“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?