, people are turning increasingly to prayer to answer a problem that Europe’s political leaders seem unable to resolve.
This problem is the horrific tragedy now unfolding in Balkan Europe as an entire people, the Albanians of Kosovo, is turned into an unmanageable mass of terrified refugees, all fleeing the ravages of the Serb militia and leaving the land that has been their home for centuries.
Some say that the NATO bombing of Serb military installations is the cause of this exodus; others say that it was planned all along by the Serbian dictator, Slobodan Milosevic, and bombing is the only way to make him pause and withdraw his barbaric troops from the province of Kosovo.
It is much too early to make a judgment, although this has not prevented an army of media gurus on both sides of the Atlantic from rushing to the conclusion that aerial bombing, even with the highest and latest technology for paralyzing all communications, cannot possibly work. Soldiers on the ground, they say, assembled in the form of a huge NATO occupying force or even a new U.N. force, and somehow fighting their way in, are the only way to halt the genocide and refugee horror and drive the Serbs from the area.
This international force, they conclude, would then have to settle in indefinitely, rather like U.N. forces in Cyprus, which have been there for four decades, in order to protect an independent Kosovo against a renewed Serbian onslaught.
All this is armchair strategic speculation. It is conceivable that pinpoint bombing and electronic warfare has clearly strengthened Serbian resolve in the very short term, but it still might eventually compel Milosevic to offer some sort of deal, such as withdrawal of his killer squads and permission for a small peacekeeping force to enter Kosovo, in exchange for a halt to the bombing. That was roughly the idea put forward a few weeks ago at the conference held at Rambouillet in France — an idea to which the Kosovo guerrilla forces — the Kosovo Liberation Army — agreed, but which the Serbs flatly turned down.
Many more weeks of bombing may be required, however, by which time Kosovo may have been emptied of its population of 1.8 million people of Albanian origin, and the task of getting them to move back will be even more difficult and heartbreaking.
Herein lies the great dilemma of the modern world: One cannot expect ancient rivalries and ethnic tensions, which go back well over 1,000 years, to be resolved in a few days by instant action. Yet that is exactly what world opinion, fed both by television and the Internet, does expect and demand. Moreover, it expects the action to be painless and bloodless. Even the seizure (and probable maltreatment) of three U.S. soldiers by the Serbians has sent shudders through the Western world.
The great globalized communications network in which we live is being bedeviled both by its success and its failure at the same time. Its success is to bring to every home (often at great personal risk) pictures of human catastrophe and human brutality that modern man and woman cannot tolerate and insist should be checked and revenged.
Its failure is to convey to the watching public the depth and longevity of today’s ethnic or religious disputes, and in this instance to communicate even the dimmest understanding to the Serbian nation and its leaders that their “ethnic cleansing” of Kosovo puts them in the wrong by today’s international standards. To the Serbs, the Kosovars are guerrilla terrorists — mostly Muslim — usurping Serbian territory and committing atrocities against Christian Serbs.
In their minds, it is the age-old battle of Europe against Islam being refought. The Serbs are astounded at being bombed and punished for what they regard as straightforward antiterrorist operations, comparable to those in Northern Ireland or in Turkey against the Kurds or against lawless violence anywhere. Never was there a crueler illustration of the old adage that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.
So the conclusion has to be that in the total absence of mutual comprehension the bombing will go on and the barbarities will go on. In due course, and much too late for many pathetic Kosovars, a fudged peace will be declared. But the tensions and hatreds will continue for generations, as they have already — possibly until our children are old, and their children after them.
Meanwhile a thoroughly disunited Europe looks on. Some European countries want to stop the bombing now (Greece and Italy, for example). Others want it to continue but vow to have nothing to do with any followup involving ground troops.
As that becomes inevitable, the disunity will grow. The dream of an integrated European “state” with its own defense forces acting independently of the United States in Europe-related security crises never looked more remote.
No wonder the European Union members seem to be divided on everything else as well, from budgets to bananas, and no wonder the new euro currency is looking so fragile. It is said to be heading toward the humiliating rate of one euro for one dollar.
A fresh and more realistic approach on almost all aspects of European affairs is indeed required, as British Prime Minister Tony Blair has been calling for. But there is no sign of a response, and nothing to give much hope to the unending stream of refugees seeking escape from a nightmare world that most Europeans thought they had long ago left behind.
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