As I passed, they sounded like they were speaking Russian. But the three middle-aged men in the café gave me a funny look (funny, as in annoyed) when I asked what part of Russia were they from. “We’re Bosnians,” one said flatly, softening his tone a bit by adding, “it’s a Slavic language too.”
An image of the recently arrested mass murderer, Ratko Mladic instantly came to mind. Their faces dropped when I commented, as casually as I could, that Bosnia has been in the news lately.
General Mladic was the foulest manifestation of Serbian nationalism. He orchestrated the shelling and sniping of the beautiful city of Sarajevo in the mid-90’s, killing civilians with impunity as they tried to obtain food and water, while the international community wrung its hands.
The image I had of Mladic is the one that he, and the genocidal little war in the heart of Europe a half century after the Nazi Holocaust, will be forever associated with, no matter what happens in his trial for crimes against humanity in The Hague.
In that videotaped scene, Mladic is patting a Muslim boy’s face, telling him and the women of Srebrenica, who were fearfully gathered around him and his henchmen, that everything would be OK. At that very moment the boy’s father, brother, and thousands of other men and young men from the city were being rounded up, and were within hours of being shot and dumped in shallow graves.
But I dropped the subject, other than to ask how long they’d been in this little berg in northern California, and what was happening in their country at present.
“About 15 years,” one said. ‘Right around the time the war ended?’ I asked. “Yes,” the same fellow replied.
What’s going on there now? “It’s still really bad.”
Economically, you mean? “That’s right. But at least we’re not still killing each other.”
I forget, was Yugoslavia part of the Soviet bloc? “No,” the spokesman said emphatically. “Under Tito, we were nonaligned.”
That being so, I wanted to ask why they thought Yugoslavia descended into hellish ethnic infighting after the Soviet Union collapsed, but I held my tongue. The guy closest to the window was scowling, and he never looked up after the initial greeting, though mid-way through the conversation I made a point of introducing myself and asking each of their names, which all seemed to rhyme with Mladic.
What do you think of Chico? “It’s a nice town, a pleasant change for us.” I’ll bet, I replied, adding that not many Americans know very much about the war between the Muslim Bosniaks, Orthodox Serbs, and Catholic Croats.
“No,” the leading fellow said wryly, with a sly smile. “How long have you lived in Chico?” he asked. About the same length of time you’ve been here, I said, adding that I also lived here for a couple of years on the ‘70’s, when it was kind of a hippie town.
“It’s still kind of a hippie town, yes?” On the surface a bit, but it never really was, except for the college back in the late 60’s and early ‘70’s, which was a much important part of a much smaller town back then. This is an agricultural area, after all, and under the progressive patina, it’s a conservative town, like most towns in America.
The subject turned back to the economy when the spokesman said that the economic situation is Bosnia is one where 10% of the people have 90% of the wealth.
It’s become the same way in America, I responded, and we’re fast losing the middle class. “Globalization,” said the second fellow in a thick accent, piping in for the first time. I’d noticed he was listening intently, but had to ask him to repeat his comment. “Globalization,” he said again.
The irony of the word rippled through the room. That’s right, I concurred, and went up to the counter to get my tea.
The world has become a global thing, for the first time in human history. You can meet Serbs in the suburbs of America, and if you listen, you can hear their dark disgruntlement because their heroic general is being tried in The Hague.
You can meet a young African from the smallest thatched-roof village, who by dint of amazing drive escaped her conditions to attend the local community college. You can share perceptions with her about how the juggernaut of the global economy, now led by the American-aping Chinese, is scavenging and ravaging the continent of man’s birth for resources.
Why do we lag so far behind what is? Is it because we have no concepts and categories for this unprecedented actuality? I think that’s a large part of it. But fixed concepts and categories have themselves become obsolete, anachronisms of tradition, prisons of identification.
Then what are we to do, as individuals living in the nationalistic wreckage of the old world order, and the metaphysical vestiges of all the old orders, which have become so insanely disordered? We can’t adapt, without becoming bad or going mad.
We can minimize the personal, rather than making it our illusory garrison against the world. We can nurture within us the intent and drive for wholeness, no matter how fragmented the world around us becomes.