Hedges uses examples from all over the world and throughout history. One frequent touchstone is the former Yugoslavia. In the early 1990s, Hedges witnessed competing nationalist groups re-write history, in order to deny the pluralistic nature of the region.
In Bosnia the Serbs, desperately trying to deny the Muslim character of Bosnia, dynamited or plowed over libraries, museums, universities, historic monuments, and cemeteries, but most of all mosques. The Serbs, like the Croats, also got rid of monuments built to honor their own Serb or Croat heroes during the communist era. These monuments championed another narrative, a narrative of unity among ethnic groups that ran contrary to the notion of ancient ethnic hatreds. The partisan monuments that honored Serb and Croat fighters against the Nazis honored, in the new narrative, the wrong Serbs and Croats. For this they had to be erased.
This physical eradication, coupled with intolerance toward any artistic endeavor that does not champion the myth, formed a new identity. The Serbs, standing in a flattened mud fields, were able to deny that there were ever churches or mosques on the spot because they had been removed. The town of Zvornik in Serb-held Bosnia once had a dozen mosques. The 1991 census listed 60 percent of its residents as Muslim Slavs. By the end of the era the town was 100 percent Serb. Brank Grujic, the Serb-appointed mayor, informed us: "There never were any mosques in Zvornik."
No doubt he did not believe it. He knew that there had bee mosques in Zvornik. But his children and grandchildren would come to be taught the lie. Serb leaders would turn it into accepted historical fact. There are no shortages of villages in Russia or Germany or Poland where all memory of the Jewish community is gone because the physical culture has been destroyed. And, when mixed with the strange nightmarish quality of war, it is hard to be completely sure of your own memories.
When I was younger I was inclined to accept any separatist movement at face value. I imagined these people - whoever they were - were fighting for freedom against a government that sought to oppress them, and therefore, their cause was just.
Certainly those situations exist. Tibet is occupied by China. The movement for a free Tibet is indeed a freedom movement. The Palestinians clearly must have their own homeland.
But I've heard countless people - Americans and Canadians who support the Palestinian cause - refer to Israel as a "fake country," since it was declared by fiat in 1948 on Palestinian land. Like it or not, Israel exists. Israelis exist. They can't be made to disappear, any more than the Palestinians can.
As my political beliefs have matured, and I've come to reject nationalism, my reading of separatist movements has changed. And now that I live in a country with a separatist movement, I have to admit, I see it differently.
The 300 people who arrived in Kljuc on the buses were from the town of Prnjavor. Most had survived more than three years without work since the Serbs took control of their part of Bosnia. Most of them also had endured harassment and beatings and had seen their young men disappear. But in the last week, in the wake of the sweeping advance of the Bosnian Army, the mood got even uglier.
. . . .
Later that day, I wandered the streets of the town. The collective occupation of the houses was unsettling. On Ibre Hodzic Street one light shone from the rows of windows. I knocked on the door of the apartment and found three elderly women, two Serbs and a Muslim, intently listening to the news on a radio. The three friends were struggling, as they had for more than three years, to make sense of the latest diatribes unleashed by the Serbs or the Bosnian government, the political agreements that might augur peace, and the advances and defeats that marked the ebb and flow of war.
But in the end it had come down to this: The Bosnian government had just reclaimed this town from the Serbs, and nothing had changed except the victims. As a result of this reversal of fortune, Dursuma Medic, a Muslim, would now have to watch over her two Serbian friends - who for the last three and a half years had taken care of her.
"We are three old women trying to survive a war," said Burka Bakovik, fifty-two, a Bosnian Serb. "We have been friends since childhood. None of this hatred ever touched us. We all protected Dursuma when the Serbs ruled. Now she protects us. The only news we wait for is peace, and that hasn't come yet."
As we spoke I could see Muslim soldiers busy painting over the slogans left by the Serbs on the walls outside. "Only one Bosnia, all the way to the Drina" and "Victory is our destiny," they wrote.
Who am I to say the ethnic Albanians of Kosovo should not have their own nation? But I wonder, is the population as monolithic as we are told? If it is, how did it get that way? What will happen to the minority Serbs still living within Kosovo's borders?
In a multi-ethnic world, is such separatism really possible? And is it healthy, or will it only lead to more violence? Has "nothing had changed except the victims"?
Here at home, Canada's own separatist movement watches to see if Canada will recognize Kosovo, prepared to pounce on the perceived hypocrisy. But do most French Canadians want to see Quebec as an independent nation? Clearly not.
I used to think, if the people of Quebec want to have their own nation, then why shouldn't they? Now I see that movement as calling for the destruction of Canada.