From Athens we flew to Belgrade — back for S and me, for the first time for C and K. We stayed in the same airbnb just off Knez Mihajlova where we had stayed before and it felt like a homecoming. I thought about the question S had asked me earlier in the trip — did I feel like I was reconnecting? — and coming back to Belgrade this time I have to say that I did feel much more connected. I do have roots here, this is my heritage, I still have family here (including a cousin I only knew through facebook before whom we met when we went to Montenegro). After spending time in BiH where I was painfully conscious of my accent (though I never felt any animosity toward me because of it, that feeling was entirely on my own part), it was something of a relief, yes even a homecoming, to be able to speak the language without wondering if I was being judged (other than for my bad grammar). Yes, Serbs committed atrocities in the 1990’s. Yes, there is still rampant, unrepentant, and potentially toxic nationalism afoot here (seeing teeshirts of Putin wearing a Chetnik hat and the like at various souvenir kiosks was particularly disturbing…). Yes, all that, and I can still also claim what is positive. Sharing Belgrade with the rest of the family and particularly having S help show it off was deeply moving. As was coming across streets named for ancestors of mine along with historical markers explaining who they were and what they had done. One of my ancestors, Prota Mateja Nenadevic, was a priest as well as a diplomat, statesman, and one of the leaders of the first uprising against the Ottoman occupation. He participated in the 1815 Congress of Vienna and was one of the signers of the treaty that came out of it. Seeing Nikola Tesla (who was a great scientist, inventor, and humanitarian) being intentionally and now internationally promoted was heartening. I had never heard of him growing up, and now his face is on the 100 dinar note, the Belgrade airport is named after him, and we visited the Tesla museum while we were there. Not to mention the car! As with everything in life, one’s heritage is never a black/white/either/or/all-or-nothing (that, my friends is the definition of fundamentalism no matter what shape it takes or what tribe it affects) — instead it’s a both/and; as with everything in life, shades of grey. It took my coming back (finally) to fully embrace that. I in no way excuse what happened in the ’90’s or the Serbs’ role in it (see my previous post on Srebrenica…), yet this is part of who I am and what has shaped me. And yes, I am proud of it.
We only spent two nights in Belgrade and then left for Sarajevo, this time with the rental car we were to keep through the rest of the trip, a very comfortable, diesel-powered (amazing on gas!) Renault “Scenic” model. Another one I’d love to see in the US. The drive to Sarajevo was made particularly unpleasant by the two-hour border crossing between Serbia and Croatia (through which we drove for all of about 20 minutes before crossing over into BiH). Yet another casualty of the wars: borders between small countries that all used to be part of a whole. Yes, it’s fun to have 15 new stamps in my passport, but what they represent is heartbreaking.
Our hotel in Sarajevo, Pansion Harmony, was one of the high points of the trip for all four of us. The owner and his staff could not have been more hospitable — a trait for which the Bosnian people are known. It mattered not that we drove up in a car with Belgrade license plates or what kind of accent I had, we felt cared for as honored guests. I had another surprise the next day when we visited the Tunnel Museum. We had to go to the little store next door to change money for the entrance fee. When the owner heard me speaking “nas jezik” (“our language” — which was a way of getting around which language, exactly, was being spoken. In truth the languages at least of Serbia, BiH, and Croatia are basically the same. It’s only the variations in accent and a few different words which identify where one is from), he asked about my origins. I said my mother was from Belgrade, and then apologized (given where we were…). He told me not to apologize and then told me about Colonel Jovan Divjak who had been his commander many years earlier when he served his compulsory service in the Yugoslav National Army. When the fighting broke out, Divjak, a Serb, left the JNA to fight on behalf of Bosnia. His is a story of one man who had the courage to stand up against what he saw as a clear wrong and do something about it. Like Schindler, like Carrie ten Boom, like others throughout history who have chosen the risky, yet right path. Ratko Mladic had a price on Divjak’s head had he been captured.
About the Tunnel, also known as the Tunnel of Hope or Tunnel Spasa (which means “salvation”). Follow the link to learn more about it. Visiting it was, of course, deeply moving and deeply disturbing. As with all things connected to wartime, there were of course those who used it for black-marketeering and other less than noble purposes, but as I said in my post about Srebrenica, had the war not been waged in the first place… This map shows the extent of the siege of Sarajevo; the city was almost completely surrounded by Serbian forces; the only way to get supplies in and people out was through the tunnel constructed under the UN-controlled airport runway.
When S and I were in Sarajevo before, I had missed connecting with a representative from the Post-Conflict Research Center. The mission of the P-CRC is to “…cultivate an environment for sustainable peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) and the greater Balkans region using creative multimedia projects that foster tolerance, moral courage, mutual understanding, and positive change.” I’m glad I persisted in trying to contact them because I had a very helpful — and hopeful — conversation with Tim Bidey, the P-CRC’s project developer. Tim is a young Englishman who holds a graduate degree in post conflict studies with an emphasis on storytelling as a method of peace-building. They use a variety of creative ways to facilitate dialogue among people of very different backgrounds, especially focusing on young people who will become “multipliers” when they return to their home communities, bringing what they’ve learned about building bridges back to their communities.
One of the tools the P-CRC uses to engage groups in discussions are a series of documentaries they have created about “Ordinary Heroes.” Each documentary presents several stories of people who have reached beyond their own ethic group to help someone from a different group. These are stories of “rescuers” and from them the participants can learn to formulate new narratives, and develop new understandings of what a “hero” is. Each documentary always includes stories from each of the different ethnic groups and how they reached across those boundaries to help someone else. “The purpose,” Tim explained, “is to help young people look forward by looking back in a different way, and seeing the possibility of different narratives.” A final step in the process is for youth to go back to their own communities to find there stories of moral courage or a story about someone who has crossed ethnic lines. They then submit the stories for a competition. When they find the stories, it changes them in profound ways. This work is becoming well-known in the area; the P-CRC just received a UN award for this work (first in the world!) and they were finalists in Council of Europe’s Diversity Award.
At the root of what the P-CRC does is the goal of trying to reduce the salience of ethnicity as the defining factor in order to help people identify what transcends ethnicity, recognize and embrace the bigger picture of what they have in common.
One thing did disappoint me in our conversation — I asked Tim if any NGO or other sort of organization might be working on inter-religious dialogue. He could only think of one — The Center for Peacebuilding, or CIM, in Sanski Most. I had contacted that organization before I left but unfortunately the director was to be out of town during my time in BiH. Given the huge role religion played in the wars of the 1990’s, it saddens me that religious groups aren’t stepping forward to be part of the reconciliation process moving forward. Reconciliation and peace-building are (or should be…) at the heart of each religion.
But the title of this post is “…Hope?…” and looking back on the conversations I had with people from the various groups I do see some. The fact that former enemy combatants are willing to come together, the fact that there are young people passionate about being part of a different future, and the fact that there are dedicated people working in groups like the ones with which I met as well as those with whom I was unable to meet — this gives me hope that little by little, step by step a different future is possible. And I hope to be able to be part of a different future in our own community where there is still so much left to do in the area of reconciliation and bringing about a new future.