In early spring Romanian farmers set fire to their fields to burn off the winter growth. Approaching Timisoara by train from the southeast as the mountains of Transylvania abruptly give way to the plains of the Banat, these fires dot the landscape and illuminate the dark water of the Danube, separating Romania and Serbia.
The same night I was arriving in Timisoara from Sibui, where I am working for a human services NGO, refugees were crossing the Danube from Serbia, into the safety of Romania. Refugees here are not flooding the country, the way they are in Macedonia. Neither are they being slaughter or forced out of their houses. For the most part they are ethnic Albanians, living in Belgrade or other northern cities, who, having felt heightened tensions brought on by the NATO bombing have fled the country. Instead of hearing about the atrocities brought on by Serbs, I have heard only stories of Serbs helping the refugees along their way. (This is not to deny the atrocities that many Serbs have forced upon ethnic Albanians, it is only to point out that the villainization that the Serbs have received by the Western press is not universally applicable.) Resita, just south of Timisoara, presently has a refugee camp and other cities, including my own, have set up camps in anticipation of more refugees. But more than physically, Romanians are involved emotionally, scared that NATO will spread further ethnic unrest in an already unstable region. Like the rest of the Balkans, Romania, particularly in Transylvania, is a mix of ethnicities – Romanians, Hungarians, Germans, Gypsies, Romanian Orthodox, Catholics and Protestants living together – but, especially in rural areas, they mix together only reluctantly. The ethnic tensions here have been smoothed over more than they have in the former Yugoslavian republics, but the issue of ethnic groups claiming others’ territory is still a delicate topic here.
It is simply not in the American mentality to understand the Balkans. Concepts like nationalism and ethnicity are beyond our grasp. This is not the Cold War. We cannot simply allot good guys and bad guys. In a land of economic ruin, all people have is their heritage and their land, and to give up either would be to surrender all that they are. What do you do when one man says this farm was my father’s and therefore it is mine, and another says this farm was my grandfather’s and his father’s and therefore it is mine, and both are willing to die for it? There are no easy solutions to ethnic claims. Almost every ethnic group in the Balkans claims territory in neighboring countries. While countries like Romania may have given up these claims for the most part (some Romanians still claim pieces of southern Ukraine), embedded deep in their national history is a craving for the glory of their former empires at their highest point. Any peace established in this region is a delicate balance.
Tensions between the Serbs and Albanians have been here since long before Milosevic and will be here long after. Much of the hostility was buried beneath communist oppression. The fall of communism allowed tensions to surface and now a new balance must be found. The West should work towards helping to create this balance, instead of inciting more violence in an already violent land.
The Romanian government, in their pipe-dream of joining NATO or the EU (not in this economic lifetime) has not strongly protested the bombing, though many of the runs approach Belgrade from the east, flying over Romanian skies and western airports have been shut down. The public has not been so complacent. There is grumbling in the bars and a general fear that the fighting will spread, either with the arrival of more refugees or the involvement of Russia. Clinton, an immensely popular figure here after his visit last year, is now widely criticized. There have been protests outside the German consulate in Sibui, and the only American flag I saw in Timisoara was being buried by a group of students in protest.
I am not a bleeding heart liberal. For the most part I supported the recent bombing of Iraq. I was in Jordan at the time, which was a very similar experience; the Jordanian government grudgingly and as quietly as possible accepted American intervention, simply because they had no other options, with widespread American criticism among the general public. (When asked, we claimed we were Canadians.) But this is not Iraq. This is not the United States trying to stop one runaway dictator, and these quick bombing strikes, which Americans can feel pleasantly detached from, will not solve centuries-old ethnic differences.
This part of the world is accustomed to becoming embattled against great foreign powers: the Romans, Ottomans, Germans, Communists. They have held together during years of sieges, their ethnic solidarity only solidifying further. This will be no exception.
The one thing this violent conflict does not need is more violence. The bombing, perhaps with the assistance of ground troops, may eventually stop the fighting, but it will only increase the hate and threaten the entire region with instability. The longer this situation continues, the deeper ingrained differences and hate becomes, insuring only that the killing will remain for generations more in the Balkans.