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Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People

People on the Move - N° 90,  December 2002, p. 169-174

Those who seek revenge

should dig two graves

(Chinese proverb)

Rev. Fr. Frans THOOLEN, S.M.A.,

Official of the Pontifical Council for the

Pastoral care of Migrants and Itinerant People

With the introduction in 1974 of a new constitution in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Kosovo gained autonomous status within the Republic of Serbia. Kosovo had a kind of "in-between" status. It enjoyed extensive home rule and had a seat in the collective presidency, the state's highest authority. Slobodan Milosevic's rise to power in Serbia saw the first moves, in 1989, to do away with Kosovo's autonomy. In the following years a large number of institutions in Kosovo were brought under the Serbian government. The police were responsible for numerous serious abuses, including extrajudicial killings, disappearances, torture, brutal beatings, and arbitrary arrest and detention. This ended in a civil war with the involvement of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). In March 1999, they began bombing the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Serbian police and Yugoslav Army forces and paramilitaries continued brutal attacks and atrocities on civilians.

Kosovo, June 2001. Military vehicles are all over the place. They drive around, soldiers on top, behind heavy machine guns. Vehicles and soldiers are covered up. Many different nationalities. Germans, Americans, Ukrainians, Finns. It looks as if the whole world is here.

At some places barbed wire, walls of double sandbags, military personnel in combat-gear, armoured vehicles. It shows the presence of a checkpoint or ... an orthodox church or cemetery. The soldiers have to protect these places against the Albanian Muslim. If they were not there, the Albanians would destroy the buildings and desecrate the cemeteries. In Kosovo even the dead are no longer safe! The feelings of revenge are very high against the Serbian Orthodox inhabitants and their culture. Too much has happened. More than eight hundred thousands Albanians were forced to flee their country. People were brutally murdered.  Women and girls raped. Thirteen thousand persons lost their lives. Whole villages burned down. Almost one hundred thousand houses were destroyed. That’s why these protective measures of sandbags, barbed wire and military are in existence.

Such is also the scene at the entrance to the Orthodox seminary. The whole complex is heavily guarded and protected. Though our visit had been announced, Archbishop Hamao and I were meticulously screened. Our passports are taken in. After ten - fifteen minutes we are allowed to enter. Somebody guides us to a common room. There we meet 20 people, the last ones of a group of 300 who took refuge in the complex. The others had returned to Serbia or Montenegro.  Most of them are elderly and disabled. The oldest woman is more than one hundred years old.  The youngest is a boy of twelve years old. They have been inside this building for  two years already. They do not dare go out into the streets. They tell their stories. Each one has his or her own history.

Some tried to return to their homes. Certain neighbours told them that they were most welcome. However, others stated that if they stayed, they would kill them. So they returned to the seminary.

They ask us what should they do? What would be their future?  Should they also jump from the third floor as one woman did in 2000? They explain their situation, they tell their stories, they cry. People of seventy years. 

The youngest man is sixty years. He stayed all the time here. He does all kind of small activities but never got any recognition for his activities. He does not dare to return to his village. He himself did not do anything wrong against the Albanians. But his sons have been in the Serbian army. “Why do they not bring the people who did criminal acts before the courts? Then at least I could go home.”

Archbishop Hamao visited some sick people who are confined to bed. People who could hardly walk or were paralysed. For me it was not clear what danger these people could be to the Islamic population. An Albanian women, 102 years old had her face covered with cancerous tumours, an open wound full of blood, her eye terribly mutilated, Her sons worked for the secret police. People would take revenge on her.

The rooms present a cheerless prospect. Shabby and badly in need of repair. Cockroaches are scampering over the cupboard.

The Orthodox church has a presence here. A young Orthodox priest remains with the people. Two weeks stay, then somebody else will come. A rotation system. He cannot go to town. This would be too dangerous.

We leave the seminary and see the small courtyard where tomatoes are grown. Happily the boy of twelve years showed us some young chickens. He also has stayed two years here. What must this mean for him? During our visit, many asked for help, for assistance. We do not have an answer. We can only be silent. Our hands are empty.

We leave, our passport are returned by German soldiers at the checkpoint and we enter the street. A blue sky. Splendid summer weather. Twenty metres from the entrance of the seminary there is an outdoor café. People are seated, and drink tea or coffee. Children play around. It seems normal, daily life. But the armed vehicles on the bridge, the barbed wire, the wall of sandbags and the presence of the soldiers indicate something different. This whole nation and its inhabitants are wounded. What should be done in order that the different ethnic groups can start living again?

Another experience originates from the neighbouring country, Macedonia, during the same time. The situation had become tense. Macedonia was at the brink of a civil war. The Albanian rebels occupied certain areas of the country, and daily fights were ongoing.

It is important to stress the fact that the conflict in Macedonia is not a religious conflict. It is a political one. On 13 of June 2002 the leaders of the Macedonian Orthodox Church, the Islamic Union of Macedonia, the Catholic Church, the United Methodist Church and the Jewish Community in Macedonia stated that the recent violence and conflicts were not based on religion or religious differences. Faith in God cannot support violence. The churches and religious communities are not involved in the conflict. They strongly reject any effort to allow themselves to be involved and to be manipulated, as well as any misuse of religious symbols and language for the purpose of violence.

Indeed, the conflict is politically based. The social-economic situation in general is one important element in the tension. Moreover the ethnic Albanian population wants to be recognized as a specific ethnic group, with wide powers for the local communities so that ethnic Albanian communities can make decisions about their own situation,. They also want to have Albanian recognized as the second official language.

One morning Archbishop Hamao and I, accompanied by somebody from Caritas Macedonia, went to a village, thirty kilometres east of Skopje. During this journey we were several times checked by the military. Driving along we saw villages which had been already occupied for many days by the rebels, just a few kilometres from the road, in the hilly surrounding area. Police and the army had closed off the whole area. We were allowed to leave the motorway and continued on unpaved roads, through fields with abundant crops. Normal country side. After some kilometres we entered a village. Almost immediately we notice a slim line tower, the minaret of the mosque. At the other side of the road, the dome of an Orthodox church. Though we are just a few kilometres from the fighting zone, the atmosphere is quiet and peaceful. The inhabitants remain in the village. The different groups of Macedonian society are living here. Somebody was looking forward to us and invited us to go along to his house. Chairs were standing outside the house, in the shadow of a tree. They offered us tea. As soon as our glasses were empty, we received more. They also served goat’s cheese. Sometimes the deafening noise of a helicopter, flying low over the village, interrupts our conversation

Romanavce counts 550 families. Half of them are Macedonian Orthodox, the other half are Albanian Muslims. All together 4000 inhabitants. The father of our guide explains the situation. He is 78 years old, wears a checkered blue shirt, a stubbled grey beard of some days. His head covered with a crocheted white cap. His family is muslim. His son, as many people from the village, lives as a migrant worker abroad. The father tells us that all people descend from one father, though they have developed different religions. He explains the history of the village. Oral history tells that long ago the Albanian part of the village protected the Macedonian part against the Turks. Everybody was informed to hide the headgears. So the Turks could not distinguish between the different sections of the community and nobody was harmed. During the Second World, which also led to a bloody civil war in the country, both fighting groups had agreed not to fight in the village.

Also at this moment it is still calm in the village. The inhabitants want to keep it that way. In order to keep the existing good relations, they formed a common council. Seven representatives are Orthodox Serbs and seven are Albanian Muslim. Each second day they sit down, discuss and decide what has to be done in order to promote peace in the village. To discuss ways and means to lessen possible tensions which arise. At present one in ten inhabitants is a refugee. 400 refugees have been taken in. They stay with guest families. These refugees are from both sides and have experienced terrible events. This has increased the possibility of tensions. That’s why the council has to be more alert.

“Our opinion is that ordinary people do not want war. If war would be profitable, we, farmers would all grow it in their fields and harvest it. However, conflicts lead to nothing. For hundreds of years we lived together without real problems. The political parties are behind the armed combats. They use it for their own means. A great Albania or a great Serbia. Ordinary people have other interests and other problems: my home, to have regular income, a job. However, human beings are manipulated by politicians”. But in this village still ordinary horse sense prevails.

How to deal with the situation?

The question can be raised whether reconciliation is possible between the violators and the victims? History teaches that this can take many years. The generation who experienced such trauma often transmits its emotions to the next generation. The events has caused too many deep wounds. It evokes disgust. People are deeply shaken.

People who fought one another, who caused nightmares to one another, have to live together. They were neighbours or people living in the same region. That can hardly be changed. There should be a way out to live as citizens in one country.

It requires a careful approach. Expectations should not be raised. Nevertheless, time and time again, examples of daily life show that it is possible. Individuals show, even after the most atrocious events, that they can be merciful, that forgiveness is possible, that a new beginning can be made.

For the broader community this can also be accomplished by identifying issues of common concern. The community is encouraged to seek solutions to practical problems. People are brought together on the same interest, sometimes in small initiatives. To start a common kindergarten, a place where the elderly can meet and where the songs in different languages can be sung. To improve the living conditions of people. A process of healing in the form of a common commitment. Every gesture to restore a family's sense of dignity, home, routine, productive capacity, soundness of health and reunification is fundamental to the process of reconciliation.

Another possibility is to develop official programmes in tolerance building. To have workshops at local level with people from opposing groups. An atmosphere must be created that people feel free and secure. They should have the opportunity to speak out, to shout, to scream. After all, people are still in pain. Now they get the opportunity to express their feelings. People who were opponents/adversaries are put together. During a workshop a change in attitude of the participants appears. Their views are changing. People recognize that life goes on despite the suffering and that the region should become a place for all of us.

However, our concern should also be focussed at the early stage of a conflict. Conflicts and war should be nipped in the bud. This requires the development of models of  preventive action. It means intervening in situations where the first signs of an approaching crisis are evident. Calming down tempers and situations so that the development of the crisis will be stopped. It would require the setting up of an early warning system. 

Many times, as churches, we know what is going on and we also have close contacts with the people at the grassroots. People should get prepared to work at different levels in this process. It would demand involvement with leadership at grass roots: local leaders, community developers, local health officials and refugee camp leaders. To set up training at the grass roots level, to develop local peace commissions, to recognize prejudices.

At the same time attention should be paid to leaders from different sectors, academically educated persons, leaders of non-governmental organisations. Attention could be placed on conflict resolution and problem solving. It will create an opportunity for the participants to reflect on their experience of the conflict and at the same time develop skills for dealing with it. This group of persons could be very important since they know about the conflict, and at the same time they have access to the top policymakers. Influencing them could indirectly make the difference.

By focussing in this way one can prevent conflicts from developing into unverifiable events which destroys the livelihood of populations.

As an African proverb states: Peace is like a tree: it takes years to make it grow, but no time to cut it down.