I still recall this moment vividly, a refugee family from Bosnia begging for change at the austere and poorly lit bus depot in Zagreb, Croatia. The father clearly affected and deeply ashamed was forced to survive by having his two young sons move from person to person, begging a bit of food or a little change. I was already well acquainted with a minority of Europe’s Roma, and others who had settled into a culture of begging at the margins of society. This family was not a part of that culture.. At the time the Bosnian Town of Bihac was under siege by Serb forces some 30 miles to the south. From the upper floors of the Panorama Hotel in central Bosnia it was sometimes possible to see artillery flashes on clear nights.
I recall the round, dirt-streaked faces of both boys, already heavily layered in comically over-sized clothing against the encroaching autumn chill. The youngest boy was very near tears, his mittened hand sort of pinching the older boy’s brown coat. His expression, his eyes reflected the shame of his father. It was the older boy’s expression that haunted me, and haunts me to this day, and became for me the ultimate lesson on the legacies of warfare.
A man’s knit cap threatened to slip over the boy’s eyes, which for a moment, and at first were lost to the darkness of the cap and the depot. Finding them finally, what I found chilled my blood. there was not rage, or hate or vengeance in those young eyes. Far more dangerous was that what tolerance and reason had been dissolved by war and violence and deprivation into a reactionary paradigm that had grown to become far more potent than any reason or understanding. It was a sense that when challenged or assaulted or endangered he would react in kind, or worse yet might hold a penchant for striking out merely at the insinuation of danger.
Truthfully, it is far too simple to believe that the boy’s fate was an absolute based upon my palpably shocking impression. Life is not an absolute for any of us, but in a world defined by war at so young an age it becomes all too often a near absolute.
During one particularly bad shelling against our civilian neighborhood, in which there were absolutely no military targets, my then infant brother-in-law shook so terribly at each ear shattering explosion. It was impossible not to imagine how it may have resonated in his life. He does not recall the incident. He wasn’t yet a year old, but does the war and fear, the rampant emotions around him and starvation reside in hiding somewhere within him?
Yesterday I saw the images of a young boy, bloodied as his mother died in his arms and before the cameras. He will not have the luxury of forgetting, and what will that lead to in his life? Will he turn from such hate, or find purpose for hate? What becomes of that child. How does his experience, his reaction, his heart resonate in the world? In your world? In the world your children must share with him.
Wars never end. only their tragedy is transformed. the acute trauma is quieted by time, the hurt never abates. The hate of war likewise never is extinguished, but remains as embers, which may ignite once more. This is the legacy of war, and do we never learn that lesson? Is the image of this child and his mother not enough, or are we doomed to see these images repeated for eternity. And if that is the case, desires for freedom and freewill are a lie, for as long as any of us are slaves to the ignorance and waste of war, none of us will ever be free.