(Reuters) – With row upon row of empty red chairs, one for each of the 11,541 victims of the siege of Sarajevo, Bosnia on Friday remembered when war broke out 20 years ago and the West dithered in the face of the worst atrocities in Europe since World War Two.
The anniversary finds the Balkan country deeply divided, with power shared uneasily between Serbs, Croats and Muslims in an unwieldy state ruled by ethnic quotas. It languishes behind ex-Yugoslav neighbors on the long road to the European Union.
“The victims fell here because we wanted to preserve the state, but I fear they fell in vain,” said 32-year-old social worker Kanita Hulic, one of thousands gathered in central Sarajevo for a memorial concert.
Some 100,000 people died and 2 million people were forced from their homes as Bosnia gave the lexicon of war the term “ethnic cleansing”. Slow-motion intervention eventually brought peace, but at the cost of ethnic segregation.
Underscoring the disunity, Bosnia’s autonomous Serb Republic ignored Friday’s solemn remembrance of the day shots fired on peace protesters in downtown Sarajevo marked the start of the war.
In a blood-red symbol of loss, empty chairs stretched 800 meters down the central Sarajevo street named after socialist Yugoslavia’s creator and ruler for 35 years, Josip Broz Tito.
Smaller chairs represented the more than 600 children killed in the 43-month siege by Serb forces that held the hilltops. Thousands of people gathered for a concert in remembrance with a choir of 750 Sarajevo schoolchildren.
On Thursday, cellist Vedran Smailovic, who became an icon of artistic defiance when he played on a central Sarajevo street as the city was shelled, played again for the first time in his hometown since he left in 1993 as part of an exodus of thousands.
Queuing for water or shopping at the market during the siege, Sarajevans were picked off by snipers and random shelling. Running out of burial places, many of the bodies were interred beneath a hillside football pitch.
“We were moving targets with only one principle left – that we would stay in the city,” said Bosnian artist Suada Kapic.
The war happened on NATO’s doorstep, a few hours’ drive from Vienna or across the Adriatic from Italy. Its grisly imprint survives today in the bodies still being dug up in eastern Bosnia and the million people who never returned to their homes.
I freely admit that I am a curmudgeon. I am impatient with people who purport to be intelligent and then open their mouths and prove otherwise with but a few misspoken words and phrases. I detest sweeping intolerance of entire groups of people simply because of their beliefs or their sexual orientiation, and I cannot abide bigotry, racism, sexism, or someone telling me that I am going to hell because I am not of the same religious belief. All of that said, believe it or not, I can also be the best friend you have ever had and your most loyal supporter. I cry at sad movies and am completely overcome by beauty in nature.
When our boys were relatively young, we took a detour through Washington, D.C. in the evening to show them homeless people living over the subway grates to stay warm in the winter. They had never seen such a thing before, and I wanted them to know that such things existed in this, the wealthiest country in the world. I sat through Schindler’s List with my children so that they would know what horrors we have witnessed in this world, and even though we have said “never again,” I explained to them that it has happened yet again and again in places like Rwanda and Bosnia and in other corners of the world. And I told them that sometimes the world watches, and sometimes the world helps, but I had no answers as to why some people seem to matter more than others.
I have explained to my children about bullies and heartlessness and name-calling and the long-lasting effects that such things can have, and I have prayed that they would never become these people and that they would never become the victims of these people. I have warned them against becoming immune to violence by not being able to distinguish between what they see in movies and video games and on television and then what is real life as I am just as fearful as the next parent about what affect video violence is having on this generation that does not seem to feel fear.
In spite of all of this, I cannot answer my son when he asks me why there is no human decency in this world. I have no answer to such a deep question. But more telling, I have no answer as to why he would be asking me such a question at such a young age. What could possibly prompt a 16-year-old to wonder such a thing? Has my cynicism jaded him already? The ironic thing is that I do believe that their is goodness in the world. In spite of W and his war, in spite of men like Dick Cheney who have no soul, in spite of CIA-trained terrorists who have turned their training back on us, in spite of car bombs that kill and maim without a target, in spite of thousands of flag-draped coffins that have come home, in spite of anthrax and sarin gas . . . in spite of all of these abominations, I do still believe that their is goodness and kindness, and good and kind people in this world.
There are people who will offer you that four cents that you need for your bill when you are in line at the grocery store. There are people who will hold the door open for the man with the walker coming in to the bookstore. There were the people, at least 10, who stopped and asked Corey and me if we needed them to call a tow truck, when we were stopped by the side of the road when the truck broke down. I’m sure you all have some kind of similar story to tell: a neighbor who is always there to help, a total stranger who helped to push your car out of an intersection, someone who picked up your tab for coffee at Starbucks for no particular reason.
And I’m sure, you also have your own tales, personal or otherwise, about a person who was careless with someone’s feelings or indecent for no particular reason other than to be an asshole. Or maybe that person was you. I’ll share two: When I was sixteen, I was walking home from my best friend Sarah’s house, and some guy in a black Camaro came barreling down the street and flew head on into a flock of ducks. At that time, wild ducks roamed freely in my parent’s neighborhood. I watched in horror as ducks flew into the air, feathers went everywhere, and carcasses landed at my feet. The driver didn’t stop. I reacted normally for me. I started running after him, screaming at the top of my lungs. My father ran out of the house, as did several of my neighbors, including one of my friends. The driver finally stopped the car at the corner of the street, and I started pounding on his window, screaming at him. I never even thought about who he was or what he might do to me. I just demanded that he go back and clean up the dead ducks, after I told him never to drive through our neighborhood that fast again. Astonishingly, the driver apologized to me, turned his car around, and went and cleaned up the pile of dead ducks. My friend put his arm around me and walked me to my porch where my father was waiting. My whole body was shaking as anger coursed through me. I couldn’t believe that anyone could be so callous. My friend couldn’t believe I could be so angry as to not even think about what I was doing in running after a stranger’s car. My dad just took me in the house and gave me a cup of tea.
The second incident is far less dramatic, but something of which I myself am ashamed. I was in high school, and there was someone in my class who had a very pronounced overbite. One day, I turned to a friend of mine, and I said, “she is soo ugly.” My friend paused and replied, “I can’t believe that you would judge someone based on how she looks.” I’ll never forget that. She really put me in my place, and boy, did I deserve it. That girl that I was commenting on was extremely nice and had never done anything to me. Who was I to judge her, and she might have heard me. I was being just plain mean.
So getting back to the main question: Why is there no human decency in this world? Is there? I’d like to believe that there still is. I’d like to be able to show my son that yes, there is still decency in this world, in large ways and in small ways. But mostly, I would like to be able to enfold him in my arms, hold him in my lap, and shut out all of the bad things that would make him think that there is none, but I know that I cannot do that any more. He is coming into his own, and unfortunately, he has hit a rough spot that is causing him to be anxious and to feel some of the pains of this world. And this is the part of parenting that genuinely sucks because mommy kisses are no longer magic. Would that I could kiss his eyelids and make the bad images go away with his sleep as I did when he was but a baby.
Nothing prepares you for the times when you are absolutely powerless against to come between the world and your child, no many how many times you might encounter such a situation, and I hope that you never do, but if you have a child, you will. To say that I would give anything for him not to be feeling this way does not begin to embrace the helplessness I feel. To know that I have passed on to him this predisposition for melancholy (what a polite way to put it) does nothing to assuage the guilt. So I sit by and watch him closely, offer to listen, this boy/man, so much like my father, the one who holds everything deep within, the one who I must read through his eyes.
Yes, there is goodness in this world, just as there is pain. But human decency begins with the decent. That is what I want for you to understand.