[Viewpoint] Avoiding the Balkans’ fate

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[Viewpoint] Avoiding the Balkans’ fate

St. Louis, which recently hosted the Midwestern section of the annual conference of the International Studies Association, is a modest city of about 350,000 people. But the city prides itself on its historic value. In 1804, the Lewis and Clark expedition, at the command of President Thomas Jefferson, set out from St. Louis in May 1804 to reach the Pacific Ocean. They returned home a year later.

The city, located in the middle of America, served as the starting point for many West-bound expeditions, earning it the moniker Gateway to the West. The 192-meter (630 feet) “Gateway Arch” is still the iconic symbol of the city. In its heyday, the city hosted the World’s Fair in 1904 and is famous as the hometown of the Cardinals, a Major League Baseball team that has won 10 World Series.

But this seemingly all-American Midwestern city is, surprisingly, home to a sizable population of 70,000 Bosnian immigrants. It houses the largest number of ethnic Bosnians outside Bosnia. Bosnia, a landlocked country in southeastern Europe, has a population of about 4.35 million. About 600,000 immigrated to the United States, and of them, 70,000 Bosnian Muslims came to St. Louis after they fled the war of the 1990s.

The spotlight at this year’s ISA conference shone on the Bosnian Memory Project, an undergraduate course taught since 1996 at Fontbonne University that unearths documents and records on Bosnian history, and includes the traveling exhibit “Prijedor: Lives from the Bosnian Genocide.”

Prijedor, a small town in northwestern Bosnia and birthplace to most St. Louis immigrants, has suffered conflict after conflict throughout Bosnia’s history. Bosnia-Herzegovina, which shares borders with Croatia and Serbia, had been part of the Yugoslavia before it gained independence during the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s that were marked by bloodshed from invasions and ethnic conflicts. The capital Sarajevo was where a Yugoslav nationalist assassinated the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary in June 1914, which triggered World War I.

As members of the Korean Truth and Reconciliation Commission, we gave transcripts that can be helpful to the Bosnian genocide project to its head, Benjamin Moore. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, based in the Hague, is currently deliberating crimes against humanity committed by perpetrators since 1991.

Yugoslavia, under strongman Marshal Tito, had flourished during the Cold War. It accomplished industrialization that included auto-making and earned accredited status as a nonallied nation. The country’s unique innovative workers’ system was envied by working-classes all over the world. Some praised the country’s system as a model for human equality.

Sarajevo hosted the Winter Olympics in 1984 and that was where our female table tennis players brought home the country’s first gold medal since the World Table Tennis Championship in 1973. But divisive nationalist sentiments exploded after the Cold War’s end, exacting the biggest tragedy and massacre of the late 20th century. Yugoslavia as result was dismembered into several states.

It is not easy to explain the country’s complicated and diverse ethnic structure and culture that led to ethnic-cleaning and genocide. To make a long story short, the bulk of the population is Yugoslavs, or southern Slavs, sharing the same Serbo-Croatian language. But their religious and cultural diversity divided them into distinctively different ethnic identities.

The population consists of 44 percent Slavic Muslims, 33 percent Orthodox Serbs and 17 percent Roman Catholic Croats. Hostilities among different ethnic and religious identities seeking self-serving interests led to tragic massacres. They are living proof of how fragile and vulnerable a civilization can be. The three-year bitter territorial conflict ended in 1995 after a peace agreement was drawn up by the international community in Dayton, Ohio.

But the country remains unsettled.

The Balkan conflict has disturbing implications for the future of Korean Peninsula. Division in Yugoslavia has been prevalent for centuries while Korea has been separated for just decades and more or less has no religious conflict (if setting aside the North Koreans’ blind worship of the Kim Il Sung cult).

But its history of people sharing the same land and language turning against each other can be correlated to ours. The cultural and civilization situations of the two Koreas are poles apart. We must brace ourselves for a great deal of effort and sacrifices against potential conflict.

*The writer is a professor at Myongji University and a member of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Korea.

By Kang Kyu-hyung
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