Though in their hurried flight the shadows thus
Were running scattered o’er the Champaign wide
Towards the mount where justice searches us,
An excerpt from The Divine Comedy, Purgatory
I first became interested in concepts of good and evil during the Bosnian war. Travelling to the former-Yugoslavia in 1993, the first of more than a dozen trips to the region I served as a witness to genocide, as well as the brutal siege of Sarajevo. That first trip I concentrated research in Serbia and Croatia. Living in Belgrade, the Serbian capital, I endeavored to comprehend the culture and the effects of fear and nationalist propaganda on Serbian culture. The people I met there were wonderful, good, honest people, but were trapped in a loop of hate propaganda that created a siege mentality so pervasive that no amount of facts regarding Serbian atrocities in Bosnia, Croatia or Kosovo could persuade them from a sense that they were fighting for their lives. They became the nation and rationalized or dismissed anything they could not refute.
- Sarajevo in October 1994 at the height of the siege, photo by author
I reached Sarajevo, at last, in March of 1994, just weeks after a Serbian shell slammed into a market square killing 68. Propagandists and anti=Muslim bigots still maintain the Bosnians bombed their own people in hopes of further demonizing the besieging Serbs. After 10 years of research I can assure readers the Serbs were in fact responsible.
I can recall my Serbian guide reciting chapter and verse on how Muslims were stealing his language, women and culture. Truth was, religious identity in the Balkans was largely a matter of the quirks of a tumultuous history, and not any racial or specific physical difference. Indeed, especially in Tito’s post WWII Yugoslavia the differences between groups were more political and antagonistic in that view than social or cultural. Having spent time on all sides on the front lines it was impossible to tell Muslims from Serbs or Croats. With all the mixed marriages, even going by names was misleading. They all spoke the same common language, including ethnic Albanian Kosovars, worked for the same currency, enjoyed the same homegrown folk and Rock musicians, celebrated the same vibrant literature and served in the same military.
Each described the other side as evil. Each atrocity perpetrated by the other sides were described as evil. Each could rationalize their actions as defensive, or as justice for previous barbarities. Each believed that god was on their side, accepting that excuse from leaders who knew that the war was entirely over money and control of national assets.
Between trips in the spring of 1994 I co-founded the Rwandan Relief Program. The program, which ultimately dispatched 20 tons of food and medicine to refugees in, then, Zaire. In just a few short weeks nearly a million Tutsis were shot, hacked or clubbed to death by Hutu neighbors, relatives and friends. We’ll touch more on Rwanda later in the series, but I had been told that the various tribes, who once shared the same language history and culture, were physically very different. Tutsis, I was told were taller and lighter, while Hutus were shorter and darker. Looking at heaps of shattered bodies I could see no such differences. As Rwanda’s suffering unfolded before me I could hardly conceive of a more perfect definition of evil, and hell on earth.
Given, in these two circumstances, that differences appeared to have been manufactured, I could only conclude something else was responsible. That something else was at play here, directing or characterizing these horrible events. The answer to that question would lead me farther away from concepts of some etherial evil than nearer. That journey would lead me to places in my own heart I had never gone, leading to real insights into the roots of evil, and chances for eradicating, or at least, understanding it better.
It is, ultimately, the story of the human heart and our capacity for LOVE and HATE. It is the clearest explanation I have found to comprehend evil as a concept rather than a force. Understanding How evil is used, or how it is misunderstood and misused may well predict the course of human history, just as it has defined it across our long past…