The Common Good
May-June 1999

Adding Fuel to the Fire

by Gerald Shenk | May-June 1999

The crisis in Kosovo

The U.S.-led NATO intervention in the Balkans seems to have provoked the humanitarian disasters it was intended to prevent. As widely expected, aerial bombardment of military targets in Serbia failed to deter a bitter retaliation by forces on the ground, resulting in a river of freshly displaced civilians and untold slaughter across the Kosovo countryside.

Food and fuel shortages were already real for the pastors and other church workers whose messages churn across the e-mail connections as war comes (again) to the Balkans. Former students of mine, many of whom are now pastoring, tell of spending nights in basement fallout shelters (again), of fears that young men will be hit with conscription (again), of regrets that the diplomats and foreign missionaries have abandoned the scene (again).

Slaughter on an ethnic basis had preceded the recent international interventions. What is different this time is the attack on a sovereign nation, NATO intervening without specific U.N. sanction in a dispute that should have been resolved within the boundaries of a U.N. member state. Even those Serbs who oppose their leaders’ policies voice outrage that allies and enemies alike from the past two world wars should join in this action. The precedent is hazardous, if it means further weakening of the U.N.’s role in serious efforts to pursue peace.

Another loss is the voice of moderation and sober political opposition within the Yugoslav regime of President Slobodan Milosevic. As in other recent times of national crisis, Milosevic is making his standard moves to clamp down on dissent, eliminate press freedoms, and consolidate his power ever more firmly.

Even some of the most crucial forces for moderation have been largely pushed aside after the situation was allowed to degenerate into militant and uncompromising hostilities. The tragedy of Kosovo stems in great measure from the failure by all parties to recognize and support the efforts of Ibrahim Rugova. He has been leading a movement for nonviolent social and political change for almost two decades in Kosovo. By the late 1980s, when Serbian authorities had clamped down on the 90 percent Albanian majority, Rugova and his Albanian supporters set up a shadow government, an alternate education and social welfare system, and many international networks to substitute for the services that had been made unavailable to them.

IT WAS ONLY AFTER the Dayton Peace Accords significantly left Kosovo out of the picture for solutions elsewhere in the region that militancy among Kosovo Albanians gained momentum. Abandoned by the West, a relatively small number turned to violence against the Serbian authorities. This provided the excuse for extensive reprisals, often indiscriminately directed against large areas and civilian populations. With the ascendancy of militants, moderates were overshadowed in the escalating tension.

Another potential force for peace is the determined witness of some in the Serbian Orthodox Church within the Kosovo region, home to some of the most hallowed monasteries of the Serbian heritage. Notably Father Sava and Bishop Artemije have spoken out most insistently for peaceful resolution and the prospect of restoring life in peace, side by side with the heritages of Islam and Orthodoxy together.

Mainstream media coverage rarely includes the small but increasingly influential minorities constituted by evangelical Christians. A pastor in southern Serbia reports that "a few bombs fell, but didn’t explode: in the Gypsy camp, at Bobby’s school...in our neighbor’s bedroom! Please keep us in prayers, as these bombs fell in parts of the city where civilians live." And this was before major cities, including Belgrade, became acknowledged targets of the bombing.

Contacts described the growing uncertainty as the bombing threats mounted. But "an old Serbian proverb says: Work as if you’ll live 100 years, pray as if you’ll die tonight. So the church has also been engaged in prayer and fasting. Every hour of the day and night is covered by an intercessor. Scores of people fast on each day. We Christians see it as our duty to stand in the gap for the nations of our land. We’re pleading with God for mercy for the Serbs and the Albanians alike....Albanians have a Muslim background, Serbs are traditionally Eastern Orthodox....This letter is an appeal—don’t forget us! Please make mention of us and the Balkan nations in your prayers."

Now we face the cruel irony of this militant solution: The very civilians whom the intervention purports to protect have been made even more vulnerable to the terrorism on the ground. Cruise missiles and B-2 bombing campaigns simply cannot prevent the intensified slaughter that has targeted intellectuals and social pillars among the exposed Albanian community in Kosovo. Their fate is a virulent new disaster, a direct consequence of the ambivalence in Western policy that has added deadly force to an already volatile mixture.

Suddenly we realize a connection at the deeper level: Like Christians in Serbia, Christians here in the West have to struggle with the lethal failures of policy and policy-makers.

I take courage and inspiration from the sturdy witness of those speaking out from the Balkan battlegrounds: They consistently see these hard times as an opportunity to articulate the Good News of hope in Jesus Christ. They seek our prayers and support while they attempt to continue in that faith-filled response. Can we do anything less?

GERALD SHENK is professor of church and society at Eastern Mennonite Seminary in Harrisonburg, Virginia. With his wife, Sara, he spent nine years in the former Yugoslavia, sponsored by Mennonite Central Committee and Eastern Mennonite Missions. Since 1989 he has returned each year to teach at the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Osijek, Croatia, and to encourage peacemakers in the region.

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