MIRacles No. 2

Joel GAzis-SAx
29 Juni 1992,
Zagreb, Croatia
Copyright 1992 by Joel GAzis-SAx

"When the president dies," the priest at St. Peter's and Paul's in Osijek tells me, "the whole world knows. When the small man dies in a Croatian village, nobody knows. Nobody cares." He is tired of telling his story, so we let it pass. His church, the largest in the city, was hit with more than 100 shells. He and everyone else in Osijek want to know why America, which was so willing to intervene in the Gulf, will not help them.

As a pacifist, I find it hard to answer him. I have come as a peace voyeur. A few days before my arrival, an delegation from the Italian Green Party came to gawk and to photograph every bomb crater in the city. They made such a commotion, the police came. Only their parliamentary credentials saved them. I have no such protection, but I find it easy, with the help of an interpreter, to approach people and ask about Osijek, about what can be done.

The answers to most of my questions lay in plain sight. Piles of broken clay shingles and plaster stand on the edges of the street. The medieval houses and socialist-era apartment buildings bear the huge abrasions and gashes made by bullets, bombs and heavy artillery shells. The guns have shattered the treetops. Most shops remain boarded up. What has happened here is so obvious and what cannot be told by simply witnessing the damage is readily told to you by the people you meet.

After they tell you about the bomb which has killed the neighbors, they want to know why America -- why the whole world - - won't help them fight the Serbs. I tell them that I have only a cynical answer for them: they have no oil. War, I say, citing the letter of James, springs from lust. They have nothing that the United States wants and many things that the Milosevic and the Serbs want. It is at once the truth and a very stupid answer. Neither the priest nor the representative of the Muslim community likes it. Nobody likes it and they are discouraged when I doggedly tell them that, as a pacifist, I cannot advocate that my country engage in the slaughter of Serbs.

The dogmatic pacifists back home would probably tell me that I should attempt to convert these people to nonviolence, that I should teach them to sit before the Serbian tanks (which are only across the river and beyond the trees) in faithful witness to the love of God. There are a few Croatian peace activists in Osijek. They struggle to teach nonviolent conflict resolution to their fellow townsmen. They sow small seeds and broadcast them over the fields of their neighbors and public officials.

There is a lot of hard ground. The incessant bombing, which only abated in May, compacted the hearts of the people. The Serbs seem irrational, beyond feeling. All my good Quaker witness about that of God in everyone is greeted with suggestions that perhaps this does not apply to the Serbs or, at least, to Milosevic.

Nick Lewer, a Quaker conflict resolution trainer from the University of Bradford, England, has doubts about the merits of pacifism in this situation. He has been to Serbia as well. Every time he comes to Osijek, he tells me, it becomes harder to believe in pacifism. Perhaps, he suggests, this is the time when force is the only answer. I can only accept his doubt.

Nick seeks to teach people nonviolence by "going through the back door." On the train ride in, he explains that if he were to offer a course in "nonviolence", most people would be suspicious and not attend. So he calls his course "medical communication skills". This draws in more people and gives him a chance, if his group is not obviously anti-pacifist, to apply what they have learned to their present situation. He almost reaches this point during his workshop in Osijek.

While Nick teaches, I move around the city, meeting people. Zeljko (pronounced something like "Yacob"), my host and guide, brings me to the difficult places to visit. I learn at a refugee house (converted for the purpose from a school for waiters and chefs) that they have only one wash machine for eighty people. The children share two small toy cars. Zeljko explains that these were some of the first refugees of the war. A woman of twenty-two with two children tells me that she comes from a poor farming family. They have nothing.

As towns are liberated, many refugees are reluctant to return. There is nothing in their towns. Their houses are gone. There are no stores to buy supplies. And somewhere, over the river, beyond the trees, the Serbs wait. They may return.

At a new cemetary for the dead, I meet a Dutch Jesuit kneeling beside a grave. He wears a U.N. badge and travels in the company of a new recruit, fresh from England. He explains that he knew the girl. She was seventeen years old and a member of the defense forces. One night, after serving on the front outside of town, she came home for a rest. She slept upstairs. A bomb fell on the house and killed her in her sleep.

In Zeljko's neighborhood, the couple across the street were killed when a shell crashed into their bedroom. They left two children, one six and one ten years old. A room in another house was completely destroyed. Two sleeping children in the next room kept sleeping peacefully until dawn. In Zeljko's own apartment, you can see the shrapnel holes in the plaster ceiling. Nick tells me that there are even bigger holes at Katarina's house.

I find a rusty piece of shrapnel on the roof of Zeljko's apartment house. Downstairs, he shows me the space in the cellar where he and the other apartment residents who chose to stay in their city lived last winter. It reeks of must. Zeljko opens door; points to the drawings of flowers and bees he made in chalk, and laughs. He laughs a lot at things that probably were not funny to him at the time they happened.

He doesn't find my adamant pacifism so funny, but he tolerates it. We agree that the people have lost hope and that it is in the little things, like toys for the children, that hope can be grown. I make notes as we move around the city of the things people need to restore their hope. Zeljko and I become friends with a disagreement. He endures my stubborn belief in that of God in everyone and I put up with a few anti-Serbian remarks.

I am resolved to be not a missionary, but a friend to the people of Osijek. The kind of miracles which will end the conflict and heal the wounds of the Balkans are not the instantaneous, shocking "the leper is made clean" miracles of the Bible. Nick, his associate Adam Curle, and now me can only plant seeds. This slow kind of miracle can die in the next shelling of the city by the Serbs. It will certainly perish if the world persists in ignoring the small man who dies.