Did They Say Latcho Drom?
Thinking hard about our deeds in Yugoslavia

by Gilles d'Aymery

July 6, 1999


Latcho Drom is an ancient expression in the Gypsy language that means "Bon Voyage", "Safe Journey". It's been used in time immemorial as an expression of good wishes by this migrant people. When a Gypsy family would leave from one location, in route to another, in search of a better living, those staying behind would simply say Latcho Drom, "have a safe journey" as they instinctively knew the inherent risks and perils that family would encounter in its peregrination. It was a time when an entire family's possessions would barely fill a wooden caravan drawn by a horse or a mule.

During my childhood in France, the Gypsies were also known as "Tzyganes", "Romanichels", or nomadic Bohemians. Myths had developed in centuries past that they were not to be trusted, that they were a roaming people, stealing along their way and abducting young girls. I remember cartoons in old publications kept in my grandfather's attic that depicted children throwing rocks at those hapless beings who always looked dark and threatening. Today, we would simply call the hopefully past French behavior discriminatory against a distinctive ethnic group.

In return, there was an old saying that stated, "the dogs are barking and the caravans pass along". It meant, I suppose, a certain kind of indifference to bigotry.

Anyway, I learned about that expression watching a documentary entitled Latcho Drom. To this day, Gypsies from all over the world peregrinate to the French Mediterranean shores, in Sainte Marie de la Mer. The caravans have been replaced by modern motor homes. Yet, as an integral part of their rich cultural heritage, Latcho Drom is still being wished nowadays among this vibrant community. (I for one use these two words on my screen-saver as a constant reminder of their humanness and of my own wandering.)

So, when news reports surfaced that about 3,000 Gypsies were leaving Kosovo in fear of violent reprisals by the Albanian Kosovars who considered that the Gypsy population had sided with the Serbs, I wondered not why these people were fleeing to save their lives. Instead, I asked myself why they would feel more secure under the Serbian socio-political system, why they had chosen to "side" with the Serbs and not with the Abanian Kosovars?

After all, for the past few weeks, Officialdom has been remarkable in denunciating the tens of thousands of atrocities committed by Serbian paramilitary forces and other thugs of war, though, personally, I keep a certain dose of skepticism before such figures. Haven't we also been told that NATO had killed over 5,000 FRY soldiers and destroyed over 30 percent of their war equipment and that it had not targeted the civilian population and infrastructure, to finally learn that only about 600 soldiers had been killed--half of them by KLA fighters, that very little equipment had been destroyed except for a lot of wooden and plastic decoys, and that, indeed, we had targeted the civilian economic infrastructure? So, yes, skepticism is in order.

Yet, again, why would the Gypsies have sided with a national community which has been portrayed for almost a decade now like a demoniac people? Why associating oneself with nefarious killers, vicious rapists, wicked looters who would not stop until they had achieved their goal of a Greater Serbia purified of all religious and ethnic differences? Gypsies are not Serbs and Gypsies are not Christian Orthodox, so far as I know.

So, WHY?

I think the answer to this question, strangely enough, can be found in the emotional words, almost a primal scream, of Branislav Andjelic that I have published in my articles Our Civilization is Dying in Yugoslavia. Do You Care? on May 15 and Staggering Aftermath on June 13, 1999: "We will not be assimilated." "We must not allow ourselves to be assimilated."

These words reflect the deepest core of the Serbian identity; the absolute refusal to be assimilated by foreign cultures (read America or any other country, for that matter), ideologies (read communism, capitalism, "free-market" economies), or religions (read Islam). A people who fought for centuries not to get assimilated, I surmise, is the same people who has always refused to assimilate. Don't you think that there must be a reason behind the fact that more than 20 ethnic or religious groups are represented in Serbia?

In the past ten years we have consistently condemned the Serbs for their ultra-nationalism. What an interesting thought when you look at America today, in the midst of her 4th of July festivities, drowned in red, white and blue as well as Stars and Stripes sales at the malls. It seems that nationalism is okay for some, preferably powerful, nations, but becomes a stigma for those smaller countries that refuse the domination of a big brother.

I have said again and again: Kosovo and the Balkans have little to do with humanitarianism. Power and economics were, are and will remain the Gordean knot in that region for decades to come. As Thomas L. Friedman wrote in The New York Times (July 2, 1999), with his usual fine perception (irony inserted), "Air power brought this war to a close....because NATO made life miserable to the Serbian civilians in Belgrade. Belgrade...."wants to be part of today's main global trends, from the Internet to economic development, which the presence of McDonald's symbolizes." In the same column, he adds, "They wanted McDonald's re-opened, much more than they wanted Kosovo re-occupied." And, "This war also illustrated just how much the world is now dominated by U.S. power." McDonald's is only one of the many commercial arms of that power and it ultimately needs the U.S. armed forces to defend it.

It must be repeated, again, and again, and again: Yugoslavia was a multiethnic federation which had long been suspicious of the Great Powers' hidden agenda. We decided to carve it out and create puppet states which by now are practically ethnically and religiously purified. The Serbian nation objected to our decisions and so we decided to carve her out dead or alive. Since the body is still breathing, we are fomenting internal revolts, pushing Montenegro to separate from Serbia, and trying to finance pro-independence parties in the Vojvodina province, with its big Hungarian minority, to secede and become part of Hungary or to declare unilateral independence. We will suffocate the Serbian people until they accept assimilation into our definition of modernity.

Such a definition is best explained by Scott McNealy, the CEO of Sun Microsystems, in a New York Times OP-ED of July 5, 1999: "The culture in Silicon Valley is ultracompetitive. For a few entrepreneurs, it's eat lunch or be lunch, really. That's a pretty harsh reality, but everyone here knows it's true."

Eduard Said, in the last issue of Al-Ahram Weekly writes about the treason of the intellectuals (this article is reproduced on Swans). Reading it and thinking about Mr. McNealy's reality reminded me of a book written in 1927 by a French historian and philosopher, Julien Benda (1867-1956), "La trahison des clercs" ("the treason of the intellectuals"). In this profound work, Julien Benda dissected the death of universal values (a.k.a. Hellenism) and the triumph of the values of realism (German, Saxon values). He said that the present humanity as a whole was moving toward integral reality and he worried about a return to barbarity. He concluded thus: "And so, unified in an immense army, in an immense factory, knowing no more than heroisms, disciplines, inventions, debasing all free and disinterested activity, back from putting goodness beyond the real world and having no more god but itself and its wills, humanity will reach grandiose things, I mean it will take over really grandiosely the matters that surrounds its environment, it will have the truly joyful conscience of its own power and grandeur. And history will smile at the thought that Socrates and Jesus Christ died for that species."

Perhaps Mr. Friedman and Mr. McNealy have already reached this state of cold grace. Perhaps Branislav Andjelic, Lioubomir Mihailovich, Milo Clark, and others have the uncommon sensitivity and knowledge to understand what is, indeed, going on. And perhaps, it does explain why the Gypsies chose as they did.

But no one was left to wish them Latcho Drom as barbarity had carried the day.


Note: I highly recommend Julien Benda's work. It is one of a handful of books that has deeply influenced my life. It was recommended to me by Alexis Wolkenstein, my most admired professor at the Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Paris in the mid-seventies. This is a profound and erudite work, a true piece of intellectual art. An English translation was done in 1969 by Richard Aldington, New York-Norton, 1969. I have just ordered it so that I may verify and certainly correct my own translation of the last sentences of the book. Hard to read, hard to follow the remarkable erudition of its author, this book will nevertheless transform your life.


This Week's Other Articles:

Making Peace With the Guilty by Charles G. Boyd - This article that first appeared in Foreign Affairs exemplifies some of our past actions in the Balkans.

Three Articles from The Progressive Response - These articles look at the U.S. role in the Balkans, the propaganda during the war, and where the media coverage of the war went wrong.

The treason of the intellectuals by Edward Said - Published in Al-Ahram Weekly, this article raises the shortcomings of our actions in Kosovo.


Resources on the War in Yugoslavia and its Aftermath


Articles Published on Swans Regarding the War in Yugoslavia and its Aftermath

Published July 6, 1999
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