Through The Balkans
Christopher C. Goodfellow
March 24 1999

All euphemisms aside this is war. This is not the United Nations taking a police action. It is Nato vs. the duly constituted government of Yugoslavia. It is not pleasant. People will die on both sides. Children too. Whether it will be of short duration or whether it will spread to other fronts, none of us can predict.

I make no pretensions about any in-depth knowledge of this situation. I have tried to inform myself and frankly I am left totally confused as it seems there is too much history. It is too complex for anyone to really understand all the players and all the historical incidents. You can read Time and the Economist and you will scratch the surface on current positions in the region but the history is the key to understanding. When one talks of deep time to understand evolution, one must think in terms of deep history to really understand this region of the world. Yugoslavia is an enigma. East meets west.

I read a book in 1995 after someone gave it to me to open my eyes about the complexities of the war in Bosnia. When one enters the Balkans, one steps into a very confounding place. One really wonders whether one should tread there at all.

The book is a journal by British Lieut.-Colonel P.T. Etherton and A. Dunscombe Allen who was a Director of the British Automoble Association. It is titled "Through Europe and the Balkans" and it is the record of a motor tour by these two men through this area in 1928. One cannot help think that the Foreign Office might have had a very keen interest in this trip at the time and certainly Colonel Etherton was a very astute observer of life on the ground in the Balkans. No doubt it was what the British would call a "recce". What one comes away with is a feeling this is a very unsafe place with very little long term stability and no assurance that tomorrow won't bring a completely new change of circumstance.

Here are two short excerpts from the book.

At the moment the Balkans are peaceable, and though pessimists say "Balkan peace presages that trouble is brewing," there is little to justify the assertion. The trouble is that of interspersed population.

There are millions of Vlachs of "Roman" stock and also vast numbers of Bulgarians, Albanians and Serbians living in countries other than their own.

Macedonia is a babel in miniature, and the various nationalities mingle without mixing, and keep alive national objectives which they pursue by irredentist methods and intrigue.

The slogan of self-determination preached by Versailles idealists has taken hold among the irreconcilables, but it cannot be applied without injustice to others.

In the Balkans self-determination would mean the extermination of opponents.

Remember this was written 70 years ago. Little has changed.

A second passage reads as follows:

To verify this one has only to appreciate the national characteristics of the Albanians, who, whatever evil habits they may have contracted, or the defects arising from long subjugation, have chivalry and courage. Cases can be quoted without number of the manner in which the Bessa - "the good faith" - is pledged to absolute strangers. All who come under protection of the Bessa, whether given by an individual or a clan, are free from molestation.

This primitive institution serves to render travel in Albania safe, despite the absence of a highly developed system of policing, such as we enjoy in the west.

The Bessa of the Albanians, the three days of immunity extended even to enemies in Arabia, and other brotherhood pledges, all have something in common, and are a manifestation of the highest human instinct.

The country is an ideal one for guerrilla fighting. Having seen it, traversed its mountain passes and gazed down its precipitous cliffs to smiling valleys far below, it is easy to understand how these sturdy mountaineers have been able to resist Turk and Slav, and hold their own through centuries of hard fighting.

With such a turbulent history it is not surprising that Albania is still a land of strange customs and primitive habits, where to an extent unknown in the rest of Europe the law of blood-vengeance is still upheld.

It is the old idea of purification by blood and all else is subservient to it. Any insult or injury should be wiped out by gun or knife, and the feuds are governed by a strict code of rules.

For instance, we were assured that no man may be shot or knifed when in company with a woman, nor during the period of a truce-often arranged between two antagonists for business purposes. Then again, a couple of men may hunt one another for months, but before they actually meet face to face it is time to gather in the harvest. On this depends the food of both families until the following year. So a truce is arranged, and visiting Albania during the summer months one may find men working amicably in the same village, who, a few days later, will be stalking one another.

When you leave a homestead in Albania the host is responsible for your safety until nightfall finds you beneath the next roof ; if anything untoward occurs he is bound to take drastic action, no matter what your own views may be upon the subject. If you drink with one man and are molested before sampling the flowing bowl with another, the first must wipe out the insult in blood.

When on vengeance intent the Albanian takes every opportunity of accomplishing the object, provided the above rules are observed. The parties to a feud, therefore, never know how they may come by their end. Men have been known not to move out of their house and garden for months at a stretch.

Some of the blood feuds thus easily begun last for generations. When traversing northern Albania, one of the most unsettled parts of the country, we heard of a vendetta which had existed for four generations. The original cause seemed to have long been forgotten; all that the man, who carried it on, knew was that a male member of the family marked down must be killed. When this occurred, the rival family would, in their turn, concentrate on the task of retaliation, and so the inter- family warfare would continue. When it would eventually end no man knew.

It is not surprising that amidst such conditions many go armed. Yet it cannot be said that the Albanian is a desperate character; he is far from that, and when feuds do not disturb the village life they lead a cheery and care-free existence, and none is more hospitable. Like other remote and primitive people among whom we have lived in Asia and under the Southern Cross, they receive the stranger with a cordiality that strikes a genuine note.

"Through Europe and the Balkans" 1928
Cassell and Company 1928.

Tribes and clans are somewhat alien to us in Canada as are blood feuds. One wonders whether we can even begin to unwind the hostilities of centuries with our intervention.

Is it our place to be policeman to the Balkans?

When I heard on the news that the B-52's had lifted off from the west of England today I started monitoring #kosovo and #serbia channels on Undernet in IRC (internet relay chat). There was still some rational discussion taking place in both conferences but as the hours wore on and reports of the smaller planes leaving Aviano in Italy were posted a frenzy developed and both channels seemed to literally descend into madness with accustaions back and forth in foul language and no reason whatsoever. A blood lust developed.

War ... no one wants it. It is the ultimate expression of the failure of humanity.

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