I’m writing this last post not in Sarajevo, Mostar, Banja Luka or Belgrade, but at the other far end of Europe, under the glittering night skies of Paris. It’s a city a world away from the mosques and rolling hills of Sarajevo, the hectic, beautifully imperfect chaos of Belgrade. Beautiful, too (It’s Paris!), but more refined, its streets less winding and aimless, its people speaking with a distinct flair that lacks the wonderful directness of Serbo-Croatian. It’s lovely, romantic, spectacular, but in a way even Paris- the gem of Europe- lacks a certain rugged quality that the Balkans have. Already, I miss the tall, dark Serbian men smoking in kafanas, the calls to prayer every day in Sarajevo, the way dusk falls onto Bosnia with an orange haze that you can’t find anywhere else in the world.
So too do I miss the people of the Balkans- the Serbs, the Croats, the Bosniaks, the Albanians, the Macedonians and Slovenians- peoples often eclipsed by the shadows of the Germans and French and British yet regardless beautiful in their own way, each with their own prides and failings and memories of a time of war that was not so long ago. They are, above all, a people still healing from the crimes and trials of the fall of Yugoslavia, with names like Krajina, Srebrenica, Višegrad, Kosovo symbolizing gaping wounds that, even twenty years later, have only just begun to heal.
I’ve said much of what I’ve wanted to say on the Balkans in the past few weeks, so I won’t make this too long. So much of what we’ve learned about over the last 32 days has been focused on politics, on Serbia and the E.U or Bosnia and the Dayton Accords, that some of the more human aspects of this region and its peoples have, in a way, fallen through the cracks. Politics are important- they shape countries after all, guide history, can prevent or encourage conflict or poverty or suffering- yet, at the end of the day, it is the people of Bosnia, of Serbia that matter, their little struggles and personal victories and defeats that, collectively, make the stories of peoples and nations. I think we forget that sometimes- so focused on the big picture, on geopolitics and globalization and other weighty terms. So let me say this:
Despite the conflict, despite the crimes of the past wars- the genocide of Srebrenica, the ethnic cleansing of Krajina- the people of the Balkans are not less civilized, no more evil, no less prone to compassion and love and kindness than the rest of us. It’s easy to look at the Serbs and think of them less for the ethnic cleansing of Bosniaks or the Croats for the genocide of the Ustashe- and don’t get me wrong, there is a responsibility demanded for these crimes that is often not respected- but, in the end, their actions, as horrible and condemnable as they may be, don’t represent the inherent evilness of a people.
Rather, they represent just how easily we can succumb to fear, to hatred, even against people who we’ve lived as neighbors for generations. The wars of the Balkans, and the genocides and crimes against humanity that occurred in them, were not the result of centuries of hatred but of a few, powerful, and yes evil, people who manipulated fear, ethnic and national pride, and concern for the safety of your family and community into hatred, violence, and ethnic cleansing.
The Balkans should not be a lesson for just how vicious an “uncivilized” people can be when all rules break apart- instead, see them as a lesson for how all of us can, through fear- for our safety, for our families, for our nation or people- become hateful, violent, and perform actions that can only be described as evil. Few of us, as “civilized” or “western” as we may be, are above this, as history has shown time and time again- with the Germans during the second world war, with Rwanda, with America’s own treatment of Arabs after 9/11. We are all susceptible to falling into the trap that the people of the Balkans found themselves in, and continue to suffer the wounds and guilt of today.
There are bad people in Bosnia and Serbia and the Balkans at large- people who, still, take advantage of others, put their personal gain over that of their nation or people, who still perform acts born of simple hatred. Yet there are also so many people in possession of so much goodness, kindness, and love for others that it makes up for it.
Finally, if you are reading this blog, do me a favor: don’t think of the Balkans only be the images of war that you may find on Wikipedia. Remember it by the photos here: the hills of Sarajevo, the bustle of Belgrade, the beauty of the Bosnian countryside. Remember it for its good parts, and let it grow past its mistakes. The Balkans still have their own struggles- and I’ve written about them here- but one of the best things we can do to support their growth into the future is not to judge them, not to define them for only one part of their centuries of history, and instead accept them for their imperfections, while still demanding responsibility for things which must be held responsible for.
And, if you ever get the chance, go to Belgrade, go to Sarajevo or Mostar. Be a tourist, yes, but also take a step back and listen to the people there, their stories and day-to-day struggles. Only then will you be able to understand the Balkans, in whatever small way that may be.
And, finally, some final photos of the Balkans to remember it by: