Rewriting History

by Aleksandra Priestfield

June 5, 2000


Note from the Editor:  Two weeks ago Michael Parenti demonstrated in these pages the lies and disinformation propagated by the main media. Meantime, the same "Officialdom" was proclaiming the seizure by the Serbian government of a local television station, financed by Western financiers. Officialdom reached an audience in the tens of millions, we, in the thousands. Undoubtedly, we have a long way to go. But Officialdom is not satisfied with its own spin and its wide reach. Wide is not enough. They want it all. So, the next step, totally unpublicized, is to control and literally redefine history through a simple tool, censorship. Bluntly put, if you erase history, you can better fashion your own reality. Aleksandra Priestfield, in her two-part essay, shows you how. A powerful and scary tale…



A startling press conference was held in Banja Luka, the "capital" of the Serbian part of Bosnia (the Republika Srpska) on October 8, 1999. It was triggered by the extraordinary actions of the European Community, who banned (amongst other things) the works of Nobel laureate Dr Ivo Andric from the textbooks of Republika Srpska schoolchildren. The international community has formed a Commission which includes, almost as if by an afterthought, representatives of Republika Srpska and the [Muslim/Croat] Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the constituent parts of Bosnia, for the purpose of adjudging and withdrawing elementary and high school textbooks with 'offensive' content. Such content includes the work of Dr Andric as well as folk poems, songs such as 'Tamo Daleko' ('There, Far Away') and 'Krece se Ladja Francuska' ('The French Ship is Leaving'), both of which deal with periods of World War I Serbian history - as well as Yugoslavia's national anthem. In a response to this flagrant interference into the culture of a people, not to mention the breaking of the bloodily-enforced Dayton agreement, Professor Predrag Lazarevic, educational consultant, had this to say:

Ladies and gentlemen, I would like first of all to apologise for not having earlier spoken out about the removal of 'offensive' texts from the textbooks of the children of Republika Srpska and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, as someone whose training and whose profession lies in the field of education.
[I think that] the Ministry of Education has overreached itself, because it started, without the consent or approval of the National Government Council, to discuss themes specifically related to the positions of the constituent parts of Bosnia according to the Dayton agreement and the Dayton-based constitution of Bosnia.
First of all, what are 'offensive' texts? They are texts which promulgate lies about another race or nation in order to demean or insult that race or nation.
But something rather strange has occurred here - texts revealing truths about another race or nation have now been presented as 'offensive'.
In the old Yugoslavia, the socialist Yugoslavia, the concept of 'Brotherhood and Unity' was paramount. All three of its major religions and all of its peoples were supposed to be punished equitably for their sins - in other words, if the Orthodox clergy did something wrong, the Catholic clergy and the 'Hodzas', the Muslim clergy, would have to suffer as well.
The international community has gone further. It maintains that texts which were not offensive to the totalitarian government of socialist Yugoslavia are suddenly deeply so. Which texts, then are we talking about?
First and foremost, this concerns the work of Ivo Andric. A well-known excerpt from his novel "The Bridge on the Drina" has been deemed offensive - an extract dealing with the Turkish 'blood tribute' , the taking of Christian children from the territory of occupied Bosnia.
The relevant passage from the "Bridge on the Drina" goes as follows:
On that November day a long convoy of laden horses arrived on the left bank of the river and halted there to spend the night. The Aga of the janissaries, with armed escort, was returning to Stambul after collecting from the villages of eastern Bosnia the appointed number of Christian children for the blood tribute.

…the necessary number of healthy, bright and good looking lads between ten and fifteen years old had been found without difficulty, even though many parents had hidden their children in the forests, taught them how to appear half witted, clothed them in rags and let them get filthy, to avoid the Aga's choice. Some even went so far as to maim their own children, cutting off one of their fingers with an axe.

…a little way behind the last horses in that strange convoy straggled, dishevelled and exhausted, many parents and relatives of those children who were being carried away forever to a foreign world where they would be circumcised, become Turkish and, forgetting their faith, their country and their origin, would pass their lives in the service of the Empire. They were for the most part women, mothers, grandmothers and sisters of the stolen children.

[The women would get driven away but…] ….gather again a little later behind the convoy and strive with tear-filled eyes to see once again over the panniers the heads of the children who were being taken from them. The mothers were especially persistent and hard to restrain. Some would rush forward not looking where they were going, with bare breasts and dishevelled hair, forgetting everything about them, wailing and lamenting as if at a burial, while others almost out of their minds moaned as if their wombs were being torn by birthpangs and blinded with tears ran right onto the horsemen's whips and replied to every blow with the fruitless question: "Where are you taking him? Why are you taking him from me?" Some tried to speak clearly to their children and give them some last part of themselves, as much as might be said in a couple of words, some recommendation or advice for the way...
      "Rade, my son, don't forget your mother...'
      "Ilija, Ilija, Ilija!" screamed another woman, searching desperately with her glances for the dear well-known head and repeating this incessantly as if she wished to carve into the child's memory that name which would in a day or two be taken from him forever.
This is what a current textbook looks like. [The Professor shows a censored textbook, with the 'offensive' portion scoured out with a thick black felt-tip pen] What does this remind you of?

And is the European Union and the international community going to castigate the Nobel Committee for bestowing this accolade upon Ivo Andric?

Another thing that is apparently upsetting is the Yugoslav national anthem, 'Hej Sloveni' ('Hey Slavs'). The lyrics and a translation are given below:
Hej slaveni, joste zivi
duh vasih dedova
dok za narod srce bije
njihovih sinova.
Zivi, zivi, duh slovenski,
zivece vjekov'ma!
Zalud preti ponor pakla,
zalud vatra groma!

Nek se sada i nad nama
burom sve raznese!
Stena puca, dub se lama
zemlja nek se trese!
Mi stojimo postojano
kao klisurine -
proklet bio izdajica
svoje domovine!
Proklet bio izdajica
svoje domovine!
      Hey slavs - still lives
the spirit of your grandfathers
while for their people beat the hearts
of their sons.
Lives, lives the spirit of the slavs
it will live for aeons!
In vain yawns the pit of hell,
in vain the fires of thunder!

Let now, above us,
the storm shatter all!
The stone breaks, the tree splits
let the earth start shaking!
We are standing steady
like cliffs -
damned be he who betrays
his homeland!
Damned be he who betrays
his homeland!
I was surprised, but upon reflection I understood that what was 'offensive' in this song was the sentence Damned be he who betrays his homeland, which sentiment is obviously uncomfortable for those who may be feeling this way.

There are other examples. Songs like 'Tamo Daleko' ('There, Far Away') and 'Krece se Ladja Francuska' ('The French Ship is Leaving') have been excised from musical studies. I don't know who wanted this - perhaps the French, in order to avoid accusations of collaborating with the designated aggressors in Yugoslavia.

Both songs are World War I vintage, commemorating a ghastly winter withdrawal over the Albanian mountains where hunger, disease, cold and bandits decimated the Serb army who regrouped in Corfu (known and revered to this day as the Blue Tomb because so many died there) and returned to win back their country from the those who had driven them from it.

The lyrics of 'Tamo Daleko', and their translation, are as follows:
Tamo daleko,
gde cveta beli krin,
tamo su zivot dali
zajedno otac i sin.

Tamo daleko,
gde cveta limun zut,
tamo je srpskoj vojsci
jedini bio put.

Tamo daleko,
na Krfu zivjeh ja -
ali sam uvek klic'o
"zivela Srbija!"
      There, far away,
where the white lily blooms,
there their lives laid down
father and son together.

There, far away,
where blooms the yellow lemon tree,
there was to the Serbian army
the only open way.

There, far away,
I lived on Corfu -
but I always cried out
"long live Serbia!"
Reactions to such truncations are leading to the children of Bosnia saying, "They just told us which texts to learn by heart". I cannot accept that it would annoy anyone that an old song speaks of a love of country, or is critical of the occupation of the region by the Ottoman Turks. Nobody has mentioned the "Bosniacs", nor even Muslims with a capital M, but specifically Turks as an occupation power.

With this type of politics we are supposed to enter the European Union. I don't know how the French would react if their major literary works became unacceptable - Balzac, Stendhal, Hugo - or how the English would react if someone questioned the worth of Milton or, God forbid, Shakespeare. And in our country Njegos (one of our foremost poets) is being put under the microscope.

And to conclude, Mrs Alexandra Stiegelmayer [of the EU] warns us that unless we accept the renovation of the symbols of [Turkish] occupation, unless we accede in toto to the demands from the EU, we will not be accepted. I would like to ask Mrs Stiegelmayer - how can we even ask to be members of the European Union when the international community has turned Bosnia into the lowest form of protectorate? Is it possible that in a sovereign country of any description a civil servant from the UN, however exalted his position, can displace the legally elected President of a Governing Council, can render irrelevant any member of that Council, can unilaterally make decisions and thrust them upon a people, can meddle with that people's traditions, history and past, and deny the right of free election - to meddle, in a word, with the very stuff of democracy?



In every corner of what used to be Yugoslavia history is being rewritten to suit. Not just recent history, although that is the easiest thing to do - but the history of decades ago, of hundreds of years ago. In the examples quoted by Professor Lazarevic in the press conference called to condemn the meddling of the international community with the historical heritage of a nation there is a common thread - and that is, that it is apparently only Serbian history and literary tradition which is to be denied. Through a fascinating tangle of circumstances the Nobel laureate Ivo Andric is being claimed by practically every Yugoslav ethnic group - he was born in Croatia (hence he is Croat), lived in Bosnia (hence he can be claimed by the Muslims), but unfortunately his family and his background is forthrightly Serb and he himself always identified himself as such. In his most famous book, "The Bridge on the Drina", it is the sufferings of Serbs under the Ottoman occupation that he chronicled, as well as the evolution of the society which makes up today's Bosnia. But because he dared write about the fact that Serbs suffered at Turkish hands, he is now suddenly persona non grata and his work is only good enough to be crudely censored by being blacked out in children's textbooks. Not only that, but the heart of his work, one of the most moving and most searing passages in the novel that earned him the world's most prestigious literary award.

The things they are taking out of the school syllabuses were written decades ago, centuries ago. They describe independently verifiable history. That history is now inconvenient for somebody, and a nation whose history and heritage is being expunged is too weakened to fight back. It is punishment, a rewriting of history by the victors. Two generations on, and the bitter winter of 1915 in the Albanian mountains will not even be a memory - a tragedy which even Western writers with no connection for the region have chronicled with pity and with respect. And yet, a song that speaks to the great-great-grandchildren of the soldiers who made that retreat, 'Tamo Daleko', is deemed offensive.

It is punishment, for unproved and unverifiable crimes, for trumped up charges, brought to bear so that current allies can see that "enemies" are getting their comeuppance.

Let's transpose this, just for a moment. Let's put a country like the United Kingdom in the dock. Its crime: empire building. Carving out huge slices of Africa and India and treating the locals like vermin sometimes. Slicing out a section of Ireland and hanging on to it through thick and thin through 25 years of The Troubles.

Evidence of crimes? Irrelevant. The press says so, so it must be true.


Shakespeare and Milton are to be banned. English schoolchildren are not allowed to learn of English greatness. The English are to be painted in the worst possible light in any and all material, so that anything real and good that they have done is simply ignored and swept under the carpet. They are simply to be considered evil, and there is nothing to be done about it.

Or let us take a Black American. The years of slavery never happened, capice? All references to it are to be wiped from the history books. It doesn't matter that your ancestors felt the lash on their own backs, the scars are lying. Because Someone Else says so. In the years that followed, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King were just troublemakers, and King deserved what he got, yeah? Why? Because Someone Else says so. And your children's children will grow up believing slander, because Someone Else said so and their own nation's history was sat on, hard.

Or, an inevitable comparison, let's take the Jews. Because Someone Else said their kind killed Christ, therefore the entire race is wholly evil. The Inquisition, the pogroms, the Holocaust - they were no more than a people like that deserved, right? Their culture - their Talmud, their wisdom, their writers and literature - are to be denied and dismissed and dismembered. Their language is to be killed and buried, deep, deep, deep.

The things that happened in Bosnia - things like the Turkish occupation - actually happened. If you deny the people of this land the chance to know about their own past, the history will remain accessible to everyone else - everyone except the people most deeply, most directly touched by that history. You could read about the blood tribute of the Ottoman Empire in some dusty library in a distant University in far-off lands, but the only people remaining ignorant of their history and heritage would be the people of Bosnia themselves.

Bosnia has provided the most people-fodder for the War Crimes Tribunal in the Hague. More specifically, it was the Serbs from Bosnia who were tapped for this august body's needs - a handful of token Croats, and no Muslim that I know of, have met the same fate. In the Hague, what appears to hold is not the time-honoured concept of Western justice that an accused person is innocent until proved guilty - proved by evidence that can stand in any self-respecting court of law which precludes hearsay from biased "witnesses" - but rather the idea that it is up to defence lawyers, working under appallingly unequal conditions to the prosecutors, to convince the judges out of a pre-passed "guilty" verdict. The same court is at the present moment so busy "investigating" the Serbian and only the Serbian crimes which allegedly took place in Kosovo that the current situation there is not their concern - and crimes committed against the Serbs during the NATO attacks on Yugoslavia or in its aftermath are, by definition, not crimes. Carla del Ponte of the Tribunal is on record as saying that investigating NATO war crimes - evidence of which she has received - is "not her priority". 1

A great fighter for human rights once said that unprovoked aggression against another country is "the supreme" war crime... and yet the investigators say that the cases brought against NATO on these charges by groups in Greece, Canada and the UK are "not their priority". 1 In other words, if the Serbs are annihilated first, then after that there will be no need to deal with any of the rest of the mess. And annihilation includes the erasing of their past and their right to any pride in that past.

Let history stand and speak for itself. Consider the likelyhood of a nation who was a valued and courageous ally in two World Wars, fighters whom countries like the United States and Britain and France knew, trusted and respected, suddenly turning in the space of less than fifty years into a tribe of ravening animals, selfish, crude and vicious. Consider the evidence for such a transformation. Consider the source for such evidence. Consider the fact that even the best and the bravest on this Earth are, after all, as human as anyone else - and all humans are fallible. But, as in a certain court, it would appear that the guilty verdict is already in and only one thing more remains to be decided: whether the Serbian nation is to be judged for being sub-human - which is a slanderous stone to throw, given that we all live in glass houses of some description - or all too human, prone to the same mistakes as their judges, juries, and executioners.

Let not the triumph of the conqueror blind the West to the fact that, under the guise of justice, they are dealing out cultural and often all too literal genocide to a nation whose guilt of any sin has never been proved through anything other than hearsay, circumstantial evidence, and the convenience of pinning the badge of "common enemy" onto a single people in order to focus a world's fury on.


1. [Ed. note] On June 2, 2000, just two weeks after Priestfield's filing of her essay with Swans, Carla Del Ponte told the U.N. Security Council that there was "no basis for opening an investigation into any of those allegations or into other incidents related to the NATO bombing."


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Published June 5, 2000
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