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The Balkans -- All Talk And No Listening

A Sarajevan Serb family mourns a victim of the Sarajevo marketplace massacre in the besieged Bosnian capital on February 7, 1994.
A Sarajevan Serb family mourns a victim of the Sarajevo marketplace massacre in the besieged Bosnian capital on February 7, 1994.
Every time I publish a commentary on RFE/RL's English-language website or on the website of our Balkans Service, I watch in amazement as the reader comments begin to come in. I think it is safe to say that I get more reader comments than any other regular contributor to RFE/RL. But it isn't because I am so brilliant or even controversial. It is because my topics attract an audience that knows how to speak, but is incapable of listening.

My latest commentary here, "In Serbia, It's Time To Issue A Warrant For The Truth," has now drawn more than 70 comments. As I read them over the weekend, I searched in vain for one that took issue with the facts in my story or engaged my interpretation of those facts. But I didn't find any that even attempted something like that. Instead, I found only the same old back and forth about the Balkan wars that showed the main difference between now and the 1990s is that we are lobbing insults at one another instead of mortar shells.

Why can't we listen to one another?

In the spring of 1992, I traveled from Sarajevo to visit a relative in Belgrade. After months and months of endless war, day and night, during the siege of Sarajevo, it was amazing to be able to relax. One evening I began telling her about what I'd seen: about how the Yugoslav Army had surrounded and shelled the city; about the innocent civilians who died on a daily basis; about the beautiful buildings and ordinary lives that were destroyed; about the sadistic snipers who maintained a constant atmosphere of terror.

I'd seen these things with my own eyes, and I think I described them pretty compellingly. But I was shocked when she expressed serious doubts and, in some cases, refused to believe me. What I was telling her conflicted with what she'd seen on Serbian state television. And she believed Serbian state television.

Marriage Of Convenience

Why do the people of the Balkans continue to write and argue passionately about war crimes, trading accusations without ever hearing what the others are saying?

Across Central Europe in the late 1980s, a conflict emerged between people and communism. Having had enough, people across the region rose up and communism collapsed. This happened in Poland. Hungary. Czechoslovakia, and Romania.

But not in Yugoslavia.

Instead, a political marriage of convenience emerged in Serbia between communists and radical nationalists. And a similar one grew up in Croatia. Citizens of federal Yugoslavia were prevented from holding federal-level elections. Instead, they were reduced to merely being representatives of various ethnic groups. They began reacting only as Serbs or Croats or Muslims, instead of as citizens of a federation.

Communism -- an ideology that dramatically narrowed people's minds -- was replaced by another ideology that was even worse. And media supported this new ideology with narrow, often hateful programming. In short order, everyone in the region was reduced to one dimension -- ethnicity. It was the only thing that mattered. And now, 25 years later, many feel the same way. I see it when I read the comments to my articles. All people care about is whether I am Serbian or Bosnian or Croatian, and it infuriates them when they can't figure it out.

Endless, And Pointless

Conditioned to think of themselves as the defenders of their ethnic group, these people automatically reject or ignore facts that cast themselves in a poor light or show some other group favorably. When cornered by inconvenient facts, they rush to raise some separate, unrelated issue that is easier for them to discuss. As a result, all sides begin talking at one another instead of with one another -- the "discussion" becomes endless. And pointless.

A Serb Army position above the city of Dubrovnik in 1991
This ethnicity-based conditioning is reinforced by decades of exposure to heavy propaganda. Those who have been subjected to it hour after hour for years begin repeating its messages as their own thoughts. In the past, the Communist Central Committee did the thinking for the people. Now, the narrow-minded leaders of various ethnic communities are doing it. And in both cases, the last thing they would want is for people to think for themselves.

The terrible crimes that were committed in the Balkans still tend to be hidden by local authorities. State media do not investigate them but rather indulge in lurid reports of crimes committed by other groups. The policies that led to war in the 1990s have not been properly identified and exposed -- particularly in Serbia.

In order to begin thinking for themselves, people need to be told the truth. According to Belgrade's Strategy Agency, 79 percent of Serbs do not know that Serb forces shelled the Croatian port of Dubrovnik. Twenty percent deny that Sarajevo was ever shelled, and only 13 percent know the Bosnian capital was besieged for more than three years. Seventy percent of Serbs believe their country has only fought "liberation wars," while 50 percent think that Serbia has been on the winning side of all its wars for the last 200 years.

Such brainwashing is not limited to Serbia, of course.

During the years of conflict, many people were relocated -- willingly or forcibly -- from one country to another. In most cases, they moved to cities, and now their lives are stable and they want to stay. Many occupied land or apartments that do not belong to them. These people now need the hard-liners to defend them and their property.

And the hard-liners need them to maintain their own power. Both prefer tension and conflict and the ever-present possibility of violence to reconciliation and the inconvenient questions it might bring.

Judging by the comments on my articles, the region hasn't even begun to break out of this circle.

Nenad Pejic is an associate director of broadcasting at RFE/RL. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL