Friday, June 24, 2011

Living Off Wounds

“I used to drive these streets at night – without any headlights,” the portly middle aged friar said as he whipped his egg-shaped car along the craggy, narrow mountain road. He said this, I think, to make me feel safer as he saw my fingers grip into the seat and my feet press against the floorboards to hold me securely in place.

“Once during the war, I was transporting a group of CNN journalists into Sarajevo. I hadn’t slept in two days, and my windshield was shattered. I could only see through a tiny section of glass, and with no headlights!” He often made these trips at night because the darkness provided cover from the snipers in the hills. “My ministry then was to get the truth about Sarajevo to the rest of the world, so I made many of these trips.”
There was no sniper fire when I made the trip on Thursday, but the same erratic driving that kept Fra Ivo Marković safe during the Bosnian War in the 1990s delivered me safely to our meeting place on the River Miljacka. Warmed by the late afternoon Balkan sun and refreshed by our tall glasses of lager, my three-month study of religious reconciliation in Bosnia began through a cafe conversation with this Franciscan whose life’s work has been to heal the wounds of religious nationalism in his native Bosnia.

Ivo is a practitioner and a scholar of reconciliation. In conversation, he will jump from telling stories of making peace in the midst of war to commenting on how much easier Hegel is to read in German than in English.

In the days after the war, Fra Ivo understood his mission to be breaking down the walls of division that the religious nationalists erected on all sides (Orthodox Serbs, Catholic Croats, and Muslim Bosniaks). For example, he would gather a group of young people from a village of Serbs and take them on a day trip to predominately Muslim areas. By exposing young people to the “others” in the village next door, inter-ethnic relationships were formed and lines of communication began to irrupt into these young worlds. These risky trips injected a salvific dose of différance into these youth’s minds formed by the totalizing stereotypes of the media and the ferocious rhetoric of politicians.

These modest practices of reconciliation had great effect. On a journey to Pale (pronounced PAH-lay), Ivo’s contacts alerted him that Radovan Karadžić, the Bosnian Serb political leader currently standing trial in the Hague for war crimes, issued an order to “do something about this Marković” character. Recognizing his imminent danger, Ivo bolted back to Sarajevo, screaming through the checkpoints to avoid capture. This inter-ethnic interaction struck deeply into the nationalists’ heart by challenging the premise that identity is based on the maintenance of purity through segregation.
“Nationalists live off of wounds. Karadžić saw that I was attempting to heal those wounds, and he felt his power base threatened.” According to Fra Ivo, religious nationalists constantly remind their constituents of the wounds their group has suffered historically; they cast the inter-religious story of Bosnia in terms of perpetrators and victims, with nationalists on each side declaring to be the victims. “Even amongst my own Franciscans, I often hear them say that we Catholics should be afraid, that we are in danger in Sarajevo. But who is in danger? I am not in danger; I am a Catholic, this is my city too, and I am safe.”

This pierces into a core question about reconciliation and forgiveness. Our sensibilities, religious and otherwise, compel us to remember wrongs suffered. Ellie Wiesel’s ethical imperative to “remember” the atrocities of the Holocaust resounds in our souls; remember so that this will never happen again. But Ivo’s account suggests that the perpetual recollection of wrongs suffered is the very fodder of religious nationalism, and it is precisely this that rips open old wounds and instills fear in human hearts - the kind of fear that can lead to genocide.

What is the tipping point between remembering well and remembering poorly? When does the memory of a wrong suffered stop serving as protection against further atrocities and begin to be the life destroying compulsion to tear the wound open again and again?


  1. Andrew,
    Thank you for your eloquent writing and provocative questions. I look forward to continuing to follow your journey and hopefully to think with you about reconciliation and forgiveness and perhaps the spaces for anger and fear and grief to be safely and constructively used in the movement toward reconciliation and forgiveness. Of course, I cannot help but think of South Africa and the work done there to move toward reconciliation. What if any influence has the South African process of reconciliation had on the process there in Bosnia?
    Much peace to you friend. And many blessings.

  2. That's a great question, Thandiwe, and South Africa is on my mind as a societal model of reconciliation. In fact, it was Dr. Hubert Locke's question to me as well. His thought, as I recall, was that the TRC in South Africa was based on some cultural precedence unique to the South African context and that it could be hard to export to other countries. Another factor that comes to play is the apparent lack of the political will for this kind of thing in Bosnia. Thus far, I haven't heard of anything like it, and the Dayton-Accord-brokered-government is struggling just to keep itself afloat.

    But surely there is some way for a society to vent its anger and fear the way TRC aimed to do, and surely that is necessary for anything like real reconciliation. My hunch is that one way Bosnians have vented is through the arts. I'll have much more to say about this later, but the Sarajevo-based interfaith choir Pontanima is an incredible example of a reconciliation project that engages the deepest parts of human experience through music, and religious music at that.


  3. Dear Andrew, Wonderful to hear that you have arrived and are underway. I shall read your blog with keen interest!
    salve from Swift Hall,
    Margaret Mitchell

  4. Hi Andrew!

    Your blog makes me want to create one, so we'll see about that...

    But in the meantime, I spent a lot of last quarter thinking about remembering trauma and how to do so healthily with balance and fall into patterns of victimization, fundamentalism, etc. I don't know if either is completely avoidable, but I've been reading a lot of womanist theologians and writers who have interesting thoughts on the issue. Perhaps I will send you some links and such for you to read on your precious Kindle...

    But also as far as reconciliation processes go, there IS an American model based off of the South African TRC. It is called the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and was started in 2004 in part by the Duke University Human Rights Initiative. This is why Duke is the best school in the nation! But anyway, the process was in done in response to an un-reconciled KKK attack in 1979. I worked on it during my undergrad collecting statements from people and attending hearings, so I can share with you some things that did/didn't work in translating a foreign peace process into an American social context. A number of profs from Duke Div also played some role in it... Anyway, this may be beyond your focus or interest, but I wanted to tell you now so I don't forget!

    *P.S. Are the Serbs among you celebrating Novak Djokovic's Wimbledon victory? People in Kenya seem to love him over Nadal for some reason...I was the only one in the restaurant rooting for Rafa :-(


  5. Hey Alexis,

    You must have made it safe and sound to Kenya! I'm glad to hear it. I would LOVE if you started a blog. The stuff you are up to there is too important to keep under a bushel. Plus, maybe Tim can hook us up with a link on his prestigious Protestants for the Common Good blog.

    I have not heard much about the Greensboro TRC, but it sounds like the kind of thing what Thandiwe was thinking of. I'd love to hear more, especially how the folks in charge were able to get both sides to the table. How do you establish legitimacy and motivate the political will for something like this? In South Africa, there such vast differences in numbers and there were economic and political connections between the groups that meant life could not really go on without some form of reconciliation and truth-telling. In Bosnia, the various factions are closer to equal in numbers (although not equal), and the political will simply does not seem to exist on the Serb side.

    That said, I discovered that there is something like South African TRC happening in Bosnia! It's called REKOM and it is organized by Serbian human rights activist Natasa Kandic. You can check it out here in English.

    I can assure you, Djokovic's mug was on every TV screen in every cafe in the city. I'll be in Belgrade this weekend though, so maybe I'll bump into him. If I do I'll send him your regards :)