The other day on the BBC news I saw a young, educated and eloquent Serbian woman speaking about the life of ordinary citizens under the NATO bombing. The Serbian citizens are afraid, she said. Normal life is more and more difficult. There are power cuts, and people are forced to go several days without access to the Internet. There is also a cigarette shortage. But yes, they are trying to live normally. They go to work, they shop, and they sit in cafes. Of course, the bombing turned the Serbian citizens against NATO, not against Slobodan Milosevic. After all, “bombs are dropping from the sky.”
Clearly, this young woman, like so many Serbs, does not want to understand that her country is at war. They still seem to be thinking, What has all this to do with me? I know this mechanism of denial, because I have seen it before. Serbs by and large ignored the wars in Croatia and Bosnia. It was always happening somewhere else, to somebody else, and they were not involved. It was the Serbian army, the police, the paramilitaries, but not them, the ordinary citizens. But now, when it is happening in Serbia and affecting all of them, they are still somehow surprised.
The young woman on TV used the expression “Serbian citizens,” but her use of this phrase suggested that these Serbian citizens are people struggling to maintain the normality of their daily lives. By “Serbian citizens” she evidently meant only Serbs. Others–that is, Albanians–are simply never mentioned in that context. Their problems are not addressed, by her or other Serbs. In the perception of ordinary Serbs, Albanians are not included in the category of Serbian citizen and therefore are absent from the language as well.
Why? The problem is that Serbs–or anyone else, for that matter–cannot identify with the suffering of others if they are not able to see them as equals. In Yugoslav society Albanians were never visible. There was no need to construct their “otherness”–as, for example, with Jews in prewar Germany or recently with Serbs in Croatia. The Albanians were never integrated into the country’s social, political and cultural life. They existed separately from us, barely visible people on the margins of our society, with their strange language that nobody understood, their tribal organization, blood feuds, different habits and dress. They were always underdogs. What was their place in the Yugoslav literature, in movies and popular culture? What famous Yugoslavs were Albanians? Because of that estrangement, not many voices were raised in protest during the past ten years, when Albanians in Kosovo lived practically under apartheid.
For the older generation, the only visible Albanians were people in white caps coming from Kosovo to their cities to cut wood in the winter. For my generation they were people selling ice cream all over Yugoslavia. They spoke our language with a funny accent and never could pronounce “lemonade” properly. They lived among us, but we chose to ignore them. If we did happen to notice them, we despised them, laughed at them, told jokes about them. I never had an Albanian friend in Zagreb. No one I knew married an Albanian. But the difference between Croats and Serbs was that Croats did not really have to deal with the Albanians; we had no Kosovo.