Wednesday, May 25, 2011

angels and devils

No, this is not going to be about a Dan Brown novel.  sorry folks.

Being here, in Belgrade, Pris(h)tina, and Bosnia, events, the history, the politics are acquiring human faces. Many of the faces are ones lifted out of walking through the streets or ones imagined (like the face of the former owner of my shoes). Sometimes it is my face.
ok. so perhaps that is a confusing way to start. Let me begin here: I just spent the past week reading myself to sleep, and then reading myself awake the next morning with Slavenka Drakuić's book "they would never hurt a fly." I hadn't realized that last spring I had read another of her books "S." dealing with a  woman in rape camp during the war--even a year later, I still can feel the rawness reading S. left me with.
'They would never hurt a fly' takes the same scope of story--of war--looking in the other direction, not at victims, but at the perpetrators, now standing trial at the ICTY in the Hague. For me, she started breaking down this barrier between the imaginable and the unimaginable. Is it that these crimes are unimaginable, or that I don't want to imagine them (or the people performing them) as human, not only as human as their victims, but as myself?
If you should really want to hit this one home, watch "Ordinary Men," which, as a friend pointed out to me is "not a date movie." That perhaps is an understatement. but still an amazing film. I went into it not actually knowing what it was about (specifically, I had a general, vague sense), which, while made for an uncomfortable viewing, was also somewhat fitting, because then I discovered along with the main character--who is also in the dark--just what their task was.

In being here, as I learn more about the violent crimes, corruption, compliance (not to say that they are specific to here, this place, these wars), and thinking about not only issues of guilt but of responsibility, I can't help but begin to place myself within these narratives. Sometimes it's just through being an American, and the powerful role my state can play in the world, in the lives of others, others who I may never meet, or see, or even know were impacted.
But there also is a very personal face. In one of the interviews I conducted for my ISP, one man, after recounting his experience of being displaced in 1992, living in a refugee camp, returning to a twice ethnically cleansed community, told me, "my story is your story because we are both human. we all have the capacity to be as kind as angels or worse than devils." 

It's hard to know how to follow that up. I remember after he said that, we sat for a few moments in silence, contemplating.

Not exactly "Good Night Moon"

[I wrote the bulk of this from Sanski Most, Bosnia and Hercegovina, along the border between the Federation and Republika Srpska, but am now back in Belgrade, having finished my program and finally having a little time to reflect].

For the past three weeks I've sleeping with "War Crimes in Bosnia: Volume II" [which I just want to add covers the year 1992] beside my pillow.  While it doesn't steal the covers, wet the bed, or snore (so things could be worse), and I somehow manage to fall asleep every night without being woken by nightmares, I do start and end every day with the war. In many ways I think I'd feel guilty if I didn't. The house I'm living in was burned out, the family I'm living with fled, the village where I'm living lost several hundred, Sanski Most, about the distance from West West to Putney away, was ethnically cleansed twice during the war. Perhaps one of the reasons why I am so intrigued by what has happened here is that walking through the streets, driving through villages, if I don't look closely enough, I don't have to see the war. I can see farms and a lot of newly constructed houses, some abandoned ones, but I don't have to ask questions about them, I can see boys on bicycles, babies and burek-places (filo stuffed with meat, or other things--but then it's not burek (just to be clear), it's sirnica or zelenica, or tikvica...). But (perhaps) because I haven't seen Sanski Most in 1996, let alone 1992, and thus have nothing to forget, I want to remember.

One thing which still strikes me about being here is the newness of houses: many of them haven't been plastered yet, and are just red brick and gray cement, with red tile roofs. Of those that have, some are discreet yellows, fresh whites, but some are fire-engine red, or bright orange, purple or green. Those tend to stick out. I'm learning to pick out the old houses by the color of their painted plaster, usually muted pastel greens, blues, some yellows, and their windows. Hardly any houses have wooden window frames and that old, not quite perfect window glass that gives slightly imperfect reflections of the world around them. Windows. Just another unsung victim of violence. It's strange to be on the one hand searching for the old--the old stone foundations, worn tile roofs and water stains, while at the same time be living in a village overwhelmingly populated by the elderly, where I find myself wondering where all the children are. 

And these are just the physical things, which I can see, the things which survived. What I can't see is how places have changed. Last night, driving back from the office, Vahidin took a different side road. "this village" he said, "this one wasn't destroyed during the war. down there," he gestured to a field we drive past every day, "that was the air field of the Serb Army while they were here, and that building," green with an industrial sized dough mixer out front along with other cast off equipment, "that was the air base." "and there," a field in the floodplains of the river Sanica (little Sana, the Sana is the river running through Sanski Most, and gives Sanski Most it's name), towards the river it looks like a family is having a picnic. "that's where the first mass grave in Vrhpolje was found."  (How) can I now drive by those places and not now think of them as changed? And yet, the next day, we drove past those same fields, those same houses. are they different houses? are they new fields? no. The physical things havent changed, but their meaning has become more complex.

Yesterday was also an unusual day in that I had two heavy interviews before noon, almost back to back (both of which mentioned towns I had been reading about the night before, before falling asleep), followed by what changed from an exciting mostly-understood conversation [directed at me] in Bosnian about if Osama bin Laden was a terrorist or not, to something almost word for word out of "War Crimes in BiH." I was thrilled to be finally understanding, understanding (I can't stress this enough) what was being said, and utterly horrified by what it was I was finally comprehending: expulsion, seeing family members killed, surviving an execution squad. It was also the first day for a new volunteer at CIM (Centar za Izgradnju Mira), and in the middle of the story--by this time someone was translating for us (from being surrounded by Bosnian I probably comprehend the most of the three of us, but am a leap and a bit away from being able to understand the complexities and details of the story, let alone translate them to others and still keep the thread of the conversation going) -- he asked "is it always like this" (we were sitting at a 3 year old's birthday party in someone's living room, drinking coffee, eating birthday cake and talking about ethnic cleansing)? "not really," I told him.

Because I've been interviewing people here in Sanski Most about their experiences of displacement and return to Sanski Most from 1992-1996, I've asked people to share with me some clearly uncomfortable things. I watched the most beautiful, clear blue eyes of one woman I spoke to yesterday become glossy with tears as she remembered "that time" of displacement, of Sanski Most in late 1995 when she returned.  But I haven't really had these stories just handed to me before. and it's hard to know just what to do with them.  I think that's one of the reasons why this ISP (independent research component of my study abroad program) became so meaningful to me, because it gave me a way, a forum for discussing, for sharing these stories that I had been collecting, gathering, reflecting on.
It's a way for me to strike a balance between remembering and forgetting (Oh Milan Kundera, I miss you so), of situating myself in the present. A present which is sunny and warm, and which shouldn't be spent sitting in front of a computer.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

quest(ion)ing for beauty

I think I've been struggling with this God fellow for a while. especially that of the Orthodox variety.

Today, Sabina (from Croatia, not to be confused with Sabrina) and I wandered into the Patriarch[head of the Serbian Orthodox Church]'s Church, just after a school group walked in. Now I can't be sure that they were from the run of the mill Belgrade public school, but they all cued up (maybe 2nd graders, just to give a picture, dressed in a lot of bright pinks and purples (mostly describing the girls), giggling and bouncing in that little kid way, adding a totally different vibe to the somberness and officialness of the church's interior) to venerate the icon at the center of the church--an event supervised by their teachers. As far as I saw, no one opted out.
(I guess I should add here that I'm the girl who could never bring herself to say the 'under God' part of the Pledge of Allegiance in school. it always left me unsettled to hear that phrase echoing around the room.)
Later we wandered into an exhibit of Serbian iconography held, of all places, at the gallery of the Academy of Arts and Sciences--a charged space, at least for me, and not a neutral actor at all in Serbia's recent past. Part of the exhibit, in addition to replicas of frescoes and icons, were "Icons on the Boulevard"-- showing pictures of people walking in the streets (protesting) with icons.

I see so much beauty in the celebration of God, in the smell of the church, the face of the woman praying in the corner, the way the dim lighting accentuates her eyes and the curve of her headscarf, the expressions of the faces in the icons, the music, the veneration, the peace and persoanlness of the relationship. In the way people talk about the role of religion in their lives (I just lived with an imam and his family, and some of the conversations and discussions had in his house about the role of religion in their lives, their family, their community was utterly beautiful). And the exhibit was beautiful. It was actually my second visit to it, and still I was captivated by the art, the dedication, the craftsmanship. A recording of a Serbian Orthodox Liturgy was playing in the background, and I got lost in their voices.

Yet part of me feels guilty in seeing beauty in such politically charged spaces, not only the Gallery but Churches themselves. Because I also see so much antithesis of beauty, not necessarily in those spaces, faces or voices, but what is done in the name of, to justify or "defend" those spaces. In what those spaces are a a vehicle for. In that fine line between art and politics, icons and activism (for example there's an anti--NATO rally planned for a few weeks time. I'm sure a politicized God will be there too, or at least someone politicizing God).
Let me elaborate.
The day before yesterday, I found myself in one of the Orthodox Churches (and this isn't meant to be a rag on Orthodoxy specifically--it just happens to be most prevalent religion here in Serbia) in Kalemegdan, the park on the opposite side of the Usce (or convergence) of the Sava and Danube Rivers from New Belgrade. Kalemegdan used to be an Ottoman fortress during Belgrade's Ottoman days, and the construction of two Orthodox churches on it I see as just another way of claiming this territory as belonigning to someone else, some other tradition--whether or not it actually does, or that there is a way to separate the traditions, the history. The churches are tucked back in a corner, with a lovely view of the Danube, old ruins below. The upper church, like the Patriarch's Church we visited today, is ornately frescoed, with a lot of glinty gold things. While the frescoes are new (relatively speaking), they're still stunningly beautiful, in perhaps a less intimate way than the frescoes in a place like Grcanica which show the wear and tear of years of being touched, kissed, loved and hated. The expressions on the faces of the frescoed in Grcanica spoke so beautifully.
In my state of appreciation, I happened to focus on the three chandeliers which hang over the sanctuary. It's a low building, so they were rather close, or at least close enough for me to realize that they were constructed entirely out of bullet casings (and light bulbs). The casings had been strung, almost like oblong copper pearls, in chains.

a few weeks previously, we watched footage of soldiers being blessed by an Orthodox priest before going out to participate in what the ICTY has deemed genocide. Which bullets do those casings belong to? does it really matter?  Which struggle do they represent? or were they intended to represent? Especially from a place where genocide denial is still a problem, I find those chandeliers all the more troubling, as not only acknowledgment of, but the making sacred of, violence and those who do violence.

It's times like these where that separation between between beauty--which I can appreciate--and politics--which I can't [wow, this program has turned me into a proper anti-Political Scientist], is so thin that it's virtually impossible to see the two as separate.
and if I can see the beauty, am I not also appreciating the politics? Is there a way that I can separate the two? Do I want to separate them? Should I?
And so,
I think I've been struggling with this God fellow for a while. especially that of the Orthodox variety.