Uncomfortable History

Up until a few years ago, I subscribed to print copies of The Washington Post and The New York Times. On weekdays, I was a typical commuter on the D.C. Metro reading both papers folded in that special way to keep from elbowing your seat-mate. On weekends, though, the ex (before he was my ex) and I would have morning coffee in bed with those newspapers, swapping sections back and forth until it was time to get up and go out for breakfast. Fond memories.

One Sunday morning, however, when I picked up the papers from the front step, a picture almost leapt off the front page: bodies of people killed by Serb troops in a village in Raçak, Kosovo. The accompanying story described the horror of men and boys rounded up from Raçak, taken to a nearby ravine, and shot. One or two of the young boys survived by pretending to be dead. After the Serb troops left, the village’s women came and carried the survivors back to a nearby mosque.

Yes, the dead were Muslim men and boys, much like the massacre still fresh in Balkan memory at Srebrenica four years before.

That happened 24 years ago this week, January 15, to be specific, but as soon as I read that story, I went upstairs to my computer and began to research. This was at the beginning of the Internet as a source for news from all over the world, so I was able to find several articles, in English, about the massacre and its aftermath.

Brief, very brief, history of Kosovo: At the time, Kosovo was part of the Republic of Serbia. When Yugoslavia broke up into independent countries, Kosovo wanted its independence as well, but it’s a region significant to Serbian history and legend. Serbia hung onto it by force. The people of Kosovo are ethnic Albanians and predominantly Muslim, though there is a large population of Serbs living there, has been for decades if not a century or two. During the Balkan civil wars, an insurgency rose in Kosovo called the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), which Serbia declared to be terrorists.

The reason the Serb troops came to Raçak in January 1999 was to capture KLA insurgents rumored to be there. When the town’s citizens wouldn’t give them up, the troops marched all the men and boys away to their deaths. Forty-five died, including nine members of the KLA, who were indeed there. Also killed was a woman who was believed to have been the mother of a 12-year-old boy killed.

The Serbs said they had proof that every man and boy in the village were KLA, something later found to be untrue. Two independent forensic investigations confirmed that it was a crime against humanity.

Indeed, this massacre in a small, little known village was a turning point for NATO, whose member countries agreed that some action had to be taken against the Serbian government, at that time still led by Slobodan Milosevic. Later in the year, airplanes from NATO bombed targets in Serbia, which diminished Milosevic’s support from the populace. In 2000, he lost a reelection bid and was later arrested and extradited to the International Criminal Court for the Former Yugoslavia to be tried for . . . crimes against humanity. He died of a heart attack in the middle of his trial.

The Republic of Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia in 2008, and several countries have recognized it as a sovereign state (101 of 193 members of the United Nations, in fact), a notable exception not surprisingly being the Republic of Serbia.

That sole woman killed at Raçak along with perhaps her son haunted me in a way that stories about real people haunt writers of historical fiction. The only way to exorcize those ghosts was for me to write a story but a story with a modicum of hope. I also thought that mother and child should have a voice, even in death.

That story was “Blood Vengeance.” Later in 1999, I entered it in a contest, and it placed high enough for me to win a publishing contract with a small, since defunct, publisher. That story later provided the title for my first collection of espionage short fiction, Blood Vengeance, which I’ve been promoting this month.

And it all started from a newspaper showing evidence of the kind of history some people don’t want their citizens to know about. Milosevic certainly didn’t want the Serbian people to know that the story of the entire village being KLA wasn’t true.

As an historian, I acknowledge that one country in modern Europe that seems to be unafraid of its history and makes a point of teaching it to its citizens is Germany. A former enemy of ours wants its citizens to know of its horrific recent past so that it doesn’t happen again. However, people in other countries, including the one I live in, believe that teaching historical fact is harmful because, essentially, it makes the oppressor feel bad.

As meme after meme has said, history should make you uncomfortable; if it doesn’t, you may be part of the problem.


BLOOD VENGEANCE the eBook is free through Friday, January 20, and then 99¢ until January 31. You can find it HERE.