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Dancing around Kosovo’s deadly dilemma

The stories from Kosovo are heartbreakers: of mothers with their starving, crying children; of old women sitting waiting on the wet earth, not knowing what they’re waiting for, maybe death; of an old man by his wagon, in despair, his worldly belongings reduced to a blanket and a box.

So much misery, including thousands tortured and other thousands murdered, must be caused by someone. It would be comforting to have obvious culprits to denounce. But in that part of the world -- as well as the rest of the world -- there are so many complications, and history is such a quagmire, that blame is blurred and accusing fingers point nearly everywhere.

And as for ourselves: Life is so hectic, there’s little time to read all about it or figure what’s what. The ethnic Albanians, more than 90 percent of the Kosovo region of Serbia, want independence, something the Serbs don’t want to grant. So the Serb-dominated Yugoslav army is laying waste to the Albanian countryside, murdering and mutilating.

That’s it in a nutshell, which of course means it’s not all of it. Ethnic cleansing, more or less. And ethnic cleansing in turn reminds us of nearby Bosnia a few short years ago.

When the history of this era is written, the verdict will hinge on how the head of this most influential nation stood idle or distracted while so many innocent people were tortured and killed, and while, incidentally, most of us looked the other way. At least, that’s how some of us would write it. It all depends on who’s writing the history.

Returning to Kosovo: Just when we thought we knew who were the good and bad guys, it turns out the United States does not want the Albanian guerrillas to succeed. This would destabilize something or other in the area. As if it were now stable.

The great U.S. hope for stability over there has been none other than Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic, the man who unleashed the Bosnia horror in the first place and is now the primary force behind the Kosovo disaster. But we can’t altogether blame the United States for backing him, because it also turns out the United States is now threatening Milosevic with air strikes. And further, we have threatened him with air strikes in the past, because his idea of stability does not always coincide with ours. And it’s not as if our government is generally uptight about our agents of stability. We have backed some doozies in the past, from Manuel Noriega to Mobutu Sese Seko. And we’re in the happy position that we have the air strikes as backup, such a consoling arrangement.

The dilemma goes round and round in circles, disaster and suffering at its center. Everyone wants to be good, even the bad guys. In a perfect world there would be no wars. There would be no need for us good guys to do violence even against the Hitlers, the Pol Pots or the Slobodan Milosevics, because the latter would all be good guys just like us.

Meanwhile, thousands of refugees suffer the cold, torture, anticipation of death. Yet it’s hard to say what is the biggest suffering for a refugee. It may be grief for the loved ones killed back there. It may be the physical pain, from torture or whatever, but the pain doesn’t come in a vacuum. It comes to people who have left everything behind, whose houses or villages have been burned -- in this conflict, it is said, cigarette lighters are more effective than tanks. Or the greatest suffering may well be the aloneness, the feeling of abandonment that all refugees must feel.

The Kosovo refugees, it turns out, are less alone than others. In this crazy context they could even be said to be lucky. The major media, for some reason, have been covering their awful plight with commendable regularity. Spare a thought, then, for the millions of other refugees from Pakistan to Sierra Leone to Sudan to dozens of other countries who never get mentioned, never remembered.

If millions of refugees fail to get mentioned, what chance has any individual among them of being spared a single thought, of being known by name, of making any difference in this life?

It is commonplace for good Christians like us, at this stage in sermon or speech or pious article, to conclude by suggesting certain strategies: Let us pray for the victims; let us ask for money for them; let us write to our senators or bishops. These are fine suggestions. The danger is that they allow us to return in good conscience to our daily reality.

Because, after all, we’re busy. And anyway we can’t stand too much reality, that’s how fragile our humanity is. We used to be able to hand over such crises to our government to do good in our name, but governments are not as high-minded or effective as we used to think they were. We dance around in a dilemma, a dance of death.

If only those refugees had nothing more to worry about than the Lewinsky matter.

National Catholic Reporter, October 9, 1998