Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Learning from Sarajevo

Traveling through the Balkans has been a truly revelatory experience. After meeting the people of these lands, it has been humbling to realize just how many misperceptions of this area I had held before our arrival here. Part of those misconceptions had arisen, I suppose, from sensationalist war reportage and commentary in the media...although, mostly I'm realizing that myself and Americans in general have simply a tremendous lack of knowledge about this part of the world. For these reasons Sarajevo was one of those places that left a deep impression on me. Our conversations with Sarajevans revealed the somewhat surprising fact that Sarajevans did not experience the recent war as a conflict arising from deep-seated religious/ethnic interests, so much as an attack on their tolerant and pluralistic way of life. As proof of this, our host cited the fact that many of the Serbs of Sarajevo served alongside their Muslim and Catholic compatriots in the war against the Serbian nationalists. It is perhaps wrong to generalize about the "Spirit of Sarajevo" from the handful of conversations we had in two days, but it became quite clear to us that--at least with the Sarajevans we spoke with--an attitude of civic and social pluralism is something Sarajevans hold deep in their bones. They did not always express it consciously, but it was more than clear that cultural identity--and most especially religious cultural identity--is not the root cause of the problem that we Americans have long come to associate with the term "balkanization".

Sarajevo, in fact, has long existed as beacon of religious tolerance, not just in its part of the world, but even in Europe in general. It is clear, anyway, that Sarajevans need no lectures from the West on the value of "coexistance." The reasons for Sarajevo's pluralistic "spirit" are manifold, but the two most pertinent that we've been able to perceive in our conversations are the value Sarajevans place on intellectual openness and independent thought, and secondly, the primacy they place on the family unit as opposed to tribal and religious loyalties. Perhaps related to or as a result of this attitude, our host pointed out that Sarajevo's neighborhoods have not existed as fragmented ethnic enclaves (ghettos) since Hapsburg times. Sarajevo is proof to me the city can truly exist as a beacon of multicultural tolerance against nationalism, and has even produced a pluralistic civic ethos that can serve as a tantalizing model for multi-national cities in this part of the world, such as Jerusalem and Baghdad.

This is a great reason why America, ten years after Dayton, must not forget this region of world. This pilgrimage has taught me that I as an American must do all I can to support the renewal of our efforts to rebuild the region, to continue humanitarian aid, and to double our efforts to build up civil society in the region. Most importantly, we must renew our commitment to stabilizing the economies of the region, the key struggle the people of the Balkans perceive as the key to sustaining peace. In Belgrade, for example, we witnessed many bombed-out shells of buildings still standing precariously close to collapse as a result of our bombing over five years ago. It may be a small gesture and perhaps too late, but if we Americans offered to rebuild these monuments to Serbian grievance and American ignorance, I don't believe such a gesture of diplomatic goodwill would be overlooked among Serbs...

That could be one desperately needed step towards the reconciliation and redemption between our Balkan brothers and us.