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Into the Badlands

[whitespace] 'The Road to Kosovo' takes a horrific road trip

By Patrick Sullivan

HORROR HUGS the rugged terrain of the Balkans like a grotesque second skin. Most Americans may not be able to find Kosovo or Bosnia on a map, but many of us at least know--or think we know--the bloody outlines of the decade-long nightmare that has engulfed the former Yugoslavia, the rape and murder and mass graves and concentration camps that have rolled over the region in a tidal wave of evil.

But that sparse knowledge may no longer be enough. As NATO bombs fall by the thousands on Serbia, as the province of Kosovo is emptied of ethnic Albanians, as Washington politicians debate sending in ground troops, the whole situation threatens to jump off the television screen and into the real lives of ordinary Americans.

There is, of course, no shortage of people offering to explain the whole tangled web to us. Commentary on the Balkans has become a growth industry. Unfortunately, much of what's offered tends to shed more heat than light on the complicated situation. And that brings us to the latest entry in the field, Greg Campbell's The Road to Kosovo: A Balkan Diary.

This flawed but interesting book is the product of the author's unquestionably courageous decision in the summer of 1998 to drive a Budget rental car across the war-torn landscape of Croatia, Bosnia, Montenegro and Kosovo. Campbell had visited Sarajevo once before, on assignment in 1996 for The Boulder Weekly, an alternative newspaper in Colorado. But this time the freelance journalist braved snipers, Serb checkpoints, Kosovo Liberation Army guerrillas and miscellaneous well-armed lunatics to get a close look at the uneasy peace imposed by the Dayton Accords and the new conflict building in Kosovo.

The author is at his best when he is painting vivid pictures of the scenes he encountered on his two trips. These compulsively readable passages show us the burning buildings and shell-shocked population of Sarajevo, the stark mountains of Montenegro and the bizarre feeding frenzies of the international media.

There are images of horror: Fiction from Stephen King could not surpass the graphic description of the mutilated bodies of a family massacred by Serbian police. There are finely observed ironies and absurdities: A little Yugo automobile is packed full of men with rifles; a rebel fighter wears his KLA patch sewn onto a Dallas Cowboys cap.


BUT THIS BOOK aims to be more than a travel diary. The author also attempts a political analysis of the situation. In that, he is less successful. Campbell sums up the key players in astoundingly simple terms: the Serbs are murderous monsters, Western nations are well-intentioned but cowardly and ineffectual, the KLA are flawed but heroic.

The holes in this analysis are obvious even to a reader who knows little about Kosovo. It's just all too simple to really describe the complicated Balkans.

It is possible to believe that the Serbs are moral monsters and still believe they have better arguments to support their actions than the ones Campbell provides. You can understand that Serb leaders are evil killers and still wonder why Campbell can't find more ordinary Serbian people to interview. You can support the KLA and still be disturbed by the book's harshly critical take on the nonviolent Kosovo nationalist movement that preceded armed struggle.

The same kind of flaws appear in the author's view of U.S. actions: The book, which went to press before the bombing began, is quick to criticize the Clinton administration for failure to intervene with more force in the region. But the author never confronts arguments that postulate that NATO's real interest in Kosovo has little to do with humanitarian values.

Campbell is quite convincing when he says that the oft-cited ancient ethnic hatreds in the region weren't the real problem in the Bosnian conflict. The real catalyst for horror was the ruthless ambition of cynical politicians, who whipped up ultranationalist feeling to buttress their own power. But before you know it, the author is arguing that ancient history can explain the Kosovo conflict.

Then, suddenly, Campbell cuts it all off with an ending so abrupt that it borders on the bizarre. His trip ends, his analysis dribbles out a few final clichés and he goes home.

Maybe the abrupt ending is actually oddly appropriate for a book on this subject. Everybody, it seems, wants to offer easy answers on the Balkans: intervene, don't intervene, put a bag over your head and forget the whole thing. But give writers a few hundred pages to mull the situation over and they seem to realize that things are more tangled than they first thought. When it comes to the Balkans, simple answers may be as hard to find as peace itself.

The Road to Kosovo: A Balkan Diary By Greg Campbell

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From the May 13-19, 1999 issue of Metro.

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