We dare not ignore these bloody pools

Saturday, 5 August 1995

Why should we give a damn about the terrible events unfolding in far-off Bosnia?

We have a problem dealing with numbers. We can cope with small figures quite easily. ("Mommy, I want R2,30 for a chocolate.") We flinch from slightly larger numbers. ("R230 deducted for medical aid?") And we look with envy at even larger numbers. ("I'd love to have that car, but it costs R230 000.")

However, if we get to large numbers, those fly right by us. ("The combined additional expense to the taxpayer is R2,3-million")

British writer Alan Moore had an easier way of relating to large numbers. The average human body, he said, holds about a gallon of blood. The average swimming pool holds about 20 000 gallons.

Chinese dictator Chiang Kai-Shek, when fleeing Mao's revolution, invaded and occupied the island of Taiwan, wiping out about 20 000 of the native Taiwanese in the process. That's about one swimming pool full of blood.

About 65 000 people were butchered by Von Trotha's German forces in Namibia by the beginning of this century. (Three swimming pools). Six million Jewish people were killed by the Nazis some 40 years later (300 swimming pools). By contrast, a mere 700 people were buried in the mass grave at Kasinga following the SADF bombing of a refugee camp in 1978. (That's about enough to fill the tanks of 70 Citigolfs or Unos.)

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the country that had been known as Yugoslavia began to disintegrate. After Slovenia and Croatia announced their secession, the people of Bosnia and Herzogovina held a referendum to decide the future of their area. By a two-thirds majority, the electorate opted to form the new independent country of Bosnia-Herzogovina. International recognition of the country took place on April 5, 1992. On the same day, combined Serbian and Montenegrin forces began their assult on the new territory.

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Who were the invaders? They were not outsiders. They comprised what had been - in the Soviet days - the Yugoslav armed forces. Some 40 years of stockpiled weaponry built up during the cold war was put to work with ruthless efficiency. In the first months, some 70% of the territory was seized by the invaders. By mid-1994, some 200 000 people had been killed.

Ten swimming pools.

It's called genocide -- the deliberate and systematic extermination of an ethnic or national group. And we really should give a damn about it because it's a phenomenon that's very close to home.

We have had entire sections of our population -- Khoi Khoi, San, Herero -- wiped out by colonisation. The bloody period of the mfecane is still fresh in our history. We saw first hand the massacre of Tutsis by Hutus in Rwanda.

Alija Izetbegovic, president of Bosnia and Herzogovina, told the UN General Assembly last year: "...what we call Bosnia is not only a small piece of land in the Balkans. For many of us, Bosnia and Herzegovina is not just a homeland, it is an idea. It is a belief that peoples of different religions, nationalities and cultural traditions, can live together."

You could probably substitute "Mandela" for "Izetbegovic" and not miss a beat.

We too, have a country that decided to opt for change after decades of oppression. We too have a country governed by a democratically elected 60-something percent majority. We too have well-armed and powerful entities with nationalistic aspirations who wish to subvert that democratic process towards their ethnocentric ends.

Izetbegovic went on: "If it happened that this dream was forever buried, and this idea of tolerance among the peoples in these areas was irretrievably gone, the guilt would lie not only with the ones who have been relentlessly killing in Bosnia, but with many of the powerful from the rest of the world who could have helped, yet have chosen to do otherwise."

True, and these sentiments have been echoed by the likes of Elie Wiesel, Simon Wiesenthal, and Yitzhak Rabin. These are not Jews speaking up for Muslims, but human beings speaking for humanity.

A further 7 000 people have "vanished" in Bosnia over the past week. You could fill the tanks of 700 Unos...

But we in South Africa have further reason to ensure Serbian aggression does not succeed. Democracy has a fragile history in Africa, precisely because of the type of destabilisation that is taking place in Bosnia.

If we are to keep faith in the democratic process, that process must be seen to work. Not only must we abide by it, but also protect it as best we can, even in far off Bosnia.

And pray that if the crunch comes, someone will do the same for us.