Purdue News

April 14, 2005

Scholars aim to set record straight about Yugoslav wars

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – More than 250 scholars, led by a Purdue University history professor, are trying to help reconcile the peoples of the former Yugoslavia by setting straight the historical record of what actually did – and did not – happen during the wars that followed the country's breakup.

On April 19, representatives from the group, called the Scholars' Initiative, will lead a series of talks in Washington, D.C., to highlight the preliminary results of the project.

The scholars – representing more than 25 countries from five continents – will report on 11 controversies from 1986-2000, including the wars involving Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, Slovenia, and Kosovo. The goal is to promote public awareness and dialogue across the newly created political and cultural frontiers created by Yugoslavia's collapse, says Charles Ingrao, Purdue professor of history and director of the Scholar's Initiative.

"Ever since the 1991-92 dissolution of Yugoslavia we have witnessed the birth of a half dozen self-serving accounts of what happened that carefully exclude inconvenient facts, while emphasizing or simply creating new ones that reinforce the divisions between peoples," said Ingrao, who studies ethnic conflict in Eastern Europe.

"Each side has created its own version of history by identifying itself as the victim and the other side as the aggressor. Since elected politicians are at the mercy of the popular myths that they themselves helped to create, we have come together as scholars to create a single narrative by separating fact from fiction. Having completed this task, we will challenge the region's political leaders to put one foot on this common platform."

Yugoslavia was formed after World War I, when a victorious Serbia merged with the southern Slav lands of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire (Croatia, Dalmatia, Bosnia, Herzegovina, Slovenia, Vojvodina) and the independent state of Montenegro. Germany and its Axis allies partitioned and occupied the country during World War II, after which the partisan leader Josip Broz Tito recreated it as a communist state.

"The collapse of communism aroused national aspirations that had been suppressed under Tito," Ingrao said. "The extremely nationalist Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic resulted in the secession of Slovenia and Croatia in 1991, followed one year later by Bosnia and Macedonia. Under Milosevic’s leadership, what was left of Yugoslavia briefly fought to keep Slovenia in the federation, before launching major conflicts with Croatia and Bosnia in an attempt to retain control over Serb-inhabited areas."

The resort to ethnic cleansing and the deaths of thousands of civilians prompted the intervention of the United Nations, which dispatched "Protection Force" to Bosnia and created a criminal tribunal at The Hague, Netherlands. By 1995, additional events, including the massacre of more than 7,000 Bosnian Muslims at Srebrenica, prompted United States, French and British air strikes against the Serbs, followed by a peace agreement signed in Dayton, Ohio. In 1999, NATO launched new air strikes against Rump Yugoslavia following the commission of additional crimes by Serbian forces in Kosovo.

"Only the fall of Milosevic in October 2000 and his arrest and extradition to The Hague in June 2001 brought an end to a decade of warfare and turmoil in the former Yugoslavia," Ingrao said.

In 1997, during the first of 25 trips that Ingrao made to the former Yugoslavia, he conceived of the Scholar's Initiative project after realizing that many of the scholars from the region understood that their countries' accounts of the wars were incomplete and inaccurate.

The Western world has a more accurate picture of what happened in these countries than the people who live there, Ingrao said.

"This is because we in the West can write and talk openly about what happened in Yugoslavia without being accused of being unpatriotic by our own media and politicians," Ingrao said. "Scholars who live and work in the former Yugoslavia do not have that luxury unless they can speak as a group. And politicians have the least latitude of all, since acknowledging their country's faults or their enemies' will cast them at the ballot box."

About two-thirds of the scholars in the project are drawn from all of the entities of the former Yugoslavia plus Albania. Other scholars come from the United States and Western Europe, as well as Israel, Egypt, Australia and New Zealand.

"We take pride in being an inclusive and fully open group in everything we do," Ingrao said. "We insist on looking at arguments and evidence presented by all sides. To dramatize this commitment, every team is jointly headed by one Serb and one non-Serb scholar, with 10-20 scholars from a half-dozen or more countries."

Ingrao and a Serbian scholar, Darko Gazrilovic from the University of Banja Luka in Bosnia, co-direct one of the research teams that is devoted to examining so-called "safe areas," such as Srebrenica and Sarajevo, where many of the worst atrocities were committed.

The project's 11 teams cover the major controversies, beginning with ethnic tensions in Kosovo that fueled Milosevic's rise to power. Another team is examining the ethnic cleansing, and another evaluates controversies surrounding the work of the Hague Tribunal.

"United States and European statesmen come under close scrutiny for their inconsistent and often cynical policies in Bosnia as well as for their resolute action in Kosovo in 1999," Ingrao said.

Most of the information reported in this project has already been published in scholarly publications or memoirs.

The April 19 meeting at the U.S. Institute of Peace will be the fifth annual conference since 2001, when the group first met in one Marshal Tito's hunting lodges. The United Nations hosted a second meeting at its Sarajevo headquarters, after which it met at a research center at the University of Alberta and Andrassy University in Budapest.

The scholars themselves represent numerous disciplines, including anthropology, history, law, Slavic languages and literature, psychology, political science and sociology.

An initial volume of case studies commissioned by the research-team leaders appeared in December 2004 in a special issue of the scholarly journal Nationalities Papers. Each of the 11 controversies will be featured in a second, composite volume that will be published both in English and Serbo-Croatian-Bosnian languages in 2006. The group will make its final presentation in January 2006 at the Presidential Session of The American Historical Association's annual convention in Philadelphia.

The initiative is funded by several governmental and private donors, including the United States Institute of Peace, the National Endowment for Democracy, the German Marshall Fund’s Balkan Trust and Purdue's Peace Studies Program.

"Nothing like this has ever been done before," Ingrao said. "The extent to which we are successful will determine whether scholars in other parts of the world will ever employ the same model for resolving their own national conflicts."

Writer: Amy Patterson-Neubert, (765) 494-9723, apatterson@purdue.edu

Source: Charles Ingrao can be reached at (765) 494-8385, ingrao@purdue.edu through April 17. After that, journalist should contact him through Megan Chabalowski at the US Institute of Peace (202) 429-3889 through the April 20.

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; purduenews@purdue.edu


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