This morning I was privileged to learn an important lesson about the necessity of using proper terminology and language when discussing divisive issues. This was a painful lesson for those whose feelings were trampled by the poor use of language and I am grateful to them for sharing their pain to help all of us learn it.
This morning the Centropa Summer Academy visited the Tunel (sic) Museum or Tunnel of Life Museum. This is a family run museum at the end of the tunnel which was dug under the runway of the Sarajevo Airport in 1993. This tunnel was used to bring in gas, electricity, food, people, medical supplies and other necessities during the siege. It was completed on the 30th of June 1993 and was 800 meters long, a meter wide and 1.6 meters high. It was often filled with water, gas, electricity and artillery and it is amazing it didn’t blow up at some point. We were able to see the last 20 or so feet of the tunnel as the rest of it collapsed after the war.
When we arrived at the location, we were shown to a space to watch a video. Prior to the video a man spoke to introduce the video and speak about the tunnel. I did not know this at the time, but he is part of the family whose house was at the end of the tunnel and his family runs this museum. His father usually does the tours and is, as we were told, quite funny and not biased in his presentation. The son, however, clearly has much anger and hatred still about the war and his words were very hurtful and not carefully chosen. A little history to help understand why what he said –
The war in Bosnia was fought between Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Muslims and Croats. Serbia is now its own country and there are Serbians and Bosnian Serbians. At our conference we have Serbians from Serbia and Serbians from the area of Bosnia Herzegovina known at Republika Srbskia. The tour guide spoke of “Serbs” who kills Bosnians and laid the guilt for the war at the feet of all Serbs rather than those Bosnian Serbs who gave into nationalism and decided to kill their former neighbors. As Ed Serrotta said “Those who woke up one morning and decided the Muslim Bosnian living next door was actually a Turk and an oppressor and occupier and needed to die.” That was not all Bosnian Serbs let alone all Serbs.
After we returned to our bus, the Serbians on our bus, who are here to work together and educate their children towards a better future for all peoples, felt awful and were moved to speak to those of us on the bus. They stressed that there were victims on all sides and “victims are victims”. The Israelis on the bus expressed that they know the feeling with the divide of “Jews and Arabs” in Israel and an assumption that all in each group are the same. We had another discussion with the whole group when we returned to the conference room and all of the participants from Serbian areas spoke quite powerfully about their feelings and experience of this presentation.
Before the Serbians spoke, Ed Serrotta – the director of Centropa, spoke passionately about the work that Centropa is doing and why they invited teachers to this seminar, in Sarajevo, from various Balkan nations, Ed said that this has not been done before, and they knew it would be hard for these teachers, but that Centropa is about working without borders. Ed said that for people from the former Yugoslavia, coming to Sarajevo is always difficult. He spoke about the need to face the past and how no one likes to do it and that really very few countries are good at it. He mentioned Nelson Mandela’s quote about no one being born hating and that hatred needs to be taught and, according to Mandela, that it is easier to teach love. Ed disagrees with the second part, and said that it is much easier to teach hate and that it is hard to teach love. Ed’s history reporting on wars might have something to do with this, what some would see as, cynical view. He also quote Vaclav Havel who, when the leader of Germany visited his country, spoke about not blaming a language for what is said in it. “Nazis identified their affairs with the affairs of Germany…a language cannot be blamed for the tyrant who speaks it…to hate a language (and he is implying all who speak it)…is to assign collective guilt and to do so is to weaken the individual guilt of those who actually committed the crimes.”
The first Serbian to speak is a soft spoken woman who works for the Ministry of Education – she had also spoken on our bus about victims of all nations. Next Marko spoke, he is a passionate young man who feels very strongly about what was said by the guide. He is working with teachers in Serbian areas to help them use Centropa’s materials and to help them work together for a better future for this area. He spoke of the “normal, honest people who did not want war but rather wanted to live in one country, go to the coast, buy a new car, travel with their red passport…that this was all they wanted and that politicians and crazy people made an awful situation.” He emphasized that now we are together and must work to make a better future – a normal future. That the way that we, as teachers teach our students will determine that future. When Marko and I were speaking on the bus this morning he said to me “We, teachers, we are the most powerful people in the world. What we teach our students determines the future.” I laughed and said, “Yes, but you wouldn’t know that from how we are paid.”
One of the most moving pieces from the Serbians was from a young woman who said that after hearing the tour guide she asked herself “Who am I?” She shared that her parents were originally from Serbia, but both came to Bosnia. They met in Bosnia and she was born here and lived here for 13 years. When war came, her family went back to Serbia.l She wondered if that made her a “Bosnian Serb” and was she responsible for the war? I spoke to her later in the afternoon and told her how powerful I found this and how much it meant to me that she had shared it.
This to me is the real issue with words. This woman, who was 13 in 1992, was made to wonder if she was responsible for genocide because of the careless use of language by another person. Tying her identity to Bosnian Serbs versus “normal” Serbs leaves her with a question of guilt. Perhaps we need to be sure to add “aggressors” or “perpetrators” after Bosnian Serb to make it clear that we know there were Bosnian Serbs who did not participate in the war. There were those who stayed in Sarajevo and died alongside their Muslim neighbors, or lovers. After the tunnel we went to the Sarajevo Public Cemetery where we visited the grave of the “Romeo and Juliet of Sarajevo”. This young couple, a Muslim girl and Serbian boy, were shot by snipers trying to leave Sarajevo. They had been together 7 years. He stayed in the city with her and she was now leaving with him. They had been promised safe passage, but were shot. Their bodies lay in no-man’s land for days as it was too dangerous to retrieve them. Surely one cannot assign collective guilt when such things show that not all were guilty.
My final reflection on the day is about the cemetery. Here in a city and in a country that has been torn apart repeatedly along religious lines, I was shocked to find that the public cemetery contains graves of Muslims, Catholics and Serbian Orthodox – and a Jew or two according to our guide though I did not see any Jewish graves – all mixed together. Literally Muslim beside Catholic beside Orthodox. Our two lovers are buried in the same grave – Muslim and Orthodox. The symbolism provided by the hodgepodge of graves in this hodgepodge of a city – Hapsburg style buildings next to Ottoman markets and mosques – is quite striking and gives me hope that the living can learn to live together as well as the dead seem to be doing.