Faces

A Reflection by Randall Major
Novi Sad, Yugoslavia
May 1999
 
   

Each day as I watch the news, I see the faces of the suffering people of Kosovo as they flee their homeland. It is heartbreaking, especially to see the children and elderly as they struggle across the border into the refugee camps. They are swarmed by reporters of the major networks, anxious to get them on film. NATO and the humanitarian organizations receive them into tent cities and then shuffle them off later to points farther away from their homes, either in Albania, or even in foreign countries. Being forced from one's home because of the poor decision making of a small group of politicians is a tragedy, and that tragedy can be seen on the people's faces.

However, media coverage in the west has been far from reciprocal in showing the tragedy within the rest of Yugoslavia. For forty-seven days now, day after day, the major networks re-broadcast Serbian TV pictures of the damage done by the NATO projectiles. They have shown the train, the buses, and even a few of the buildings. Not the people though. You have not seen the faces of the children who have lost parents in the blasts, you have not seen the dead elderly, you have not seen the human face of NATO's mindless destruction. This is not accidental. As long as the Yugoslavs (and remember that there are 26 different national groups living here) remain faceless, it is easy to demonize them, to imagine them as a mass and not as individuals. It is one thing to see a picture of the remains of a train, it quite another to see the charred body of the thirteen year-old boy who was killed by the NATO missile, or anyone of the other 17 victims. It is one thing to see the "collateral damage" of a home destroyed near Podujevo, it is quite another to see 11 month-old Bojana Tosovic and her father who were killed by the bomb. There have been upwards of 1,000 such civilian deaths, and I have yet to see any network presenting the tearful families of any of those casualties. Refugees by the scores. But Bojana's pregnant, tearful mother? Hardly.

Would Americans have understood the horror of the Littleton, Colorado massacre if they had not seen the mourning families and friends? Most certainly not. Those people, those individuals, would remain faceless names in a news story.

In showing a small part of the "collateral damage", the western media give the appearance of being "objective". However, sometimes what you are not shown is just as important as what you are shown. The manipulation of details in the news to fit a particular political program has a name - PROPAGANDA. The free press has become little more than the voice-box of the government's political agenda. It was only when things started going radically wrong that the reporters began asking those uncomfortable questions. There have been rare exceptions in the media, and those individuals are to be praised. The others will come on board, and we will begin to see the victims of the bombing, only when it is time to begin drawing the conflict to an end. This will help sway public opinion so that concessions can be made on all sides.

On the other hand, we have the Serbian media. Everyone in Serbia was used to Serbian TV, and we always knew that they were presenting only part of the story. They never made any bones about being biased, about showing the "other side" of Operation Allied Farce. They were a tiny voice when compared to the vast machinations of the western news networks. Yet, they were apparently very effective. So effective that NATO decided to silence them with three tomahawks, killing more than a dozen anchor people, technicians, make up artists and so on. Then on May 3, they also blew up the local TV station here in Novi Sad with an incredible amount of ordinance. As westerners, we should all be horrified by this. Just because you disagree with what someone says, you have no right to kill them. That is the principle of free speech, one of the fundamental rights of democracy. A few days later, after Littleton, President Clinton stated "We need to teach our children to express their anger with words, not weapons". If you ask me, those children were following the very example set by our hypocritical President. He is the one who is using weapons and not words to silence those with whom he disagrees. Tomahawk democracy.

For years I have taught my students a block of classes which I have labeled "American Studies", as a tandem to a course they have in British culture. In preparation for those classes, the students are required to read the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and some of the more famous speeches by American presidents. They also read about US geography, foreign policy, economy, health care, race relations and about the place of women in society. We then come together and discuss these issues, and try to compare the state of things here in Yugoslavia to the state of things there. My students have always been enthusiastic about the classes, participating vigorously in the discussions about the nature of democracy. I wonder how our discussions will go in the future. My task will be a difficult one, because I will have to find a way to explain that, while the principles of that democracy are sound and right, something has gone completely wrong in the way it is being applied. By breaking international law and by negating the essential principles of the US constitution, the Clinton administration has put a new face on democracy altogether, and that face is not a pretty one to see.