`Serb Bashing'

THIS month the war in the former Yugoslavia enters its fourth year. The appalling effect of the conflict on Europe was made clear last week in a EU ``Conference on Stability'' in which the Yugoslav war, more than anything else, was agreed to be souring unity and prosperity on the continent.

The ongoing genocide in Bosnia has been made possible by Serb President Slobodan Milosevic's creation of an anti-Serb ``ethnic crisis'' in Yugoslavia. The ``crisis'' was fabricated in the Serb media; meanwhile, the ``ethnic cleansing'' in Croat and Bosnian villages was carried out by Serb paramilitary units supported by Belgrade. (Not that the Serbs alone have committed atrocities; Croats and Bosnians must be held accountable, too.)

Brutality and killing in the heart of Europe, and the inability of the ``world community'' to intervene decisively, leads to frustration. Wasn't D-Day intended to stop such crises? Didn't the world say ``never again'' in 1945? Yugoslavia ``is a true lesson that we should not tolerate,'' said French Prime Minister Edouard Balladur at last week's EU conference.

Sadly, but predictably, the frustration has led in the West to what is called ``Serb bashing.'' Serbia is seen as a pariah nation. The siege of Sarajevo was widely condemned. Once-cosmopolitan Belgrade is now a refuge for war criminals-turned- politicians and a watering hole for the likes of Russia's Vladimir Zhirinovsky.

Yet it is important as a matter of truth, and for any real reconciliation, that Serbs not be demonized. A distinction must be made between Serbs who gave criminal orders and the Serb people. A reservoir of good will is needed. Serbs have allied themselves with democratic regimes in the past; they are no more inherently ``bad'' than any other group.

Yet the hypnotic link between Serb leaders and the Serb people must be cut - just as it was between Germans and Nazis. To an extraordinary degree, Serbs are subject to a sophisticated ethnic brainwashing. They must be called to their better senses. Many Serbs are tired of the killing and the hating. The thousands of Serbs deserters from this war prove that support for it is not universal.

Absent true mercy or true justice, a door is also open for the denial and obfuscation of crimes that have occurred. In reaction to the 1992 UN-Mazowiecki investigations in Bosnia, to eyewitness accounts, and to video evidence on CNN of whole villages burning, there is a Serb effort to excuse mass murder, to blame ``biased'' journalists, and to avoid accountability in the name of peace and progress.

Dealing with evils is not simple or convenient. But it is necessary. In doing so, however, a compassionate distinction between the crimes and the Serb people is needed.

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