The Common Good
November-December 1996

Two Faces of Bosnia

by Rose Marie Berger | November-December 1996

It's 4:20 p.m.
I'm standing over the Olympic soccer stadium in Sarajevo. From
one goal post to the other are graves-headstones of various sizes
and shapes, most unmarked.

It's 4:20 p.m. I'm standing over the Olympic soccer stadium in Sarajevo. From one goal post to the other are graves-headstones of various sizes and shapes, most unmarked. There is an IFOR base where the concession stands once stood, with tanks, humvees, jeeps, and corrugated metal Quonset hut barracks. The graves are offside, I think. They go on up the hill.

Almost as soon as we arrive at the stadium the word comes that we must leave immediately for the airport to "meet the Serbs." Father Ivo Markovic, our host in Sarajevo, has arranged the meeting. Our group divides, some staying on at the stadium, some racing to the airport for the 4:30 p.m. rendezvous. I go for "the Serbs."

On the way we pass the bombed Franciscan Theological School where Father Ivo was taken prisoner and Sister Isadora served tea to her captors. We are detoured at the hole in the road where Asim Fazzic, who I met earlier at the Bread of St. Anthony soup kitchen, was shelled and pinned under machine gun fire one morning on his way to work. He ran the printing press for the Oslobodenje newspaper for 41 years until his injuries stopped him. We near the airport where a few lucky ones escaped the siege of Sarajevo through the tunnel under the tarmac; most were shot on the runway by NATO troops or others under orders to hold the line.

It's 4:40 pm. We arrive at a police installation just past the airport. Father Ivo is there. (His car now has "new" license plates so as not to attract unwanted attention.) We are not just to "meet the Serbs," but to be escorted to Pale-the government stronghold of the provisional Republika Srpska and home of Radovan Karadzic, accused by the International Criminal Tribunal of "almost unparalleled acts of cruelty."

Our car is assigned a military guard for the ride up Jajolina Mountain. He introduces himself as "Tyson, like Mike Tyson." He's in his mid-30s, short-cropped sandy brown hair, flat forest green eyes, wearing the uniform of the Serb Special Forces. He is very tense.

Our interpreter is 23-year-old Anesa, a Muslim woman who has just returned to her family in Sarajevo after four years as a refugee. She didn't really think of herself as Muslim until seven years ago when the politicians began drawing such distinctions. Tyson does not know that Anesa is Muslim. Father Ivo is afraid that her slight accent will give her away.

Tyson tells us that he is a professional policeman who went into the security forces when he was 14. He says that when the war ends he will remain in the military, but he will never work for any federation that includes Muslims. He says, "Croats and Serbs have a long history together in this land, but Muslims don't belong here."

The road to Pale takes us through mountains that are still pristine with old-growth forests and clear waterfalls, past the old bobsled track, the Olympic village, and beautiful mountain-cabin homes. In Sarajevo below, the trees were clear-cut for firewood or grave markers. Tyson says that someday he would like to ski up here again and that maybe it could be open to Croats too, "but Muslims never, because dead heads are dead heads." In other words, the only good Muslim is a dead Muslim.

Anesa translates all of this. Tyson continues speaking to Father Ivo: "If you were a Muslim, I wouldn't sit in this car with you right now. Muslims aren't really anything, because they didn't even have a nationality until Tito gave them one in 1974." (Before 1974, in order to vote, Yugoslavians had to declare themselves Serb, Croat, or Undecided.) Tyson tells us that his conscience is clear; that he is a good soldier because he never killed a woman, child, or old person; and that he has nothing personal against Muslims, but he can't ever be around them.

Tyson tells another story to illustrate his point. "During one of the last battles in Sarajevo, we were digging trenches. The Croat and Serb units worked together for five days, drinking coffee and digging each others' trenches, even though we were enemies. The point is that Serbs and Croats can understand each other. The Croats knew when to shoot and when not to shoot. But Muslims are stupid like cattle. They shoot all the time without stopping. If the Serbs could kill the Muslims with stones there would not be enough stones in the whole world to do this!"

Anesa continues translating for Tyson: "I realized in the fighting how great a human being's limits are. Many times I had to stay in my bunker for 48 or 72 hours just shooting my machine gun in the rain and snow."

After an hour on the road, we approach Pale, capital of the Bosnian Serb republic. Tyson becomes quiet again and agitated, perhaps afraid he has said too much. He adjusts his beret. When we reach the headquarters he hops from the car and salutes the officer approaching us, explaining that we are a religious group from the United States here to meet with the minister of religion. I ask to take Tyson's picture but he covers the camera. Anesa tells me that he is probably on "the list" for war crimes, and that's why he won't let me take his picture or give us his real name.

We are escorted to an office building, into a large plush meeting room. Tyson stays with the car. As the Sniper Alley graffiti in Sarajevo puts it, "Welcome to hell."

DURING THE SUMMER OF 1991, I spent many mornings in my kitchen crying over the newspaper. Each article I read brought me to tears as the war in the former Yugoslavia escalated. From the very beginning, this war has been steeped in religious imagery-some authentic, some perverse.

I read stories of white Orthodox crosses painted on the front doors of Serb households so advancing soldiers would know which houses to "pass over." There were also houses marked with the Muslim crescent and the Roman cross.

At the same time, in Sarajevo, baking bread became a symbol of freedom and publishing the daily Oslobodenje newspaper one of resistance. Sarajevans snuck through enemy blockades, driving the treacherous mountain roads at night without headlights, crossing sniper lines on foot, just to smuggle flour, salt, maybe yeast, into the city. Workers at Oslobodenje, from the publisher and editors to the men who ran the printing presses, lived for weeks together in the basement of the gleaming silver office building that was shelled to the ground. Many lost their lives, or their minds, for the power of the written word.

For years I have prayed over the newspaper for nameless heroes of faith in Sarajevo and throughout Bosnia, and for the nameless gray devils who slaughtered their neighbors and used the rape of women as a message of war. What did you go out into the wilderness to see? Jesus asked the crowd on the Jordan. I guess I went to Bosnia to meet the sinners and the saints, to see if they were at all like me.

IN PALE, WE MEET Mr. Davidovic, a former history teacher who is appointed by the Serbian Orthodox Church to fill the position of minister of religion for the new Bosnian Serb republic. His job, he says, is to coordinate the functions of the state with other religious institutions and, particularly, to further religious education in the schools.

"Right now in the Republika Srpska religious education is an obligation, treated the same as mathematics, physics, history. As a ministry, we invite all religious communities to develop religious education programs and provide professors to teach these programs." (Note that this is in the "ethnically pure" Bosnian Serb republic.)

In Pale, we also meet with one of the Serbian Orthodox religious leaders, Metropolitan Nikolai. "All Balkan wars are imported," he tells us. "The importation of communism started everything. In 1945, the Western world and America abandoned us to communism by making deals with Stalin. Now for 50 years Serbs, Croats, and Muslims have been forced to live together. It had to burst out!

"After World War II, Europe gave birth to three evil children-Stalinism, Nietzscheism, and Marxism. These three have put the whole world into hell. Intellectuals accepted these children and now they are growing up, pushing religion and spirituality to the margins. Now the state must intervene to protect the church and institute a pedagogic process against these evils. We must re-educate our children to erase the last 50 years.

"Before the religious education ministries in our schools, all the children were atheists, not believers in God. Now, three years later, the students are saying that these classes are very good, and they must struggle with the fact that their parents are still atheists. One little girl came home from school and wrote on her bedroom door 'No Unbelievers Allowed ' as a message to her parents. This is one good example of how we are beginning the process of mental and spiritual change. Our children are learning morality."

At the end of our interview, the metropolitan leads us in prayer for deeper mutual understanding between the faiths. I pray for warmth in a room chilled by fear.

THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN church and state is one of the fundamental questions in the Bosnian conflict and has been historically (see "A Legacy of History and Hatred," April 1993, by Elizabeth Holler). The Bosnian Croats are generally allied with the Roman Catholic Church and the despicable history of Vatican support for Nazi forces, resulting in the formation of the Croatian Ustashe or death squads. Bosnian Serbs are allied with Eastern Orthodox Christianity, specifically the Serbian Orthodox Church based in Belgrade which, in many cases, allowed itself to be used as a violent chastening rod for the communist regime.

The Muslims (sometimes referred to as Bosniacs) have few religious alliances outside of Bosnia. Prior to this war, they were not particularly tied to the Islamic East; like most Bosnians, they thought of themselves as European. However, they are frightened of becoming a people without a country. As one Muslim man put it, "If the Serbs have Serbia, and the Croats have Croatia, then we Muslims must have Bosnia!"

We take up this question of religious dialogue and the relationship between church and state with Islamic theologian Dr. Adnan Silajdzic in a coffeehouse in the Muslim quarter of old Sarajevo (see "Islam on the Verge"). "We must not fall back on simplistic answers to complex issues," he says. "Everything happening in Bosnia must be considered in the context of our modern world. It is impossible to talk about what is happening in Bosnia without also talking about neo-Nazis in Paris and church burnings in America, because we are now a global civilization.

"We live in a very unsafe world where the human has lost personal identity. This loss breeds violence to reclaim identity, which is why world religions have to dialogue. Each religion has its own ethic for addressing these questions.

"For Bosnia to survive, and these are also lessons for the West, we must have multicultural and religious institutions where people of different faiths can come to know each other, gain understanding about the other, and develop a desire to be with those who are different from us-until the dreams of the other become our dreams too."

ALL OVER BOSNIA we see these dreams struggling for wings. In Bugonjo, there is a dim wooden room with one long bench and a few crates. This is "Dobrotvor," the Serb ministry of charity serving mainly the elderly in this now predominantly Muslim town. Down the street is the Franciscan Church of St. Anthony where they have two church cars parked out front, one of which is a hearse. But through the school windows you can hear the sounds of children practicing their scales on a donated piano; and Muslims, Serbs, and Croats line up for the distribution of food from the church garage and for health care at the clinic.

And in Central Bosnia's Rama Valley, there is a 15th-century Franciscan monastery that has become a wellspring of healing and a place where the gospel can be dreamt again in Bosnia. The monastery (founded some 200 years after Francis walked from Assisi through Bosnia to negotiate peace with a Turkish sultan) was saved in 1968 from a Communist hydroelectric project when one of the brothers negotiated with the engineers to keep the water level of the new dam four meters lower than planned. The monastery now sits like a jewel in the lake, surrounded by foothills of the Dinaric Alps.

In 1992, five days before Easter, there was news that Serb partisans would soon be shelling Rama from the hills. Ninety percent of the population evacuated the valley, migrating to supposed safety. The Franciscan prior, Father Mijo Dzolan, with the other sisters and brothers at the monastery, decided that as long as there were even a handful of people left in the valley the Franciscans would stay. The Serbs never shelled.

Two months later, Father Mijo asked on the local TV station that the Rama community come home and live in their valley. The whole population returned and stayed for the duration of the war, despite severe shelling and massacres by both Muslims and Serbs.

The people of Rama are a beacon to all of Bosnia and the world. Their witness calls us to the foundations of love, the practicality of nonviolence, and the hope of pluralism. The Franciscans now want the monastery to serve as a retreat site for soldiers, civilians, and children suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome from all sides of the war.

NOW IT IS 7:30 P.M., and we are heading back down Mt. Jajolina. Tyson accompanies us again, but he seems less rigid, more willing to talk personally with Father Ivo about the war. Tyson is concerned about ecological disaster an d about the cancer rate in this area in five years, because of "all the shelling, the poisons, poured into the land and the water."

He shows us the bunkers from which Serb soldiers shelled Sarajevo. He begins to tell Ivo how he can't sleep at night, that he doesn't know how to heal after such an experience. In the Special Forces they take no prisoners. Father Ivo speaks to him about the Vietnam Syndrome, but Tyson tells him that this experience is different: "This is the Sarajevo Syndrome, because we had to defend our own homes, shell our city, kill our own neighbors."

Tyson tells us of the number of times he almost died. Once a grenade landed between his legs but didn't explode. Once dynamite landed right next to him but didn't explode. Once a bullet went right next to his ear but didn't graze him. He says this is a sign that he is still a good man. Ivo tells him that right now he is a young man and can deal with his terrors but that without help they will get worse. Tyson says that he doesn't drink. Ivo tells him that it is good he doesn't drink because drinking would completely destroy him now. The car is quiet for a long time.

At the bottom of the mountain, I ask Tyson if he has a message for people in the United States. He tells me he only has limited knowledge of the United States, just what he reads in the newspapers. But he does say this: "America, keep your peace. You don't know how precious it is and how terrible is war."

Bosnia has two faces. The first is the face of distrust born from the history of resisting assimilation, of fighting against each side to colonize the other. The second face is a very fine face of music, culture, and art born of rich heritages, deep roots in the land, and sensitive hearts. The first face is what the politicians use to conjure up war. The second face is the one that will save Bosnia.

Rose Marie Berger, a pastor of Sojourners Community in Washington, D.C., went to Bosnia in June 1996 on a "reverse pilgrimage" hosted by the Ministry of Money. Earlier pilgrimages resulted in the development of the Rama Project, focused on rebuilding schools and clinics in the Rama Valley. For more information about the Rama Project, contact the coordinator, Diana L. Chambers, at (202) 328-7312.

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