'What Did You Do in the War?' Serb Kids Ask

Serbian children are beginning to ask embarrassing questions of their fathers, prompting soul-searching among these once-proud Balkan warriors.

"Daddy, what did you do in the war?" comes from the lips of those most innocent, but it is an eloquent question here, because it so often assumes a just cause.

Serbia produced the nationalistic ambitions of "Greater Serbia" that sundered Yugoslavia in 1991. And the Serb-dominated Yugoslav Army committed horrific war crimes to "cleanse" non-Serbs from Croatia and Bosnia. So easy justifications are hard to find.

"From a human point of view, this is very positive," says Zarko Korac, a professor of psychology in Belgrade.

"There is a collective sobering up, a catharsis of [a] drunk nation."

Isolated and reviled by the West for their role in the ethnic dismemberment of Yugoslavia, ordinary Serbs and soldiers alike are starting to come to grips with the aftermath of a horrific war during which remained innocent.

Though all ethnic groups - Serbs, Muslims, and Croats - committed crimes during the 1991-95 war, a preponderance of the accused are Serbs, and the vast majority of the 250,000 who died are not.

And as the international war crimes tribunal in The Hague continues its daily examination of atrocities, every new mass grave unearthed in Bosnia - where the worst ethnic cleansing occurred - adds to the despair.

Even as Serbs have taken to the streets of Belgrade in pro-democracy protests against President Slobodan Milosevic, a wider taking of stock appears to be under way. The Serb Orthodox Church - which in the early stages of the war embraced nationalist aims - speaks now of overcoming a moral crisis.

And in the Army - which along with Serb militias once struck fear into non-Serb hearts for its reputed brutality - the outcome of the war has been defeat, bitterness, and deliberate marginalization by the Milosevic regime.

Explaining all this to inquiring children will be uncomfortable, with questions of right and wrong overlapping and confused. Reasons for the violence against former neighbors and friends are difficult to remember now.

'A moral blind spot'

"Somebody will have to come to terms with this," says Milos Vasic of Belgrade's opposition magazine Vreme. "Nobody here wants to know about Bosnia. It is a moral blind spot."

But, he says, "Serbs all know about what happened in Srebrenica," where Bosnian Serbs, reportedly backed by Serb-dominated Yugoslav forces, killed thousands of Muslim civilians in July 1995.

They also know about Sarajevo, Mr. Vasic says, which Serbs besieged and shelled for three years. "Anyone who tells you they don't is lying."

Leaders of daily demonstrations in Belgrade, who hope to pressure Mr. Milosevic to accept opposition victories in last November's elections, also have reason to selectively forget their past.

Analysts here say that in 1989, when Milosevic turned Serb nationalism into his modus vivendi, opponents took the cue and tried to "out-Serb" him by proclaiming even more strident nationalism.

Vuk Draskovic, for instance, organized a Serb militia; today he is one of the opposition leaders of the Zajedno (Together) coalition that has orchestrated the street protests in Belgrade. Mr. Draskovic was the first to recant his warmaking nationalism, however, after Serb artillery destroyed the Croatian city of Vukovar in 1991.

But Zoran Djindjic, Belgrade's opposition mayor-elect and another partner in the Zajedno coalition, was photographed much more recently in Bosnia, enjoying a feast of ox with former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic - who has been twice indicted by the war crimes tribunal for crimes against humanity and genocide.

Only Vesna Pesic, the third of the opposition leaders - whose only reason for unity seems to be their opposition to Milosevic - has not been compromised by nationalism.

Still, protest rallies exhibit a new nationalism that uses the three-finger Serb salute and nationalist paraphernalia - pins, flags, and signs. In Belgrade's streets, demonstrators still turn silent and teary-eyed at the national anthem.

"Now it's a protective, healthy nationalism that is coming out," says Bratislav Grubacic, editor of the VIP English-language news service. "We are a humiliated nation, and there is this tension after the war. Milosevic has managed to destroy everything. It will forever be a black page in our history."

Milosevic to get blame?

At one rally a sign points to the likely safety valve for the brewing collective guilt by using the title of an Alfred Hitchcock film. "Dial 'M' for Murder," it reads, laying the blame with Milosevic, a man referred to elsewhere in the region as the "Butcher of the Balkans."

Just as some Germans have blamed Hitler alone - and not the German people - for Nazi atrocities, so some Serbs say their leader may be blamed.

"Milosevic is going to be a scapegoat for the nation, so that people can say it was him, not us," says Mr. Korac. "He's the one who unleashed Serb chauvinism, the reason why children are asking: 'Daddy, what did you do in the war?' "

Increasingly, says Vasic, "There is a common answer: 'I was a bloody fool.' "

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