The practice of ``ethnic cleansing,'' a term brought into wide use just this decade by Serbian nationalists, has been going on for at least a century in the Balkans, from Bosnia and Herzegovina on one end to Kosovo and Albania on the other, with countless people massacred or sent fleeing in at least four major wars.
But to this day, Western outsiders are still trying to come to terms with the Balkans' long practice of killing or expelling people of different ethnicities: Is it purely the result of ethnic hatred, or part of a competition over turf, class, money and politics?
It is a question relevant not just for historians and humanitarians, but for Western governments debating whether to intervene with ground troops to stop the practice in 1999. If because of an unchangeable ancestry Serbs, Croats, Albanians and others have tried for so long to ``cleanse'' one another out of their small, mountainous corner of the globe, some argue, what is the use of risking troops to try to make them stop now?
``National character [is] historical destiny'' in the Balkans, Robert D. Kaplan, author of Balkan Ghosts, has written. ``Southeastern Europe is a cauldron of history - of unresolved border disputes and nationality questions created by the collapse of the multinational Hapsburg and Ottoman empires.''
George F. Kennan, the diplomat who was the architect of the U.S. containment policy at the beginning of the Cold War, has called the Balkans ``primarily a problem for Europeans. It is their continent, not ours, that is affected.''
As recently as this decade, European leaders used the notion of long-standing Balkan blood feuds as a reason for not intervening.
Many experts, however, reject the interpretation of Balkan history as a quagmire of ``ethnic cleansing'' and racism, ultimately unstoppable no matter what kind of peace treaty is signed or political system imposed.
``If there had been consistent `ethnic cleansing' in the Balkans, why would there be such a mixture of ethnicities now?'' said Janusz Bugajski, director of East European Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. ``It's unfair to label it as a region in perennial ethnic conflict.''
Bugajski said ethnic differences - some wide, others surprisingly slight - have been exploited and exacerbated by authoritarian leaders for their own political purposes over the years. Distrust has been promoted, he said, ``by two parties: the folks on the ground who want to have their power and not have the West intervene; and by the [Western] isolationists who didn't want to get involved.''
He said the history of hate was not unique to the Balkans: ``If you gave me control of all the media and control of all the weapons in Washington, I could start a war here in about an hour.''
Still, most experts agree the Balkans has seen more than its share of ethnically tinged violence.
As many as 20,000 Albanians reportedly were killed by Serbs during the second of two Balkan wars in 1912-1913, according to the report by the Carnegie Endowment. The Serbs and Albanians first had fought together to eject the teetering Ottoman Turks, but then turned on each other within months in an internecine battle for territory.
The rival ethnic groups used methods on each other they had allegedly learned from the Turks: locking prisoners in a building and then blowing it up; leveling entire villages; killing babies with bayonets.
``There is nothing but corpses, dust and ashes,'' the Carnegie report quoted a Serbian soldier writing about battling Albanians in 1913. ``There are villages of 100, 150, 200 houses where there is no longer a single man, literally not one. We collect them in bodies of 40 to 50, and then pierce them with our bayonets to the last man.''
Movements of refugees were created not only by forced expulsion, but also by villagers fleeing in advance of armies because the villagers feared what awaited them, the 1913 report said.
Kennan, commenting on the report decades later, said the ``nationalism'' that motivated the killing stemmed from ``deeper traits of character inherited from a tribal past,'' and from ``a tendency to view the outsider, generally, with dark suspicion. . . . And so it remains today.''
In World War II, Croatia's ruling fascist party, called the Ustashe, was among the few allies of the Nazis who voluntarily set up their own death camps, mainly to kill Serbs, said Kurt Bassuener, associate director of the Balkan Action Council, an independent information group in Washington.
But Bassuener argues that a detailed look at Balkan warfare also shows that it primarily ``wasn't ethnically based until the 19th century,'' and even then ``it's a gross oversimplification to . . . view it as something that was historically preordained.''
Apart from ethnicity, the gathering of many ethnic groups into a small region, leadership by monarchs and undemocratic rulers, and a succession of imperial invaders in shifting alliances made for a lot of violence. There also has been resentment against Muslims for being the wealthier, urban, land-owning class after being educated by occupying Turks.
In this decade, after the Soviet collapse, ethnic antagonism was stoked again by Croatian President Franjo Tudjman and Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, although evidently for different reasons. Most experts regard Milosevic not as a nationalist, but as an opportunist who would give up Kosovo if it was in his interest. Tudjman, on the other hand, is considered a true nationalist.
``He thought Croatia had a right to own most, if not all, of Bosnia,'' Bassuener said. It was leaders such as Tudjman and Milosevic who turned nascent ethnic identity and fringe nationalism into a unifying mission, he said.
With the latest U.S.-led NATO effort to stop Milosevic from cleaning out Kosovo, Western leaders have begun to accept that the Balkan conflicts are not inevitable ethnic wars, the experts said.
``The label has been turned around,'' Bugajski said, ``because of the relative success of the mission in Bosnia.''
NATO troops in Bosnia have been credited with stopping the fighting there and permitting a semblance of democratic elections.