The first sight you see as you step off the train in Osijek is a great gaping hole blown in a house by a shell. The police station stands nearby, its windows shattered.
The streets of Osijek were not so deserted as when Joel first visited in late June. People had returned and begun to repair and rebuild the city. But the holes blown in buildings and the shattered windows showed that there was still a long way to go. The closest thing I could compare it to from my experience as a Californian was the Santa Cruz area after the Loma Prieta earthquake. But an earthquake does not cause the bullet holes that we saw in all the buildings. And an earthquake lasts at most a few minutes, while the town of Osijek endured six months of shelling.
The brothers Ante and Zvonomir Lauc stayed in Osijek throughout the shelling, living in a basement in the university to keep it going. Now Zvonomir Lauc served us Turkish coffee and discussed with Joel the reconstruction of the University of Osijek. A woman in the US was willing to donate old copies of journals, and she would pay the cost of the shipping. We discussed the possibility of getting internships for some students at companies in the US. Zvonomir gave us a booklet which described in detail the equipment needed by each department to restore the university.
The conversation turned to Joel's trip to Serbia. Joel discussed his meeting with Tibor Varady, Panic's new Minister of Justice. Zvonomir said simply, "He is a good man." It is this spirit of openness and willingness to make peace with the Serbs which impressed me the most about Osijek. Zvonomir had lived in a basement through six months of shelling. I had thought he might be angry and filled with resentment against the Serbs, but instead I found him willing to acknowledge people of good will in the new Yugoslavia - and willing to acknowledge the wrongs of the Croatian side.
I later met Ante Lauc, whom I found to be a man of amazing energy, filled with ideas for the rebuilding of the University of Osijek. His latest idea: to set up some computer correspondence courses in which professors in US universities could teach students in Osijek. In this way, more students could benefit from the courses than would be able to if only a few received scholarships to go to US universities.
Elsewhere in Osijek is a hotel occupied by refugees from Baranja. These refugees have been away from their homes for a year. They can go out of the hotel, look out to a row of trees beyond the river, and know that not far beyond those trees is their village - but they cannot return. In their haste to flee, the families were not able to take much, and so, except for two toy cars, the children had been without toys for a year.
We arrived in the role of Santa Claus, bringing a suitcase of toys for fourteen children. We were led to the hotel by Lidja, a very cheerful woman who speaks fluent English. The children were gathered together. As each child's name was read, the child came up to take the requested toy. The boys had requested scuba equipment, handheld video games, cars, and a teddy bear. The girls (alas for political correctness) had all requested Barbie dolls. A few extra toys were donated, and were either requested for children not present or given as extras to the children in this house. Finally, we presented the school supplies: books (in Croatian) and notebooks.
After we had given the toys, we were interviewed at a table outside the hotel by a young soldier who was also a reporter for the local paper and by Lidia. I saw three of the girls running across the hill behind us, each carrying her Barbie.
In this interview, I was again struck by the spirit of openness to the Serbs. Lidja asked Joel about his visit to Serbia, and about his encounters with the Serbian peace movement. She listened with interest as he told the story of the town in Serbia which refused to mobilize and instead declared itself a spiritual republic. It was surrounded by 91 tanks, but its citizens stood firm, neither provoking the tanks nor giving up their protest, and the tanks withdrew.
And so, in the middle of so much destruction, I began for the first time to feel hope for the future of former Yugoslavia. It is a cautious hope, for the war may continue for years despite the desires of the people for peace. But I now see a side to former Yugoslavia besides the story of ethnic hatred which is so often reported in the West.
I see it in a shop window which contains a dove and the word "London" - an expression of hope for the London peace talks. I see it in Zvonomir and in Lidia. Most of all, I see it in the Osijek peace group which we attended that evening. Here a group of Osijek residents, including some ethnic Serbs as well as Croats, discussed how to facilitate the peaceful return of the Croatian refugees to Baranja. It is expected that at some point this territory will be returned to Croatia; the group wishes to prepare now to avoid violence when the refugees return. Discussion focused first on what workshops would be most useful - conflict resolution, communication. Then discussion turned to whether it was possible to establish communications with former Serbian neighbors. Would they be willing to talk? Could the Hungarian peace movement or the Serbian peace movement help in establishing contact? Could the group simply send letters by regular post to former neighbors (still possible according to a postal worker), or would the receipt of such letters endanger the recipients?
Miklos Borobash, a leader in the Hungarian peace movement, says, "If we cannot make peace among ourselves, if a Hungarian cannot sit down and talk with a Rumanian and a Serb sit down and talk with a Croat, then Jesus Christ himself cannot bring us peace." The openness of the Croats I met in Osijek gives me hope that the Serbs and Croats have not lost this ability to sit down and talk with each other, and that they still have it within themselves to maek peace.