On a book tour last month, as we were driving along the highway from Croatia to Bosnia, traffic came to a sudden stop near the border. Car doors opened, drivers stepped outside for a smoke, and everyone speculated on what had caused the backup. An accident? Road work? No, as it turned out: personnel were sweeping the adjacent fields for mines left over from the war that ended 17 years ago. Welcome to the former Yugoslavia. More than five million mines were planted during that war and they continue to maim or kill unsuspecting farmers, hikers, and children.
When we finally reached the border, the world abruptly changed. A four-lane superhighway narrowed to a windy, potholed two-lane road. Road signs now used both the Roman alphabet of Western Europe and the Cyrillic alphabet of the East. Most obviously, every other house was vacant, its interior gutted by fire bombs, a relic of the Serbs’ ethnic cleansing campaign to force Croats and Bosnians from Serbian areas.
“Who owns these homes now?” I asked my Croatian host. “Probably the people who were chased away and live somewhere else now. But would you want to go back and reclaim a home in the same town where your neighbors raped your daughter and slit your wife’s throat?”
In Sarajevo, our destination, East and West meet on the same street. Standing in the bazaar, if you look one direction you’d swear you were in Austria with its neat buildings, onion-dome churches, and sidewalk cafes; look the other direction and you’d think you were in Istanbul with its tea shops and covered Muslim women browsing in the spice market. Indeed, not far from here bloody battles stopped Islam from taking over Europe centuries ago, and no one has forgotten.The Balkans dominated the news back in the 1990s. International leaders stood by wringing their hands while the horrors of World War II seemed to be playing out again on miniature scale. I could never keep the adversaries straight back then, much less pronounce them, and the villains seemed to change weekly. Who can make sense of the former Yugoslavia?
Under communism Yugoslavia forced three major groups (as well as other minor tribes) to live together: Croatian Catholics, Orthodox Serbians, and Bosnian Muslims. Before the 199os war Sarajevo had a large population of each; now the city is 90 percent Muslim, with greatly reduced Orthodox and Catholic populations and only a sprinkling of Protestants (perhaps 800 out of 400,000).
For just shy of four years Serbian soldiers who inherited most of the Yugoslavian army took up positions in the hills that surround Sarajevo and strangled the city in a brutal siege, the longest in modern times. An average of 329 grenades rained down on the city every day, and on busy days ten times that number. Snipers cruelly picked off easy targets: a seven-year-old Muslim girl, a 70-year old grandmother, a medical worker administering aid. At least 11,000 civilians died during the siege, including 1600 children. Bodies floated down the river that now picturesquely winds through town. Cemeteries filled up so that the dead had to be buried in a soccer field just down from the site of the 1984 Olympics.
This was modern Europe, where such things were not supposed to happen again, especially not here, the exact site of the assassination of an archduke that triggered World War I. But it did happen, for 1443 horrific days of bombardment on a city that had no electricity, no heat, gas, or telephone service. (Imagine the inconveniences of those affected by Superstorm Sandy in the East, for four years, plus relentless bombardment.) The main source of water was a brewery that generously opened its supplies to those brave enough to dare the snipers who fired down on them at will.
The residents of Sarajevo lived on a diet of beans, macaroni, and rice, humanitarian aid supplied largely by air from the UN and NATO forces who controlled the airport. It took four months to dig a half-mile tunnel under open fields to the airport, and at night as many as 1000 Sarajevans crowded the tunnel to fetch the heavy loads of rations that kept them alive. The entrance to the tunnel provided a new target to snipers, who targeted any who braved the run during daylight hours.
Few buildings have been fully repaired even today, 17 years after a cease-fire. Most bear the scars of bullet holes and shrapnel. Plaques mark the spots where grenades fell among civilians: 27 died on this corner, 40 in that pedestrian mall, 70 in a nearby food market. I stayed in a Franciscan monastery, now restored, that had received 42 direct hits from grenades.
n the world exists only one human; everything else is statistics,” said Jorge Luis Borges. Speaking with a few who had endured the siege, I heard some of their poignant stories:
• “For nine days in a row we ate plain pasta. We had no spices, no meat, no flavoring. My mother was so desperate for flavor that she went out and gathered grass to sprinkle in just to add a bit of variety and color. When we got something different, like rice or powdered milk, we would throw a party.”
• “Without heat, we would burn anything at hand in the winter to stay warm. I had a newborn baby, born in the midst of that hell. We chopped up heirloom furniture with an ax. You go numb after a while. One Christmas a friend brought me a priceless gift: the dirt-covered root system of a tree he had found somewhere. I cried. I have never received a Christmas gift that meant so much, and I still have it. I could not burn it. I tell you with shame, that gesture moved me more than hearing that thirty more people died.”
• “The worst thing is, you get used to evil. If we knew in advance how long it would last, we would probably have killed ourselves. Over time, you stop caring. You just try to keep living.”
• “I have two brothers. One joined the Muslim army to fight against the siege. One escaped and served with the Croatians. My sister was married to a Serb, who was conscripted to serve with the forces besieging us. So many marriages were mixed like that—Serb/Croatian, Croatian/Bosnian, Bosnian/Serb—and many of them broke apart.”
• “Why such brutality? These were our friends, our neighbors, now shooting at us, blowing up our homes. Hannah Arendt writes about the banality of evil. The biggest criminals were nice fathers and husbands, people I knew. They were like the Nazis who would gas Jews in the day and then go home and listen to concerts with their families.”
Croatia was the first region to resist the Serbs, who sought a Greater Serbia comprising most of the former Yugoslavia. The Croats had no army to speak of, just a few tanks left over from World War II and a handful of planes used for crop-dusting. Improvising, they learned to drop propane tanks and water heaters out of the crop dusters onto Serbian forces. To get around an international arms embargo, they released some Mafia-type gangsters from prison, gave them trucks full of money, and commissioned them to find a black market in weapons. (As a reward, some of these criminals now hold high government posts.)
Dubrovnic, Srebenica, Vukovar—these names stand out as sites of the worst brutality, crimes that are even now being tried before the International Criminal Court. More than 100,000 people died in the wars. In Srebenica Serbs rounded up every male over the age of fifteen, 8000 in all, tied their hands behind their backs, and shot them. Workers are still digging up the mass graves in an attempt to identify the bodies.
To read the eyewitness reports from the international court in the Hague is to read a litany of horrors: of pregnant women cut open, their unborn babies smashed with rifle butts; of gang rapes of girls as young as nine; of toddlers decapitated, their heads placed in their mothers’ laps. There is only one explanation for what happened, one Bosnian told me: “God overslept.”
I came to this part of the world because two of my books, Where Is God When It Hurts and What’s So Amazing About Grace, had just been published in the Croatian and Bosnian language. I had prepared talks on grace, informed in large part by the splendid work of the Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf, a faculty member first at Fuller Seminary and now Yale Divinity School. With one exception, however, I was asked to speak on suffering, not on grace. When I asked, “Are you ready for reconciliation,” not one person answered Yes. The wounds are at once too fresh and too old, for these disputes go back more than seven centuries. “Every compromise is defeat,” said one Serbian leader. And another: “Any reconciliation is betrayal.”
To be sure, all sides shared guilt, not just the Serbs. Two Croatian generals were sentenced for their crimes, and mujaheddin fighting with Bosnians and Albanians fighting in Kosovo also committed atrocities. Though the war ended, in part because of NATO bombing and the Dayton Peace Accords, the disputes have not ended. The one nation of Yugoslavia split into seven: Serbia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Croatia, Montenegro, Bosnia & Herzegovina, and Slovenia. Serbians ended up with the largest share of territory, but ethnic minorities remain in each country, including a “Serbian Republic” within the borders of Bosnia. Conflict in the Balkans could erupt up again.
Today Syria dominates the news, with a reprise of the kinds of atrocities I heard about firsthand. It happened in Rwanda, of course, and continues today in the Democratic Republic of Congo and in Nigeria. I could not help thinking of Gandhi’s remark that if you take the principle “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” to its logical conclusion, eventually the whole world will go blind and toothless. I have never visited a place in such need of grace and forgiveness, and yet so resistant to it.
One afternoon in Sarajevo we were escorted by a cheerful Franciscan monk named Ivo Markovic. He took us first to the Jewish cemetery on a hill high above the city, one of the main lookout posts for Serbian snipers. Every grave had been marred in some way, pockmarked by bullets, gravestones overturned. I had read of Markovic in Miroslav Volf’s book Free of Charge. In his village, Muslim Bosnians were the villains, massacring 21 men including nine members of his family—all senior citizens, his 71-year-old father the youngest of them.
The Franciscans lost most of their church members as Catholics moved out of Sarajevo. Yet the monastery stayed behind, leading the frail peace movement and distributing food and practical help. After the war stopped, Father Markovic visited his home village. I will let Volf tell the story:
Occupying the house in which his brother used to live was a fierce Muslim woman. He (Markovic) was warned not to go there because she brandished a rifle to protect her new home. He went anyway. As he approached the house she was waiting for him, cigarette in her mouth and rifle cocked. She barked: “Go away or I’ll shoot you.” “No, you won’t shoot me,” said Father Markovic in a gentle but firm voice, “you’ll make a cup of coffee for me.” She stared at him for a while, then slowly put the rifle down and went to the kitchen. Taking the last bit of coffee she had, she mixed in some already used grounds to make enough coffee for two cups. And they, deadly enemies, began to talk as they partook in the ancient ritual of hospitality: drinking coffee together. She told him of her loneliness, of the home she had lost, of the son who never returned from the battlefield. When Father Markovic returned a month later she told him: “I rejoice at seeing you as much as if my son had returned home.”
Did they talk about forgiveness? I don’t know. And in a sense, it doesn’t matter. He, the victim, came to her asking for her hospitality in his brother’s home, which she unrightfully possessed. And she responded. Though she greeted him with a rifle, she gave him a gift and came to rejoice at his presence. The humble, tenuous beginnings of a journey toward embrace were enacted through a ritual of coffee drinking. If the journey continues, it will lead through the difficult terrain of forgiveness.
ur last day in Croatia we toured an odd tourist site that has gained acclaim for its originality. It mainly displays items donated by lovers who have broken up. Some are nostalgic: a wedding dress, the chiffon top worn the night he told her it’s over, the sticky roller he used to remove her cat’s hair. Others are bitter: an ax used to chop up her music collection, a framed photo shattered into pieces, the side mirror of his car that she broke off when she found it parked in front of a rival’s apartment. A few items refer to other kinds of broken relationships, such as the a Newsweek cover featuring Barack Obama with the note, “I really wanted it to work out.”
The Museum of Broken Relationships, it’s called, and I can’t think of a more appropriate symbol for that part of the world. A visit to the Balkans gives a stark picture of what can happen among human beings apart from grace. As I wrote in What’s So Amazing About Grace?
If you ask a bomb-throwing teenager in Northern Ireland or a machete-wielding soldier in Rwanda or a sniper in the former Yugoslavia why they are killing, they may not even know. Ireland is still seeking revenge for atrocities Oliver Cromwell committed in the seventeenth century; Rwanda and Burundi are carrying on tribal wars that extend long past anyone’s memory; Yugoslavia is avenging memories from World War II and trying to prevent a replay of what happened six centuries ago. Ungrace plays like the background static of life for families, nations, and institutions. It is, sadly, our natural human state.