"Relativity applies to physics, not ethics."
- Albert Einstein

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Historical Revisionism and Ethnic Identity

In 2007, I served on a panel about Bosnia for a symposium at the College of New Jersey.

I discovered that a partial video of the panel is posted online!

Check it out here

(if you scroll about halfway into it, I field a question about historical revisionism, nationality, and ethnic identity.)

The first person to speak on the panel is my best friend, classmate, and fellow Bosnia travel team member; the last person to speak is our trip organizer.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Building relationships

this is based on the personal story I told at the ELCA National Youth Gathering in San Antonio in 2006

My times in Bosnia have drastically altered the way I see my actions. I first noticed it concretely in 2005. Our Bosnian trip coordinator, Vjeko was being silly, joking around with
one of the American team members. (Vjeko, who was known to dance to Madonna in the bus isles in a piranha-printed speedo and who once woke me by tiptoeing into my room and loudly singing "Girls Just Want to Have Fun," could be blessedly silly.) When someone asked him what he was doing, he responded, “hey! I’m building relationships! Isn't that what our trip is all about?"

Even though it was said
in a joking context, I realized it was really true. Life is crucially and fundamentally about the relationships we build: with our family and good friends, with our casual friends and acquaintances, with ourselves, and with God. Every action, every conversation, every thing I do is about building a relationship with someone, and, as such, is important.

left: Vjeko, striking a signature dance move

One of the benefits of relationship-building is realizing that people are people, no matter where they live. My first enc
ounter in Bosnia is the perfect example. I was staying with an older woman named Fahra and her husband. They spoke no English, and I spoke no Bosnian. It was my first time in a place where I didn’t know the language, and I was a bit worried.

It was a brutally hot day, and I was exhausted from traveling. Our bus dropped us off on Antuna Hangija, the street where our host families lived. Fahra picked me up at the bus stop, and we walked back to her apartment. We entered – and saw her husband sitting there on the couch, watching TV in his t-shirt and underwear.

Fahra immediately started chastising him, and even though I couldn’t actually understand the words they used, I knew exactly what they were saying to each other. The conversation was obviously along the lines of:

-- “Get off the couch and get dressed! Company’s here! What do you think you’re doing?”

-- “Ah, it’s too hot! Can’t you see I’m watching the game?”

They were like so many old married couples I knew in the States.

When I left for the airport at the end of my trip, Fahra wouldn’t let me leave without taking food with me for the journey. I realized Fahra, a Bosnian Muslim living in Sarajevo, shared essentially the same hospitality as my best friend’s Italian Catholic grandma living in North Jersey.

me with Fahra and her granddaughter

The most important part about my relationship-building in Bosnia is the invaluable one-on-one bonds I’ve made with some of the children in our friendship camps. I will never forget our very first camp my first year. We are in a small town called Čengić Vila outside of Sarajveo. I am giving kids nametags, and helping them tie colored bandanas in their hair or on their wrists. I see a girl with straight brown hair and a pink United Colors of Benetton t-shirt. Her name tag says “Anida.”

At beginning of camp, Anida—who speaks English, like many of the older kids--immediately comes running over to me, asking about someone who had been there the year before. What an effect this person had on her! I tell Anida the girl isn't with us this year, but Anida sees my nametag and her eyes light up. "Hey!" she cries, "our names are the same, except for one letter!" And Anida is my special buddy all day -- I am a "traveler" that session, so I get to go around with the kids from activity to activity, and Anida never leaves my side.

At the end of the day, after our musicians play their closing songs, Anida takes my hands, looks right into my eyes, and says "I will never forget you." I say the same thing back to her, and I know it was true: there is no way, for as long as I live, that I will ever forget Anida

I made these same kind connections over and over. My first year I met a girl at the second camp we went to in a town called Visoko. Her name was Ilma, and she gave me the bracelet off her own arm as a gift at the end of the day. I took down her address and wrote a letter to her during the year. The next year, I didn't go to that camp. Our group was split into North and South teams; Visoko was a South team camp, and I was on the North team. I sent a letter to Ilma with a South team member, and Ilma had a letter waiting for me. The same thing happened the next year – one of the team members who went to Visoko told me that when she walked into camp, Ilma came running over asking if I was there.

The highest and lowest points of my life have been spent in Bosnia, sometimes on the very same day. I want to talk about the high points. In 2005, we were holding camp in a town in Northern Bosnia called Brčko. I had made a really special bond the year before with a girl named Đurđica, perhaps in part because I was the only American who correctly pronounced her name on the first try. I couldn't wait to see her – but as camp was getting ready to start, I didn't see her there, and I was starting to feel really disappointed.

Me with Đurđica

Our opening was just about to start, when I heard someone shout my name from across the room. I looked up, and Đurđica came running across the room and threw her arms around me. She called an interpreter over, and told me through the interpreter that she had been dropping her younger sister off at camp and wasn't planning on staying herself, but she saw me and just had to come over and see me. She stayed the whole day and we had a great time!

I have seen God in Bosnia, with all five of my senses. I have found God in the sunlight: when I was feeling lost or faced with something particularly dark, I literally saw the sun breaking through the clouds. I have seen God in the faces of the kids, the Americans, our interpreters, and people on the street. I have heard God in the imam’s call to prayer, in the ringing of church bells, in the songs we sing with the kids, and even in the bad American pop music that plays in restaurants. I have felt God in the hugs I share, the hands I hold as I dance, the rocks and stones and water I touch. I have smelled God in the flowers, the breeze, and the rain. I have tasted God in the food and brandy that has been so generously shared with me, in the fabulous gelato I buy on the Sarajevo streets.

And everywhere I look, I have seen faith that can move mountains.

above: the cross at Rama monastary

Saturday, December 1, 2007

My God, Why Have You Forsaken Me? A Devotion about Bosnia

below: graves waiting to be filled with bodies exhumed from mass graves in Srebrenica

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” – Psalm 22:1

Where were you, Lord?

I am standing at the Potočari Memorial Cemetery in Srebrenica, Bosnia, a place where Serb nationalists murdered 8,000 Muslim men and boys during the Bosnian War. In front of me, behind me, all around me stretch row upon row of identical green tombstones. Each one bears a unique name and birth year, but all end with the date 1995. Stone slabs with a seemingly endless list of names carved in them surround me; the same last names appear over and over.

An older woman named Hatidža in a white veil runs her finger along one of the names. “This is my husband,” she says, through an interpreter. She points to two more names. “And these are my sons. I don’t know what happened to them. They have been missing for eleven years.” She pauses, and I can see the pain in her eyes, a pain like I have never known and cannot even imagine. “The best thing I can hope is that they did not suffer for too long.”

Dear Lord . . . how can something like this happen? How can there be such pure evil in the world? How can my fellow humans, created by You in Your image, act with such unmitigated and irrational hatred? You are all good, all powerful, all knowing -- so how can You let things like this occur? I know life isn’t supposed to be fair, God, but how come Hatidža has lost so much more than others, especially me?

I am sitting in the Peace Center in Kozarac, Bosnia, listening to a woman named Emsuda Mujagić speak. She tells us how her town was “ethnically cleansed” during the war, shares how she and her family, along with hundreds of others, were held in a concentration camp in the town of Tronoplje. She survived; many were not so lucky. She shows me a book full of names and some pictures, like a high school yearbook, except that every name in it is that of a missing person. I see an eighty-year-old man, a five-year-old boy, and a girl my age. I am overwhelmed. I stand outside, and I weep.

Where is the justice, Lord? People tell me You have a divine plan for everything – how can this be part of it? I know You are always there, even in the darkest times – but sometimes it is so hard to see where.

“The light shines on in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” – John 1:5

Where are you, Lord?

right: Emsuda with interpreter Vjeko at the war cemetery in Kozarac

Emsuda tells how she returned to her town to help heal the physical and emotional wounds of her community by opening the Peace Center and founding Through Hearts to Peace (Srcem do Mira), a women’s organization that helps widows and refugees and works for peace and understanding among Muslims, Croats, and Serbs. As Emsuda tells her story, she speaks about peace and forgiveness, about letting go of hatred and rising above the cycle of violence and revenge.

I know we are supposed to forgive others, Lord, but I don’t know how Emsuda does it. I have only just heard her story, and even as an outsider I am consumed with confusion, sorrow, horror, rage. I marvel at the light Emsuda brings in a world that seems too dark.

And then I see, Lord. I see an answer, because I see You. Dear Jesus, you said that when we do unto each other, we do unto You. I see you in Emsuda – in the love she shows her neighbors, I see the unconditional love You have for us; in the way she has brought her community back to life, I see a reflection of your glorious resurrection.

I know that God is in Bosnia now, just as He always has been. The darkness seemed overwhelming, but Light of the World shone through. The darkness may seem to triumph, but ultimately, the light is never defeated.

“There’s a calm upon the water, but down below

Oh, the anxious hearts are beating, will this peace ever hold? . . .

Still the memories are haunting, will they block the way?

What can bring us all together to start a brand new day?”

-- Larry Olsen, “May Love Rise Above”

Where will you be, Lord?

What comes next? I think of lyrics from a song written by Larry Olsen of Dakota Road, one of our Bosnia trip musicians. As the years pass and people try to live together once again, the darkness in Bosnia is lifting, and the light is gradually becoming brighter. But the process is painstakingly slow, and the results are uncertain. There is such a long way to go, and I fear that the country will plunge back into darkness.

The only thing I can do is pray:

Dear Lord, thank you for Your unfailing goodness, mercy, and love.

I pray especially for the people of Bosnia, that they find the healing and strength they need to live in peace and harmony.

Let me and all of your children see Your presence even when it is hard to find.

Help me to always remember that “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging.” (Psalm 46:1-3)

Let me see Your light in the world, and help me to be a vessel capable of sharing Your light with others.

In Jesus’ name I pray,


the sun breaking over Srebrenica

All pictures copyright the author, July 2005

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Reflections on They Would Never Hurt a Fly

Reflections on They Would Never Hurt a Fly: War Criminals on Trial in the Hague by Slavenka Drakulic

Summary from Publisher's Weekly:

What causes people to participate in genocide? Respected Croatian journalist Drakulic (How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed) set out to explore the psyches of the people who turned her former country, Yugoslavia, into a killing field in the early 1990s. Observing them on trial for war crimes before the International Tribunal in the Hague, Drakulic depicts the perpetrators, from Radomir Kovac, who raped young girls, to the delusional former Serb president Slobodan Milosevic, often from the point of view of the perpetrators themselves. The novelistic imputation of imagined thoughts can be distracting. Nevertheless, with a few exceptions, the snapshots are powerful and horrifying: they include a chilling description of the slaughter at Srebrenica through the eyes of a reluctant Bosnian soldier forced to kill or be killed, and a portrayal of an entire town's complicity in the murder of a Croatian militiaman after he courageously testified before the tribunal. Drakulic's analysis of why people choose evil—fear, opportunism, propaganda, lust for power and identity, historical grievances—offers little that's new, and her conclusion—"if ordinary people committed war crimes, it means that any of us begs the question of why some found the courage to say no. But her focus on the perpetrators and their apparently inexplicable moral choices forces us to face the questions of good and evil these crimes raise.

I found it fascinating to try to get inside the minds of and understand the thinking of people who committed war crimes. This book challenged me and made me uncomfortable, and also made me worry about the state of Bosnia today. For example, I know that political corruption such as that described in the chapter about the death of Milan Levar, the Croatian war witness, is still rampant all around the former Yugoslavia today. There are still people who do not know and who won’t accept the truth, and even now “the Croatian state is still indecisive, the international community is indifferent, and public opinion remains silent” (37). When the people in power are the same as the perpetrators or are involved in conspiracy about what happened, how can there possibly be any progress?

I also think the book is very important because I couldn’t agree more with Drakulić’s conclusion that we need to stop thinking of war criminals as purely evil non-human monsters lest we fail to acknowledge that we too have the capacity to act in similar ways. It’s a terrifying thought – what does it take to make an ordinary person act in such an extraordinary way? Drakulić wonders if perhaps war can turn people with “criminal personalities” (55) into criminals who can rape and murder. However, there would have to be “thousands upon thousands of men committing such acts,” (56) and Drakulić feels it was more likely that “the war itself turned ordinary men – a driver, a waiter, and a salesman, the three accused were – into criminals because of opportunism, fear, and not least, belief” (56). She states that the either the hundreds of thousands of perpetrators actually believed what they were doing was right, or there is no explanation for the rapes and murders, and I’m not sure which side of the disjunct is scarier.

How do these things happen? As Drakulić asks, “how does our neighbor become our enemy? How do we internalize the enemy, and how long does it take to do so?” (97). She states that at the time of the Srebrenica massacre, the “Serbian propaganda machine, especially television, had been demonizing the enemy—Croats, Bosnian Muslims, and Albanians—for almost ten years” (97). This notion of the power of propaganda is especially terrifying to me. There are people in Serbia who genuinely do not realize what happened in Srebrenica because of what their media has told them. How responsible are we for the nationalist attitudes we have been fed by our news stations? Where do we draw the line between thinking independently and total skepticism over everything the media tells us? I typically have a fairly strong faith in the reliability of the media (perhaps because my parents are both radio journalists) that this book made me begin to sincerely doubt.

The ideas that Drakulić presents in the chapter on Slobodan Milošević about recreating history and revising facts to fit a political agenda struck a chord with me, because I’ve seen history being rewritten in Bosnia today. In the summer of 2005, our group attempted to hold a “friendship camp” in Srebrenica for the first time. When we arrived at the school, no children were there, which is far from the norm – we are usually greeted at the bus by a throng of eager faces. We went inside the school building to wait while our trip coordinators spoke with the school director. Hanging on one wall was a large painting of the town with small portraits on either side. The town in the painting had several Orthodox churches but not a single mosque, though the painting was obviously depicting a time long before the war, a time in which the majority of the population was Muslim. One of the portraits hanging next to the Mosque-less painting of the town was of a great Serbian author who revolutionized Serbo-Croatian language. The caption under the painting was printed in Cyrillic and English, not in the Serbo-Croatian in the Latin alphabet. One of the interpreters came over to look at the painting with me, and pointed to the caption and said “That’s wrong. It says ‘He is the greatest author of our nation,’ but he was from Serbia, and our nation is Bosnia.”

For the only time in all of my trips to Bosnia, I felt highly uncomfortable and very out of place. I got a very bizarre vibe from the school, and I stepped outside because I felt so uncomfortable. I approached another of my team members about it, an adult woman named Donna, and asked her if she felt the same way. She agreed with me, and said that it was because we were seeing history being rewritten before our eyes. (The school director claimed to have been confused over the date and apologized for his “mistake,” but I have a strong suspicion that his mistake was intentional, and that he did not want us--and our Muslim interpreters--there. The next year, there was a new director at the school in Srebrenica and we held a successful camp there, though there was only one Muslim boy in attendance.)

I scared myself reading the chapter about Dražen Erdemović, because though I hope that I would rather die than shoot innocent civilians, I really can’t say whether I would be willing to give up my life in such a situation. Over the summer I had a dream that scared me in a similar way. I was in the middle of intense preparation for my part of NJ Synod’s display about the Bosnian War at the ELCA National Youth Gathering. I was responsible for information about Emsuda Mugajić and concentration camps and for coordinating workshops about our Bosnian interpreters’ war stories and a war simulation game.

I don’t remember all of the details, but I dreamed I was in my old high school, and a friend ran up to me and told me I had to go outside to the field. There were masked men with guns outside, and they had lined all the students up and were screaming at us, telling us to get down on the ground and cover our heads. I felt absolutely terrified as I took my place in line with the other students. A man started walking down the line of students, poking random students with the butt of his gun and yelling, “YOU! GET UP AND COME WITH ME!” I knew that the students he picked were going to be taken to a wall and shot by a firing squad, with no chance of escape. As he walked down the line, I could only think one thing – don’t pick me, don’t pick me, Dear God, please let him pick anyone but me.

The man tapped me with his gun, shouted a number, and dragged me to my feet. I felt panicked and I couldn’t breathe. All I could think was “this cannot be happening, not to me – I have so much potential, so much before me, I haven’t lived my life yet . . . I still need to go to graduate school and become a philosophy professor, I can’t die now!” I woke up, and I was very upset, not by the dream itself but by my reaction in the dream. I was terrified of death, and I would have done anything to avoid it – to the point of wishing that the guard would take someone else, would just take anyone but me. I also, for the first time, stopped to try to imagine what it would really be like to be in an ethnic cleansing situation, and I still couldn’t wrap my mind around it. I didn’t like the way I responded in the dream at all, and though I know it was a dream, it made me wonder how I would respond in a similar real life situation.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

The Shadow

This is a short story I wrote in the fall of 2007.

There was so much noise in the hot, smoky room, people singing and cheering and laughing and cursing. I was dizzy and my head felt heavy from so many shots of slivovic. Dragan stumbled over to me, his face red and glistening with sweat.

“Hey, Miro!” he slurred, pouring me more rakija. “You’re a good man, you know that? You came to our unit three months ago and you were a simple farmer boy from some backward little village . . . and all you knew how to do was plough fields . . . and feed cows . . . and milk chickens.” He slung an arm around me and leaned his face in closer. “And now, now you are a man! You’re a soldier like the rest of us!” He raised his glass and shouted, “Here’s to you, you crazy peasant son of a bitch!”

Živjeli! Cheers!” I clinked my glass with Dragan’s and downed the fiery brandy. The room span around me, I put a hand against the wall to steady myself. I felt myself slide against the wall, and I realized I was sitting on the dirty floor. I closed my eyes and started to think of home, and of the girl. Soon, I was lost in the world of my own thoughts.

There was an old widow who lived in my town and told the villagers’ fortunes in exchange for knick-knacks and food. Everyone knew her only as Mother Sofija, and all the village kids were afraid of her, because they heard stories that she liked to steal bad children and eat them for breakfast. Mothers would cluck their tongues as she passed and shake their heads in disapproval. My own mother would cross herself and tell me “Miro, look away before she gives you the evil eye! That woman practices the Devil’s art!”

But I had always been the bravest of the boys my age, and I was not afraid of anything. I was famous for taking any dare offered to me, from leaping off the roof of the barn to slipping a live frog in the church collection plate and risking Father Pero’s wrath. So when Branko dared me to go to Mother Sofija and have her tell my fortune, I couldn’t refuse. It happened eight years ago in 1985 when I was only fourteen, but I can still see it perfectly in my mind.

It was summer, and I found Mother Sofija sitting on the bench at the edge of the town square where she liked to rest in the warm months. I opened my mouth to speak, and she put a wrinkled finger to her lips.

“Shh, child, don’t talk. What did you bring me?”

Looking around to make sure no one was watching me, I handed her a basket of fresh eggs from our farm. She accepted it wordlessly, and grabbed my hand. She started humming to herself and tracing the lines in my palm, analyzing every dirt-caked finger.

“Oh child, this is very special, very special, yes. I see your destiny is not yours alone. The thread of your life is tangled with another’s, all wrapped up and tangled, yes. She will change your life, this woman you are destined to meet. I do not see where your destiny goes, no, it is not easy, but when you meet her, she will possess your thoughts and your days for the rest of your life. She will decide who you are and how your life plays out, yes, she will.”

I was shaken out of my daydream and back to the present when I heard a crash and a shout next to me. I cracked an eye open and saw broken glass and spilled liquid on the ground. It didn’t matter, there was more where that came from. The commander had given us a special treat tonight. I felt my head slump over, and I drifted off to sleep.

I am dreaming. I am in my hometown again, in the big hilly field behind old man Ivanović’s farm. The air is clean and crisp and fresh; everything is quiet, and the world is at peace. The sun glares into my eyes, and I squint into the brilliant light. I see a person standing at the top of a hill. The figure is shadowed, but I knew it has to be the girl. I start running towards her.

“Hello!” I call. “You, there, wait!”

The woman stops. I catch up to her, and she turns to face me. She has light brown hair that falls to her waist, and she looks at me with piercing blue eyes. There is a dark brown beauty mark on her cheek. She is dressed in a simple blouse and skirt, and she is beautiful. I have seen her in recurring dreams ever since my encounter with the old widow, and whenever I dream of her I know she is the destiny Mother Sofija saw for me. Something about her haunts me, captivates me, makes me dream about her even during my waking hours, though in my dreams I am never able to speak to her or learn anything about her.

I was jolted awake by a smack on the back of my head. I woke with a start, panicked and disoriented with an ache in my head and tightness in my throat. The electric lights in the room felt like they were burning me. Someone shook me.

“Miro, you slug, get up! Party time is over, we have orders to go outside!”

I used the wall to steady myself and stand up. Everyone in the room was adjusting their uniforms and making their weapons ready. It was still dark outside.

“What are we doing?”

“Shut up and get ready, farmer,” Dragan replied. “We have some refugee scum we need to move.”

I followed the rest of my unit outside into the chilly night air, unusually cold for summer. I guessed from the sky that it was probably about four in the morning. My feet felt unsteady and my mind was hazy, and I knew I was still drunk from the night before. We lined up in very sloppy attention outside the abandoned school building we were using as our temporary barracks, and our commander paced up and down in front of us.

“Alright, boys!” he shouted. “I hate to break up your party, but we’ve got some trash we need to get rid of. A bus full of refugees from the local village is having engine trouble, and we need to make sure the filthy Muslim bastards all get onto the other bus so they can be relocated and be out of our town.”

An overly zealous member of our unit saluted and shouted “Sir, yes sir!”

The commander started laughing, a rich, hearty laugh. “That’s right my boy, you show the others how excited they should be.”

The commander kept talking, but I was tired and distracted, and I couldn’t focus on what he was saying even if I tried. I started thinking about what it would be like when I was done with my service in the army, how proud my mother would be, and how I would be a war hero in my town. That Miro always was the bravest, they would say, and even the grandmothers would be proud of my honor and courage and service to our people.

I realized that two buses had pulled up in front of the barracks. The door of the first bus opened, and a line of people filed out of it. I saw only shadows; it was too dark to see any of their faces or features. A few of my fellow soldiers lined the refugees up in a row in front of the other bus, prodding them with the butts of their guns. I saw the people start to board the bus, watched them through some kind of fog as if they were a dream or I was seeing them in slow motion. I was hungry, and I started thinking about the stew my Aunt Mirjana makes at holidays, how it tastes so spicy and delicious, and the warm crusty bread that goes with it, and the sweet pastries we have for dessert . . . .

“Petrović!” The commander shouted. “Miro! Are you listening to me? Look at me, boy!”

I was startled out of my daydream. “Yes, sir!” I yelled, worried because I hadn’t been paying attention. “I’m listening, sir! Ready to follow orders, sir!”

The commander laughed again. “Alright, you drunken smart-ass, let’s see how tough you can be.”

I noticed that all of the refugees were on the bus already, except one. The commander grabbed hold of the figure, dragged it away from the bus towards the middle of the field.

“Okay, Petrović,” the commander said. “This here God-damn Turk spreads lies about us, tries to write to the newspapers and stand up on the street corners and say that Serbia has no right to what we know is ours . . . my superiors have warned me about this Muslim son of a bitch, and said it’s in our best interest not to have people spreading lies about us. You know what you should do.”


“Kill the Turk.”

It was like I had floated outside of my body and was seeing myself as another person. I was the bravest. I had never turned down a dare, never in my life, and this was more than a dare, it was an order. I had to. I was tough, I could do this, I was a soldier, I had to follow orders, and it didn’t matter anyway, I was just shooting at a shadow, there was no face, there was no person, this was just another refugee like so many others, but more than that, even, this person was dangerous, was a liar, was a traitor, had to be gotten rid of, in our best interest, and even so, it was just a shadow, nothing else, it didn’t matter, I had no choice, I was a real man now, a soldier, a city boy, an adult, I was tough, and fierce, and it’s just a shadow . . . .

I aimed my gun and curled my finger around the trigger. I don’t remember what happened in the next few seconds, but I heard a high-pitched scream and a thud. I realized my eyes were shut and I was breathing heavily.

When I opened my eyes, the Commander was laughing again, that same hearty laugh. “God, you can take the boy out of the farm but you can’t take the farmer out of the boy, look at your face! He’s a good shot, though, a damn good shot, you got the sucker right in the chest. It’s cold, boys, we’ll deal with the body later. Nice work, gentlemen, nice work!”

The Commander and the other soldiers were starting to go inside. Slowly, I walked over to the body that was lying on the ground. I started to panic, couldn’t catch my breath. The body on the ground wasn’t a shadow, wasn’t a figure, it was a person, a human being, an actual person with family and friends, a person who used to breathe and think and feel. I walked over and stood above the body in the darkness, suddenly feeling sober and acutely aware of my surroundings. I knelt on the ground and leaned in to look at the face of the person I had shot.

She had light brown hair and piercing blue eyes and a beauty mark on her cheek.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Picture Me an Enemy

Reflections on the film “Picture Me an Enemy”


Film synopsis (from the above website):

When the war started, we thought it was simply impossible.
What, am I supposed to expect my first neighbor to come and kill me?
Oh, come on it's not possible! But it is very possible and it happened.
Tahija Vikalo (1998)

In 1991, war broke out in the former Yugoslavia. The ensuing conflicts left up to a quarter of a million people dead or missing in the region and made refugees of more than half of the national population of Bosnia & Herzegovina. And despite wide international attention, understanding of these conflicts is still vague and detached.

Told through the intimate stories of Natasa, a Serbo-Croat from Croatia, and Tahija, a Bosniak (a Bosnian Muslim), Picture Me an Enemy puts a human face on these distant conflicts. Although pictured to one another, and to the world, as longtime enemies, Natasa and Tahija speak a common truth about how those in power used religion, ethnicity and nationality to construct the "enemy" during the conflicts. It is a moving portrait of two young women who reach beyond their national identities to address universal qu
estions of conflict, peace and forgiveness with sensitivity and unexpected humor.

Tahija Vikalo
was just beginning college when the war erupted in Bosnia & Herzegovina. She lived through the worst of the war in Sarajevo, running past snipers on her way home from work. In the summer of 1998, the Picture Me an Enemy crew traveled with Tahija back to her home in Sarajevo. Tracing Tahija's footsteps through the past and into the present, we gain a unique view of Bosnian life and culture as well as the horror she went through. Tahija's introduction to Bosnia challenges stereotypes about her country and the Muslim religion. And her firsthand experience of war is a window into the brutality and suffering that results from such conflicts.

Tahija Vikalo

Natasa Borcanin
, originally from Osijek, Croatia, was a high school student when war erupted in Croatia. In formal interviews and intimate settings, Natasa discusses her experience of war breaking out in her country and then what it was like to watch these conflicts unfold on television from the US where she was an exchange student. As a Croat with mixed ethnicity (her father is Serbian and her mother is Croatian), Natasa represents the innate complexity of these wars. She and her family suffered as victims of discrimination in her Croatian hometown and yet for Natasa, the war was "not a war of our generation...we never knew of these hatreds between ethnic groups." Natasa provides a unique perspective on the complexities of personal identity and the danger of assigning people to rigid ethnic groups.

With candid and revealing perspectives rarely seen on the evening news, Tahija and Natasa provide new insights into these, often-misunderstood, conflicts. And although the documentary focuses on the conflicts of the former Yugoslavia, the themes raised within, reach far beyond the borders of any one country.

Sufi Interview

Shot in Philadelphia and the former Yugoslavia, Picture Me an Enemy inter-cuts archival news footage and abstract Super 8 vignettes with the post-war reflections of Tahija and Natasa in a style that is both engaging and sincere. This is supplemented with archival footage from the war and a wealth of images of the people and places of the former Yugoslavia. Award-winning editor Barbara Burst combines these elements in an engaging and sincere way. Blending sounds from East, West, folk and pop, the film's soundtrack features the music of diaSonic, an international act recently featured on MTV and Fox Television. The musicians, Milan Kovacev and Damir Prcic, who, like Tahija and Natasa, come from opposing sides of the conflict in the former Yugoslavia, find a common ground through music by combining classical, hip hop and electronic dance music with folk songs from Serbia and Bosnia.

This documentary is especially unique because of the visibly sincere friendship developed over six years between the vis à vis productions crew and Tahija & Natasa. As they share their experiences, the viewer is introduced to the images, humor, culture and life of the former Yugoslavia in an up close and intimate way.


The target audience for Picture Me an Enemy is people who care little about issues of war and conflict, and would rarely ever sit down to watch a "war documentary." Although told through the voices of two women from the former Yugoslavia, the themes raised throughout Picture Me an Enemy reach far beyond the borders of any one country. At its core, this is a story of two women who have the same fears, hopes and dreams as women anywhere.

This film was screened as part of a Bosnia symposium at my college, and was also part of the curriculum for a freshman course on the Bosnian war for which I was a TA. I thought this was an excellent film that exemplified the complicated, category-defying classification of ethnic groups in Bosnia. After traveling to Bosnia four times and contemplating the complex role ethnicity played in the war, the only thing I am completely sure of is that nothing is certain. The Bosnian conflict is so difficult, so intriguing, and so important because it was not a clear-cut matter of black and white/good guys vs. bad guys. Rather, it seems that every side is a shade of gray, and I can’t unqualifiedly label any one group as the “good guys.”

Moreover, it seems that each person you ask lays the blame for what happened elsewhere. For example, when I was in Mostar in 2004, our Bosnian Muslim trip hostess told us that during the war, the Croats and Muslims of Mostar had banded together against the Serb aggressors. When the Serbs were no longer a threat, she said, the Croats turned on the Muslims with no reason and started shooting at them.

That summer, I was speaking to an American man who does mission work in Bosnia through a Catholic relief organization and works primarily with Bosnian Croats. When I mentioned Mostar, he told me that he had heard how the Croats and Muslims banded together against the Serbs until the Muslims irrationally turned on the Croats and started shooting. It’s hard to know what the truth of the matter actually is.

The thing that struck me most about the video was when Tahija commented that people are always saying to her “No! You’re Muslim? You can’t be Muslim!” Most of the interpreters we work with in Bosnia are Muslim, and I have to admit that before I met them, the concept of a blonde, liberal European Muslim girl who speaks English, wants to live in America, dresses like me, and knows more about American pop culture than I do was a little startling. Many Americans tend to at best see all Muslims as Middle-Eastern/Arab and traditional, and at worst see all Muslims as terrorists or Islamist extremists. In the girl in the video, I not only saw my friends from Sarajevo, I saw my girlfriends in New Jersey.

A film like this makes it apparent that there were ordinary people on every side, girls my age who dress like me and think like me and aren’t irrational or full of hate. Most of the people swept up by the conflict were simply ordinary people. It must be very hard for Bosnians like the two girls in the video not to fall into the trap of thinking of each other in such unambiguous right and wrong/good and evil terms.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Reflections on Pretty Birds by Scott Simon

Reflections on Pretty Birds by Scott Simon
Random House, 2005

a good review of the book can be found here:

"There is no greater sorrow on earth than the loss of one's native land." -- Euripides

I first read this book over the summer of 2007 (I actually finished it while I was in Bosnia), and I absolutely loved it. Not only is it a powerful, fascinating story with compelling characters, but it also provides an interesting and accurate snapshot of what life was like in besieged Sarajevo. Sarajevo is a city I love and feel very close to, and I could visualize many of the places and people with whom Irena interacted.

What I liked best about the book was how it shattered my preconceived notions. To begin, I was startled when I first heard that the book was about a sniper who was a Muslim female – I had assumed that the snipers involved in the siege of Sarajevo were male and Serb, paramilitary units or members of the JNA. I didn’t think about the possibility of snipers on the other side, and if I had, I would have assumed they were soldiers in the Bosnian army and probably male. Irena challenged my concept of gender roles. Given that Slavenka Drakulić consistently affirms that Bosnia is a very patriarchal society, I thought it especially interesting that, according to Scott Simon, it was not uncommon to use girls as snipers. Though Irena is much tougher and sharper than I am, I can relate to her as a young woman, and I can see aspects of my girlfriends in her.

It was fascinating to find myself empathizing with the sniper rather than with the victim. When the novel opened, I was horrified to read about the blasé, casual way Irena went about shooting people as if it were any ordinary part-time job. I recoiled from the way she systematically decided how to line up her target, and justified shooting at the lemon stand because the people there could afford the luxury of buying lemons.

As I read the novel, however, I grew to understand Irena, to sympathize and even empathize with her, to understand her actions and realize why she chose to fight back. As I came to care about Irena, I came to realize how important survival was for her, and how becoming a sniper was her way of surviving. It’s very difficult for me to imagine myself in the shoes of someone who deliberately picks a human target to kill, but I was almost able to do so through the character of Irena.

I was very intrigued by the Knight, the Bosnian Serb radio propagandist who reads the “news” every day and spouts threats and racial epithets against the Muslims. If besieged Sarajevans want to hear music or get any sort of updates, they have to listen to the Knight and are forced to hear him mock and threaten them. First, I wonder about the accuracy of Simon’s description of the Knight. I know propaganda was a major political weapon during the Bosnian war, but Pretty Birds is the first source in which I’ve found a description of propaganda being played systematically over the speaker systems in Sarajevo. I’ve heard that Simon’s novel is well researched, accurate, and largely based on personal experience, so I assume the Knight is in some way based on a real person.

It makes me question how people responded to the Knight’s talk. Irena ignores his blather for the most part, though she grumbles that she has to listen to so much nonsense before getting to the music. Were they all able to ignore the Knight as successfully as Irena was? When someone says something offensive about you, a natural instinct is to become angry with the speaker and fight back against the accusations. But what if you are hearing the talk every day and there is no way to fight it? Do you start to believe that the negative things said about you are true? What does this do to your sense of humanity and of self-worth?

Furthermore, how did Serbs living in Sarajevo respond to the negative propaganda about the Muslims? In such a cosmopolitan and ethnically mixed city, it was unlikely that there were Serbs who knew no Muslims and could be genuinely deluded because of ignorance. Did non-Muslims believe what the Knight said? I think it’s hard to know, because it’s very conceivable that even the best-intentioned people may fall for propaganda because they don’t realize what it is. Such considerations make me very careful of the news I read and see, for I realize that I tend not to question what my usual sources (CNN and the BBC) tell me. I hope that I would be reasonable enough to realize if the media is presenting me with something inaccurate or deliberately misleading, but for all I know, I’ve been exposed to propaganda before and not even recognized it.

Another aspect I found interesting was Mrs. Zarić’s reaction to her daughter’s rape by the soldiers who forced them out of their home in Grbavica. She is furious, and rightly so. She wishes to respond to violence with violence, and wants revenge for the wrongs committed against her and her family. Mrs. Zarić does not consider for even one moment forgiveness or reconciliation of any kind, and I fully understand her action. Throughout Pretty Birds, I found myself trying to put myself in the characters’ places and wondering what I would do in their situations. If I had a daughter who was raped, how would I respond? How could I feel anything but anger, anger that I would pass on to my children and use to perpetuate the cycle of violence?

Simon makes extensive use of animals as literal innocent victims of war: the animals in the Sarajevo zoo starve to death, the dogs at Dr. Pekar’s clinic are dying, Pretty Bird is starving and the Zarić family is forced to let her go. At the same time, the animals can be seen as a metaphor for all of war’s innocent victims. Just as with people, some animals die, some (such as Pretty Bird) survive but are forced to relocate, and none has committed any crime or in any way deserves to be persecuted. On a somewhat ironic level, this can be read as a literary convention used to make people sympathize with and feel emotionally connected to the citizens of Sarajevo. For some reason, humans sometimes sympathize more with animal than with human victims, perhaps because we believe that animals are incapable of acting rationally and thus incapable of evil and never deserving of punishment or hurt. People can watch a disaster movie where a city is leveled and thousands of people die, but the family dog has to survive or moviegoers will be very upset. Pretty Birds may, to some extent, be playing on the same idea.