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Category: International Date: 01 Apr 99

Whatever happens in Kosovo, Europe must prepare for war. A new era begins. In the worst case the war will lead to the bombing of a sovereign state. In the best case it may fall short of bombing but a huge NATO military force will enter Kosovo to keep apart visceral ethnic enemies. In either case it will be hell.’

The Guardian Weekly, week ending March 28, 1999.


The power of television is such that the world can watch Brian Lara in one of the most nail-biting cricket matches ever, carry the team to victory with a combination of iron determination, controlled skill and genius. The slow-motion television pictures of Lara’s final four runs made the hearts of six million West Indians soar and fly. After that kind of cricket there was nothing as sweet as the cool rainy breeze and the pelau on the pot.


Half an hour later, CNN shows some of the shocked, distressed, displaced faces of the ethnic Albanians: the old, children and men riding like cargo on the backs of trucks in Kosovo. We are told there are some 500,000 of them on the move, across snowy ragged mountains. Cargo: a distressing association in Europe. In 1945, Jews were piled in such a way on freight trains and taken away. Then it was called “the final solution”. Now it is called “ethnic cleansing”.


Then, a man called Hitler was responsible for persecuting a race, which over the years had become assimilated into Germany. They said it would never happen again. The murders haven’t but the persecution has. This time by a man called Slobodan Milosevic, the President of Yugoslavia. Two weeks ago, Milosevic threw down the gauntlet, and virtually told the US special envoy, Richard Holbrooke, that threat of air strikes or not, he was not signing any damn Western-brokered peace pact. Holbrooke failed in his mission to get Milosevic to agree to the immediate ceasefire in Kosovo, and the peace pact that includes stationing NATO troops in the province where the ethnic Albanian KLA is fighting for independence from Serbia. Hours later, the Serbian army and paramilitary police blasted their way into the heartland of territory held by the Kosovo Liberation Army, sending 30,000 refugees fleeing. NATO kept true to its threat and went on an air strike offensive, bombing Serbian targets. As I write, already 30 Yugoslav aircraft have been shot down or destroyed on the ground so far and several strategic defence areas bombed. NATO is aiming to wipe out Milosevic’s air defences, but it is hard to see what good this will achieve.


Military experts say the air strikes alone will not bring Milosevic to his knees. They claim that air strikes without the support of ground troops can never win a war. In fact, the strikes may have the opposite effect of creating more nationalism and backing for a government which has obviously adopted ethnic cleansing as a policy.


The refugee numbers have swollen to 500,000. The unravelling of the Balkans has begun. It is only a matter of time before Albania, Macedonia, Bosnia, Montenegro, Greece and Turkey are drawn into the conflict.


The sad thing about this war, as opposed to South Africa, or Israel, where the oppressed have a clear goal - that of liberation, or the prospect of a homeland -  this is a lose-lose situation.


In the White House, Bill Clinton is balking against sending in the ground troops. He is worried, and snapping at the hounding reporters: “This isn’t a 30-second commercial break. I can’t give you a yes or no answer.” He has a point. Clinton is holding off ground forces. He can’t justify to his people that Serbia, a sovereign state, presents either a strategic threat to the US, or any NATO country for that matter. In any event this war will be hugely expensive and Serbia’s rugged terrain so difficult that even Hitler was unable to penetrate it.


The only real threat to Europe is that of the refugees themselves from a geo-political point of view. Ultimately, Europe will have the responsibility of mopping up the half a million and growing refugees. What CNN doesn’t tell us is that it is a more European than American concern. “Washington is as always indispensable. But if troops do go in, only 4,000 of the 28,000 will be American. Though command and control will be American, the risk of casualties and credibility will be European.” (The Guardian Weekly, London)


But there is hope. This is a television war. The television lens can at times prevent the worst: apart from being roughly uprooted, losing their home and belongings, or dying for want of special medical attention, the refugees are still somewhat protected by NATO troops and NGK supplies. They have life, but little else, since they are escaping to neighbouring Albania, the poorest country in Europe. The Guardian Weekly of London: “There are no winners here. In any case, its hard to see how, when the bombs stop, life without slaughter can exist in Kosovo.” There is no reason for anybody to interfere, but one: that of a moral responsibility. At what point do we stop looking away, or changing channels? The world looked away when right wing death squads operated in Columbia, Guatemala, Indonesia, Algeria, and a dozen other countries. We looked away from Rwanda and Bosnia until it was almost too late. We look away from the Congo where six African armies are at loggerheads. Most recently we looked away when just two weeks ago, in Somalia and Eritrea, 40,000 men died fighting in seven days, over a disputed border.


Easter is a time for stocktaking. Still in the afterglow of Tuesday’s amazing cricket victory, we are able to rejoice that we are a free people with essential human rights and freedoms. We are relatively safe. We may live in a small remote island in the New World (and we have our problems), but we can teach the Old World powerful lessons in tolerance.


We have also learnt from the television wars that we need to guard our freedom with a fierce vigilance. We may not be at war, but in order to stay out of it we have to fight daily battles against intolerance, and racism. We’ve seen what intolerance can do on television - in the stunned faces of those who have witnessed slaughter, and will witness it again and again.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur