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Muzzling the dogs of war may be a mistake: peaceful Slovenia is dramatic contrast.

Peaceful Slovenia is dramatic contrast

Last week, NCR Special Report Writer Tim McCarthy, in the first of a three-part series, reported from Skopje, capital of Macedonia, the southernmost region of what used to be Yugoslavia.

This week's report carries a dateline from Ljubljana, capital of Slovenia, once a relatively prosperous republic in the Yugoslav socialist state, now an independent nation (since June 1991). Macedonia borders on Greece, Slovenia on Austria. But the contrast between the two is far more than geographic and may be critical to any understanding of the Balkan conflict.

In that context, McCarthy continues his exploration of the major themes that illuminate the Yugoslav tragedy like fractured beams of light in a night fog: nationalism, religion, the clash of cultures. It is a world of shades and shadows, the kind of midnight street most of us would rather not walk alone.

Next week's report will come from the Croatian capital, Zagreb, and from all but demolished areas of that country where only U.N. forces are keeping Serbs and Croats from savaging each other again.

LJUBLJANA, Slovenia - Arrive here by air from Macedonia in the black of night if you want a quick study in cultural contrast. Stronger evidence as to why the former Yugoslavia fell apart so quickly would be hard to come by.

Skopje, Macedonia's capital has a dingy Third World airport currently handling about three times the traffic it was designed for. An August afternoon turned it into a sweaty mass of travelers, all pressing, clamoring, shoving to check in, causing a Westerner to wonder if there is even a Macedonian phrase for forming a line.

The process took two hours, in stunning heat, then another mob scene at the security area, as a couple hundred people fought to squeeze themselves through a single narrow doorway. A woman got separated from her husband and began to sob. Hulking men shoved her ruthlessly further to the rear.

Spilling from passport control into a stifling holding area, the mob milled there like cattle for another hour or more. Departure was scheduled for 4:45. The plane took off at 8:30.

Nearly everyone, Muslims, Albanians, Macedonian Slavs, seemed to be leaving the country for good. They traveled with tons of luggage, some of it old cardboard boxes with ropes around them and long sacks of yellow paprika peppers. The dozens of travel agencies I saw in an economically depressed Skopje began to make more sense.

Four hundred miles north, Ljubljana was cool and clean, its airport about the same size as Skopje's, but modern, tidy, efficient. Baggage handling, passport control and customs were quick and orderly. The atmosphere seemed to subdue the Macedonians. They stood in line, respected the rules.

The contrast was classic - North-South, West-East - and it revealed itself in cultural, economic and historical terms. With its faintly antiseptic air and Germanic architecture (almost the entire town was reconstructed after an 1895 earthquake), Ljubljana could as well be a city in Austria. Even on a deserted street, no one crosses against a traffic light. There are special traffic signals for bicycles.

In Skopje, drivers hide their windshield wiper blades in the glove compartment.

Slovenia was in fact part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until 1918, when what came to be known as Yugoslavia was formed. The Ottoman Turks ruled Macedonia. While Slovenia is highly industrialized, Macedonia's economy is almost wholly agricultural. Slovenia is Roman Catholic, Macedonia Orthodox and Muslim.

Of all the cities I visited in the former socialist state, Ljubljana seemed the furthest removed from the war, the furthest removed from socialism as well. Banks and burghers abound, even though the economy has suffered since Slovenia's independence in 1991. Cut off from some of its traditional markets to the south and east, little Slovenia (less than 2 million people in an area the size of Massachusetts) is battling bigger fish in the European Community pond.

But, for all that, the atmosphere in Ljubljana is peaceful and relatively prosperous. Unlike towns in Bosnia, Croatia, Serbia and Macedonia, there are no armed men or military vehicles on the streets.

There wad no fighting here. Two years ago, the regular Yugoslav army tried to keep Slovenia from breaking away. But Slovene Territorial Defense units dug in, and the fighting along Slovenia's eastern border with Croatia ended in about 10 days, following a peace accord brokered by members of the European Community.

Serbs and Croats make up only about 6 percent of Slovenia's population, Muslims a scant 1.4 percent, so there was little of the internal ethnic friction that led to so much bloodshed elsewhere. (Contrast this with neighboring Croatia, where husbands and wives in mixed Serb-Croat marriages sometimes ended up as soldiers on opposite sides of the front line.)

To some degree, Slovenes are sitting back and watching the rest of what was Yugoslavia disintegrate. Even Croatia, a major trading partner, is being held together with U.N. baling wire in the form of peacekeeping troops. But that sort of detachment can be dangerous, too. As I was to learn later, it can lead to an ominous form of denial, much as certain Austrians today deny that the Jewish Holocaust ever happened.

Bards and bikers

Just down Milosiceva Street from Ljubljana's upscale Holiday Inn is Presernov Square, named for the 19th century Slovene poet France Preseren, whose statue stares across the cobbles toward the Italian facade of the Franciscan Church.

At the poet's back is the placid river with its three stone bridges leading toward the cathedral and the bishop's palace, a Renaissance building with a Baroque facade and a beautifully preserved arcaded courtyard. Slovenia is predominantly Roman Catholic and, with Italy immediately to the west, it has taken on many of the trappings of the Italian church.

Also directly across the river is an open-air market spreading along the quay. For sale at one of the stalls was an oil portrait of Adolf Hitler with a swastika painted in each corner. It was drawing a lot of attention, some of it amused.

There were no apparent shortages here. The matket was ablaze with an array of fruits and vegetables. So many sub sold nothing but votive candles that I wondered how they could all survive. It suggested the traditional form of piety that I had witnessed among the Orthodox Cbristians in Macedonia.

One older woman selling souvenirs said that, generally, things were better than they were before independence, "but we hope the economy will improve." I asked her about the abundant graffiti, much of it four-letter English words, that gave part of the quay the look of a bridge in the Bronx.

She laughed. "It's just the young people," she said. "Old people don't know English." And the graffiti did seem harmless enough, compared to the murderous variety calling for death and mutilation that I saw in Bosnia.

What did she think of the situation in Bosnia? She shook her head. "Night after night we see the same TV pictures from Sarajevo," she said. "Now people don't know if they are being told the truth. It may not be as bad as they say."

I told her that I had recently come from Bosnia and that the situation was indeed bad. She smiled but seemed unconvinced. "At least it is peaceful here," she said.

Here were shreds of a denial that I heard from other sources in Slovenia and it was troubling. The suffering and terror were only an overnight bus ride away.

Over a lunch of sardines deep-fried whole, I watched a beer party of Hell's Angels imitators, complete with leathers, chains, headbands and clanking key rings. People of all ages stopped to admire their Harleys and Hondas parked on the sidewalk. It takes an air of peace, a certain prosperity, and maybe forgetfulness, for people to imitate an American subculture while their fellow Slavs further down the Sava River still risked mutilation and murder.

This, too, was one of the surreal twists that turn you every which way but loose in this godforsaken conflict.

Dogs of war

Now all the contrasts were coming home. It was more than North-South, West-East; it was death and the denial of death; it was craziness and the illusion of normality, war and wishful thinking.

As I watched the bikers and the women they were "packing," I was hearing the two mercenaries I talked with before going into Bosnia. ("Mercenaries" is a term they resent because they soldier for the same pay as any grunt in whatever army they are fighting with.) One, Rodney Morgan, was British; the other, Andre Lawson, would not reveal his nationality.

They were on their way to Tomislagrad in southern Bosnia (a town that bore the Muslim name of Duvno until it was "ethnically cleansed") to join another Croatian army unit. Morgan had served in the British army and both were ex-French Foreign Legionnaires.

Morgan, a burly 36-year-old in a sleeveless undershirt, scars stitching his arms and shoulders, said he had never seen such a brutal conflict. "We saw one bloke crucified to a tree," he said. "I have photographs."

Too many of those doing the fighting have no military training or discipline, he said. But the war came home to him hardest after he got "whacked" and was in a Croatian hospital recuperating. Mutilated kids were enduring surgery under primitive conditions. "The toilet door was hitting the surgeon in the ass while he was operating," Morgan said.

What about the wooden cross he was wearing? Was he religious? No, I'm an atheist," he growled. "I wear it because a woman gave it to me. That's what counts. Music, a good woman and a book."

But why were they fighting for the Croats if there was no money in it?

Lawson, an older, softer-spoken man with tattooed arms and a slight middle-European accent, said he was taking a BA in computer science when friends told him he should come to Yugoslavia for a look. "You come," he said, "you see your friends get whacked and then you can't go back. All my friends from when I came in 1991 are either badly wounded or dead."

Both men compared themselves to volunteers in the Spanish Civil War. Many would say they are not fighting on the Republican side, if that is the case.

Here they were, set to kill Muslims, so broke they had to sell a flak jacket to a photographer to make bus fare (the jacket was so filthy and sweaty that it stunk up my hotel room when the photographer shared the room with me that night). Where was the sense in it?

"To play chess, read poetry, and wander the world at will." Lawson almost sang the words. It seemed that, for him, that was sense enough.

"Dogs of war," such men are sometimes called.

For other combatants, there was even less sense. Beneath some pines near the Split soccer stadium one night, we talked with three Croat soldiers there to keep an eye on us, one of whom, a law graduate, spoke English. He said he didn't know whose war it was, but he was trying to preserve some sense of friendship.

The oldest soldier said he had accepted that Muslims and Serbs were enemies, but he was not sure where that idea came from.

Two soldiers said they were atheists. The youngest said he was Catholic. An American Pacifist asked him how he could call himself a Catholic and still carry a gun. The young soldier looked perplexed, as if he had not understood the question. Finally he said, "Because it is my destiny."

His response was typical. There is little (or no) room for pacifism in Croatian Catholicism.

But Catholicism, pacifist or otherwise is seldom foremost on the minds of most Croats. A Croat barman on the ferry from Ancona, Italy, to Split said it was irrelevant. In 1991, sailing from Italy to Dubrovnik, he had come under heavy fire and said he would never go to Sarajevo because it was too dangerous.

"All I know now is that I know nothing," he said. "Nobody dreamed this could happen. Ordinary people are not responsible for this war. It is the leaders. And the leaders are deaf. This war is going to be like Lebanon and go on for years and years. Why didn't the outside world do something about it in the beginning?"

He was from Krijina, a region of Croatia where in some villages Serbs and Croats are still living side by side in relative harmony (although the Serbs are getting edgier every week). His brother was wounded fighting there. "I don't care what my neighbor is," he said. "But now everyone is afraid of everyone else."

A Serb U.N. volunteer in the Croatian town of Pakrac was even fiercer in his conviction. "Ninety-five percent of the people want things to return to normal," he said. "The problem comes from a bunch of f --- ing Rambos."

We were sitting outside the bullet-pocked Scorpia Bar near U.N. police headquarters in Pakrac. The volunteer would not give his name. He described himself as an atheist, a Marxist materialist. He spoke of his "total mistrust of priests," both Catholic and Orthodox, a mistrust he said was shared by countless others, both Serb and Croat. "Priests preach hate and division from the pulpit," he said.

There was so much bitterness in his voice that I was reminded of something a Belgrade university professor recently wrote to a relative in the United States: "It's going to take 100 years for us Serbs to wash off all this shit we've been rolling in."

Still, there is filth enough to go around. When the war in Croatia was at its height, scores of Serb bodies came floating down the Sava River into Serbia. In Belgrade, the people said the bodies had been :mailed from Zagreb."

One hundred years may not be long enough.

It was with an ironic sense of relief that I shouldered my pack and went to catch an afternoon train to Zagreb. Ljubljana was peaceful. Zagreb was still on a war footing. But somehow the Croatian war seemed more genuine (if not more real) than the Slovenian peace.

In Ljubljana, given what so many South Slavs (Yugoslavia means "South Slav") were suffering elsewhere, the streets are too clean. And the dogs of war are muzzled. That is a mistake. Because what the dogs would bark about is an old and terrible reality that no one of good Conscience has a right to turn away from.

The train to Zagreb was, of course, precisely on time.
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Author:McCarthy, Tim
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Oct 1, 1993
Words:2436
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