Monday, December 24, 2007

The Most Important Lesson of the Year

The power of humanity to love and care is truly amazing. The following story about an incident from the brutal Bosnian war, is the most moving passage I have read in years. If you read one more thing this year, let it be the following story.

For Muslim readers I have the following message: Know your teachers- this illiterate Bosnian Muslim might teach you more than a 100 years of contemplation.

A happy new year.

Five months after Zoran’s disappearance, his wife gave birth to a girl. The mother was unable to nurse the child. The city was being shelled continuously. There were severe food shortages. Infants, like infirm and the elderly, were dying in droves. The family gave the baby tea for five days, but she began to fade.

“She was dying,” Rosa Sorak said. “It was breaking our hearts.”

Fejzic, meanwhile, was keeping his cow in a field on the eastern edge of Gorazde, milking it at night to avoid being hit by Serbian snipers.

“On the fifth day, just before dawn, we heard someone at the door,” said Rosa Sorak. “It was Fadil Fejzic in his black rubber boots. He handed up half a liter of milk. He came the next morning, and the morning after that, and after that. Other families on the street began to insult him. They told him to give his milk to Muslims, to let the Chetnik children die. He never said a word. He refused our money. He came for 442 days, until my daughter-in-law and granddaughter left Gorazde for Serbia.”

The Soraks eventually left and took over a house that once belonged to a Muslim family in the Serbian-held town of Kopaci, two miles to the east. They could no longer communicate with Fejzic.

The couple said they grieved daily for their sons. They missed their home. They said they could never forgive those who took Zoran from them. But they also said that despite their anger and loss, they could not listen to other Serbs talking about Muslim, or even recite their own sufferings, without telling of Fejzic and his cow. Here was the power of love. What this illiterate farmer did would color the life of another human being, who might never meet him, long after he was gone. In his act lay an ocean of hope.

“It is our duty to always tell this story,” Drago Sorak said. “Salt, in those days, cost $80 a kilo. The milk he had was precious, all the more because it was hard to keep animals. He gave us 221 liters. And every year at this time, when it is cold and dark, when we close our eyes, we can hear the boom of the heavy guns and the sound of Fadil Fejzic’s footsteps on the stairs.”

Fejzic fell on hard times after the war. I found him selling small piles of worm-eaten apples picked from abandoned orchards outside the shattered remains of an apartment block. His apartment block had been destroyed by artillery shells, leaving him to share the floor of an unheated room with several other men. His great brown-and-white milk cow, the one Soraks told me about, did not survive the war. It was slaughtered for the meat more than a year before as the Serbian forces tightened the siege. He had only a thin, worn coat to protect him from the winter cold. When we spoke he sat huddled in the corner of a dank, concrete-walled room rubbing his pathetic collection of small apples, many with brown holes in them, against his sleeve.

When I told him I had seen the Soraks, his eyes brightened.

“And the baby?” he said. “How is she?”

The small acts of decency by people such as Slavica, a Serb, or Fejzic, a Muslim, in wartime ripple outwards like concentric circles. These acts, unrecognized at the time, make it impossible to condemn, legally or morally, an entire people. They serve as reminders that we all have a will of our own, a will that is independent of the state or the nationalist cause. Most important, once the war is over, these people make it hard to brand an entire nation or an entire people as guilty.

“I do not undertand,” wrote Primo Levi. “I cannot tolerate the fact that a man should be judged not what he is but because of the group to which he happens to belong.”

Source: War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, Chris Hedges, p. 51-3

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