MIRacles No. 3

Joel GAzis-SAx
4 Srpanj 1992,
Zagreb, Croatia
Copyright 1992 by Joel GAzis-SAx

Everywhere you go in Zagreb, you see signs in storefronts calling on you to "Stop the war in Croatia". These earnest demands for peace (delivered in English for the international audience) do not originate in pacifism, but patriotism. I saw a soldier with a peace symbol hanging around his neck the other day. The peace sign is everywhere, but here people believe that you can reach the state it represents only if greater powers intervene.

Just as the cross, once a symbol of love, nonviolent sacrifice, and modesty in lifestyle, became transmogrified by some into an icon for "Just War" and conspicuous consumption, so the peace symbol has become an emblem of the Croatian cause, of war to make peace and freedom possible.

Though I have not and will not surrender my pacifism to expedite the cause of peace, I am not entirely unsympathetic to the Croatian cause. Not, especially, after Osijek. Before he left, Nick Lewer, the Quaker from the University of Bradford Peace Studies Department, (see MIRacles No. 2) told me that he doubted that there could be an effective nonviolent response to Serbian aggression. Members of the Croatian peace movement are divided over whether a war of self-defense is not acceptable under these conditions.

They have united in their concern, at least, to try to heal the wounds that the war opens every day. They cannot stop it -- they must accept it. One Anti-Ratne Kampagnje member decided to join the army. "I went to the war as a volunteer because of the humanist ideals I've been indoctrinated with, because of all those who've been brutally attacked, subjected to persecution, slaughter, and massacres, for all those who cry and suffer and despair in this war" writes one activist who chose to go.

A man from Vukovar tells the other side of the soldier's story. He writes about how the beast of war made a beast of him. He speaks of having lost God while fighting for his home. He does not blindly hate the Serbs, but freely acknowledges the many who fought beside him as the Serbian Army and irregulars pounded the city with bombs and mortars. He sees himself as no hero and as no saint. "After all I have done," he cries, "I'll never be forgiven."

As things fall apart in the Croatian border towns, normal men and women find themselves committing abnormal acts of murder and destruction. The story of this man from Vukovar recalls to me an observation by Thomas Merton about nuclear weapons. Merton reminds us in his CONJECTURES OF A GUILTY BYSTANDER that, contrary to our fears, nuclear war will never be started by a madman because we do everything possible, short of disarmament, to keep madmen away from the button. No, says Merton, the nuclear holocaust will be initiated by sane men with perfectly sane reasons for initiating the end of all life. The man from Vukovar knows that his sane desire to protect his home led him to inhumane acts.

The Croats share with the Serbs the superficially reasonable desire to unite their people in a single nation-state. On the part of the Serbs, however, this is manifested in a war unlike any the people of the Balkans have ever seen. Perfectly respectable activists look me in the eye and say what the Serbs are doing is far worse than anything Hitler ever wreaked upon the region. Hitler, they argue, sought to capture the towns intact so that he could use them to power his war machine. Milosevic, they say in horror, only seeks to destroy. I, myself, have seen the damage to Osijek. Vukovar is gone. It has been leveled and occupied by the Serbs.

The Croats call the Serbs Fascists and Nazis for they do not recognize the true model for the kind of warfare that the Serbs fight. "We had to destroy the village in order to save it" is a quote that could have come out of a Serbian mouth in this war. It belongs, however, to another war and another country -- my country. In every war since 1942, Americans have sought to win by bombing and shelling until the towns fall down and the people in them die or lose heart. The Fascists invented the tactic of total war at Guernica, but Americans perpetuated it with the Allied bombing of Dresden, with the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the bombings of Vietnam and, most recently, in the invasion of Panama and in the Gulf War.

I feel now that I have come to Croatia to do penance for the bad example which my country sets.

The Croatians are not perfect. I did not enjoy the brutishness of the police chief with whom I shared an dinner in Osijek last week. "How do you like eating Serbs?" he asked as I finished my meal. The demonization of the Serbs by ordinary people is understandable under the circumstances, but I labor against it when I can. Katarina Kruhonja, a doctor from Osijek, is more effective in this than I.

Katarina, nearly alone in Osijek, persistantly reaches out to the half-convinced and the suspicious. She loves her countrymen enough to invite them to her nonviolence seminars and workshops. She is a modest woman and though she has appeared on television and spoken on the radio, she does not brag of these accomplishments.

She is, perhaps, one of the truest pacifists I have ever met. Her optimism, motivated by her firm belief in God, is winning her an ever-increasing number of converts to her movement. I met the chief of police at a garden party on nonviolence which she had organized. "You see," she said to me proudly, "we try to talk to everyone."

If Katarina can love her fellow countrymen even though they are reluctant or even unwilling to seek the way of peace, why should I not love them, too? Why should I not learn to love George Bush and all the Pharisees in America who think that war is the way of the Lord? Katarina of Osijek, who wears a cross around her neck, is the hope that the people of Croatia, angry victims though they are of the Serbian onslaught, will come to understand the true meaning of peace.

I pray for her and so should you.