Letter from Thessaloniki

Yesterday, March 21, was a great opportunity to celebrate poetry, poets and everyone who appreciates poetry in its myriad forms. Observed by the United Nations, March 21 has been for some years now designed by UNESCO as World Poetry Day. The same date has been also designated by the same institution as the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. At a time when the outside world is irresistibly luring people away from themselves, and when – as everyone well knows – there is no money in poetry (but then, there is no poetry in money, either as Robert Graves said), there is always a need which incites young people in particular to return to their roots. Over the past 20-odd years, there has been a fervent revival of interest in poetry. Now, there has also been a tendency in politics to refuse to take poets seriously. The story of New Democracy ex-minister Sotiris Kouvelas from Thessaloniki, who, about a decade ago, allegedly derided poets as «lapades» (softies) is still vivid in certain minds. Could that be the reason that voters kept him out of Parliament this time? I wonder. Anyway, it is a deja vu situation in Kosovo, back to 1999. Therefore, it is now time to weave poetry and atmosphere from it. After years of covert ethnic cleansing, and three days of «interethnic violence that left 31 people dead and hundreds wounded» as the IHT wrote on Saturday, which also quoted the commander of NATO’s forces in Southern Europe, Admiral Gregory Johnson of the United States, as saying, «This kind of activity, which essentially amounts to ethnic cleansing, cannot go on,» all allow someone – me – who has traveled widely and extensively in this Balkan region, to dedicate an appropriate poem by a Slav-Macedonian poet, and also to make some apposite remarks: No, there was no «interethnic violence» nor «clashes» – ill-defined terms that imply there were battles between ethnic Albanians and Serbs. Needless to say, UN offices and KFOR troops were under fire, while the few non-Albanians who had survived the ethnic cleansing during the past four years fled for their lives as mobs of well-armed and apparently closely coordinated ethnic Albanians continued their rampage with impunity, while Serb houses and Orthodox churches were burning. Clearly identifying the attackers and their targets, Holger Kammerhoff, the German general commanding KFOR, warned openly that «thousands of ethnic Albanians that attacked KFOR, the police, Serb enclaves and churches should be aware of robust reserve forces.» Furthermore, the Kosovo human rights ombudsman, Marek Nowicki, remarked on Thursday that «there exists the intent to cleanse this land of the presence of all Serbs.» Quite right. Because there is hardly any probable peaceful solution. The ethnic Albanian majority, pursuing a successful and predatory course of expansion, is now closer than ever to its aim of proclaiming independence for Kosovo and driving all other ethnic groups away. Since «Albanians regard them (Americans) as their main foreign ally and liberators» (The New York Times, March 20-21), what are the Serbs and Gypsies supposed to do after the clashes have ceased? Wait and sue the barbarians? Poetically, they are inclined to Constantine Cavafy’s celebrated «Waiting for the Barbarians – 1904» an excerpt of which follows: Why all of a sudden this unrest and confusion, (How solemn the faces have become). Why are the streets and squares clearing quickly, and all return to their homes, so deep in thought? Because night is here but the barbarians have not come. And some people arrived from the borders and said that there are no longer any barbarians. Right, they live exclusively around the axis of evil. Now, on the occasion of World Poetry Day, the Macedonian Writers’ Association published on their site a poem by the Slav-Macedonian author Petar Boskovski, titled «Socialist Realism.» As its symbolism has applications in our country as well, I chose to present it to you: Six manual workers, well-chosen strong men, all day long were digging a ditch for a scene in a film dedicated to the new man – the laborer of the socialist reality. They were digging a trench which, supposedly, was to be dug by one man, the film hero, for one day, the main character in the moralist documentaries. He came once the job was done, the pampered artist, like a newly bought puppet, heaved a few shovels of soil, sighed deeply, wiped the drops of water, sprinkled on his face as if salty sweat, and with a happy smile leapt out of the trench. The scene was finished. Applause for the good act. Though they knew it was all fake, that it was art, the six strong men, reduced to a weakling, watched unbelieving the comedy before them feeling humiliated to the marrow of their bones. They left with sour smiles as if sensing that the deception of one man could not deceive all of humanity. (Translated by Zoran Ancevski). Yet, it seems that the Serbs – «… leaning on their side and almost falling… onto the hymns to the Virgin… prepared for the worst,» to paraphrase Nikos Gatsos («Dark Mother») – are not alone. And that is not reassuring for them, or for us. According to a politically reinforced Vladimir Putin: «There has to be immediate reaction to protect the Serbs… We cannot simply watch and remain inactive.»

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