It’s a strange old world and no mistake. In 1999, when the Balkan territory of Kosovo was being ethnically cleansed by Serbian nationalists (eventually triggering belated Nato retaliation in the form of bombing raids), I wrote a newspaper column expressing disgust at the inhuman acts perpetrated in the Balkans in the name of Serbian nationalism.
Though I admit it was a strongly worded column, provoking a number of angry letters and an official complaint to the New Zealand Press Council, I never imagined it would still be reverberating 12 years later. But a few days ago, on this blog, a comment appeared out of the blue – bizarrely, under an inconsequential and totally unrelated post I had written about cricket – that revives the controversy.
It came from someone writing under the name of Kelly Slater, and I now feel obliged to write this post simply to explain to mystified readers what it’s all about. Slater’s rant (assuming Slater is a genuine name, which is doubtful) obviously aroused some interest, because the post attracted an unusually high number of readers, and I can’t believe they were simply interested in my flippant comments about cricket. Hence this attempt to fill in the background.
My column was published in Wellington’s Evening Post and the Nelson Evening Mail, and though it was triggered by events in Kosovo, it was written when the memory of Serbian atrocities in Srebrenica and Sarajevo – some of the most appalling events in my lifetime – was still fresh.
Untangling exactly who was responsible for what in the ghastly charnel house that was the Balkans in the 1990s is notoriously difficult. No one – including Croatians, Muslims and Kosovars – was blameless. But there was no doubt about Serbian responsibility for the worst excesses, and that was the subject of my column. To convey the tone of it, here’s one paragraph:
“The events of the past few years in the Balkans have produced in me a deep detestation of all things Serbian. I don’t take any pride in this, but neither do I apologise for it. Humanity demands that we are repelled by the vile acts carried out in recent years in the name of Serbian nationalism.”
Chastened by some of the subsequent responses, including a conversation with an elderly Serbian woman from Levin, I partially recanted in a subsequent column in which I wrote:
“To treat all people of Serbian descent as sharing culpability for the barbaric behaviour of [Slobodan] Milosevic and his brutish gangs of murderers and rapists was quite plainly simplistic and wrong, and offensive to those Serbs who adhere to humanitarian values and are shamed by the frightful acts carried out in the name of Serbian nationalism.
“To the many good and decent Serbian people living in New Zealand, therefore, I apologise. It was quite wrong of me to visit upon them the sins of the vile people who dishonour the name of Yugoslavia. Does this mean I also retract the rest of my comments? Not for a moment.”
A reader of the Nelson Evening Mail decided I wasn't chastened enough and complained to the Press Council. The then editor of the Mail, the admirable David Mitchell, went to some lengths – far more than most editors in such circumstances – to argue in my defence, and the complaint was subsequently dismissed in a thoughtful decision written by the council's then chairman, former High Court judge Sir John Jeffries. The decision read, in part:
“The first [column] is not for racial hatred, it is against it. It is not for violence, but against it. The central point of the second column is that recourse should not be had to history to explain but that the violence should be halted right now. The political message of the piece is that Nato bombing be supported for the sole purpose of stopping the killing of thousands of Kosovars and the displacement of hundreds of thousands. When ethic cleansing is the issue some columnists choose not to express themselves by detached analysis using language of cold objectivity but prefer to startle and shock.
“This was not writing of an irresponsible, reckless or promiscuous nature. It was powerfully expressed argument laced with emotion and passion. The Council in the name of objectivity, balance and judgment should not interfere with the freedom to write and publish such material. This is highly emotive writing but it does not call for disapprobation by the Council.”
You might think the matter would have rested there, but no. In 2006 my columns were dredged up on an aggressively pro-Serbian website run by someone calling himself Jared Israel, who described me not only as racist (fair enough – I had confessed in my first column to racist sentiments toward Serbians) but as an anti-Semite as well, based on his particular interpretation of the language I used. This might come as a surprise to my Jewish friends, but there you go.
Now, another five years on, this “Kelly Slater” has weighed in. My column may be 12 years old, but that's a mere moment in time to people who still nurture bitter grudges and hatred arising from events that happened 600 years ago.
It’s pointless trying to engage in rational, coherent debate with such people; the manic-obsessive tone of his/her comments, with all their wild-eyed accusations and bizarre non-sequiturs (I don't like murderous Serbian nationalists so must love Croatians, Muslims and Kosovar organ harvesters), speaks for itself.