Friday, 21 April 2017

   On Palm Sunday morning in Kraljevo I was glad at least to visit an Orthodox Church. I then spent a fascinating hour or so in its National Museum, where a lady with excellent English showed me around. Besides expertly curated older artefacts of the type one might expect, there was considerable focus on the 20th century. One of the things I hadn’t realised was that when the wars of the former Yugoslavia broke out in the early 1990s, tens of thousands of Serb refugees were forced from their homes in western areas and massed in exactly the same places as they had during World War II; it was essentially a rerun of that dreadful conflict. Another section included reproductions of some of the exquisite frescoes lost when 155 of Kosovo’s churches and monasteries, many of them UNESCO World Heritage sites, were gutted or destroyed by Nato’s Albanian Muslim allies following the withdrawal of Serb forces in June 1999. Memorable too were remnants of a Nato shell which once contained depleted uranium, known to have carcinogenic and other horrifying long-term health implications for civilians, including foetal deformities. Had Allan Little visited Kraljevo’s National Museum and been shown around by this lady in early 2000, I’m sure he would have had second or even third thoughts about calling his documentary ‘Moral [sic] Combat: Nato at War’.[1]  
   At a café in Vrbo along the road from there two friendly 20-somethings paid for my herbal infusion (and joked about the tea which had magic properties when Asterix went to Britain), and I was given a delicious free pastry at a café in Novo Selo. After midnight and fairly exhausted I was generously welcomed by the Russophile manager of a very inexpensive hotel, occupying the top floors of a tower block in Trstenik. Next day I gratefully accepted a plateful of free French fries in a café restaurant at Stopanje on the way to Krucevac.  
   In Serbia, reckoning my money was potentially quite useful to the local populace, I generally stayed in hotels, which did not by and large put my finances under excessive strain. At the Hotel Rubin in Krucevac I was able to watch CNN in my room, featuring a typically shrill and half-baked report about a "crisis" in the Catholic Church (as diagnosed by trendy media types in the newsrooms of at least three western capitals). On the following day a Serbian gentleman in Gaglovo who invited me to sit down for a cup of coffee in his garden turned out to be more sceptical than I was about the unjust victimisation of his country. Later I visited a diminutive chapel dedicated to St. John the Baptist, praying for his help in order that I might observe the Easter Triduum in a worthy manner. That night I slept well in a disused public building on the way to Zitkovac, then on the next afternoon I was brought another very welcome coffee by a couple at Donyi Trnava. From there I made my way onto and along a busier road which leads to Niš, stopping for a comfortable night at the Hotel "Kosovka".
   On Maundy Thursday morning I arrived in the ancient city of Niš, birthplace in around 272AD of Constantine, the first Christian Roman Emperor.[2] I visited the city’s concentration camp, now a museum, where around 1000 victims of Hitler’s death cult perished. Upstairs it was bewildering to be presented with the inhumanity of barbed wire laid on the floor of solitary confinement cells, to prevent sleep. As an antidote to that experience, the beautifully painted interior of the Orthodox Cathedral testified to a vibrant, living Christian tradition. Then on the eastern outskirts of Niš I came to another sombre spectacle, called the Skull Tower. In the early 19th century the skulls of several hundred Serb soldiers, killed in battle, were turned into this disquieting monument by the Ottomans. It now serves as a reminder to Serbs…
“…of the value of [their] independence … showing them the true price their fathers had to pay for it.”[3]
   From there I made my way into more mountainous terrain again, spending the night under a bridge on the edge of a place called Ostrovica. Next morning I was very glad to be able to join a Good Friday service at the Monastery of Sveti Petka, where the singing was beautiful and the priest was actually tearful as he exhorted worshippers to observe the customary fast. My confession here is that I had started my fast at 6 o’clock on the previous evening, so later on, having been "abducted" by friendly and high-spirited young Serbs and taken by car a few miles off-route to a village called Ponor, I felt it would be rude not to join them for a few beers. The driver then very kindly put me up in his family home, so I was glad in the morning to be able to give his mother a small bag of chocolate Easter eggs which my mother had sent to Medjugorje with the kilt. As it was Holy Saturday[4] I decided to wear this again, though I got the impression my host, showing me his quintessentially Serbian World War II-era šajkača cap, took it for a skirt. Anxious therefore to spare me unnecessary embarrassment, he wanted to take me by car all the way to the Bulgarian border; but I persuaded him to let me out in Pirot, the next town – still a saving of eleven or twelve kilometres.  
   In the early evening I reached Dimitrovgrad, very near to the Bulgarian frontier. An Orthodox church I found was closed, but it seemed a nice gesture when, after explaining to a lady in the forecourt that I was a pilgrim and mentioning too that I was Catholic, she nonetheless spontaneously brought me a cup of water – please God, may she not lose her reward![5]  
   On Palm Sunday, on the road from Kraljevo, I found a Serbian flag, which I kept. I was left with the impression that, precisely because Serbs are the nicest people in the Balkans, they were the ones on whom it was easiest to pin the blame.

[1] “Nato has proved that more or less it can do what it wants, where it wants, indeed when it wants.” Sky News correspondent Tim Marshall reporting from Belgrade during Nato’s bombardment of Yugoslavia, April 1999
“At this time the media in the USA was applying pressure for military intervention in Kosovo. The USA evidently also wanted to establish a precedence for NATO’s military engagement outside of a UN mandate.” (my emphasis) Heinz Loquai, retired. Br.Gen. of German armed forces and assistant to the German representation to the OSCE in Vienna, in the "Blättern für deutsche und internationale Politik", September 1999.
The following is excerpted from a 23 May 1999 Chicago Tribune article by Walter J. Rockler, a Washington lawyer who was a prosecutor at the Nuremberg War Crimes Trial.
War Crimes Law Applies To U.s. Too
“We have engaged in a flagrant military aggression, ceaselessly attacking a small country primarily to demonstrate that we run the world. The rationale that we are simply enforcing international morality, even if it were true, would not excuse the military aggression and widespread killing that it entails. It also does not lessen the culpability of the authors of this aggression.
As a primary source of international law, the judgment of the Nuremberg Tribunal in the 1945-1946 case of the major Nazi war criminals is plain and clear. Our leaders often invoke and praise that judgment, but obviously have not read it. The International Court declared:
‘To initiate a war of aggression, therefore, is not only an international crime, it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.’
At Nuremberg, the United States and Britain pressed the prosecution of Nazi leaders for planning and initiating aggressive war. Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson, the head of the American prosecution staff, asserted "that launching a war of aggression is a crime and that no political or economic situation can justify it." He also declared that "if certain acts in violation of treaties are crimes, they are crimes whether the United States does them or whether Germany does them, and we are not prepared to lay down a rule of criminal conduct against others which we would not be willing to have invoked against us."
The United Nations Charter views aggression similarly. Articles 2(4) and (7) prohibit interventions in the domestic jurisdiction of any country and threats of force or the use of force by one state against another. The General Assembly of the UN in Resolution 2131, "Declaration on the Inadmissibility of Intervention," reinforced the view that a forceful military intervention in any country is aggression and a crime without justification.
Putting a "NATO" label on aggressive policy and conduct does not give that conduct any sanctity. This is simply a perversion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, formed as a defensive alliance under the UN Charter. The North Atlantic Treaty pledged its signatories to refrain from the threat or use of force in any manner inconsistent with the purposes of the United Nations, and it explicitly recognized "the primary responsibility of the Security Council (of the United Nations) for the maintenance of international peace and security." Obviously, in bypassing UN approval for the current bombing, the U.S. and NATO have violated this basic obligation.” 
[2] On May 7th 1999, in one of the clearest specific instances of a war crime in Nato’s humanitarian murder spree, Niš Constantine the Great (civilian) Airport was the intended target of cluster bombs which were blown off-course and landed in residential areas. 16 ordinary citizens including an expectant mother with her unborn baby lost their lives and dozens more were wounded.
[3] French Romantic poet Alphonse de Lamartine, writing in the 1830s when Niš was still part of the Ottoman Empire.
[4] In “A Freedom Within: The Prison Notes of Stefan Cardinal Wyszynski”, the Primate of post-war Poland observed that on the first Holy Saturday, with Our Lord having descended to the dead and St Peter laid low by guilt and sorrow over his three-fold denial, Our Lady was de facto Head of the Church. The Polish nation in the person of Mieszko I is also traditionally believed to have been baptised on Holy Saturday, 14 April 966AD, and Cardinal Wyszynski’s episcopacy was largely defined by his heroic efforts to mobilise Polish Catholics to celebrate the Millennium of Polish Christianity in 1966.
[5] “And whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward.” (Mt 10:42)


  1. Interesting, sharp-eyed account. But some of the historical interpretations here are awry.

    I have spent eight years in Serbia/Bosnia as a UK diplomat. You might find these pieces interesting food for thought:

    1. Thanks for your comment, and for the articles which i enjoyed reading. The first contains a 'historical interpretation' which i certainly find compelling:

      "Thus it is that another notable building-block from the Versailles Treaty following WW1 finally falls away. Will independence settle the Kosovo Question? Yes. Exactly like the Versailles settlement did."

      In the second; conscious that among westerners in general, efforts to understand the Serb point of view have tended to be so meagre, my inclination as usual is to risk erring in the opposite direction. You say:

      "What [democracy in international affairs] actually means is an extreme ‘relativisation’ of any sort of principles – that any nasty little dictatorship has exactly the same moral validity and international standing as a normal democracy."

      Wasn't this essentially Westphalia's great and still rather useful innovation? Not however that I accept the premise (though I realise this isn't exactly what you were saying either) that Milosevic was simply a 'nasty little dictator'.

      From 'Kosovo v Serbia':

      "Does this bother Kosovo and the general cause of ‘Greater Albania’ that never quite dares proclaim itself but never quite disappears? Not really."

      It seems to me that 'Greater Albania' now dares to proclaim itself with growing confidence. You would no doubt know far better than I do, how much potential this has to obliterate whatever is left of Versailles; as well as how potentially serious this might be. You'd also be well placed to judge whether there are many people in the State Department with a solid grasp of the situation.

    2. Thanks!

      A vast literature of Balkanalia on my website:

      And see these two speeches of mine, one each in Bosnia and Serbia:

      The 'deep' problem in all this not whether one community is righter or wronger than any other. We and they all rummage in the mouldy bran-tub of history to find whatever examples we like on that.

      Rather it is this: is there any 'organic' or intrinsically 'stable' set of borders in this region capable of surviving in a self-sustaining peaceful way? That means borders that coincide with some sort of fair rough justice and geography in a way that most people living within those borders can grudgingly accept as the best available chance for mutual co-existence.

      No-one knows, or if they do know they may not want to say!

      See eg this:

      In short, it's all about TIMESCALE. Look at those YouTube maps of European borders over the past 1000+ years, moving like amoebas under a microscope as empires and kingdoms and states come and go.

      Bosnia has a fleeting presence some 7 centuries ago. Then it disappears for some 700 YEARS. Then it COMES BACK!

      What does that tell us? How to begin to make sense of any of our puny EU/UK/US/Russia policy approaches against that background?

    3. @Charles
      Read only the last article, but it is what I expected: typical western nonsense.

      Kosovo has nothing to do with territory or resources. Yes I know, a concept so hard to grasp by a "westerner". It all has to do with who we are as a nation.
      Anyone with a bit of historical knowledge and some old maps would know that the territory of present day Serbia and the one in 1918 is quite different. Countries and artificial nations were carved out of our territory and we said good riddance.

      It ends with Kosovo.

      Nice story.

    4. @Dragan
      I don't know if this applies to you, but a significant number of people have read only this page, unaware that the account starts here, and continues with older posts - this page is the sixth and last only (sorry it's a bit confusing, not to mention long, but because of footnotes this is the best way I know of to make it readable). An essential part of what I've written, and which Charles Crawford has not confronted directly, is for instance this:

      "Bloated with an arrogance venturing into the realm of farce, in part by the accession to Nato of former Warsaw Pact countries Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic, in March 1999 western leaders flouted international law to carry out the bombing of a sovereign independent country, largely to divert media attention from a US President's private life."

      One thing I didn't write however is that western powers have appeased Albania's imperial ambitions. It should surprise no one that the same powers are going to be thoroughly blackmailed into further appeasement, at Belgrade's expense. Hence it seems more than likely that Russia will yet again have to take on its historical role, for which it is never given any credit, of being Europe's great protector and Победоносец.

    5. I have read all of the parts. It was a bit confusing due to format but not hard to find.

      You may want to differentiate the politics bit and the travel/blog part. Switching to a "modern" blog theme with new features would enable that.