On a book tour last month, as we were driving along the highway from Croatia to Bosnia, traffic came to a sudden stop near the border.  Car doors opened, drivers stepped outside for a smoke, and everyone speculated on what had caused the backup.  An accident?  Road work?  No, as it turned out: personnel were sweeping the adjacent fields for mines left over from the war that ended 17 years ago.  Welcome to the former Yugoslavia.  More than five million mines were planted during that war and they continue to maim or kill unsuspecting farmers, hikers, and children.

When we finally reached the border, the world abruptly changed.  A four-lane superhighway narrowed to a windy, potholed two-lane road.  Road signs now used both the Roman alphabet of Western Europe and the Cyrillic alphabet of the East.  Most obviously, every other house was vacant, its interior gutted by fire bombs, a relic of the Serbs’ ethnic cleansing campaign to force Croats and Bosnians from Serbian areas.

“Who owns these homes now?” I asked my Croatian host.  “Probably the people who were chased away and live somewhere else now.  But would you want to go back and reclaim a home in the same town where your neighbors raped your daughter and slit your wife’s throat?”

In Sarajevo, our destination, East and West meet on the same street.  Standing in the bazaar, if you look one direction you’d swear you were in Austria with its neat buildings, onion-dome churches, and sidewalk cafes; look the other direction and you’d think you were in Istanbul with its tea shops and covered Muslim women browsing in the spice market.  Indeed, not far from here bloody battles stopped Islam from taking over Europe centuries ago, and no one has forgotten. The Balkans dominated the news back in the 1990s.  International leaders stood by wringing their hands while the horrors of World War II seemed to be playing out again on miniature scale.  I could never keep the adversaries straight back then, much less pronounce them, and the villains seemed to change weekly.  Who can make sense of the former Yugoslavia?

Under communism Yugoslavia forced three major groups (as well as other minor tribes) to live together: Croatian Catholics, Orthodox Serbians, and Bosnian Muslims.  Before the 199os war Sarajevo had a large population of each; now the city is 90 percent Muslim, with greatly reduced Orthodox and Catholic populations and only a sprinkling of Protestants (perhaps 800 out of 400,000).

For just shy of four years Serbian soldiers who inherited most of the Yugoslavian army took up positions in the hills that surround Sarajevo and strangled the city in a brutal siege, the longest in modern times.  An average of 329 grenades rained down on the city every day, and on busy days ten times that number.  Snipers cruelly picked off easy targets: a seven-year-old Muslim girl, a 70-year old grandmother, a medical worker administering aid.  At least 11,000 civilians died during the siege, including 1600 children.  Bodies floated down the river that now picturesquely winds through town.  Cemeteries filled up so that the dead had to be buried in a soccer field just down from the site of the 1984 Olympics.

This was modern Europe, where such things were not supposed to happen again, especially not here, the exact site of the assassination of an archduke that triggered World War I.  But it did happen, for 1443 horrific days of bombardment on a city that had no electricity, no heat, gas, or telephone service.  (Imagine the inconveniences of those affected by Superstorm Sandy in the East, for four years, plus relentless bombardment.)  The main source of water was a brewery that generously opened its supplies to those brave enough to dare the snipers who fired down on them at will.

The residents of Sarajevo lived on a diet of beans, macaroni, and rice, humanitarian aid supplied largely by air from the UN and NATO forces who controlled the airport.  It took four months to dig a half-mile tunnel under open fields to the airport, and at night as many as 1000 Sarajevans crowded the tunnel to fetch the heavy loads of rations that kept them alive.  The entrance to the tunnel provided a new target to snipers, who targeted any who braved the run during daylight hours.

Few buildings have been fully repaired even today, 17 years after a cease-fire.  Most bear the scars of bullet holes and shrapnel.  Plaques mark the spots where grenades fell among civilians: 27 died on this corner, 40 in that pedestrian mall, 70 in a nearby food market.  I stayed in a Franciscan monastery, now restored, that had received 42 direct hits from grenades.

n the world exists only one human; everything else is statistics,” said Jorge Luis Borges.  Speaking with a few who had endured the siege, I heard some of their poignant stories:

• “For nine days in a row we ate plain pasta.  We had no spices, no meat, no flavoring.  My mother was so desperate for flavor that she went out and gathered grass to sprinkle in just to add a bit of variety and color.  When we got something different, like rice or powdered milk, we would throw a party.”

• “Without heat, we would burn anything at hand in the winter to stay warm.  I had a newborn baby, born in the midst of that hell.  We chopped up heirloom furniture with an ax.  You go numb after a while.  One Christmas a friend brought me a priceless gift: the dirt-covered root system of a tree he had found somewhere.  I cried.  I have never received a Christmas gift that meant so much, and I still have it.  I could not burn it.  I tell you with shame, that gesture moved me more than hearing that thirty more people died.”

• “The worst thing is, you get used to evil.  If we knew in advance how long it would last, we would probably have killed ourselves.  Over time, you stop caring.  You just try to keep living.”

• “I have two brothers.  One joined the Muslim army to fight against the siege.  One escaped and served with the Croatians.  My sister was married to a Serb, who was conscripted to serve with the forces besieging us.  So many marriages were mixed like that—Serb/Croatian, Croatian/Bosnian, Bosnian/Serb—and many of them broke apart.”

• “Why such brutality?  These were our friends, our neighbors, now shooting at us, blowing up our homes.  Hannah Arendt writes about the banality of evil.  The biggest criminals were nice fathers and husbands, people I knew.  They were like the Nazis who would gas Jews in the day and then go home and listen to concerts with their families.”

Croatia was the first region to resist the Serbs, who sought a Greater Serbia comprising most of the former Yugoslavia.  The Croats had no army to speak of, just a few tanks left over from World War II and a handful of planes used for crop-dusting.  Improvising, they learned to drop propane tanks and water heaters out of the crop dusters onto Serbian forces.  To get around an international arms embargo, they released some  Mafia-type gangsters from prison, gave them trucks full of money, and commissioned them to find a black market in weapons.  (As a reward, some of these criminals now hold high government posts.)

Dubrovnic, Srebenica, Vukovar—these names stand out as sites of the worst brutality, crimes that are even now being tried before the International Criminal Court.  More than 100,000 people died in the wars.  In Srebenica Serbs rounded up every male over the age of fifteen, 8000 in all, tied their hands behind their backs, and shot them.  Workers are still digging up the mass graves in an attempt to identify the bodies.

To read the eyewitness reports from the international court in the Hague is to read a litany of horrors: of pregnant women cut open, their unborn babies smashed with rifle butts; of gang rapes of girls as young as nine; of toddlers decapitated, their heads placed in their mothers’ laps.  There is only one explanation for what happened, one Bosnian told me: “God overslept.”

I came across this poster promoting my talk on suffering posted in a Zagreb bar window!

I came to this part of the world because two of my books, Where Is God When It Hurts and What’s So Amazing About Grace?, had just been published in the Croatian and Bosnian language.  I had prepared talks on grace, informed in large part by the splendid work of the Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf, a faculty member first at Fuller Seminary and now Yale Divinity School.  With one exception, however, I was asked to speak on suffering, not on grace.  When I asked, “Are you ready for reconciliation,” not one person answered Yes.  The wounds are at once too fresh and too old, for these disputes go back more than seven centuries.  “Every compromise is defeat,” said one Serbian leader.  And another: “Any reconciliation is betrayal.”

To be sure, all sides shared guilt, not just the Serbs. Two Croatian generals were sentenced for their crimes, and mujaheddin fighting with Bosnians and Albanians fighting in Kosovo also committed atrocities. Though the war ended, in part because of NATO bombing and the Dayton Peace Accords, the disputes have not ended. The one nation of Yugoslavia split into seven: Serbia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Croatia, Montenegro, Bosnia & Herzegovina, and Slovenia. Serbians ended up with the largest share of territory, but ethnic minorities remain in each country, including a “Serbian Republic” within the borders of Bosnia. Conflict in the Balkans could erupt up again.

Today Syria dominates the news, with a reprise of the kinds of atrocities I heard about firsthand.  It happened in Rwanda, of course, and continues today in the Democratic Republic of Congo and in Nigeria.  I could not help thinking of Gandhi’s remark that if you take the principle “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” to its logical conclusion, eventually the whole world will go blind and toothless.  I have never visited a place in such need of grace and forgiveness, and yet so resistant to it.

One afternoon in Sarajevo we were escorted by a cheerful Franciscan monk named Ivo Markovic. He took us first to the Jewish cemetery on a hill high above the city, one of the main lookout posts for Serbian snipers.  Every grave had been marred in some way, pockmarked by bullets, gravestones overturned.  I had read of Markovic in Miroslav Volf’s book Free of Charge.  In his village, Muslim Bosnians were the villains, massacring 21 men including nine members of his family—all senior citizens, his 71-year-old father the youngest of them.

The Franciscans lost most of their church members as Catholics moved out of Sarajevo. Yet the monastery stayed behind, leading the frail peace movement and distributing food and practical help. After the war stopped, Father Markovic visited his home village. I will let Volf tell the story:

Occupying the house in which his brother used to live was a fierce Muslim woman. He (Markovic) was warned not to go there because she brandished a rifle to protect her new home. He went anyway. As he approached the house she was waiting for him, cigarette in her mouth and rifle cocked. She barked: “Go away or I’ll shoot you.” “No, you won’t shoot me,” said Father Markovic in a gentle but firm voice, “you’ll make a cup of coffee for me.” She stared at him for a while, then slowly put the rifle down and went to the kitchen. Taking the last bit of coffee she had, she mixed in some already used grounds to make enough coffee for two cups. And they, deadly enemies, began to talk as they partook in the ancient ritual of hospitality: drinking coffee together. She told him of her loneliness, of the home she had lost, of the son who never returned from the battlefield. When Father Markovic returned a month later she told him: “I rejoice at seeing you as much as if my son had returned home.”

Did they talk about forgiveness? I don’t know. And in a sense, it doesn’t matter. He, the victim, came to her asking for her hospitality in his brother’s home, which she unrightfully possessed. And she responded. Though she greeted him with a rifle, she gave him a gift and came to rejoice at his presence. The humble, tenuous beginnings of a journey toward embrace were enacted through a ritual of coffee drinking. If the journey continues, it will lead through the difficult terrain of forgiveness.

ur last day in Croatia we toured an odd tourist site that has gained acclaim for its originality. It mainly displays items donated by lovers who have broken up. Some are nostalgic: a wedding dress, the chiffon top worn the night he told her it’s over, the sticky roller he used to remove her cat’s hair. Others are bitter: an ax used to chop up her music collection, a framed photo shattered into pieces, the side mirror of his car that she broke off when she found it parked in front of a rival’s apartment. A few items refer to other kinds of broken relationships, such as the a Newsweek cover featuring Barack Obama with the note, “I really wanted it to work out.”

The Museum of Broken Relationships, it’s called, and I can’t think of a more appropriate symbol for that part of the world. A visit to the Balkans gives a stark picture of what can happen among human beings apart from grace. As I wrote in What’s So Amazing About Grace?

If you ask a bomb-throwing teenager in Northern Ireland or a machete-wielding soldier in Rwanda or a sniper in the former Yugoslavia why they are killing, they may not even know. Ireland is still seeking revenge for atrocities Oliver Cromwell committed in the seventeenth century; Rwanda and Burundi are carrying on tribal wars that extend long past anyone’s memory; Yugoslavia is avenging memories from World War II and trying to prevent a replay of what happened six centuries ago. Ungrace plays like the background static of life for families, nations, and institutions. It is, sadly, our natural human state.

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15 responses to “Don’t Cry For Me, Sarajevo”

  1. Jeff Warner says:

    Philip,

    Great blog. You saw things with your eyes and with your heart.

    I did not realize you had met Father Ivan. He is one of the first Bosnians we got to know when we were in Zagreb. I was with him and his colleagues the day he learned that his village had been massacred. We prayed for his family, not knowing their fate. I had not heard the story of his meeting with the woman who lives in his brother’s home. His answer to her threat was the perfect response — flavored with power and grace given by God’s Spirit.

    Thank you for sharing.

  2. Jon O'Brien says:

    Hi Philip,

    Forgive me for commenting here but couldn’t find where else to contact you.

    I’m just reading your book ‘The Jesus I Never Knew’, which a Christian friend handed me recently, and I’m loving it. So true and so powerful. You are a good writer.

    I write part time for Creation Ministries, and I’m a geologist and classical musician. I believe what I believe of geology from the scientific evidence. In my scientific opinion a global Flood must have occurred, or at the very least several continent-sized floods (but the former fits the facts better). There really is no other explanation that stands up to the facts as seen in the field. The water-deposited sedimentary beds are too massive and too uniform, laid down in strong currents. Volcanic deposits too back up a global water event. There is much good evidence which points to a recent creation, too. It is good to keep an open mind about such things. But the only thing that really matters is faith in the divinity of Jesus Christ, and love.

    I’d love to talk with you some time.

    God bless,

    Jon O’Brien

  3. Murielle Lemvoka says:

    Hi

    I read your book “What’s so amazing about grace”, haven’t finished it yet, but you were writing about a friend of yours, and I’ve found some information that might be very interesting for you, or even him if he’s still alive. I would be very happy to be able to contact you, how can I write to you?

    Thanky,

    Murielle

  4. Diann says:

    @Kristine,
    Those are good questions. I think the answer to your second question, is yes.
    G. K. Chesterton said that forgiveness by definition means forgiving the unforgivable.
    And haven’t we, as Christians, been forgiven the unforgivable through Jesus? Isn’t one of the reasons that we keep treating one another so grievously, because we don’t realize that we have been forgiven already for all the atrocities we have perpetuated against God? If He is truly just and pure and yet even He forgives us, then how much more should we forgive one another.

  5. I printed out your article and will finishe reading it. But, I feel impressed to make a few comments right now. We have lived in sarajevo for 13 years. Although many believe it is a “hard Muslim” city, it isn’t really. The main thing I want to say now is that although there was so much terror and horror and yes all three signs partook and are guilty. I have had many conversations with those who remained in the city throughout the seige. I was really impressed with what a woman called Ana said. She said” many only remember the horrible things people did but, I remember how this war brought out the good in so many people. Many, many peoples from each side helped others in the other groups. Many, many were not participating in the evil, the were Sarajevans through and through and it is heartwarming and encouraging to hear the stories of sharing and friendship. There are always evil people in any group but, do not despair, there are also very good, rightouse and caring people in the same groups.

  6. Deryll says:

    Thank you Philip! Your writing continues to touch me deeply. I pray that tomorrow, when you speak to us in Kansas, it’s standing room only. We need to hear these stories.
    “God overslept”
    May we who claim Jesus as Lord share a coffee!

  7. anna wormus says:

    So true! Since our arrival in this area in 1995 we have been in all of the

    former Yugoslav republics helping in post-war resolution, bringing release

    from suffering. We began in Slovenia working with refugees while Croatia

    and Bosnia were still fighting. Following the Croatian “Storm” (Oluje)

    offensive in the Krajina district, we visited the military hospital in

    Zagreb and ministered to young solders were who had lost limbs during the

    fighting. Rather than hearing how proud they were to have sacrificed for

    their newly formed country, we heard bitter criticisms toward their

    government, as now they were invalids for life. They had been drafted into

    mandatory service, and had no political agenda of their own! Croatia,

    Bosnia, Montenegro, Kosovo, Serbia. The shelling of Dubrovnik seemed to be

    with no strategic purpose more than wanton destruction, and along the

    southern coast of Croatia the “war” consisted mostly of Montenegrins coming

    over the mountains to sack the local villages and rob from the poor coastal

    folks their household belongings while burning houses along the way. This

    is not war, but conquest over a weaker people? In Kosovo we helped a small

    Serbian village called Staro Gracko where 14 of their men had been brutally

    killed by Albanians while returning home from their fields. In all of this,

    the enemy is the same, Satan, who Jesus said in John 8:44 was “a murderer

    from the beginning”. We we have seen in our 17 years here is that both

    sides yielded to the demonic influences to “steal, kill, and destroy” (John

    10:10) and were therefore equally guilty. I think the key to defeating this

    spirit of brutality is to understand God’s message of love, giving, and

    living like Good Samaritan. The saint of the Balkans, Mother Theresa, was a

    good sample of this!

    I went on your website–wonderful! It is a sin to envy someone’s website? You two are doing great work, exactly what that tortured part of the world needs. May you not weary in doing good…
    Philip

  8. Lori says:

    Thank you for writing about something I have never understood. We have friends who just left this summer to be missionaries in Montenegro. I now know just how important our prayers for them and their difficult task will be. God bless you got shining a light on this for those of us so far removed from them.

  9. Andrea says:

    Dear Philip,

    I lived in B-H during the years 1995-2006. The people, the places, the coffee became my own. During that time, I read a number of your books. Actually, I’ve probably read more books written by you than by any other author, besides Beatrix Potter. I am jealous that my dear Bosnian friends got to meet you and that you got to meet them. I wish I could have been there to see you and to see them. Thank you for being an inspiring writer. You have comforted me and encouraged me several times. I loved Soul Survivor! Also, your books have challenged me to read more – I’ve read Tolstoy and Frederick Buechner, as well. Thank you for sharing your gift. Keep writing!

    Sincerely,
    Andrea

    Gulp, I’m up against Beatrix Potter? I surrender! Good for you for going to Bosnia at a most difficult time. I know you have stories to tell…as well as some good reading ahead of you.
    Philip

  10. I lived and worked in the former Yugoslavia with YWAM from 1996-2000. You gave a fairly accurate picture of the past, the need for grace and the struggle with forgiveness.

  11. Eleanorjane says:

    Lovely article, thank you. I pray that the words you’ve spoken and written can be used by God to help bring some healing and grace into the hearts of those who’ve suffered (and caused suffering) in these countries. Keep up the Good Work!

  12. Marty Jones says:

    Philip-
    I am once again reminded of how sheltered we are, here in the US. We are outraged at events that are commonplace in Eastern Europe, and Africa…
    Thank you for sharing the Light that is within you, and bringing Grace to places where it isn’t necessarily wanted.
    Blessings, Marty

    Indeed. After a bruising election fight (I live in a swing state so we got deluged) a visit to the Balkans puts a whole different perspective on our “battles.”
    Philip

  13. Dar Weaver (Ms.) says:

    Very compelling . Back during this war as hard as I studied the information available to me, I could never figure out that whole thing. The small piece written above is probably the best in a nutshell that I have ever read. Thank you.

  14. What do we do then? What do we do? Even prayer seems futile. “God overslept” seems the only apt explanation. Yet, the coffee-drinking enemy pair brings hope, however small.

  15. Kristine says:

    How do you speak about forgiveness, reconciliation and grace to people who have endured such unspeakable horror? Do we have a right to speak of such if we have not gone through what they have?

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