Author Q & A
A Discussion with Co-Author Heather Roberson
You co-authored this book about Macedonia, a country in the Balkans, which you say has successfully prevented war twice in the last fifteen years. What drew you to the story of a war that didn’t happen?
It started with an argument I couldn’t win. I was a student of Peace and Conflict at the University of California at Berkeley, and one day this Political Science professor really laid into me. He said I was wasting my time. He said that war was inevitable. Then I remembered I had read about a country called Macedonia, which was often referred to as Bosnia’s twin. Both were multi-ethnic, poor, militarily weak—surrounded by larger neighboring states that all questioned their right to exist as independent states. And war was predicted in both places. Most people know about the horrible war that broke out in Bosnia, but few have even heard of Macedonia. No one talks about how Bosnia’s twin took an entirely different path. Macedonia’s leaders negotiated a peaceful secession from Yugoslavia, which in itself was groundbreaking, but then they managed to get the UN to send in a peacekeeping mission before hostilities broke out. It was the first time that the UN ever sent a preventive mission and, truth be told, it never had to be a large, expensive mission, because it came in early. Once the UN was there, a slew of other international organizations could come in and collect information, do human rights monitoring, and get a better understanding of Macedonia’s conflicts. So, yes, this is a story about a war that didn’t happen, but it’s also the story of why that war didn’t happen. It’s full of lessons and tools that people today need to hear about.
So, how did you and Harvey Pekar end up hooking up on this?
Harvey and I met by chance. I’m from Missouri, and my hometown has an independent film house. When Harvey’s movie, American Splendor, came out, my sister called him to ask him to come and talk about it. So, Harvey came to stay with my family on my mother’s farm for a week while he promoted his movie. I was leaving for Macedonia right after that and Harvey got curious about why I was going there. He’s an inquisitive guy and he knows a lot about the Balkans, a lot about conflict. He had all sorts of questions about conflicts I had studied. He wanted to hear my opinions about Rwanda, about the Balkans, about everything. He really gets conflict. He gets right to the root of things. At first, I think he just wanted to do a story about my trip as part of one of his books. That would have been fine, except that we both realized pretty soon that Macedonia needed a whole book to do it justice. There’s hardly anything out there on the situation there and people need that background, so they can understand why it came so close to war and how it was prevented.
What was it like to work with Harvey Pekar on this book?
When I got to Macedonia and began my interviews, I thought of Harvey’s questions. I got a feel for the kinds of things he was curious about. He’s most curious about people and identity, not strategy. So, in the book, when I am addressing the reader, it’s really Harvey I’m addressing. I’m answering the questions I knew he would ask.
Let’s go a little deeper. What were the specific threats to Macedonia’s security? How do you know that a war would have happened?
In the early 1990s, as Yugoslavia was dissolving, Macedonia had all the makings of a war on the scale of Bosnia. It was multi-ethnic, had no army, and every neighbor questioned its legitimacy as a state. Albania, Bulgaria, Greece, Serbia—they each considered part of Macedonia to be historically theirs. Macedonians call them the “Four Wolves.”
But a war didn’t happen.
Right. Macedonia’s leaders looked around at Croatia and Bosnia—at the whole region crumbling around them. And, as part of negotiating a peaceful secession from Yugoslavia, Macedonia had agreed to give up all of its military resources. So, the army that had protected them for fifty years just up and left, leaving them in what would be described as a security vacuum. That security vacuum, in the face of the Four Wolves, is what compelled Macedonia’s leadership to ask the United Nations to send peacekeepers. There were no armed hostilities to speak of—and the UN had never sent in a preventive force—but there was definitely a clear danger of war.
Okay, so you’ve laid out the danger. How did this UN mission work?
The most compelling thing is how quickly the mission arrived. That pretty much never happens, which is one of many reasons why peacekeeping missions so often fail. However, in Macedonia’s case, the UN responded immediately. The Security Council authorized a delegation and had it on the ground within six days. Soon after, the mission arrived, complete with peacekeepers, police monitors, and political advisors. The UN secured Macedonia’s borders, then moved on to trying to understand and mediate Macedonia’s deeper problems. This allowed a number of other international organizations to operate, all collecting information and getting a better understanding of the country. But the most important thing was acting quickly. When you wait for hostilities to get out of hand, you end up having to work against the enormous momentum of war and sometimes it’s practically impossible to stop. In a war, the first people to go are the police, the intellectuals—anyone who can run a peaceful country. In their place are warlords. So, the longer you wait, the more likely you’re going to have to cobble together some sort of stable situation by negotiating with warlords, who by definition are not interested in stability and peace.
That was the first time war was averted in Macedonia. What about the second?
The second time was in 2001 and this time things really came to a head and Macedonia came a lot closer to war. You see, Macedonia shared border with Kosovo and in many ways it shares its conflict as well. Kosovo is about 90% Albanian and Macedonia is about 25% Albanian and the two Albanian communities have a strong relationship. In 2001, Kosovo was pretty much under international lockdown. NATO was in charge of monitoring its border with Macedonia, along with the Macedonian security forces, and one day they flushed out some Albanian guerillas who had been organizing along the border. The Macedonian security forces apparently got overzealous with their tactics and pretty soon a guerilla army emerged calling itself the National Liberation Army. Because of all of the danger of spillover, people started predicting that Macedonia would be the center of the “Third Balkan War”—a war that would draw in Serbia, Kosovo, Bulgaria, Turkey, Albania and Greece. And this time, Macedonia did come much closer to war. The NLA gained strength very quickly and the government was not above bombing Albanian villages to get at it. It escalated just like you’d expect a war to escalate. But again, the international community acted quickly to head off the violence. NATO came in and disarmed the NLA and the international community used this as leverage to get the government to meet some of their complaints. The NLA had demanded, for instance, that Albanian be made an official language. They wanted the right to higher education in their language and also wanted to be represented more fully in the Macedonian police.
So, how did a success story come out of this?
When you engage a conflict earlier, you have the chance to build common ground, to address people’s root problems, and to create new ways for people to resolve their problems. In Macedonia, that meant establishing a multi-ethnic university. It meant training minority police officers and establishing Albanian as a second official language. It also meant strengthening the legal system so that people could actually use it to solve their problems and gain access to greater rights. If you let the conflict get away from you, and into the stage of armed hostilities, you’re going to be spending all your time, money, and manpower just trying to keep people from killing each other. It’s important to get in front of a conflict rather than constantly be following behind it and reacting to it. It’s about planning.
In the book, you use the wars in neighboring Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo as examples to prove this point.
You look at Macedonia, which had a tiny UN Mission of fewer than 800 to keep the peace over the years. And then, you see its mass disarmament in 2001, which only took 3,000 NATO troops to accomplish in one month. Then, look at Kosovo, which the international community ignored for eight long years as conflict brewed between the Albanians and the Milosevic regime. We had ample opportunities to engage, but we did nothing until the violence had become so entrenched. Then, we decided to just bomb the aggressors and choose a winner. What a mess we made! It seems that no amount of energy and money can put Kosovo back together. People estimate the cost of running Kosovo at 2 billion dollars. The international community has been in charge of the whole country since the bombing in 1999.
You really get into interviewing police trainers and court reform people. Why did you focus so much on legal systems?
When people don’t have access to systems that help them solve their problems, they find other methods. So, you have to build those ways and that’s what a legal system is supposed to do. The law is supposed to protect people, to help them solve problems, and to set basic societal norms. It’s a social contract.
How can people understand war better?
The first step is to humanize it. When you are watching television and you see apartment blocks being bombed, just try for a minute to really feel it. Think of what it would be like if that were you forced to leave your home. People who live in conflict regions have dogs and cats just like we do. What would it be like to leave behind your animals?
In the book, people joke that you are really a spy. Is there any seriousness to that?
Sure, but I don’t worry about it. I just keep a smile on my face and eventually the doors open. I was really most amazed at how open people were.
You write about traveling alone as a woman and you run across at least one character who worries about your safety. Were you ever in danger?
I don’t think so. Things can get scary from time to time, but I generally feel very safe in the Balkans. Things may look a little rough and run-down, but you are surrounded by people all the time. They will take care of you. Besides, I prefer to travel alone. It’s just me and the country. The other benefit is, when you’re traveling alone as a woman, you are seen as more vulnerable and that can give you a keen eye into human nature. Some people will try to take advantage of you and some will help you. When you have a partner, you have a buffer from reality.
Why did you want to see so much of the region?
If you’re going to understand how exceptional Macedonia is, you have to see the effects of war elsewhere in the region. It’s also important to understand just how small the region is, because it helps you see how easily conflicts can spill over the borders. It only takes an hour to drive from Macedonia’s capital of Skopje to Kosovo’s capital, Prishtina. When you see that, you understand how Macedonia’s fate is so closely tied with that of Kosovo. Is also helps bring home just how important it is to prevent war. When you are in Kosovo, you feel that difference. People seem very on-edge. Everywhere you look, you see NATO, UN, and EU trucks. It looks like a battle zone. In Bosnia, there are buildings bombed to pieces everywhere you look. In fact, it’s even worse than it appears, because most of Bosnia’s intellectual class was killed off or forced to flee as part of the war. Their politicians, their doctors, the lawyers—so many are gone. So, you see that and you realize how impressive it is that Macedonia avoided this fate. It’s worth asking why its path diverged.
You sound like you have a true affinity for Macedonia. Towards the end of the book, you compare it with your home state of Missouri. Why is that?
Anyone who has spent time in Macedonia will tell you that it is truly a magical place. It’s so hospitable and abundant. And yes, there is something Midwestern about it. People are genuinely interested in one another. They look you square in the eyes; they want to know all about you; they gossip shamelessly. Walking down the street, having coffee, buying shoes—none of those things are solitary actions. Every person is a potential friend. All of that reminds me so much of Missouri. I have to say, though, if you were to ask someone else what they love most about Macedonia, they’re probably going to say it’s the food. The food! The cucumbers, the tomatoes, the peppers, the meat—all of it is the best I’ve ever consumed. Sitting around a big table with a bunch of friends, washing down that magnificent food with rakija and Macedonian wine, is a pleasure I wish everyone could experience at least once in their lives.