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CTEWC in Sarajevo One Year After

“…despite the many books written about the war, and read and interpreted according to various ideological matrixes, both the country and the war against it remain, for the most part, misunderstood. Bosnia is the only European country that throughout its history has been entirely based upon a unity of religious differences, the very differences that are central to the peace and stability of the world of the coming millennium.”

Rusmir Mahmutćehajić in Learning from Bosnia: Approaching Tradition (2005)

 

In February 2018 my youngest brother lost his nine-year battle with leukemia. As one would expect, Jamie’s death caused my family tremendous pain and grief. For me, it also instigated a crisis of meaning and the questioning of my vocation. I found myself asking why bother doing the work of Christian ethics when we know we cannot alleviate the tremendous suffering and senseless deaths of so many people?

The CTEWC conference in Sarajevo was the blessing I needed to move forward in my work as a teacher and student of Catholic theological ethics. Being among so many sisters and brothers from around the globe who “labor in the vineyard” consoled me. Hearing about the incredible work CTEWC members are doing energized me. In a particularly powerful way, the presentations of the members of “Youth for Peace” in Bosnia and Herzegovina broke through my despair and rekindled my hope in humanity and in our world. Elma Bešlić’s reflections -about being a child of war lucky enough to survive, build friendships with people from different faith and ethnic backgrounds, and work towards peace—pierced the veil of grief that had enveloped me. She and her “Youth for Peace” colleagues renewed my belief that peace and human dignity are worth striving for, even if the near-term results do not fulfill our deepest longings for what we expect of the Heavenly Kingdom.

I have long been fascinated by Central and Eastern Europe. In the 1990s I spent three years in Poland, where the Solidarność movement and its nonviolent struggle against the Communist regime stirred my moral imagination. I tried to make sense of the movement’s demise and the suffering wrought by economic “shock therapy” in my book Recovering Solidarity: Lessons from Poland’s Unfinished Revolution (University of Notre Dame Press, 2010). The CTEWC conference afforded me my first trip to Bosnia and Herzegovina and has prompted me to learn more about this beautiful country: its rich history, recent tragic war and genocide, and resilient people engaged in peacebuilding. Bosnia’s unique history of interreligious cooperation and peaceful coexistence begs the question of how the horrors of April 1992-November 1995 could take place. I wonder too, what initiatives in transitional justice and peacebuilding have helped BiH move towards sustainable peace, and which have faltered?

I have spent most of my adult life trying to understand Poland, including learning the language. I am not an expert on Bosnia and Herzegovina. However, my brief time there last summer, which included trips to Mostar, Medjugorje, and Sutjeska National Park—and unforgettable encounters with wonderful and hospitable Bosnians—has encouraged me to learn more. I now read the Balkan Insight News Service and Radio Free Europe’s Balkans without Borders regularly.  I have revised my undergraduate theology course, previously devoted to solidarity and peacebuilding in Poland, to now include study of Bosnia and Herzegovina. We read and analyze texts on the causes of the war and genocide in BiH, peacebuilding in their aftermath, and the obstacles to sustainable peace. Generously, Elma Bešlić enhanced our discussion tremendously by videoconferencing with the class about her experiences in “Youth for Peace.” My students and I were amazed to learn about how “Youth for Peace” works towards mutual respect and understanding in ethnically segregated schools in BiH. In the course, we read sources that provided an “insider’s” view, such as musings from Mahmutćehajić’s Learning from Bosnia and Sarajevo Essays (2002), as well as Zilka Spahić Šiljak’s inspiring and enlightening book Shining Humanity: Life Stories of Women in Bosnia and Herzegovina (2014). Our course also included works from international scholars. For example, Michael Sell’s The Bridge Betrayed: Religion and Genocide in Bosnia (1998) enriched our understanding of “the complexity of the religious ideology of the violence” and the complicity of the international community. Sells cogently argues that while “some may have prevented genocide from attaining even greater proportions … the conditions for the genocide were made possible by particular Western policymakers.” Director Bill Carter’s documentary film Miss Sarajevo (1995) vividly brought home both the brutality of the siege of Sarajevo and the incredible determination of its inhabitants to live life each day. In short, we learned that there are hopeful signs of and heroic efforts towards sustainable peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina today. On the other hand, the “politics of identity and fear” threatens to derail these efforts, as Gordana Knezevic describes in “Bosnia in Crosshairs of Ethnic Nationalists and Their Allies.” Unfortunately, it is not uncommon to read views like that of Bosnian journalist Aleksandar Brezar, who recently opined in “Bosnia is close to the edge. We need Europe’s help” that “Bosnians are painfully aware that this multicultural, multi-ethnic project is under serious threat.”

I plan on furthering my understanding of the unique place that reawakened me after my brother’s passing—a place virtually ignored in the United States. My institution has granted funding for a graduate student and me to attend the Summer School on Interreligious Studies and Peacebuilding in Sarajevo in July 2020. Our CTEWC hosts from the Catholic Theological Faculty in Sarajevo have developed this extraordinary program with the Faculty of the Islamic Sciences of Sarajevo University and the Orthodox Theological faculty of Saint Basil of Ostrog in Foča, University of East Sarajevo (for more information and applications visit https://kbf.unsa.ba/ljetna-skola-summer-school/). I have also sought grant funding to hold a conference at Villanova, inspired, sadly, by the 25th anniversary of the genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia and Herzegovina to consider the methods, key actors, successes, and ongoing obstacles in the peacebuilding process since these tragedies. As associate editor of Horizons: The Journal of the College Theology Society, I have commissioned a roundtable on the responsibility of theologians and scholars of religion regarding genocide. CTEWC Colleagues from Bosnia and Herzegovina and Rwanda will contribute to it. In short, my teaching and research have taken a new trajectory since Sarajevo. I am indebted to the remarkable people I encountered in BiH, to our gracious hosts, and to the planners of the CTEWC Sarajevo conference for helping me to find purpose again. To all of them, I am most grateful!