On the Cruelty of the Balkans

Matvejevic, Pedrag
Revista Literatures Núm. 3 1999

One of the most savage scenes in the literature of our century will help us to answer some questions which are of relevance now, when one of the most monstrous tragedies has just occurred in Kosovo. The scene is found in one of the early chapters of The Bridge on the Drina by Ivo Andric where he gives a merciless description of the procedure of the impaling of a Serbian rebel during the rule of the Ottoman Empire. The aim is to avoid lesions to the vital organs so he will survive for some days and thereby serve as an example. For this operation, the services of specialists are required and the use of the appropriate instruments. We must imagine hundreds of similar cases throughout the dark centuries and along the winding roads of the Balkans. Pain, internalised in this way, or revolt or revenge, will sooner or later end up awakening in the form of resistance, aggression, sacrifice or cruelty.
I do not know to what extent tragic experiences persist in the bosom of a tribe or a nation. As for cruelty, the answers vary according to who responds and to whom they are addressed. Nationalist ideologies, whatever their origin, often revel in a caricatured orgy of reciprocal accusations. To this phenomenon must be added the fact that great defeats are experienced somehow as cornerstones, and this way of reading one´s own history and identifying with it is one of the major problems of Serbia and other Balkan countries. Impartial spirits are all too few and they are regarded as "traitors to the nation". Post-war periods can at times be as unbearable as the wars themselves.