MIRacles No. 7

Joel GAzis-SAx
1 Kolovoz 1992
Zagreb, Croatia
Copyright 1992

"I have to tell you what happened to me when I went to Geneva," Nina Pecnik told me over coffee. "I went to the QUNO office and there was nobody there except for one woman. When I told her that I was here about the Yugoslavian refugees, she said 'Those people just like to fight.'"

It is easy, I suppose, to invent the history of despair. The Friend's careless words hurt my Croatian colleague's feelings. Now Nina confesses that she dreads that "peace will come sometime in the next century and then the war will only go somewhere else." I empathize with her sadness: we are fellow sufferers. When my clearness committee met to discuss my concern with me, one of its members said "Those people have been fighting for centuries."

Visitors and onlookers to the situation here often do more to undermine hope than to build it. Sometimes the remarks come out of personal experience: "You Europeans and you Americans are surprised by this war," Alfred, a Ghanan who I met in a bar a few weeks ago, told me. "We Africans have seen this for years. You get a tribe that is bigger and stronger than the rest and it just wants to push the others around. You think you are different from everyone else, but you're not."

Others draw upon their intellects: Andre Thomsen, a Danish volunteer who devotes his annual vacation to helping others, thinks that the answer lies in history. "You can't separate the roots from the flower," he tells me. "You have to go back to understand."

What I have found, however, is that if you go back just a few years, you arrive at a mystery. A young Dalmatian man, who works at the Center for Peace, Nonviolence, and Human Rights, told me "I don't understand what happened. Not so long ago, Serbs and Croats in my hometown lived together. They knew each other and they were friends." For him, the war doesn't go back centuries: it just began yesterday and he is confused and frightened by it.

Nina suggests that historical and sociological simplifications serve to distance outsiders from the war. What we don't want to face is how much the Croatians are like ourselves. The longer I stay here, I find cultural differences to be less important than similarities. What shocks me is not how different I am from the Croats: Nina or anyone else here could easily be my neighbor back in America.

This realization plus cold historical fact causes me to cast a very skeptical eye on the "they just like to fight" argument. The last time the Croats found themselves in a war was during the forties. In the years since the Second World War, my own country has fought military actions in Korea, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Vietnam, Cambodia, Lebanon, Grenada, Panama, and the Persian Gulf. It has contributed military advisors and weapons to conflicts on every continent. Its "national interests" have extended even to Fiji where it supported a coup against a democratically elected regime.

The military invades even our life as civilians. Americans consider war toys to be an essential ingredient of a boy's childhood. Operation Desert Storm bubble gum was a big seller last year. The glorification of war is a mainstay of our contemporary commercial culture and now the Croats, ever eager to imitate things American, have started their own lines of war- inspired products.

The marketplaces are filled with keychains, patches, stickers, shirts, hats, posters, pins and necklaces bearing military motifs. Popular items include toy tanks, guns, handcuffs, and shirts. In the window of a hat shop, I saw several patches from various Croatian battalions with legends in English. One, emblazoned with a skull and crossroads, bore the motto "Vukovar '92" and below, in English, "Kill 'em all!" "Operation Desert Storm Bubble Gum" has been matched with "CroArmy" (once again, the English name is used) and sticker books. Today, I saw a boy on the tram wearing a "Camp LeJeune NC" baseball cap. Iron Crosses and black shirts are other popular fashion items, inspired by fascist movements from abroad.

We must, as Americans and as Europeans, take responsibility for the culture of violence and militarism which is developing here. If we characterize this conflict as a historical phenomenon, we affirm the manipulations of history which Balkan politicians have used to disrupt the daily life of Serbs, Croats, and Bosnians. If we do nothing to promote peaceful dialogue or to relieve the sufferings of refugees because we tell ourselves that the people here cannot be changed and therefore not helped, we give substance to a myth: We create a reality that kills.

Nina told me about a Muslim woman who said, of the Serbs: "We can forgive them for killing us. But we cannot forgive them for making killers of us." I do not think that the Serbs alone are to blame for making killers of the Croats and the Bosnians. "Those people who like to kill" were us before they were the present generation of Croats, Serbs, and Bosnians. In their famous letter which affirmed their pacifism to James II, Friends spoke of their "testimony to the whole world". Our best witness on behalf of the peoples of these countries is to find that of God in ourselves and to seek it, to support it in the Spirit of Love which is the root of our faith. We must not and cannot afford to be part of the culture of killing. We must confront our personal racism which separates us from the Balkan peoples. We are all God's people, Croat, Bosnian, and Serb, American and European, Christian, Muslim, and Jew alike.