Balkans - 2008
Some images cannot be conveyed in photographs; they need to be experienced, with embodied perception, in three dimensions, in a living world, their meanings uncovered over time, in conversation and in study.
Landing in Sarajevo Airport, one first encounters a hedge of empty rusting flagpoles surrounding the parking lot, which must have held international flags for the 1984 Winter Olympics. Our guide points out the seven major mountains ranging from 4900 - 6850 ft., where the ski jumping and giant slalom competitions were held. The city itself, surrounded by mountains, is situated in a hanging box canyon at 1640 ft. above sea level.
At the time of our visit in May of 2008, it had been twelve years and five months since the signing of the Dayton peace agreement of December 1995, the accord that ended the three-and-a-half-year war in Bosnia. The siege of Sarajevo itself – one of the longest sieges in the history of modern warfare – ran from April 1992 to February 1996. 85% of the estimated 12,000 people killed were civilians, with an estimated 50,000 wounded. All major roads to the city were blockaded, including any shipments of food or medicine, and many residents often went without electricity or water.
All of this information was available to me before our visit. None of it sank in until we drove past row after row of apartment buildings riddled with bullet holes. You could almost “read” the traces of gunfire, concentrating on the higher floors where snipers positioned themselves, or the mortar marks on the pavement where a frightened civilian, desperate for food, had dashed across the street. Perhaps nothing can get your attention like a bullet hole in a wall, at about the same level as your head, your heart, your child.
Was it an impulse from my past artist’s work in repairing Brooklyn’s century-old brownstones, or was it the instinct for healing and reconciliation that brought me to ministerial studies, that wanted to know what kept these residents from repairing the scarred walls and mortar holes? A Croatian native mentioned that the reason for delay in the repairs could be attributed to simple economics, a factor which hit home to me as we visited the more prosperous western and northern parts of the peninsula. But also I think there is a deliberate impulse to remember, to keep the physical marks that become an outward validation of the psychological marks within. Even as we know that forgiveness and forgetting are an important part of the Christian life we are called to, in order to heal we also have a need to remember for a time, to place the past in perspective, to know that the peace we keep can be fragile.
Even so, during the course of our visit, repairs were slowly taking place: a choir of singers from all walks of life came together to sing their own songs and the songs of their enemies; Islamic theologians studied mystic poetry as the root of a common ground between faiths; army barracks were transformed into a university where intellectuals and students come together to embark on the work of reconciliation.
More disturbing was the, to my mind, insidious misuse of religious symbols, an example of which can be seen towering over the nearby city of Mostar. An American student, uninitiated in tactics of this kind, saw the large concrete Latin cross on Hum Hill as a sign of hope. Local residents were not so quick to agree. Hum Hill was the site of one of the heavy artillery positions from which Serbian, and later Croatian Nationalist, forces bombarded the city, including the deliberate targeting of the 16th-century Stari Most Bridge. The Hum Hill cross dominates the landscape for miles around and is floodlit at night. International petitions to remove the cross have been resisted. The Hum Hill cross has been cited by Michael Sells (in his 2002 Paul Hanly Furfey Lecture published by the Association for the Sociology of Religion) as a “triumph shrine… meant to sanctify acts carried out on the site and to inscribe a new historical, religious and territorial text into the area.” It is evidence of the deliberate use of religion in the service of politics, of how governments construct what Chris Hedges, in his 2002 book War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning has called a “mythology of war,” where governments have a stake in co-opting a nation’s idealism in the service of sometimes selfish political and economic goals. As people of faith, we are not strangers to the human impulse to use religion in order to alienate ourselves from one another. We need to seek out ways to find common ground, inspiration, hope, and enrichment from the diversity of humanity’s struggle to understand the ineffable mystery of God, and to carry out a shared message of love and healing.
We have seen firsthand that the cultural heritage of southeastern Europe is incredibly rich. The legacy of diverse forms of Christianity, Islam, Judaism and other faiths form deeply textured interrelationships and contrasts. True culture stems from the generative forces in mankind, toward beauty, reverence, celebration and community. When these markers are taken over and used to create division, we are screened from the mundane and base motives toward power and greed that are more often the true cause of conflict. On our trip, we were blessed by our exposure to the incredible music, art, architecture, history and hospitality of this region. The lessons begun here will continue to bear fruit with further reflection. I look forward to deepening my understanding and hope to have the opportunity to return soon.
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