When the Soviet Empire fell apart, between 1989 and 1991, some liberated nations had a difficult road to freedom. This was especially true for Yugoslavia, a land riven by historical grievances and ethnic and religious conflicts. In reality, Yugoslavia was an artificial construct consisting of (at least) six different territories with distinct identities: Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, and Macedonia. Once the Soviet boot was lifted from the Yugoslav neck, the first order of business for these fledgling states was to wage war on their neighbors. This led, in short order, to the breakup of Yugoslavia into the successor countries that exist today.
The last and most vicious of these wars involved Serbia and Bosnia. The so-called Bosnian War lasted from 1992 through 1995 and rivalled either of the World Wars in its depravity. In an effort to create a “Greater Serbia,” the Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic organized “ethnic cleansing” and genocide within Bosnia, allegedly coupled with systematic, wholesale rape of Bosnian women as a means of sowing terror.
Milosevic had his reasons for aggression against Bosnia. In fact, Serbia’s grievances against Bosnia went back more than 600 years, to the 1389 Battle of Kosovo (historically a region within Bosnia, and now an independent country itself). The Serbs were defeated in this battle by the Turks, and as a result Serbia became absorbed in the Ottoman Empire. This defeat has since loomed large in the Serbian mind, mostly because it meant Orthodox Christian Serbs were now ruled by Muslim Turks, although resentment also simmered against Catholic Croatians and Slovenes to the west since the Serbs’ brave stand saved them from bloodshed.
To underscore the importance of the Battle of Kosovo during the Bosnian war 600 years later, Milosevic personally visited the field where the battle took place and recited a historical rallying cry for Serbian nationalism known as “the Kosovo curse.”
The Bosnian war created a massive number of refugees, many of whom came to America. For reasons that are not entirely clear, a very large share of these Bosnians ended up in St. Louis, where they congregated in the traditionally German Bevo Mill neighborhood on the city’s south side. The Bosnian immigrants to St. Louis turned out to be model citizens: hard-working, law-abiding, and tolerant and respectful of their neighbors. They quickly revived the declining Bevo neighborhood, and over the next 20 years they moved throughout the region. The St. Louis metropolitan area is now reportedly home to 70,000 people of Bosnian descent, the largest Bosnian community outside of Europe.
St. Louis has been in the news lately because of the shooting death of Michael Brown in the suburb of Ferguson. As everyone knows, it was announced last week that St. Louis County would not bring criminal charges against the officer who shot Michael Brown. Riots immediately erupted in Ferguson and have since spread to other parts of the St. Louis area, as well as other American cities.
Although a definitive link has not yet been established, it appears that the violent reaction to the Michael Brown incident recently spilled over into St. Louis’s Bosnian community. On November 30, four youths stopped a 32 year old Bosnian-American named Zemir Begic, who was driving his car in the Bevo Mill neighborhood, and beat him to death with hammers. Two of the assailants have been caught, but a 16 -year-old black male and a 15-year-old Latino remain at large.
This event has created tension in the closely knit community, although residents have so far remained peaceful and reportedly vowed not to damage the neighborhood they built.
The Begic murder is disgusting and tragic, of course, but assuming it resulted from the free-floating rage that’s been in the air since the Ferguson riots, it’s also sickly ironic in several respects. For one thing, there is simply no doubt that Bosnians have suffered far more than African-Americans in recent years. Indeed, without downplaying the horrific and dehumanizing experience of slavery and its aftermath, even the worst abuses of African-Americans in the last 400 years probably don’t compare to what Bosnians withstood between 1992 and 1995.
These abuses, moreover, are not ancient history that one learns about from schoolbooks. Practically every Bosnian in St. Louis either personally witnessed atrocities that Americans black and white can barely fathom, or they have close relatives who did. If any community has a right to feel victimized, it is this one, yet there is no evidence that Bosnians have let historical injustice define their identities or constrict the opportunities available to them in their new home.
This attitude represents the best of the American spirit, and it is profoundly alien to the region the Bosnians fled. The Balkans have been ripped apart by ethnic and religious groups who cling bitterly to ancient feuds and refuse to let old wounds heal. The Serbs’ desire for ethnic cleansing in the 1990s had its emotional roots in a centuries-old tragic myth concocted from images of defeat, betrayal, and lost glory. It is almost impossible to find happiness and fulfillment in life when such myths keep one’s blood perpetually boiling.
Most tragic of all, Michael Brown’s fate has already assumed mythical status for too many people. The “gentle giant” meekly facing a vicious, racist cop with his hands up and pleading “don’t shoot,” only to be gunned down in cold blood—for the racial arsonists and those determined to balkanize the United States, that is too good of an image to lose, facts be damned.
The Michael Brown myth has already had horrendous consequences. When I was growing up in St. Louis County in the 1970s, Ferguson was a middle-class suburb. Before August 2014, it was still a solidly middle-class majority-black community. Those days are almost certainly over. Ferguson will not fully recover from the devastation it has experienced since the race-baiters took over. A generation from now, it will in all likelihood be a ghetto and possibly still bear the scars of last week’s riots.
And although the crime is still being investigated, Zemir Begic also appears to be a victim of the senseless, wanton rage the race-baiters have used Ferguson to spawn.
This is not to deny that black Americans still face difficulties and indignities that most white Americans do not. However, the Michael Brown investigation was closely coordinated with an African-American Attorney General who reports to an African-American President. It is also certain at this point that Michael Brown was not a gentle giant who put his hands up in submissive surrender. He was the violent aggressor who turned a routine police stop into a life-and-death confrontation, although whether that confrontation should have ended in Brown’s death remains worthy of debate.
Myths can be healthy, or they can be destructive. A healthy, life-affirming myth must be grounded in life as it is actually lived and draw positive but realistic lessons from that experience. Michael Brown became a myth before he became a man, and there is still time to prevent his tragic end from becoming a tragic myth. But with music stars, athletes, and other high-profile figures showing solidarity with the “hands-up, don’t shoot” mythology that confounds the facts while inflaming historical grievances, the odds of this happening appear increasingly remote.
Larry, at least 30% of your article pretends to do just what you claim it is not supposed to provide. And yet again in your response you continue with the fallacies.
The war in the former Yugoslavia was one of principles of self-determination. Just as the Slovenes, Croats, Bosniaks wished to form their own states so did the Serbs. Who actually bore the brunt of US-led double-standard policy. Since you mentioned Kosovo – the Albanian minority there was allowed self-determination whereas the Serbs in Croatia (the Krajina) were ethnically cleansed, wholesale. And Bosnia-Herzegovina is still a non-state without any democratic or state legitimacy with some 45% Bosniaks, 35% Serbs and 20% Croats. For you see the so-called International Community is forcing the Serbs and the Croats to settled their grievances with the Bosniaks, something which was not asked of the Kosovo Albanians.
I doubt the St. Louis African American community wishes to secede from the US, although I fail to see what you’d have as a libertarian against that, but merely to point out that what is going on is quite unjust.
And just a further notice, the St. Louis Bosniak community has begun rioting just as well. Perhaps you should review your writing style, it is as if you are an “anti-prophet”. The exact opposite of everything you claim becomes or already is true.
Igor, the point of this piece is not to provide a detailed, blow by blow account of the Bosnian War and all its complexities. It was also not intended to discuss the way Serbia has borne the brunt of attacks from the Ottoman Empire. My point was simply that the Bosnians suffered enormously because of the Serbs’ desire to create a greater Serbia; that desire was rooted in grievances that go back 600 years; the Serbs’ campaign drove hundreds of thousands of Bosnians out of the country and many ended up in St. Louis,MO; and one St. Louis Bosnian has now apparently been victimized because of similar grievance-mongering and myths founded in historic injustices rather than current conditions.
This backward-looking, perpetually aggrieved attitude is what keeps the Balkans economically and socially under-developed,and it will do the same in America unless it stops. Some groups in America are doing all they can to balkanize the US, and those efforts have now – ironically – victimized people from the Balkans who came to America to escape that mentality. I believe the Bosnian immigrants deserve enormous credit for getting on with their lives and not being confined by old hatreds.
James, you make a great point. I hope that Larry Kaufmann’s essay will draw attention to this.
I too think that this article accords too much credibility to reports of Serb atrocities without acknowledging the similar and probably at least equal actions by other parties to the conflict, plus the false claim that Kosovo was historically Bosnian, when it was in fact Serbian. Also, the Kosovo conflict was not between Serbia and Bosnia.
I think that the Serbs have been continually underappreciated for their courage in standing as the bar to Muslim invasions of Europe throughout the centuries, and I believe that the Bosnian war was an appalling stab in the back of the Serbian people, as NATO and President Clinton cynically sided with the Muslims (who want to see Serbia made as weak as possible) in order to keep Mideast oil flowing into Europe. That was truly a case of blood for oil.
Both Bosnians and Serbians suffered from the wars instigated during the Clinton presidency, and that is the important point Larry Kaufmann makes in his essay: that fomenting ethnic grievances is a truly evil thing to do. He is quite correct in that.
Your assumptions are not only erroneous but they are also insulting.
1) The conflict was not one between Serbia and Bosnia(-Herzegovina) but between the three ethnic/religious groups in BH – the Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks (the latter making up the St. Louis community)
2) the conflict had nothing to do with Kosovo which was another conflict altogether
3) Atrocities were committed by all three sides, including, the Bosniaks, who make up the St. Louis community
4) I don’t know how you can compare 400 years of slavery, opression and discrimination with a three and a half year civil war ridden with atrocities. After all the US had a longer civil war with its own atrocities, not to mention occurrences prior and during the Civil Rights Movement (lynchings, beatings etc.)
5) 70,000 Bosnians in St. Louis? Can you back that up with census data, the Bosnian/ks don’t even have their own census category in origin, yet we have Serbs, Croats and “Yugoslavians” (the latter number only 13,000 in all of Missouri)
And Soviet armies were not what prevented civil war in Yugoslavia as there wee never there. And no not all of the six territories/republics did not have their own distinct identities during the formation of Yugoslavia, some did, some didn’t, some had mixed, some a variety. But all of that isn’t as important as the five main points I raised which basically suggest that not only is your article poorly researched but that your comparison and point is completely missed.
Everyone and their grandma was told Mike Brown was shot to death because of the color of his skin. Not the content of his character.
Zemir Begic was murdered for his skin color.
Thank you for your fresh perspective on this national news story Larry!
I really appreciate the historical discussion of the roots of the Bosnia-Serbia conflict, and concur that the Bosnian’s in St. Louis by and large are living the American Dream and contributing to the betterment of the city.
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