1999. What possessed me to go to Bosnia,
a country recently ravaged by a devastating war? What possessed me to sleep on iron cots in mouldy
church basements, get bounced around in an ancient rattle-trap truck with no
shocks and faulty brakes on roads pock-marked by bomb craters which the locals affectionately
called Bosnian swimming pools, into regions and villages sometimes so remote
they had not yet been cleared of land mines? You had to walk only where others had
walked. Others had successfully walked. Worst of all, what possessed me to spend a
month where the only coffee was an acrid mud so awful and thick you can only tolerate
it by sipping from a cup the size of a thimble?
Why did I separate myself from my supports and leave behind the love
that showered me at home? Was it for
the same reason a dog licks his genitals… because he can?
Yesterday I told this story at a local event. I thought you might like to read it.
"What Possessed Me?"
Before I left, I asked my wife, “If you could go to Bosnia, wouldn’t you?” and she says, “Not on your life!”
I say, “But that’s all I have is my life. How rich do you want yours to be?”
“Very rich,” she says. “Garage sales do it for me.”
I know what I didn’t do it for… not for karma; not to earn a place in heaven; not to be politically correct. Certainly not for the money. And not… this is the most important ‘not’.… I did not go to try to make a difference in people’s lives.
I met humanitarians in Bosnia trying to make a difference and it drained them like a pond of leeches will drain your blood. A humanitarian’s reward lies in how palpable the change they can effect. And like Christ and the lepers, in Bosnia they saw that no matter how much fixing they did, it would never be enough. You can fix a hole in a road, but how do you fix a hole in someone’s soul?
In 1999 Sarajevo was an absurd contrast of ugly and beautiful, of destruction and construction. I stood where a tank had stood on the boulevard, 100 yards away from a 15-story office tower, and with casual precision lobbed a shell into each floor. Now three years after the war, splintered furniture, shattered pipes and shredded cables still hung from the gaping holes left by each explosion.
But the first two floors were rebuilt, with a department store and a little shop that sold that Sirnica, the snake-like coils of pastry filled with cheese, which we lived on for the time we were there.
Outside the shop, dug into the sidewalk about four inches deep was a symmetrical rosette, surrounded by a smattering of petal- shaped indentations. Looked like a sunflower. They were scattered throughout Sarajevo. It's what happens when a mortar round lands on concrete. And a lot landed.
The Serbs occupied the mountains above the valley in which this once picturesque city was nestled, mountains that just a few years before had hosted the winter Olympics. They dropped 3 million shells onto the city in a 4-year siege… or maybe it was 4 million in 3 years. What difference did it make? As my friend, Jelinek told me, “You chose not to pay attention.”
The artillery men would take up their stations at dusk, drinking Slivovitz and singing songs of rape and destruction. That was the ‘air raid warning’. But you sat in your room and read your book. You heard the whistle of the grenades above. If one landed on your building maybe it took out the plumbing. Maybe it took out your life. What difference did it make?”
After digging holes for water and collecting rain from the gutters before it escaped into the sewers, after making soup from the leaves of trees to stave off starvation, after burying your mother, what difference did it make?
Absurd. It’s all so absurd.
The evening we arrived in Sarajevo we were immediately driven to a collection centre, a little building in the woods which I think had housed municipal offices. But now the desks were replaced by beds because now, three years after the war in Bosnia, Albanians were suffering genocide in neighbouring Kosovo. They crossed the border as they could, gathered in whatever shelter they could find, and sat with whatever they could salvage, looking fearfully at a blank future.
When you look directly into the eyes of someone who’s lost everything, their home, their family, even their country, it hits you differently than watching it on TV. It’s not any more gripping. TV brings us the horror in its own magnified way. It is just more real, this woman handing me a scrap of paper with her husband’s name on it. “I know he got out,” she tells me. “Please look for him. Call out his name as you travel through Bosnia. Tell him we’re here and we’re safe.” The fear in her eyes belies the hope of her words.
She is perhaps the only one who can speak English among the thirty or so folks who crowded into the tiny room for our concert. Just a few feet from us, sitting, kneeling behind, and standing against the wall.
I’m about to sing, “Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Chickens” and I gesture for them to join in the chorus. A look of concern crosses their faces. They don’t speak English. Now, we have an interpreter, Edo. But he can only translate into Bosnian. But we’ve found someone who can translate Bosnian into Albanian and so they line up, side by side next to me as I say, “Ain’t nobody here but us chickens, in chicken…”
Edo translates into Bosnian and turns to the next fellow, who repeats it in Albanian. Then they turn back to me.
“Is, bocka bocka bok bok bok gock.”
Edo copies my lilt. “Eeai bocka bocka bok bok bok gock.”
And the next guy, “Eshta bocka bocka bok bok bok gock.”
By now the room has collapsed in hysterics. Me, a thousand miles from my home and they without a home, disparate cultures find a common language in Chicken.
So let’s sing it and let me teach you the words in chicken in case you similarly find yourself in a foreign culture 1000 miles from home.
Sometimes what works best when you’ve been thrown into the limbo of losing your foundation, of not knowing what to do or what will come, sometimes what works best to bring you back to the sense that you are a human being among humans is to be presented with something even more absurd than the absurd condition you find yourself in.
I remember when I stood on that spot where the tank had been, suburbans and SUVs were hustling by like ants repairing their nest, each sporting a medallion advertising their country and particular NGO, and nearby a high speed trolley with a banner on the side reading “A Gift From the People of Japan”. I thought about what my mentor, Stan Dale used to say to me. “Eric, there is either love, or violence. And even violence is a cry for love.”
There have been times in my life when the evidence of violence was so pronounced it was hard to imagine where love was. I guess what possessed me to go to Bosnia was a faith that love was hiding beneath the rubble.