Animals at War

by Aleksandra Priestfield

May 15, 2000


Note from the Editor:  The 25th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War was a good reminder of how since time immemorial the Judeo-Christian world has used racism and demonization of the "enemy" to wage war. Remember the first crusade? The enemy was the "infidels." In two days, after having overtaken Jerusalem, the "civilized" crusaders killed 40,000 people, with swords and axes. Children, old, young, men and women, anything that moved was killed in an ectasy of blood (the Muslim world has never forgotten this unfathonable episode. Our history books do not even mention it). In Vietnam, they were yellow beasts, "orientals" who were worth less than our own pets. In Iraq, we can starve an entire population with our genocidal sanctions. It's worth it, according to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Iraqis are not real human beings. They can be expended in the name of the master race. The Slavic Serbs don't deserve more attention. They too are demons. In America, pet food is a multi-billion dollar business. We even have diet food for pets in America. In Kosovo, a pet is killed for the simple reason that it belongs to a Serb. If you cannot fathom hate, then just read on.


During, and after, a destructive war which has left unspeakable human tragedy in its wake, looking around at other innocent victims seems almost callous. It feels like one is ignoring the cries of one's own kind, as it were. But in a lot of ways, although wars annihilate even innocent humans in their path, wars are something made by those humans. The victims, guilty and innocent alike, bearing arms or bearing babes and baggage, are all part of the storm which their own kind has raised.

Not so with the beasts.

They are flung about with the rest, by the same wind, but they depend on humans for so many things - and often their connection with the "winning" or "losing" side will doom a poor beast to disaster through no fault of its own. Horses have been war victims for generations, but they, too, are animals that are associated with conflict - with cavalries, with charges, with heroism: "Down into the valley of Death rode the six hundred" 1.

It is the others, the flotsam and jetsam of the human battles, which break the heart.

Three vignettes, then.

The first predates what the West knows as the "conflict" in Kosovo - when the Albanian separatists were considered terrorists even by the United States (no less a person than James Rubin once said as much 2). The atrocities of that time were not widely known, but they were all too often perpetrated by Albanians on the Serb population. Albanian youths were frequently told by their elders - and this is recorded in a article published in 1987 in The New York Times - that it would be basically okay to go out and assault young Serbian women. In a horror story from the late '70s/early '80s, a middle-aged Serb man was brought to hospital with a bottle inserted into his anus, with considerable tissue damage; such was the absolute requirement that nothing be known of what was happening in Kosovo that the subsequent investigation found that the bottle was "self-inserted". Nothing was ever done and no perpetrator brought to justice. Such was the context in which any number of Serbian Orthodox abbeys, monasteries and convents continued to lead a precarious existence. There are photographs of nuns wandering about their cloisters with a rifle slung over each frail woman's shoulder.

One such convent owned a single ox, used for the heavy work around the convent's fields - they had a small area which they kept under plough and seeded with what small harvests they required to keep themselves alive and independent. Came the morning when the nuns emerged from their sleeping quarters to find their ox tied up in front of their church - with both his eyes gouged out. The animal's only crime was that he belonged to a sisterhood of Serbian nuns. I have not been able to get that martyred animal out of my mind since I first saw the photograph of him and read his story some four years ago. Yes, four years ago. Long before the war started down in Kosovo. That is to say, I read the story out in the open for the first time four years ago. It actually occurred closer to fourteen years ago, part of an endless cycle of violence - largely anti-Serb - which has been part of the Kosovo milieu for a very long time.

Sometime after the war ended, a newspaper from, ludicrously, Johannesburg carried the story of the second vignette. An UNMIK contingent of soldiery had found, and adopted as a sort of mascot, an ownerless and emaciated pregnant bitch who subsequently gave birth to a litter of sturdy pups. Once the story of their friend became more widely known, the soldiers were visited by a delegation of Albanian men who demanded that the bitch and her litter be put to death by the soldiers or handed over to them for summary execution. Reason? The bitch was a "Serbian" dog.

If it weren't pathetic it would be amusing. Where was the "ethnicity" of this dog tattooed?

The third story concerns the current Yugoslavia, far north, far from Kosovo and its toils, in a city bombed and still licking its wounds, in a country whose people are driven to the brink of destruction. Life is hard there. It is hard to keep one's own body and soul together. People are finding it incredibly difficult to keep their children fed. When it comes to a choice, people will feed their children instead of their pets.

The city streets in Yugoslavia are full of thin dogs with prominent ribs and tails between their legs who lie hopelessly beside the pavement and eye the pedestrians with a beseeching eye. The basements of houses are home to countless cats who retreat there to have yet another litter of street kittens who are then left to fend for themselves as best they can. Dogs cross the parks in a sort of melancholy slouch, nosing into the piles of rubbish which nobody is collecting and which contain no food because there is none to be thrown away. While I was in Yugoslavia I gave a saucer of milk to the young cat, wild enough not to want to approach me, who skulked in the basement of my aunt's block of flats. I was there for a week; the cat got six saucers of milk, and then no more. Maybe it was cruel even to try.

It breaks the heart. Some of those dogs still wear collars, bearing mute witness that they were loved and somebody's, in better days. Some of those cats remember a time when they didn't have to watch their back and fight for their own small piece of territory every second of every day. Both cats and dogs recall the sirens of 78 days of bombing, the noise and the clamour of it which their ears, so much more sensitive than human, must have rang with. All lost, all abandoned, all adrift.

Somehow I keep remembering that blinded ox of Kosovo.


1 "The Charge of the Light Brigade", Alfred, Lord Tennyson
2 "The United States is deeply concerned about the safety of the civilian population in Kosovo, both Albanian and Serb. We are concerned about attacks against Serbian civilians in Kosovo by Albanian extremist groups, including the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). In recent weeks a number of Serb civilians have reportedly been kidnapped by armed Albanian groups. There can be no excuse for such actions. The civilian population of Kosovo should not be subject to armed attack or intimidation. Those holding civilian hostages should release them immediately and without condition. The US believes hostage-taking and kidnapping of civilians would be grounds for inquiry for ICTY investigators." James Rubin, Spokesman of the Department of State, 1998


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