Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Raw Potatoes

“The political conditions for reconciliation in Bosnia simply aren’t there.”

Professor Ahmet Alibasic would know.  He is a political scientist at the University of Sarajevo and the latest person to decry the brokenness of Bosnian politicians.  I’ve talked to everyone from local religious leaders to American diplomats to secular activists, and this is one thing on which they all agree.

The picture he painted for me was grim.  To sum it up, the main problem facing political reconciliation is that refugees cannot return to their homes. The Serbs who aimed to destroy Bosnian diversity and divide everyone up into ethnically pure states got what they wanted.  The result is the most segregated Bosnia in its history.

“So who cares about reconciliation?  Only the victims!”  The perpetrators got what they wanted, so they have no reason to even come to the table. The professor lowers his cup of coffee and lifts his eyes to meet mine. “Their project of ethnic cleansing was basically a success.  That’s the bottom line.”

That look in his eyes tells me how hard it is to even utter those words.

The strong get what they want, and the weak divide up what’s left.  That’s the political “bottom line.”  And if politics are “the art of the possible,” this task of reconciliation seems decidedly impossible.

After discussing these harsh political realities with Professor Alibasic, I needed a break.  I made my way to the Sarajevo Film Festival to let my imagination run free and to escape from the “real world” with its brutal bottom lines and cold hard facts.

As it turns out, I found something very real in that theater.

The film was The Turin Horse, famed Hungarian director Bela Tarr’s final film.  If it was anything, this film was real.  Shot on grainy, black and white film and with almost no dialogue, the camera followed two characters through the mundane, repetitive routine of peasant life in the 1800s.  Wake up, fetch water from the well, boil potatoes, clean up after the horse, chop wood, and go to sleep – five days in a row.  The gritty, grim reality of real human life was all the camera would let us see.

The only thing that interrupted the bleakness of their daily were three bad omens, each progressively worse, that suggested that the “end” was coming.  Their neighbor frantically warned them that “they” are coming, debasing everything they touch.  The water in their well disappears overnight, leaving them unable to even boil their potatoes.  Finally, even the daylight begins to fade to black as whatever is coming gets closer and closer and closer.

The last scene of the film is etched into my memory.  Their hovel shrouded in thick darkness with no water to cook their food, the two characters sit facing one another at their table.  A potato lay in front of each of them.  With the “end” in sight, with everything indicating the worst, the father bites into the raw, rock-hard potato.  I could hear the woody crunch of his teeth on the starchy, unforgiving vegetable.  And through crunches, he utters these words to his daughter:

“Eat.  We must eat.”

The end was upon them, and yet this father carried on.  Against all reason, in spite of all the “harsh realities,” he resisted.  He resisted by hoping against hope that he had a future that was better than his current reality.

To watch a film like this in Sarajevo was an intense experience.  My mind wandered from the characters of the film to the characters I’ve met in this city, those who know what it is to have their routine interrupted by bad omens, those who have lived through “the end,” literally.  When Sarajevo’s Judgment Day came and went, those who chose to stay in their homes did so to resist the “harsh realities” of the shells raining down on their streets and snipers murdering their neighbors.

When the fourth most powerful army in Europe surrounded Sarajevo, its citizens resisted.  With water and electricity cut off, they braved sniper fire to access the freshwater spring underneath the brewery.  With Serb forces surrounding the city, the Sarajevans dug an 800 meter tunnel to access food and supplies.

When the end was upon them, they bit into their raw potatoes, and they carried on.

The moral I take from all this is that the harsh realities of this world do not have to define our world.  Human beings are endowed with a spark of divinity, this God-given capacity to resist the oppressive “bottom lines” and to blur the line between what is possible and what is impossible.  

So when reconciliation is deemed politically impossible, it’s up to those artists, those theologians, those people of radical hope to imagine their way into an impossible future; it's a future of which Sarajevo is proof.

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