Reflections On My Trip to Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina

27 September 2017, 4:02 PM

The Right Rev. William E. Swing, URI President and Founding Trustee, shares personal reflections from his trip to Sarajevo for the URI Global Leadership Conference.

September 4 to September 15, 2017

This trip had two phases.  First, Mary and I, along with Biff and Connie Barnard, went to Dubrovnik.  Second, I attended the Global Council meeting in Sarajevo.

Bosnia-Herzegovina, Religion and the Bosnian War

The key issue for me to ponder, while there, was trying to come to grips with the 1992-1995 war in this area. Conversations with local folks offered many and conflicting interpretations. In a place recently famous for its friendly accommodation of Muslims, Catholics and Orthodox, how did it all unravel so that atrocities and crimes against humanity were perpetrated seemingly along religious lines?  Yes, all three sides could point to moments in past history where one side or another had suffered greatly at the hands of the other. But in recent history, they had become a model of cooperation. Sarajevo even hosted the Winter Olympics just prior to the war. The world marveled that in this traditionally feuding Balkan region, religions had, at last, discovered interfaith harmony and had overcome ancient hurts.

I felt that somehow there was a significant URI lesson to be learned if I could drill down to the point of revelation.  What went wrong?  Is interfaith conflict and bloodletting inevitable? What lessons have the Bosnians learned? Is the whole point of URI only an ethereal interlude before the perpetual and pent up disgust and violent feelings that inevitably spill over into inhuman horror? Is the big picture so layered with subterranean elements of ethnicity, religion, culture, and tribal loyalties, that clarity can never be achieved?

Here is a chronology of a few relevant words that I heard on this subject:

The man who picked up Mary and me at the airport upon arrival was Vjekoslav Saje, a Roman Catholic.  On the trip into town he told us that he was just starting his career when the war broke out.  Then his job in the Bosnian army was to dig deep ditches around Sarajevo so that the Yugoslav/Serbian tanks couldn’t get into town.  One day while he and his colleague were digging in a ditch, a sniper with a machine gun opened fire.  His colleague’s body was filled full of holes, but he didn’t have a scratch. It turns out that he married a Muslim lady, and later on, when he heard that the URI Charter was going to be signed in Pittsburgh in 2000, he attended and signed. He has been involved with serious interfaith work ever since. He is probably what is called a “Bosniak,” a person who gracefully accommodates neighbors of other religions.

One day we all went to a Roman Catholic church, an Orthodox church, and a Muslim mosque.  In each place, the message was the same.  “The war was not a war of three religions. Actually we all get along well together.  Even in the midst of the war, the leaders of all three religions met regularly together and in the midst of the worst times, citizens of all three religions often maintained their relationships.”

We also visited a lovely Jewish synagogue, and certainly Sarajevo is a four religion city with an historic Jewish presence. Unfortunately, I could not understand the lecture that was given, but the little that I did pick up seemed to suggest that the number of Jewish families is now greatly diminished due to Nazi Germany rounding up the Jewish population and sending them to concentration camps in the 1940s.  I have been corresponding with a leader of that congregation, Jakob Finci, but he was out of town this week. My impression is that the Jewish community in Sarajevo today is a welcomed and respected part of the community and has no warring past as the other three religions do. During times of persecution of the Jews, their Muslim, Catholic and Orthodox neighbors hid their Haggadah (order of the Passover meal) lest it be destroyed.

To refer to someone as a Croatian, usually means that the person is a Roman Catholic citizen of Sarajevo. A Greek Orthodox is labeled as a Serb citizen of Sarajevo. A Muslim is labeled as a Bosnian citizen of Sarajevo. Therefore, referring to a nationality is their way of defining one’s religion, and in my opinion, a way of whitewashing the role of religions in the war.  So when a war broke out, we were told it was not a religious war among Muslim, Catholics and Orthodox; it was a cultural war between Bosnians, Croats and Serbs of Sarajevo.

That sounded fishy to me, so after I heard it for the third time, I was at the mosque, and stayed behind after the tour to chat with the Muslim leader.  He admitted that, yes, there was definitely a serious religious dimension to the war, and it was entwined with national, cultural and tribal loyalties.  All of the religious leaders whom I met seemed to be of a mild and tolerant disposition, and all spoke of their interfaith involvement presently.    

While on a bus trip to Mostar, we passed through a town that was half Muslim (Serb) and half Catholic (Croatian).  We were told that their families go to great lengths to make sure that the children of each side never meet.  Although they go to the same school building, they go at different times.  Lunch and playground times are completely segregated. The parents teach their children to hate the children of the other religion/nationality. The same held true in Mostar where the people of one faith live on one side of the famous Mostar Bridge, and the people of the other faith live on the other side of the bridge.

My guess is that tolerance reigns at the highest religious leader level and in Sarajevo.  But at the level of the grassroots believers of all faiths in the rest of the country outside of Sarajevo, a cauldron of religious hatred is seething just below the surface waiting for a new occasion to be unleashed in war. Perhaps, politicians are not just coopting religion in order to carry out dastardly deeds.  Perhaps, religion, at the local, brutal and communal level is using politicians to carry out holy hatred.  Or perhaps both phenomenon happen at the same time. Lofty religious ideals at the top might not be the prevailing aspirations of the grassroots faithful of a religion.  And just maybe, it is the manipulation of the grassroots that keep the religious leaders in positions of authority? (Think about the Russian Orthodox Church and Putin today!) What more powerful weapons do religious leaders possess than demonization of others and the preached eternal superiority of themselves? Such potential religious power might be of great benefit to a politician who wants to mobilize support from an angry mob. In my venture into this dimension, I see the world and religious leaders ready to absolve religions of irresponsibility even before an indictment is raised. I can’t help but think that Bosnia-Herzegovina is a laboratory of religiously motivated violence.  If URI can make it here, it can make it anywhere.

How does URI counter the indoctrination of hatred?  Our Youth for Peace Initiative, in the past three years, has put on, for children of differing faiths, 15 interfaith camps, 30 summer schools and numerous peace building programs.  I don’t know how to measure the impact of this, but if we weren’t there, hatred would go unchallenged among school-aged children.

The next important conversation I had was with an engaging Serbian Orthodox priest. After a rich conversation that covered his years in California and how the young evangelical surfers of the Jesus Movement had joined the Orthodox Church rather the Episcopal Church or the Roman Catholic, I asked him two questions.  In advance of the first, I said that I would understand if he slugged me.  “Do you think that the Serbians were the bad guys in the war?” He denied that emphatically and said that the Serbs suffered just like everyone else during the war.  He said that his family was close to starvation, just like the Bosniaks, and subsisted on international aid throughout the war. He went on to say that everyone was to blame for what happened, atrocities from all sides happened.

(One local Serbian resident said to me, “All sides have blood on their hands because of what happened, but we Serbs have the most blood on our hands.”)

My second question was: “Who started the war?” A little background! Up to that point, I had heard that the Serbians started the war because, in the dissolution of Yugoslavia, the Serbs saw the opportunity of radically expanding Serbian Orthodox presence in Bosnia, so they were out to conquer as much of Bosnia as they could. I had been told that the non-Orthodox in Serbia, itself, were well treated during the war and that the Bosnian Serbs only mistreated the non-Serbs who stood in their way in Bosnia. So to my question, the good priest said, “What Serbia did, it did out of fear.” With Yugoslavia falling apart, with Slovenia becoming independent, with Croatia becoming independent, Serbs were afraid that Bosnia  would become independent and persecute the Serbs in their midst as they had done in times past.

The final and most poignant story that I heard was of a Serbian young lady who lived in a Serbian region of Bosnia-Herzegovina, about six hour drive North from Sarajevo. Her name is Milica Lugumgrski. After the war, her people were afraid to come to Sarajevo for fear of reprisals for what happened during the war. The sense of estrangement was total, while her town harbored the guilt, fear and loathing that go with it.

Then one day, someone invited her to attend a Regional Youth Meeting of URI Europe in 20??_, which she did.  And right after that time, she was invited to journey to Sarajevo to live and to work with URI’s Youth for Peace Initiative. This was the challenge! Dare she go where she figured that she would be hated, maybe harmed? Summoning her courage, she found a place to live in Sarajevo and went to work. Actually she was surprised to discover that she was well received by the Bosniaks. This kind of open tolerance in Sarajevo is a continuing theme.

What came to my mind upon hearing about Milica’s story is how critically important it is that someone gets out of her/his ghetto with all of its silent, persuasive biases and walk across the street to meet neighbors who might well be natural enemies. You have got to walk across the street.  That is what interfaith is all about.   Very simple. Any drugged up coward can stay home and fire a bullet across the street.  But it takes a certain kind of courage to walk across the street.  Interfaith is not a couple of kindly, like-minded religionists chatting. Instead, it is risking your life on the hunch that, at the deepest level, human beings yearn to be good neighbors. In a world replete with heinously armed and angry militants, being bold enough to walk across the street is the hope of the world.   

The last big impression on me was when I toured a war museum and saw the pictures from the terrible time. To see a film of a man running across the street dodging sniper fire, to see the emaciated prisoners, to see the slaughtered children who were trying to flee to Germany, stunned me. The tiny, dirty museum was awkwardly assembled. But it told a gripping story. Behind my feeble wonderment about interfaith implications was the stark reality of savage inhumanity.

The Swings and Barnards on Vacation

Now back to the trip:  Mary, Connie, Biff and I arrived in Sarajevo and stayed at the Saraj Hotel, and the next morning, Biff and I walked into town to pick up a rental car.  The “10 minute” walk turned into an hour and a half marathon. By sheer luck, Biff spotted a tiny Hertz sign in a window, and that led to us wedging into a little Opel and heading for the open road.

A wrong turn out of Mostar proved to be a blessing although it took us way north of our target.  Happily we got to drive along the Croatian coast which is a beauty. Finding our Airbnb was an adventure especially as Biff drove up our street the wrong way on a one way street. Finally our gorgeous landlady arrived, and we found ourselves in the most wonderful apartment imaginable, a overlooking the sea.

The highlights of our three days included a tour of Dubrovnik, fabulous meals at nearby restaurants, swimming in the Adriatic for Connie and Biff, cocktails on the deck, and an unexpected trip to spectacular Kotor Bay in Montenegro.

On a new route back to Sarajevo, we wound around breathtaking mountains in a national park and had a funny lunch in an almost deserted restaurant where English was not spoken. Eventually, we were back in the Saraj Hotel in our former room and soon greeting URI friends from around the world. Connie and Mary stayed until Monday morning and headed back to San Francisco. At age 80 and with sometimes wobbly steps, Mary proved to be strikingly resilient.

The Global Council/Global Staff Meeting

In all that followed during the week, several themes became etched in my mind; 

  1. how important were the conversations that happened in the off moments where we had an opportunity to learn so much from and about individuals; 
  2.  how the youth element in URI has grown. Most of the new Regional Coordinators are really young, and most of the people in URI are young.  Youth Are I, instead of URI. This is such a good thing especially when other international interfaith organizations are in serious trouble because they cater to an older crowd, because they can’t raise enough money and because their organizational model was not established with the 21st century in mind.
  3. it becomes clearer and clearer that new networks have to be formed, like the Environmental Network, where people with similar focuses, from around the world, can create their own network within URI’s broader network; 
  4. this Global/Staff gathering is the time to build a sense of community, have fun together, scout out new directions and tighten coordination.  5) money, fund raising is always the key ingredient to survival, and we are almost ready to take it seriously as a Global Council and Staff.  It remains to be seen if there will be sustained and improved interest in fund raising. But URI’s life depends on it. 

Sunday, September 10, 2017: Three memorable moments for me. 

  1. Having an Appreciative Interview with Wayglen, a very young daughter of a Global Council member from Patagonia.  They are from the Matucha Community on the border of Argentina and Chile, and they wear very distinct native clothes. I learned a lot about the significance of the apparel as well as how the Chilean government is planting eucalyptus trees that are taking the water they the Matucha people depend on. 
  2. We divided into teams and had a long, long scavenger hunt around Sarajevo getting us thoroughly oriented.
  3. We had dinner at the famous brewery that has a stream of water under it.  During the war, when the city ran out of water, the brewery’s fresh water saved the day.

Monday, September 11, 2017: Not much to report.  We worked on the Strategic Plan and had dinner at a restaurant with a panoramic view of the city.

Tuesday, September 12, 2107: Now this was a memorable (and exhausting) day.  On the bus at 7:00 a.m. and off the bus at 11:00 p.m. First, we went to the church service in Medjugorje, the place where the Blessed Virgin Mary and Child appeared to five teenagers.  I must say that the atmosphere of adoration was moving to me.  But the messages that the Virgin continues to send to the five now-adults, seem like a mixture of devotional material with a large dose of Roman Catholic Catechism. Then we went to a Serbian Orthodox Church and listened to a striking priest who looked and sounded like he came out of the first century. Then onward to a restaurant next to a spectacular river flowing rapidly out of a mountain.  Fascinating lunch with a young man from Caritas in Rome and with the Bosnian head of the Jewish/Muslim Conference. Then back to Mostar and hanging around until dinner at a local hotel.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017: With everyone exhausted, lots of people became sick, mostly with a G. I, tract thing.  Actually, I was running a temperature and feeling a little weird, so I took a nap in the afternoon and slept for 11 and a half hours that night.  Snapped right back.  And wrote three resolutions honoring Bill Bowes, John Weiser and George Marcus. Sorry to miss the unveiling of the new URI website and the program put on by the truly outstanding URI Youth for Peace group of Sarajevo. I did make the Compassion for Animals Dinner which wasn’t bad.

Thursday, September 14, 2017: In the morning, we had an official Global Council Meeting. In the afternoon, I had a delicious lunch at an authentic Bosnian restaurant with Bob Coleman and Biff Barnard. Then in the evening, there was a big, dress-up public event at the great old Europa Hotel, complete with politicians and religious folks.  Upon entering the hotel, I was informed that I was supposed to speak twice, once on a small panel and once at a large gathering.  And I did a TV interview. Lovely reception/dinner at the hotel.

Friday, September 15, 2017: Truly an outstanding day! In the morning devotions, Chief Phil Lane blessed the young (under 36) in a Native American ritual, and it proved to be very moving for many.  Then we broke into interest groups and actually got to work.  I went to the funding one and thought it was a good start. The evening was riotous with dinner on the top floor of our hotel and a captivating view of the bridges of Sarajevo.

Saturday, September 16, 2017: Biff and I flew to Istanbul and San Francisco….the entire trip took 14 hours in the air.  Since I had to give a speech in San Francisco on the next evening, I was wondering about stamina.  But no need. Jet lag wasn’t bad.

Cooperation Circles Involved