Friday, December 21, 2007

Fejzic's Milk Cow

"In his act, lay an ocean of hope."

I don't know about you, but it's felt like a dark Advent Season to me. It seems that more than ever, we need that light to penetrate the darkness. We need hope.

The new encyclical Spe Salvi is on hope. Today Andrew Greeley wrote a column titled Why Christmas season is time of hope.

The Bosnian city of Gorazde under siege, 1992

The conflicts around the globe often seem so intractable, and it's a common refrain to hear people say as they throw up their hands in either despair or indifference, "The Jews and the Arabs have been fighting for over a thousand years... What can you do about it? The Sunnis and the Shia have hated each other for over a thousand years... What can you do about it? The Serbs and the Bosnian Muslims have hated each other for over a thousand years... What can you do about it?" Etc... etc...

Is that really true? Or are those convenient excuses for despair and inaction?

The past year or so, Sam Harris, the militant-atheist/crypto-Buddhist, has gotten a lot of mileage out of books that are primarily based upon the claim that religion is the primary source of conflict in the world. In this, he's been taken to task lately by the war correspondent Chris Hedges, who questions the shibboleths above, as well as Harris' main thesis, although championing religion is not his primary purpose in his own writings. He certainly doesn't let blind dogmatism and religious fanaticism off the hook. He debated Harris (look here for the debate), and I think that his opening statement was brilliant and worth reading - I Don't Believe in Atheists.

I'm inclined to believe Hedges, who has risked his life on many occasions covering wars in El Salvador, Bosnia, Nicaragua, Gaza, Yemen, and the Persian Gulf. Human beings have a natural tendency to get caught up in tribalism. If it isn't over religion, it would be (and certainly has been) over political ideology or skin color. If there was no difference to be found in either of those, people could be persuaded to kill each other over hair color or eye color, I'm quite sure...

In the book by Chris Hedges that I've been reading recently, he states:
The ethnic conflicts and insurgencies of our time, whether between Serbs and Muslims or Hutus and Tutsis, are not religious wars. They are not clashes between cultures or civilizations, nor are they the result of ancient ethnic hatreds. They are manufactured wars, born out of the collapse of civil societies, perpetuated by fear, greed, and paranoia, and they are run by gangsters, who rise up from the bottom of their own societies and terrorize all, including those they purport to protect.

Often, none of this is apparent from the outside. We are quick to accept the facile and mendacious ideological veneer that is wrapped like a mantle around the shoulders of those who prosecute the war. In part we do this to avoid intervention, to give this kind of slaughter an historical inevitability it does not have, but also because the media and most of the politicians often lack the perspective and analysis to debunk the myths served up by the opposing sides.

-- Chris Hedges, War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning

In his book, Hedges points out the high price paid by dissidents when the psychosis of war fever grips a nation, but there was an anecdote in his book that I though was a wonderful portent of hope - a beacon of hope that resonates well in the Spirit of Christmas.

Fejzic's Milk Cow...

I sat one afternoon with a Bosnian Serb couple, Rosa and Drago Sorak, outside of the Muslim enclave of Gorazde where they had once lived. They poured out the usual scorn on the Muslims, but then stopped at the end of the rant and told me that not all Muslims were bad. This, they said, it was their duty to admit.

During the fighting in the bleak, bombed-out shell of a city that was Gorazde, where bands of children had become street urchins and hundreds of war-dead lay in hastily dug graves, a glimmer of humanity arrived for the Soraks in the shape of Fadil Fejzic's cow. The cow forged an unusual bond between Fejzic, a Muslim, and his Serbian neighbors, the Soraks.

When the Serbs began the siege of Gorazde in 1992, the Soraks lived in the city with their older son, Zoran, and his wife. They were indifferent, although they were Serbs, to the nationalist propaganda of Bosnian Serb leaders like Radovan Karadzic.

After Serbian forces began to shell the city and cut off the electricity, gas, and water, the family refused to move out. They threw their lot in with the Bosnian government and were branded by the Bosnian Serbs, who pounded them each day from the mountains above the town, as traitors.

On the night of June 14, 1992, the Bosnian police came to the door for Zoran, who until the war was on Yugoslavia's national handball team.

"The Muslim police said they were taking him away for interrogation," said Drago Sorak, "but he never came back. We went nearly every day to the police station, until we left Gorazde, to beg for information. They told us nothing. We assume he is dead."

Soon afterward, their second son, who fought with the Bosnian Serbs, was struck by a car and killed. The Soraks were childless.

The couple, harassed by some Muslims in the town, began to consider fleeing, although it would be months before they could get out. Drago Sorak was increasingly pressed into digging trenches and chopping firewood for the Bosnian Army. The couple had little to eat.

"As things deteriorated it got worse and worse," he said. "Some of the Muslims wanted to kill us and others defended us. There were only 200 Serbs left in the city. On some nights, groups of Muslims came to the apartment looking for us. We had to hide until they left. We were frightened."

The difficulties, the harassment, and the disappearance of Zoran all helped turn the couple against a Muslim-led government that they had been willing to accept at the start of the war.

"I would live in Albania before I would go back to living with the Muslims here," Rosa Sorak said. "How can you expect us to live with those who murdered my son?"

Five months after Zoran's disappearance, his wife gave birth to a girl. The mother was unable to nurse the child. The city was being shelled continuously. There were severe food shortages. Infants, like the infirm and the elderly, were dying in droves. The family gave the baby tea for five days, but she began to fade.

"She was dying," Rosa Sorak said. "It was breaking our hearts."

Fejzic, meanwhile, was keeping his cow in a field on the eastern edge of Gorazde, milking it at night to avoid being hit by Serbian snipers.

"On the fifth day, just before dawn, we heard someone at the door," said Rosa Sorak. "It was Fadil Fejzic in his black rubber boots. He handed up half a liter of milk. He came the next morning, and the morning after that, and after that. Other families on the street began to insult him. They told him to give his milk to Muslims, to let the Chetnik children die. He never said a word. He refused our money. He came for 422 days, until my daughter-in-law and granddaughter left Gorazde for Serbia."

The Soraks eventually left and took over a house that once belonged to a Muslim family in the Serbian-held town of Kopaci, two miles to the east. They could no longer communicate with Fejzic.

The couple said they grieved daily for their sons. They missed their home. They said they could never forgive those who took Zoran from them. But they also said that despite their anger and loss, they could not listen to other Serbs talking about Muslims, or even recite their own sufferings, without telling of Fejzic and his cow. Here was the power of love. What this illiterate farmer did would color the life of another human being, who might never meet him, long after he was gone. In his act lay an ocean of hope.

"It is our duty to always tell this story," Drago Sorak said. "Salt, in those days, cost $80 a kilo. The milk he had was precious, all the more so because it was hard to keep animals. He gave us 221 liters. And every year at this time, when it is cold and dark, when we close our eyes, we can hear the boom of the heavy guns and the sound of Fadil Fejzic's footsteps on the stairs."

Fejzic fell on hard times after the war. I found him selling small piles of worm-eaten apples picked from abandoned orchards outside the shattered remains of an apartment block. His apartment block had been destroyed by artillery shells, leaving him to share the floor of an unheated room with several other men. His great brown-and-white milk cow, the one the Soraks told me about, did not survive the war. It was slaughtered for the meat more than a year before as the Serbian forces tightened the siege. He had only a thin, worn coat to protect him from the winter cold. When we spoke he sat huddled in the corner of a dank, concrete-walled room rubbing his pathetic collection of small apples, many with brown holes in them, against his sleeve.

When I told him I had seen the Soraks, his eyes brightened. "And the baby?" he asked. "How is she?"

The small acts of decency by people such as Slavica, a Serb, or Fejzic, a Muslim, in wartime ripple outwards like concentric circles. These acts, unrecognized at the time, make it impossible to condemn, legally or morally, an entire people. They serve as reminders that we all have a will of our own, a will that is independent of the state or the nationalist cause. Most important, once the war is over, these people make it hard to brand an entire nation or an entire people as guilty.

"I do not understand," wrote Primo Levi. "I cannot tolerate the fact that a man should be judged not for what he is but because of the group to which he happens to belong."'


crystal said...

Did you like the Pope's letter? I haven't read it all yet.

I agree with Chris Hedges - is the problem in Ireland really about religion or is it money and power and life style? Benedict seemed to say in his letter that stuff like this wasn't fixable by people, but I think it is, though it's a long shot.

Jeff said...

Hi Crystal,

No, I haven’t read the encyclical yet. I’m inclined to agree with you. I think a central tenet we should take from the incarnational principle is that God works through the human. We are co-creators with God. When Jesus finally returns, I don’t think it’s going to be out of wrath, when the world seems to be going to Hell in a handbasket. On the contrary. Like St. Paul, I think it will be when we have come as close as we humanly can to creating the Kingdom of God on Earth, when the full measure of Gentiles has come to accept Christ and His message.

Regarding the Irish conflict… As someone who is mostly of Irish extraction, steeped in an Irish Catholic upbringing, I think I can confidently say that the Irish do not hate Protestants and Protestantism. They do not. As far as they are concerned, this was not a religious conflict, but one based upon real grievances and a highly romanticized form of nationalism (the very kind that Hedges warns about). The Irish were already trying to stave off English domination for hundreds of years before the Reformation came along. I’m glad that you bring it up, because some of the very early heroes of Irish Republicanism, like Wolfe Tone and Charles Stewart Parnell, were Protestants.

The religious aspect of the conflict was very deliberately and cynically initiated by the British Crown. It’s a good example of Hedges’ viewpoint. The province of Ulster was the most obstinately Gaelic and resistant to British rule, and the most rebellious. The British government deliberately brought in and settled Borderer Scots from the lowland areas near Hadrian’s Wall, into Ulster. They were fiercely loyal to the Crown, and Calvinist followers of John Knox. They were brought in specifically to keep the native (Catholic) Irish population in check and to bring the province under control.

The Unionist Ulsterman has tended over the years to hate Catholicism with every fiber of his being. The Irish Catholic gives offense in a different way. He doesn’t take Protestantism seriously enough to hate it. The Irish saw it as just another form of Englishness being foisted upon them. This refusal to take Protestantism seriously, of course, made the Orangeman hate Catholicism even more.

I think this lack of serious regard for another point of view can be seen in the IRA’s approach over the years. Because of their own myopia, and because of early heroes like Tone and Parnell, it took the IRA decades to realize that the “Protestant Working Class” was never going to reject Britain and make common cause with them. It took them decades to accept that the Unionists had their own historical narrative and ancestral “story” that was going to keep them from ever accepting a united Ireland.