MIRacles No. 6

Joel GAzis-SAx
24 Srpanj 1992
Zagreb, Croatia
Copyright 1992

"We don't believe in the United Nations," the medical student tells me. "We don't believe in the European Community. We don't believe -- and I beg your pardon -- in the Americans."

"I know that and I understand," I tell her. "But what worries me is this: You don't believe in yourselves, either."

"Yes," she says. "You are right. We don't believe in ourselves."

Osijek is my great teacher. Everytime I travel in Slavonia, I find that I understand Croatia better. When I was last here [see MIRacles Nos. 2 and 3], I saw piles of rubble and heard angry voices. The streets were nearly empty. This time, the rubble has been cleaned up. The people are coming back. This time, they speak of their despair. They see themselves as small men and women.

They come from Zagreb, from the homes of family and friends living elsewhere, and from refugee camps in Hungary. Osijek, they say, has changed. The change is not the bullet holes or the bomb craters or the ruined houses of this still beautiful city:

"I miss them," the medical student tells me. She speaks of "two or three" Serbian friends. They have gone over the other side. "I feel angry. But I cannot hate them. I miss them. They are my friends."

Her friend, another medical student, does not share her feelings. Her brother is somewhere on the front and, if there is anyone she misses, it is him. The Serbs who left "killed my people. They destroyed Vukovar." Both women have lost Croatian friends as well. A sizeable portion of the community of love which sustained them has disappeared. They are returning to Zagreb to continue their studies.

"Well," says the faculty wife. "That's one less Serb in Osijek." Her husband, a professor of State and Law from the University of Zagreb, is in Osijek to replace a colleague, a Serb, who "disappeared" when the war began last fall. The professor declares that he cannot understand why this "friend" -- if he had nothing to hide -- fled the country. He launches into an explication, verging on racism, why the Serbian people will never change.

This man becomes a pest. Whenever he and his wife see me or my companion, Irish volunteer Brendan Keaveney, they sit down with us and start to tell us why the Serbs are as they are. Just as we cannot avoid seeing the holes in every wall and on every sidewalk, so, too, we cannot avoid the blindly anti-Serbian views when we walk the streets of Osijek.

Some Croats, too, see the jingoism. I have met Serbs, loyal to Croatia, who lost their citizenship and their public benefits, even though they have lived in Slavonia for more than forty years. The single reference to Beograd on a birth certificate makes one man I know of a foreigner in the city where he has lived, worked, and served others for decades. Legally, he should have no problem becoming a Croatian citizen, but he has struggled with the bureaucracy for months to set things straight.

A professor who fled the shelling lost her job. When she applied for another position, she was told that she was pre-eminently the best qualified candidate. She could not be hired, however, on moral grounds: she had abandoned her post in the face of the enemy. When academics become as soldiers, I think the people are in a very bad way indeed.

You feel the rising tension on all counts. I talk to many representatives of relief organizations and to some UNPROFOR soldiers. They all tell me that there is a false rumor that Baranja, the region to the northeast of the city, will soon reopen. The Serbs still occupy Baranja. The UN recently succeeded in arranging for English journalist John Bloss to cross from Croatia into Baranja and this, they feel, is a great step forward. Previously, all visitors to Baranja have had to come from the Serbian side.

Croatian President Franjo Tudjman crosses the footbridge at Osijek into Baranja while we are there. He wears a bullet-proof vest and is surrounded by six body guards. John Bloss wore no bullet proof vest, carried no weapons, and went alone. The small man has some advantages, it seems, over the president, particularly when he is a foreigner.

Coping with the 600,000 Bosnian refugees and Croatian displaced persons has strained the resources of the special officers, social workers, and humanitarian workers and volunteers. Stjepan Hamm, a Croat of German descent and director of the Osijek office of the Croatian Red Cross, tells me that the needs of the Bosnian refugees and Baranjan displaced persons divert his attention from the equally important concerns of the permanent residents of Osijek. What these people need most, he says, is glass. Winter is coming and the sheets of plastic which cover the shot-out window frames will not suffice. Glass is hard to get and very expensive. Zeljko, my guide during my first visit to Osijek, introduced me to a neighbor who spent $4000 to replace one two by three foot section of her window. As Bosnian refugees stream into Croatia and news of Sarajevo appears on every channel, the world forgets that many people of Baranja are homeless and that the people of Osijek need to rebuild.

Lidja, the director of the Osijek Caritas office, shows me how the habit of cleaning out your closet to give to the needy can be destructive. She guides me through her warehouse, showing me the donations. There are shelves upon shelves of high-heeled shoes and racks of shoes and evening clothes. She holds up a pair of children's shoes. The soles are worn away. "I can't hand these out!" she says. "The child will ruin her feet." We pass other castoffs and, finally, she brings me to the most critical section: underwear. With one hand, she lifts the entire stock for me to see: a single bra and three pairs of girls' panties.

I do not meet a single soldier, social worker, or humanitarian worker who is not tired and disheartened by the response of the West to the war. The two Belgian UNPROFOR soldiers I run into as our party surveys the wrecked bridge of the main highway, are also disheartened. They have heard the nasty stories about them. A local rumor has it that UNPROFOR works only until 2 p.m. Then you can find them in the cafes, sipping their beer. The Croats want to return to Baranja and they want UNPROFOR to protect them when they go. Or, they feel, that UNPROFOR should escort the people who stayed behind to a place of safety.

"'If you all leave', we tell them, 'then there will be no more Croats and it won't be part of Croatia anymore" the Belgian captain explains. This is his first UNPROFOR posting and, while he acknowledges the terrific pressures upon him and the other soldiers, he enjoys his job. "It is not often," he says, "that as a soldier you get to help make peace."

Other people in Osijek are looking ahead to that peace. Josip Kompanovic, deputy director of the office which looks after the interests of the displaced people of Baranja, explains that the Croatian government has plans in place to help them rebuild their flattened villages. They know what stores will reopen first, what local infrastructure will be replaced, etc. They are short on money.

He apologizes to me for carrying a gun. I tell him that while I am nonviolent, I look past his weapon to the human being. I have no trouble, therefore, promising him that when I return to America, I will go to my members of Congress and lobby for humanitarian aid to Croatia. The problems of the refugees and displaced people, we agree, are terrific. Croatia was not ready and is not ready for the problems which this war has brought.

Ante Lauc, a sociologist with the University of Osijek, tells me that Croats had difficulty understanding the terrible immediacy of the Iraqi tanks rolling into Kuwait in August 1990. "With this war in our city and with this war in Bosnia that could come to our homes, we understand better," he says. In the night, I hear loud explosions and gunfire. These remind me that even though the shelling has stopped, war remains a constant companion to the people of this city.

Ante confesses to me that he has undergone spiritual transformation at least twice. The first time was when he traveled to America to work at Cornell University and UC Berkeley. "My fellow sociologists complained that I was as a child, that I was too much the optimist. It was true, because I did not know what they knew. I had not seen the data. When I had the knowledge they had, I lost my naivete and my optimism."

The second time came when Osijek changed from the city so far from the world's strifes into the most critical battleground in the war between Croats and Serbs. "After this war started," he continues, "I began to pray and again I was as a little child. Perhaps when I know as much about religion as I do about sociology, I will become less optimistic."

I remind him that Christ felt that becoming as a little child was the secret of Christian happiness. He laughs with delight when I tell him that Christ promised his followers three things if they would just follow his way: you will be absolutely happy, you will be entirely fearless, and you will always be in trouble.

I have a taste of the trouble you can get in in this nervous, war-torn country. After working on the computer in the post office for awhile, I realize that I am late for my appointment at Caritas. A soldier stops me as I rush out and insists upon searching my belongings. He wants to know if I have been taking pictures of any important people. The controversy around my camera gets so intense and I am so desperate to make my appointment that I open the camera myself and pull out the film. He takes it from me and holds it up to the light.

This is not yet enough. He rummages through my briefcase and pulls out my battered notebook. He opens it and demands to know what I have written. One of Ante's students, a young woman who has been trying to explain to this man that I am here for humanitarian purposes, translates for me: "blankets, coats, food . . ." The police officer who joins us persuades him to let me go.

The next day, when I return with Ante, this soldier is still there. I am able to smile pleasantly and say "Dobro jutro" -- "Good morning". He returns my smile, with a little embarassment, and does not bother me at all when I come out again an hour later. Ante and I figure that perhaps the soldier was more nervous than usual because Tudjman was in town.

"I don't understand it," the first medical student tells me. "Everyone here is angry with Tudjman because of the war. They talk of supporting Paraga which is no good because Paraga is an extemist. Tudjman comes to town and they all go down to the square, these same people, and they cry 'Franjo! Franjo!'"

The trouble is, she explains, that the Croats do not understand democracy. "They still expect the politicians will tell them what to do." She feels powerless against this. The people no longer come into the streets and talk to one another freely all night as they once did. Instead, they buy guns, go home, and wait for the Chetniks to come. The fear is what the people of Osijek understand best, she thinks. "It is always here."

I look at her and her friend and see hope, nonetheless. "I look at you two here and each of you has been very honest with me. When we are able to do this, to sit together, to have differences, and still be friends, then I know that you know in your hearts what democracy is." They look at each other and acknowledge me with mutual smiles. The Croats may not ever be able to count on the forces they pray will help them, but I have seen the one force that is always there within them raising its optimistic head and laughing, like a child.