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Sunday, 16 February, 2003, 01:10 GMT
Yugoslavia: Death of a country
Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic (left) shakes hands with Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica while EU's  Foreign Envoy Javier Solana looks on
The end of Yugoslavia was agreed in March 2002

What's in a name? In the Balkans, quite a lot.

During five years of war there I watched the terminology slide.

Serb nationalists began by calling their enemies in Sarajevo simply Muslims.

Then, about a year in, they became Turks. Finally - absurdly - mujahideen.

Yugoslavia disappeared from the maps of Europe this month pretty much in the way it arrived in 1918 - in the dismal aftermath of a war.

Yugoslavia; the name was a deliberate awkward construct designed to persuade the peoples who lived within its borders that they were one people, and not - as they had always thought of themselves - four or five peoples.

Yugo is simply the Slavic word for South. Yugoslavia was an attempt to forge a new nationality, the citizenship of South Slavia.

East-West crossroads

I first went there in 1979, an excited teenage backpacker straight out of school.

In that first summer of grown up freedom I plotted a route through Italy - stopping to take in the wonders of ancient Rome and the watery magic of Venice.

But what beguiled me most lay beyond, in that other Europe - the communist bloc.

Sarajevo, the crossroads of East and West, Muslim Ottoman Turkey's toe hold in Christian Europe.

Sarajevo, the place where a volley of pistol shots took the life of the heir to the Austrian throne in 1914 and propelled the world into the catastrophe of World War One.

Sarajevo - the place where the 20th century had really begun.

I had no idea then that I would eventually come to think of it as the place where the 20th century would - for me at least - also end.

Archaic terms

In 1979 I think I did not even know that I was going to a place called Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Yugoslavia was a huge and seemingly successful experiment in co-existence and tolerance that Europe - suspicious, tribal, xenophobic old Europe - had so much to learn from

Yugoslavia was the country I was headed for.

Bosnia, Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro... these were archaic terms far too exotic for the world we were a part of.

They seemed to belong in the only place you still encountered them - in the history books.

The writer Rebecca West went to Yugoslavia in 1937 and wrote a monumental travelogue; half a million words of sparkling lyrical prose, called Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.

Of Sarajevo she wrote that she was glad the spring had come late in the year because this had enabled her to see snow on the roof of a mosque, a building she had only associated with hot desert kingdoms.

Successful co-existence

The incongruity of the image enchanted her because it seemed emblematic of the incongruity of Bosnia and of Yugoslavia itself.

Yugoslavia was so unlike the other nations states, a country of five nationalities, three faiths, a language written in two scripts, Latin and Cyrillic, and all apparently living in harmony.

It was a huge and seemingly successful experiment in co-existence and tolerance that Europe - suspicious, tribal, xenophobic old Europe - had so much to learn from.

By the time Rebecca West published her book in 1940, her beloved South Slavs were again engulfed in war.

The dedication at the front reads: "To my friends in Yugoslavia, who are all now either dead or enslaved."

One or two of my friends died there too.

Carnage of war

In the summer of 1992 I went most days to the cemetery at Sarajevo to report on the daily round of funerals - the carnage count from the guns of the day before.

When Europe welcomes... the new nation of Serbia and Montenegro into that home, perhaps it should require of its people an honest and open acknowledgement of the crimes that were committed in their name?

The cemetery was spreading out and by the end of the year spilled across the road onto a sports field near the stadium where British ice skaters Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean had won their Olympic Gold medal eight years earlier.

The headstones stand now shining in the winter sun as serried ranks, meaning not, as some imagine, regular or even rows, but packed close together, leaving no space in between.

Whenever I hear the term now it is associated in my head with the way Sarajevans had to bury their dead: Close together, leaving no space in between.

Lost prospects for peace

It need not have been so.

Montenegrins at pro-independence rally
Terms such as Montenegro will now enter the political mainstream

Yugoslavia could have been broken up into its constituent parts peacefully.

Many brave and tormented Yugoslavs argued for this, and some of the early peace makers, including Britain's Lord Carrington, tried to make it happen.

Their voices were drowned out by those who consciously, deliberately and maliciously chose war, leaders for whom conflict and the juggernaut of nationalism became ways to stay in power.

They were further confounded by a Western world that wrung its hands in pessimism and disgust and said: "There you see the Balkans - ancient ethnic hatreds on the move again."

They quoted Otto von Bismarck, the 19th century unifier of Germany.

Had he not warned that the Balkans were not worth the bones of a single Pomeranian grenadier?

Acknowledging crimes

Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia, Croatia... those terms that in 1979 to my teenage ears seemed so exotically remote, are part of our new Europe.

They will soon seek integration into the mainstream - the alphabet soup of the EU, Nato and the rest - and enter our common European home.

And when Europe welcomes, as it will, the new nation of Serbia and Montenegro into that home, perhaps it should require of its people an honest and open acknowledgement of the crimes that were committed in their name?

For what indeed is in a name? In the Balkans, quite a lot.

See also:

04 Feb 03 | Europe
14 Feb 03 | Media reports
25 Jan 03 | From Our Own Correspondent
15 Mar 02 | Europe
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