Friday, August 3, 2012

Lessons from Serbia

I just returned a few days ago from Novi Sad, Serbia, where the Sozo Festival was held for the first time. The purpose of the festival, founded 14 years ago by my good friend Randall Morgan, is to promote national and ethnic reconciliation among the peoples of strife-ridden Eastern Europe, primarily in the Balkan region. Over a dozen nations were represented, including Hungary, where the festival has been held 10 times in past years.

Many years ago in Switzerland, I learned a lesson from a student of mine. Born and raised in the French-speaking part of the country, she harbored a bit of an attitude towards her German-speaking countrymen. She was certainly not alone. There is an invisible barrier between the two regions that is ancient and undeniable. My student, named Catherine, recognized this unhealthy attitude in herself and decided to do something about it by finding a one-year position in Zurich, the largest city in the country -- specifically so she could get to know the German-Swiss up close. She came back with a completely different outlook on her compatriots, as well as some lasting friendships.

Although my attitude towards the Serbs was not nearly as pronounced, I realized I still looked at them primarily as the aggressors in the Balkan Wars of the 1990's. Thousands of Bosnian Muslims and Kosovar Albanians were raped and killed at the hands of Serbian soldiers, while much of the world, including most Americans, remained ignorant of the situation. I knew it was not a one-sided conflict (it rarely is), and I knew I needed to get to know some Serbs up close and personal.

I'm so glad I did. I discovered a proud but warm-hearted people, eager to show hospitality and to put the wounds of war behind them. Although I knew it academically, it came home to me that the atrocities committed in the wars were largely due to a handful of individuals, with Slobodan Milosevic as the ring leader. (He died in his prison cell in the Hague in 2006 while on trial for war crimes.) Today's generation of Serbs desires peace and relationship with the rest of the world. Pictured at right is my interpreter, Boža, and wife Sylvia. Boža was not only an excellent translator, but a remarkable human being. We had many meaningful conversations about our respective cultures and how much we can learn from each other.

At left is Darijo (pron. 'dario'), the local organizer for the festival. Darijo has attended numerous Sozo Festivals in the past and was ecstatic to be able to bring this great event to his native Novi Sad, the second largest city in Serbia on the banks of the Danube. His passion for his own nation was contagious, as he brought lessons learned abroad back to his home soil.

In the seminar I taught, I invited each of the participants, from 8-10 different nations, to look inside and identify the cultural traits they have inherited, as well as those they have chosen. We all have choices when it comes to our culture, and our lives are waiting to be enriched as we learn to reject the negative aspects of our culture and embrace the beautiful things -- of our own as well as other cultures.