I entered Zagreb Cathedral and noticed a series of posters bearing the picture of Pope John Paul II. The Pope’s image has always been a particularly powerful one in Croatia because of a single fact: despite Croatia’s being next door to Italy and the Vatican and despite its forming the common border of Western and Eastern Christianity whose reconciliation the Pope has long sought, this Pope, who had traveled to the farthest reaches of Africa and Asia, had through his first dozen years as pontiff still not come to Croatia. This was mainly due to the legacy of Cardinal Stepinac… -Robert Kaplan, in Balkan Ghosts
I’m not a Buddhist, but I want to tell the story of the Buddha before relating it to my time in Croatia.
Once there was a young man named Siddhartha. His father didn’t want him to see any of the suffering of the world, so he kept his son safe in his palace with all of the comforts of the world, forbidding him to go outside. One day, Siddhartha disobeyed, leaving with a friend. The first thing he saw was a sick man.
“What’s that?” he asked his friend. “People get sick, Siddhartha”. The next thing he saw was an old woman hunched over her wobbling crane. “And what’s that?” Siddhartha asked. “Everyone gets old” said his friend. Lastly, Siddhartha looked upon a dead man surrounded by his wailing family. “And that?” asked the young prince, clearly agitated. “Didn’t you know” said his friend, “we shall die, too”.
Torn from the ignorant bliss, Siddhartha was plunged into the truth of human suffering: we get sick, grow old, and die. Rather than return to the palace, rather than despair, and rather than become cynical, Siddhartha developed compassion. The experience transformed him into the Buddha.
After leaving Austria, after the family reunion and the yodeling, I went to Dubrovnik with my sister Kristy. Dubrovnik is a city on the Adriatic coast, in present day Croatia. Traditionally, it’s the eastern rampart of the Catholic Church. Nowadays, many Germans and Austrians make holiday there. It’s like the Florida of Europe, without the assholes and sandy beaches. A Serbian acquaintance of mine from Chicago, lets call him Lazar, recommended we go to a small island named Mljet off the coast of Dubrovnik. Mljet is 30km long, has two salt water lakes and is a national park.
You can only get to Mljet by ferry (or unless, obviously, you have a boat of your own) and the ferry only goes once a day, at about 09:00. Another ferry goes back to Dubrovnik at 4:00. Our first day there in Mljet we walked around looking for a place to stay but couldn’t find anything. In this part of Croatia you don’t stay at hotels or even hostels but at people’s apartments that are converted into a kind of B&B- each participating building has a blue sign in front of it that says ‘sobe’ (rooms). Room after room was full. We panicked, thinking we’d have to take the ferry back to Dubrovnik and not get to spend the night in Mljet. A nice girl told us to be persistent; if we couldn’t find one she’d call someone. That gave us courage and I went up to house after house (there’s only about 30 houses, I might add) and soon we found a room for the both of us for about 30 euros. The proprietor offered to shove the beds together but we told them we were brother and sister.
All the time there the locals kept asking us how we, Americans, heard about Mljet (I guess it’s not that common). I kept telling them my Croatian friend from Chicago recommended me. Again, Lazar’s Serbian. This honest mistake proved to be fortuitous.
Mljet was breathtaking. My sister called it the place everywhere else in the world wants to be. The hills smelled like cedar, pine trees of Colorado. The sound of cicadas was a constant. The water was clear, dark tortoise. The lakes were so salty I, who usually can’t float on my back, could do so for as long as I wanted, marveling at the power of a chest full of air. People skinny-dipped. People brought their little children for a vacation, perhaps the last before their parents were too old. People ate freshly-caught fish and felt at-one with the world. I said to myself: If I had a terminal illness, I’d like to come and die here.
Only 22 years ago, all was different. Yugoslavia, a country that existed from the end of WWI to the collapse of Communism, fell apart into six separate countries (Bosnia & Herzegovina, Croatia, Serbia, Macedonia, Slovenia, Montenegro). In 1991, Serbia went to war with Croatia. As Serbian paramilitaries marched to the Adriatic, atrocities were committed, massacres. Dubrovnik was bombed but held out. Mljet, the beautiful island we rested in, was occupied. The Croatians fought back, extending the border back east. Atrocities were re-payed with atrocities. Two years later, war broke out in Bosnia. “War”. Genocide occurred. First the Serbs against the Croats and Muslims living there, then the Serbs and Croats versus the Muslims living there. Genocide in the nineteen-fucking-nineties. Went on till Clinton intervened. Don’t lose sight and think ISIS embodies a Muslim disregard for life. The tail end of the 20th century saw ethnic cleansing committed against Muslims by Christians.
I sent “Adela”, my doorperson, a postcard from Croatia. She’s a Muslim Bosnian. Fled Bosnia in the nineties with her family. Like many Yugoslavians, to Chicago. When I got back to the States, she’s so grateful about the card. I asked if it was offensive, I knew the Muslims had problems with the Croats. “No” she says. “Our problems were with the Serbs”. We start talking. She alludes to atrocities, things she’s witnessed but has never told anybody (at least not her kids). “How can’t you tell your kids?” I asked. “How can I tell my kids?” she says rhetorically. “What would be the point in telling them what I saw?”. I push her harder, I say that it’s healing to share your burdens, that maybe one day her kids will want to know what she had to go through.
(She wishes to keep them in the palace)
“How can I tell my kids?”, she says again, “how can I tell my kids that I saw men take a pregnant woman and cut open her stomach like this (she makes a quick stabbing gesture followed by a slice) and then throw the baby up in the air and catch it on the knife before it hits the ground in front of her?” I’m silent. “How can I tell my kids that I see a man cut off all the fingers of a three year old child and wear them around his neck like a necklace”- She’s continuing faster now, as if she’s not even aware of my presence- “how can I tell my kids that I see a man tied to a burning log left to die like that, or that another man has an ax slammed into his asshole and is screaming to be killed but they don’t let him”. I’m shaking my head. “How can I tell my kids? Benny, if I told you everything I saw it would be a book this thick (she holds up her thumb and finger, inches apart).”
(I don’t blame her)
After traveling to Croatia, and having such a beautiful time, and after listening to Adela, hearing about the lived experience of people there in recent years, I decided I needed to learn more. I’ve been reading a book called Balkan Ghosts, by Robert Kaplan, which is a combination of history and travel writing, focused on the Balkan Peninsula, to which Croatia is a part. The violence Adela shared is the tip of the proverbial iceberg. The number of horrific things that have happened in the past century, the number of times I had to put down the book and attempt to contemplate the amount of agony a single human can undergo, the number of battles going on today due to wars and empires from hundreds, if not thousands of years ago.
Did you know the Catholic Church supported- and in some cases participated in- the slaughter of Jews and Eastern Orthodox Serbians in Croatia? Did you know a Serbian, Gavrilo Princip, launched WWI with the assassination of the Archduke Francis Ferdinand? Did you know the Bulgarian government (putatively) funded the attempt on Pope John Paul II’s life? The Balkans, a forgotten place, keeps popping into history, often covered in blood. Lazar had uncles who were in Mljet during the war, doing things he refused to share… that’s why I’m glad I said he was Croatian.
The worst thing, Adela said, the worst thing was that the people committing these atrocities in front of her eyes weren’t soldiers, weren’t foreigners from Russia or some far off land. They were her neighbors. She knew them and they knew her for years. They babysat each others children and borrowed flour, before the war. “This is what happens, Benny, with war”. Society breaks down, the rules are suspended, and people become not people. The “e” in humane is lost and all you have is human, all-too human.