The Fracture Zone: A Return to the Balkans
by Simon Winchester

Book Review by Aleksandra Priestfield

October 23, 2000



Well beyond the first anniversary of NATO's war against Yugoslavia; the situation, far from calming down in the aftermath, has steadily deteriorated. What has proliferated, instead of ordnance, is literature. The bandwaggon has proved wide and strong, and The Fracture Zone is exactly this - a bandwaggon book, an attempt by the author of such books as The Surgeon of Crowthorne to cash in on the topic. The Fracture Zone is not a book to be proud of - there is too much of the "foreign correspondent" for it to be pretty travelogue, and too much overt partisanship for it to succeed as impartial political analysis. "I very much wanted to learn a little more, to see a little more, to understand a little more… ", Winchester states. "…might I not stay in the Balkans…looking the place over, looking at lands that were being convulsed by war…it seemed a beguiling idea." His idea of learning a little more appears to depend on quoting three works as good sources; two of these are classics, the well-known Black Lamb, Grey Falcon by Rebecca West and The Bridge on the Drina, one of the novels that earned its author, Ivo Andric, the Nobel Prize for literature. For anyone who has actually read these works, the manner in which they have contributed to Winchester's understanding of the Balkans as described in his book is a wholly impenetrable mystery - he seems to have worked hard at misunderstanding them both.

The interludes in Vienna and Istanbul appear to have been tacked on to the book as pretty bookends - remnants of glittering empires, bright civilisations bracketing the wild and seething Balkans in between. They are so incidental that they become almost irrelevant, for all the contortions that are undertaken to weave them into the rest of the book. This is because they are merely prisms to focus readers to where the author really wants them to look - Kosovo.

On the journey down from Vienna, Winchester passes through the cauldron of Bosnia, just to set the scene. He passes through the Serb enclave in Bosnia, Republika Srpska - "…a place where no one, frankly is very welcome…for those who care to demonize serbs, not a place in which to linger." Well, not entirely surprisingly. But everything he sees is ugly, contrasted sharply with a later snapshot of a meadow full of a seething mass of Albanian refugees where he observes a young mother who "…[if it wasn't for Serbian actions] could have been a poster child for motherhood and goodness and sheer human loveliness". According to the author, if you ask any Serb Christian why "… he loathes [Albanians enough to]rape Albanian women and throw them down wells or to eviscerate Albanians or flay them and leave them skinless and drying in the sun [he will be sure to say that] deep down he hates them because they are Turks, Muslims, Asians, godless fiends who have no business being in Europe in the first place". Contrast this bit of journalistic hyperbole with a real incident where the brother and father of an Albanian girl, whose honour was taken to be besmirched by a young man's pinching her bottom, herded out all the males of her family and cut off their noses - and no crime was thought to have been committed other than the initial unfortunate pinch. The average reader is not going to have the time, the inclination, or perhaps even the acuity to perceive that no Albanian was flayed alive in Kosovo by any Serb while the noses were, in fact, removed. Serbian peasants are portrayed as simpletons who would destroy their own medieval churches by digging out frescoed saints' eyes as remedies for blindness, and as blindly vengeful for the crimes perpetrated upon them by the Turks of five centuries ago. As an example of the latter, Winchester cites a scene from Andric's novel where a Christian peasant interfering with the building of a Turkish bridge is impaled on a sharpened stick to serve as example for any other potential saboteurs. What he has signally failed to understand is that for the Serbs of that era and later physical death was endurable, and endured. If he had to quote Andric, why not quote the far more powerful scene describing the insidious destruction of a people and a culture by a superior power, one which could and therefore did remove young men from their hearths, changed their name and their religion, and made them forget from whence they came. It is this battle that Winchester should have been trying to understand.

Winchester reveals more than he might think, through inadvertent turns of phrase or sometimes statements so bald that they leave the reader breathless. Media roles and attitudes in and about the Balkans stand stark and unveiled. According to Winchester, editors from London and New York would contact their stringers on the ground and demand that they find a young and pretty Albanian refugee speaking passable English, and pregnant after being raped by a Serb paramilitary - and for 200 Deutschmarks a day, there were people who could arrange this. In Bosnia, SFOR simply killed the transmitters of stations they disapproved of: "…a strong hand is needed to run a place like this". RTS, the bombed Serbian TV station, was "pumping out so many lies it had to be silenced" - and yet the NATO press office was forced again and again to admit the truth of some Yugoslav broadcast on a NATO blunder.

Whether or not he meant it to be so, Winchester's book is deeply political and vividly partisan - for a man who "wanted to learn more" it is revealing that the only place in the Balkans which he was too afraid or too ashamed to visit is post-war Serbia - and that when, in Pristina, he was only a few hours from the border. But worse than this are two things - one is that, after finding the possibility of lingering to observe a convenient war, it is an ugly and vicious thing to gloat over the defeated in quite the same way that Winchester does here. At one point he says, that in strict legal terms, by moving before the designated deadline, NATO "may well have" breached the "so-called" military technical agreement signed with Yugoslavia three days before - "but if this was so there was certainly nobody on hand to complain." That should have been his job, if ethics had anything to do with it. The other is the deliberate misdirection of fact. He speaks of "[soldiers and examiners… finding terrible, terrible things]... newly dug graves …[rooms in cellars ]that had evidently been used as torture chambers or places of execution… skeletons by the hundred… detached bones… half burnt bodies of children… and yet more graves". The impression left behind is that of a seething evil. And yet, even the most partisan of media could not provide any concrete evidence of such finds. Yes, there were torture chambers - in the plural; one was shown on the TV news as footage with warnings for the sensitive and provided no more than a soldier in fatigues pointing to a set of knuckle dusters. The other was never shown at all because it was still occupied by torturees, one which died aged seventy-plus from wounds he received in this place… and run by a radical Albanian cell.

The "liberation" of Kosovo is underlined by Winchester feeling…" the relief that the Kosovo Albanians must be feeling right now - that no one could take them away from their homes again, or torture and shoot them." He wonders if "…there was much long-term wisdom and merit in [taking all these people home and then] employing international troops to guard them in the hope that they and the Serbs who had done all this to them might come to tolerate each other once again." On the strength of this, he underlines how highly suspect (from the point of view of the West and the Albanians) any Russian involvement would be - without pondering the fact of how suspect the involvement of the 19 countries who had just pounded Yugoslavia into submission would seem to the Russians and the Serbs. He concludes grandly that things are unlikely to work here, just as they were unlikely to work in Northern Ireland: "This had been no liberation, no matter how much the the press officer from London might have wanted it to be seen that way." But by this stage a careful reader could be forgiven for thinking that Winchester is merely trying to cover the shining nakedness of his partiality with the barest rags of the appearance of even-handed thought.

He speaks of a man he meets in Albania, an Irish-Canadian businessman who runs a company specialising in "construction and disaster services" - readying himself vulturinely for Kosovo after the war ("It's exciting stuff!" ). However, Winchester says fondly, he was clearly having so much fun doing what he did and he was so popular with the local Albanians that it would seem "churlish" to suggest that he was a man who made a living on exploiting human misery. I suppose it would be equally churlish to suggest that Simon Winchester was any less of a vulture for producing this book, justifying what it is most profitable to justify in the current situation without apparently going away having learned anything at all - for he leaves the Yugoslavia of mixed marriages, mixed businesses and mixed lives and standing stunned at the simple fact of finding a Muslim and a Christian sharing an office in nearby Bulgaria. For the reader who wishes to find exactly the sort of book Mr Winchester has failed to produce here I would suggest Brian Hall's The Impossible Country - or even the novel he quotes, Ivo Andric's The Bridge on the Drina. As for The Fracture Zone, the best I can wish for Simon Winchester is that his next book is good enough to make readers forget that he ever wrote this one.

The Fracture Zone: A Return to the Balkans
by Simon Winchester - Viking/Penguin, hardback


       Aleksandra Priestfield is a writer and an editor. She contributes her regular columns to Swans

Please, DO NOT steal, scavenge or repost this work without the expressed written authorization of Swans, which will seek permission from the author. This material is copyrighted, © Aleksandra Priestfield 2000. All rights reserved.


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Resources on the War in Yugoslavia and its Aftermath


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Published October 23, 2000
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