On a quiet side street in this hazy, steamy capital of Serbia, there is a place called the Center for Cultural Decontamination. Its logo, displayed on a sign outside, features a cartoon character in a gas mask. It is appropriate. There is a lot of gas in Belgrade these days.
The center, with its large stage and cluttered offices, has the lumpy-couch feel of opposition politics and boho intelligentsia. A hipster cadre of local artists and actors gathers there to drink bitter coffee and smoke their cigarettes, and to plot ways to shake up their fellow citizens out of what one participant calls "our life of sleepwalking."
When I visited, an earnest and overworked director named Ana Miljanovic was putting her troupe through rehearsals for a performance that opens Monday. It is a most provocative play for Slobodan Milosevic's postwar Serbia--an original work about the questions of guilt and responsibility, collective and individual. In a place where the emotions of victimhood and revenge have reigned supreme, those questions have not spent much time at center stage.
I spent a lot of time tugging at these psychological knots during my travels around Serbia. For one thing, every conversation I had with Serbs, sooner or later, got around to blame.
The Serbs blamed NATO for the bombing, and until we'd had a couple of drinks or some coffee, they blamed me; they blamed Milosevic for being too cunning; they blamed the opposition for being too weak; they blamed their history, Madeleine Albright and NATO spokesman Jamie Shea; they blamed the ethnic Albanians--and, much more rarely, they blamed themselves.
I confess I like the Serb people. They are emotional, tough and funny--with a rich, dark, cynical sense of humor. But I must also say this: They cannot move on as a nation unless they face what they and their leaders and their military did in Kosovo.
If ever there were a place that needed some rigorous cleansing--and not the kind that saw hundreds of thousands of refugees herded onto cattle cars and tractor lorries--it is here in the Balkans. While I was in Serbia, I interviewed hundreds of ordinary people, refugees and soldiers, nurses and politicians, teenagers and pensioners. Many Western reporters have been struck by the blanket of denial that lies upon the land. But I also found, hanging in the air like a smell that would not go away, a whiff of responsibility for atrocities perpetrated in Serbia's name.
The performance at the decontamination center is based on the correspondence of two European intellectuals, Hermann Broch and Volkmar von Zuelsdorff, between the years 1945 and 1949. Broch, an Austrian novelist and philosopher living an expatriate life in the United States, and Zuelsdorff, a political activist in Germany, attempt to sort out the culpability of Germany and ordinary Germans (and, importantly, the Allied powers, too) during World War II and its aftermath.
The actors are doing what the best political art does--asking the questions that people are afraid to confront. And the choice of material here begs a rather blunt question: Are the Serbs the new Germans?
Miljanovic is ready with an answer: "The histories are not parallel. Serbia is a completely different state from Germany. But what the play attempts to do is make people think about what has happened to them. I do not believe in collective guilt. But collective guilt and collective responsibility are two very different things. We must deal with these questions of guilt. Because we will not build a decent society without a very honest look at what happened here and why."
She rubs her red, tired eyes in the warm, smoky room, her face registering that low-grade stress that lines almost everyone's visage in this exhausted nation. "Are we natural born ethnic cleansers?" she asked, unprompted. "No. But you have to concede that the mechanisms for the destruction in Kosovo were quite successful."
Miljanovic is 28 years old. For most of her adult life, Serbia has been at war--in Croatia, Bosnia and lastly, Kosovo. "There are no innocent lambs in Serbia," she says quietly.
How did she know what was happening in Kosovo, when state-run Serbian media never told her? Like many educated Serbs, especially in Belgrade, Miljanovic and her circle--most of whom speak English--have ready access to the Internet and satellite TV. The Serbs have been through this before. They know, deep in their guts, what happened in Bosnia and Croatia. Dead old men with their hands tied behind their backs in wire service photographs do not lie.
I would, however, agree with those who hesitate to make a direct comparison between Adolf Hitler's Germany and Milosevic's Serbia. The toll of human suffering and national aggression in the Balkans, even if thousands more are found in mass graves, does not approach the organized genocide that took place in the Nazi concentration camps.
Milosevic, despite Western attempts to vilify him in a cheap, dumbed-down shorthand, is no Hitler. He is not even a real dictator, but a wily authoritarian master of manipulation, who adroitly exploits a combination of nationalism and patronage and state media to hold onto the one ideology he holds most dear: the retention of his own, and his wife's, power.
But who deserves to be hanged, metaphorically or otherwise, for the horrors in Kosovo? Is it the upper echelon of Milosevic's government, its top military leaders, and the soldiers and civilians who ran wild as the dogs of war were unleashed? What about ordinary citizens, who voted for Milosevic and who endorsed, with gusto or silence, his aggressive quest for a "greater Serbia" during the last decade?
The West is clearly itching for some payback against the Serbs, in particular against Milosevic and his regime, but also the general population. The West seems to want something from the Serbs, some acknowledgment of sin, some concession that it is not acceptable at the end of the 20th century to loot and sack villages, force refugees onto trains, rape women and shoot children, and bury them in shallow graves.
There is now just the beginning of an attempt by many Serbs to deal with what they did and went through. It is interesting to hear what they have to say and what they will not say.
At Yugoslavia's first major anti-Milosevic rally, held in the central Serbian city of Cacak in late June, a historian named Milan Protic took the first steps toward confronting the "bad things."
"This regime," Protic shouted, "this regime shamed us and made us ashamed of ourselves and before the world. They did evil against those who lived by our sides and never asked our permission. Now we have to apologize to the whole world, not for what we did, but for what was done in our names."
No one in the crowd applauded. But no one booed, either. They stood silently and listened.
In an interview later, Protic, who attended graduate school at the University of California in Santa Barbara, acknowledged that he both took a bold step and paused at the brink. "It was not something that a politician would say, because the golden rule of politics is never tell people anything they do not want to hear. But I got close to it. You could feel the crowd step back, but they did not step away."
Protic sees his country as suffering from a kind of "national infantilism," created under the 30-year reign of Yugoslav President Tito.
"Tito was Big Daddy," Protic says. "He made all the decisions for us, and so we lived like children. Sometimes Tito was angry, sometimes benevolent. We became like children, and you know how ruthless children can be. Now we are paying the price of becoming adults and having to take responsibility for our actions."
Cedomir Jovanovic is a student leader who led street protests against Milosevic a few years ago. "It is clear that we are the new Germans," he says, "that the world sees us as evil, and they need to see us as evil. It is unacceptable to me for a whole nation to be condemned for what happened under Milosevic. I have no complexes. I think young people here know they are different from the picture of them in the West. But yes, we have to accept the facts. Very bad things happened in Kosovo, and we are going to pay for that."
It is fascinating that, despite the NATO bombing, many Serbs leap at the chance to speak with Western reporters. They are so eager to explain themselves. Almost every one of these conversations begins with a long lesson in Serbian history, and often veers, naturally, to condemnation of NATO's actions.
I would ask my Serb sources and new friends: Why do you think all of Europe with the United States joined together in raining millions of pounds of explosives on your cities, factories, bridges, railways and refineries?
That's when the conversations got interesting.
Many Serbs saw the events far differently from the West. To them, Kosovo was a civil war, fought between ethnic Albanian secessionist rebels and the state, which was simply defending its national sovereignty. There is truth in that: The Kosovo Liberation Army and its leaders clearly want to create an independent state in Kosovo. But the KLA was pushed toward its aims by Milosevic--who, with the support of the Serbian citizenry, stripped the province of its autonomy, marginalized its majority and created an environment known for some of the worst human rights violations in Europe.
Some Serbs are beginning to confront that reality. I spent three long hours interviewing a middle-aged soldier named Goran in the southern Serbian city of Kraljevo. He did not want his last name used. Goran was one of tens of thousands of Serb men called to duty in Kosovo as reservists.
"I can tell you that many bad things happened down there," Goran said. He denied any participation. But he remembers one village, where he was shown graves dug into a hillside, so fresh and shallow that bits of clothing peeked through the dirt. "That I will never forget," he says, as we slugged back homemade brandy in his little apartment.
Goran's bookshelves were lined with philosophical texts. It was Friedrich Schiller, the German dramatist and historian, who said that world history is the world's court. "Our history," he says, "now has a new chapter, and I think when people finally wake up from their sleep, they are going to wonder, why are we covered in blood? For what? For whom? For why?"
I asked him if he felt guilt. He said no. "I do not feel guilty like a man who stole or killed. I did not do those things. You believe me. But I do feel something."
Goran feels like a man who watched. And did nothing.
William Booth, The Washington Post's Los Angeles bureau chief, spent two months covering the war and its aftermath in the Balkans.