Shabbat Shalom Magazine

Written by: Ranko Stefanovic

They Used to Live Together

An eyewitness from Bosnia remembers.

My thoughts go back to a small town in Bosnia. I try to recall those Sunday afternoons. Children would play together, while their parents were sitting and chatting, for hours on a favorite spot in front of a neighbor’s house. The children would like to stay very late into the night. They shared their mutual joys and happiness, as well as their toys, which were very rare in those times.

Occasionally, children would enjoy some cakes or a kind of dessert in the house of the parents of one of them while their fathers were watching an exciting sports game. Their names indicated that they were of different ethnic backgrounds, but neither parents nor children would pay special attention to that.

Now, several decades later, those former kids are adults. Many of the houses where they enjoyed warm hospitality have been plundered, heavily damaged, and/or burned. People have been killed daily in a cruel way or forced to flee. A neighbor can no longer stand his neighbor. Why? Because those children are now adults, and many of them cannot live together any longer because of their ethnic and religious differences. That small town where I grew up represents in miniature what has generally been taking place in the war-torn country of Bosnia. The media watchers have been horrified by the moving pictures of atrocities of all kinds: dead bodies, concentration camps, raping, numberless refugees, orphans, a great number of those who have suffered physical and mental injuries, people who have lost one or both of their arms and/or legs, etc. Many of those suffering are children, young men, and women. People worldwide were stirred by the story of a young couple from Sarajevo, he a Bosnian Serb and she a Muslim, who now share the same tomb for the only reason that they loved each other and wished to live together regardless of their ethnic background. Another story has been stored in my memory about a boy from Sarajevo. While sleeping in his bed, a grenade hit the bedroom and cut off both his legs. After spending several days in the hospital, he was pleading with the doctor, “Please, give me back my legs!”

I think about my old parents, who live in neighboring Croatia, just across the border from Bosnia. Believing that God is the Father of all the human race, they have loved all people regardless of their political, ethnic, or any other difference. Their home has been heavily damaged. My father was seriously wounded but lucky enough to survive. I also think of my two brothers, who spent many years in self-denial and hard work day and night. Everything was invested in beautifully built and furnished houses. On my way to the United States, I visited them at their homes. We would not have dared to even think that in only two years those two beautiful houses, along with many others in the town, would be plundered and destroyed; that both of them, together with their families, would be refugees far away outside the country; and that the younger brother would save nothing except his life and the clothes he had on. They are not alone. Europe has been flooded with a great number of once-more or less wealthy people from the countries that used to compose the former Yugoslavia who almost overnight became refugees. But they are lucky in that they are alive. Tens of thousands of people were not so fortunate. Nobody knows the exact number of innocent children who were killed during the war or those who became orphans because their parents were taken out of their homes and killed. And most of them never wished for the war.

All these horrible pictures of human suffering are coming from people who were considered in the past to be some of the friendliest people in Europe. And many of those horrible scenes are taking place among people who used to be together.

They were neighbors, and many of them were friends. They used to help each other, sympathizing in mutual joys and sorrows, celebrating each other’s religious festivals, and going to or watching sporting events. They used to, but now, no more. There was a place for everybody, but now there is no more. They lived together despite their ethnic and cultural differences, and now there are no more. And the saddest situation is that most of them who are trying to make the lives of those on the other side of the ethnic line as bitter as possible are doing so in the name of the God of Jesus or the Allah of Ibrahim. Why? Because the other one is ethnically different. He prays to God or Allah in a way other than I do; therefore, he must suffer in the name of God or Allah. But people often forget that it is God or Allah who has given us life and made us different. He is right there where needed, sympathizing with those who suffer and directing their eyes to that moment in the history of this agonizing planet when “no more shall be heard... the sound of weeping and the cry of distress” (Isaiah 65:19, RSV).

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