A change of heart

Those of you who are following these webpages know that I am focused on post-war urban reconstruction and political-economic development. And I think Franz Fanon and Desmond Tutu describe the critical steps necessary to get beyond a condition of war: psychological and spiritual transformation. In the long run these internal, personal changes are what show up in more aggregate effects like economic growth, government transparency and accountability, and political stability. So I look for signs of these changes, and think a lot about how they occur at an individual and public scale. But I was not looking for it to happen to me on this trip to Sarajevo. This page is an essay about unexpected emotional transformation. I hope I can do some justice to the event as I try to put it into words.

The back-story is that I grew up in a predominantly Jewish community in Connecticut. Many of my schoolmates did not have grandparents, or aunts and uncles, or cousins. Their parents had settled in American suburbia to live out quiet, normal lives in contrast to their extremely disturbed childhoods. But the shadow of genocide was a fact of life where I grew up.

With that background, the war in Bosnia was extremely upsetting for me: it seemed that Milosevic and the Serbian nationalists were adopting increasingly fascist tactics against Muslims, Jews, and Catholics. History repeating itself? Or even a continuation of fascism, an ‘unfinished job’ of ethnic cleansing to make culturally homogeneous new nation-states? It was easy to portray Serbs as ‘the bad guys’ in a distinctly American, distinctly black-and-white moral lens. Eisenhower had said “never again,” and I felt that the US was betraying its moral commitments by failing to intervene in 1993 and 1994. Certainly, some Bosnians who were portraying the war to American media used the language of absolutist morality to argue the cause of their side; there were many atrocities; and ethnic cleansing is indeed a form of genocide. But, as in Afghanistan, the situation is not simple. Since my job in Kabul is to understand the effects of a complex and continuing set of conflicts, and their potential impact on the future development of the capital, I had accepted the moral complexity of the Afghan conflicts several years ago. But in post-Yugoslavia I had assumed the American political position: that there were good guys and bad guys, and the Serbs were the bad guys.

Larisa Kurtovic decided that–of all the things I needed to see in Sarajevo–the most important was to see the many sides of the war and its consequences. I think that, since cosmopolitan tolerance is an essential part of Sarajevan identity, the one thing Larisa could not tolerate was American Manicheanism. So she showed me how Sarajevo is now Islamizing in unprecedented ways, and how that may be problematic in skewing Bosnian identity. Then, over my objection, she showed me one of her favorite buildings in Sarajevo: the Orthodox church of Saints Michael and Gabriel. It is the oldest building in the city (6th century), and it has a museum with icon paintings dating back to the late middle ages. One retelling of recent history is that the killing of several men in a wedding party outside of the church was the ‘first shot’ in the Bosnian war, with Orthodox as victims of a Muslim thug.

When I arrived in Sarajevo I felt much more comfortable around mosques; Larisa joked about me as “Haji Pietro”. But of course I did know a lot about the icons and relics in the church of Saints Michael and Gabriel. Not only are the Orthodox my co-religionists in a general sense, but as a member of Saint Gregory’s I had learned a lot of details about Orthodox Christianity, and felt rather at home in an Orthodox church. I could no longer see the Orthodox–the Serbs–as abstract monsters. They are human beings who have major differences–and even more commonalities–with all the other citizens of Sarajevo.

The story continued in Naples, at the conference of the Association of European Schools of Planning. I presented in the same session as a Serbian woman, Tijana Dabovic, who described the problems of regional planning in Belgrade. Tijana and I had a long conversation afterward, and one critical thing I learned is that Serbians abroad face the same challenge as Americans: they are stereotyped, and have to begin many interactions by either apologising for or distancing themselves from horrible policies of their government. And Serbians are a bit tired of that. Didn’t they have a democratic revolution to throw out Milosevic? Didn’t the world support the Serbian opposition? Yes, it would be better if the new government were completely transparent, completely free of corruption, and totally cooperative with international standards of justice; but what is the international ‘community’ really demanding? Perfection? Was Serbia suddenly supposed to turn into a sociopolitical peer of Iceland or Norway? Diplomats and human rights organizations gave Serbia about three days of grace before punitive pressure began to be applied to turn over war criminals. The new government, meanwhile, has a lot of internal social and political tensions it needs to balance if it is to remain in power. Rather than be encouraged, Serbs are being threatened and disparaged by people like me who presume we know who is right and who is wrong, assigning collective punishment to whole populations for the actions of their violent political leadership. After demonstrating against the impending invasion of Iraq in the winter of 2002-2003, after being dismissed by George W. Bush as part of a ‘special interest group’, how should I feel about being held responsible for the disaster of Iraq?

Tijana would like to study and then work on regional planning for greater Belgrade. As in so many cities, regional planning there is desperately needed. Often, whole national economies depend on the successes and failures of regional planning of a dominant capital city. This may sound rather anticlimactic compared to the high drama of nationalist politics, but that is a problem: because political drama often distracts policymakers from the prosaic, long-term, bureaucratic processes that define development in the broadest sense.

Tijana and Larisa are very different people. But these two women have given me a glimse of the Balkans beyond war. How much more have I yet to learn from them? My sense is that for both of them, cosmopolitanism means more than ‘tolerance’ and ‘coexistence.’ The Afghan term adamiyat may be closer, with its rough English translation as ‘humanism.’ Right now, I think Americans see the ex-Yugoslav states through a lens that was shaped by how we retell the story of the Second World War, and it is a perspective that will not help the long-term future of Bosnia, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, and espeically Kosovo if it becomes independent. Westerners can afford to stand on high principle; meanwhile these longstanding neighbors will need to get along with each other for the indefinite future. It is the challenge of urban life writ large: civil life together, acknowledging profound difference and thriving with that difference.


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