Back when I still lived at home, my family hosted a Serbian exchange student. This wasn’t really your typical exchange student situation. He wasn’t really here to learn our language or our culture or any of the things students who normally participate in these programs come for.
He was here to escape the war.
He was maybe 15. OK, so maybe he was older. He could have been older. I hope he was older because he was escaping the draft and I would hope that even Serbia wouldn’t draft 15 year olds. But his family didn’t want him drafted. Partly for the same reasons any family doesn’t want to see their son drafted into a Civil War but also because there is no way he would survive. He lacked maturity. He lacked a certain sense. He was . . . maybe 15.
My friends and I took him to the mall once. That great center of American culture. And America, being for the underdog, was decidedly pro-Croatian. As was the mall. It almost led to a fight between him and one of those people who set up little shops in the walkway because he had a whole display of Croatian flags.
I remember him spitting right there on the floor of the mall and in his thick accent and broken English,
“Pigs. They are not human. They are pigs.”
Yeah, that’s a scene you want to be in the middle of at the mall. Between a hot headed Serbian kid and a kindly Croatian gentleman. In the US. Where everyone knew about the ethnic cleansing perpetrated by the Serbs in Bosnia. We all knew what kind of hate Serbians were capable of. And right next to me, traveling with me, being cautiously led away by me, was exhibit A.
We hadn’t actually talked to him about what was going on in Serbia before that moment. Chalk it up to a certain liberal sensitivity. Everyone “knew” what was going on in his homeland. His family wanted him out. We, I think, had assumed that like in any conflict, the individuals in the conflict do not necessarily agree with what is happening around them.
Then again, maybe they do. So we had a little talk. First. This is America. America is decidedly pro-Croatian. You might get away with calling a Serbian a pig, but you won’t get away with calling a Croatian a pig. Second. You just don’t talk about people like that. Period. They’re human. They’re involved in a horrible conflict. And you just don’t talk like that. His answer?
“Because you don’t know what they are.”
The statement was chilling. Maybe it was the accent. Maybe it was what had just transpired. But there was something in his voice that was more than just hate. And he gave me my first personal glimpse at the horrors of Civil War.
Because he was right. I didn’t know what “they” were. I knew “they” were being tortured. Raped. Murdered. It was, after all, genocide. The UN and United States Congress agreed. Genocide. Not just a conflict or a war or a break up of Yugoslavia, but genocide. The eradication of a people simply for being.
I only vaguely knew that Croatia had been guilty of the same crimes. Not just back in World War II, when they had actual concentration camps set up for their Serbs and Gypsies. In the early nineties, the Croatians were guilty of murder. Rape. Shelling civilian areas. They killed unarmed civilians. Children. Families hiding in basements. This is from Bojana Isakovic’s exhibition Genocide against the Serbs. Croatian forces killed 24 men and women with guns, knives and sledgehammers. Then burned their bodies. The other images were too graphic for me to share.
(Note: The image comes from a Marxist site. The exhibition was not banned as they state, and the atrocities were not fully unknown. It was complicated by the fact that there was an embargo, but the exhibition itself was not the subject of censorship.)
Now this exchange didn’t make me suddenly pro-Serbian. It gave me a very human face to a terrible and bloody Civil War. And it made me think. When the vanquished become the victors, they often turn on those who oppressed them, punishing them in kind. Seeking justice is rare. Seeking vengeance is not.
It seems to be part of human nature.
Fear and hate are the darkest of human emotions. And they aren’t overcome by laying out behavioral expectations, banning touchy conversations and simply telling someone that hate is not OK and that vengeance serves no purpose.
Because fear and hate cannot be overcome by reason. By love, grace, mercy . . . eventually. But not by reason.