The Westlake Serbs

As Westlake Park rabble-rousing goes, this was barely a peep. The eight or so Serbo-Seattleites who turned out last Wednesday to protest the bombing of their homeland barely outnumbered the skateboarders lined up in military formation for another run at the pavers. But they were spirited, as they waved their hand-lettered signs: "Don't believe CNN," "Clinton, lier [sic]", and "What about Beijing? What about Rwanda?" And a few minutes of listening to them was probably the best local lesson to be had on the whys of the horror in Kosovo—and on the psychological and political circumstances that Serbia's President Milosevic has exploited to such wrenching effect.

Not that any of them were fans of Milosevic. Two of them, a man and woman, dismissed him as a thug and autocrat. One woman, the most vehement in the group, said she'd left Belgrade to escape his misrule, but then suggested an equivalence: "Milosevic is a murderer. But Clinton is a murderer, too." And he was the one "murdering" her people now.

She was, however, less eager to talk about ethnic cleansing in Kosovo ("If you're going to talk like that, there's nothing to say"), and insisted that what we saw on TV and in the papers was just NATO propaganda: "You can check for yourself. Look on the Internet. Not just news from Serbia—I know you won't believe that. But Finnish Web sites, Swedish Web sites." So what about the photos, the tens of thousands of refugees flooding out of Kosovo: "Do you see tens of thousands in one photo? Hah!"

She argued that NATO, not Milosevic, had fomented trouble in Kosovo by sending vast arms supplies to the Kosovo Liberation Army. (Meanwhile, the pundits were lamenting that NATO's big mistake not arming the KLA, leaving it helpless to defend its people.) So why would NATO want to provoke more upheaval in rump Yugoslavia? I asked. As a pretext to invade, she replied—to en-circle Russia with missiles. But doesn't NATO have plenty of closer positions in Greece and Turkey (not to mention its new members, Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic)? Ah, she said, but Yugoslavia was especially strategic.

Such solipsism seemed to run deep. Pressed about the sufferings of the Kosovars, she and other demonstrators would reply, but look at how the Serbs have suffered—when they were expelled from the Croatian Krajina after Clinton and Milosevic both betrayed them, when the growing Albanian population "drove" them from Kosovo, and especially when the Croatian fascists committed "genocide" against them in World War II. Back then, she declared, "750,000 Serbs were buried in one mass grave" at the notorious Jasenovac concentration camp. (US Nazi hunters estimated "at least 120,000" were killed there; Croatia has said 30,000 Jews, Gypsies, and Serbs.)

To be sure of the number, she referred me to "our priest," a tall, bearded fellow who exuded warmth and authority. He repeated the usual Serb account: 600,000. He conceded that ethnic Albanians were being driven from Kosovo, but noted, "This is not so bad [as the Serbs' fate]. They aren't being killed."

The woman from Belgrade disputed the Albanian Kosovars' right to be in Kosovo anyway, even though they're 90 percent of its population. Fifty years ago, she said, Serbs were the majority there, but then Albanians trickled in from Albania, bred like rabbits, and "burned houses" to drive the Serbs out. "You want to talk about genocide?" she asked.

I recalled where I'd heard such demographic rationalizations before. Zionist polemicists claimed the Palestinian Arabs only arrived in the 19th century, and so have no stake. And my seventh-grade geography textbook recounted that only 1 million people inhabited all North America when Columbus landed (a figure variously estimated since then at 2 million to 18 million). Ergo, we didn't kill all that many Injuns.

Another demonstrator, plainly conflicted, described what he'd seen in visits to prewar Kosovo. This sounded less like genocide than like the "white flight" from US inner-cities. Serbs felt pressed by the growing Albanian majority, he explained: "You don't feel comfortable. You worry about your children getting beat up, about getting raped. So you leave."

This fellow didn't try to deny or excuse today's dreadful doings in Kosovo. He just insisted that the bombing was wrong and wouldn't solve anything (a view that seems to have taken root in NATO itself). But he was plainly anguished at finding common cause with Slobodan M. Three years ago, he explained, he went back to Belgrade and joined the 100,000 demonstrators demanding that Milosevic to step down. Where was NATO then, when the democratic opposition was winning local elections? Or before, when Milosevic himself faced an electoral challenge? Why didn't we aid his opponents?

But you needn't subscribe to neoCold War paranoia or victim myths to understand the Serbs' sense of betrayal. The Clinton administration coddled Milosevic somewhat as Bush did Saddam Hussein—elevating him as a statesman, letting him play peacemaker in the Bosnian war he started, signaling that we wouldn't really fight for the Kosovars, shying from the notion that they, like the Kurds, just might have to break free. And like the scorpion crossing the river, he did what was in his nature.

Cloudy Vista

The obvious question about the Seattle Housing Authority's plan to replace aging Rainier Vista with a spanking new mixed-income "village" also dogged the similar Holly Park raze-and-rebuild: Will this mean a net loss of housing for the low-income folks who already live there? A couple more questions:

1) Might the new "village" include the neighborhood businesses that help set Wallingford apart from Lynnwood? Traditional projects aren't just income ghettoes; like the suburbs (and most of Southeast Seattle), they're housing ghettoes, with shops consigned to a few auto-dependent strips.

2) Why's SHA doing this now, seven years after spending $7 million to re-roof, replace water pipes and sewers, and add vinyl siding at Rainier Vista?

The answers, from SHA project director Ellen Kissman: 1) Maybe: "It would be nice to have some small, very neighborhood-focused businesses, like noodle shops." And 2) The siding and plumbing were redone to correct peeling lead paint, failing infrastructure. The reconstruction grants SHA is now applying for "weren't even on the horizon" then, and "even if we get funding, [the repairs] added another decade to the life of the project."

As for preserving low-income units, Kissman vows "no net loss. We don't want to get into that fight again." We'll see what activists like John Fox say about that.

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