Beyond the Borders of Bosnia

By Amy Beard ’93

Five years ago while traveling in Europe with Westmont’s Mayterm program, Professor Shirley Mullen and I sat on an Italian seashore near Venice chatting about geography and current events. “You know,” she said, “we’re only a couple of hours away from Bosnia. The civil war is raging there as we speak.”

Although I had been following the news of Yugoslavia’s break-up throughout the preceding year, the stark reality of our proximity to the war’s madness caught my attention more than any newspaper clipping had.

Five years and many news stories later, I had the opportunity to travel to Bosnia as a representative from my church, National Presbyterian, in Washington, D.C. Finally, I naively assumed, I would come to understand this place and make sense of the confusing religious and ethnic groups that had become familiar reading during the past five years.

For 10 days I witnessed the heart-breaking impact of the power of hate. Once charming villages and cities, decorated with ornate architecture, have been reduced to piles of collapsed brick and concrete. It is nearly impossible to find a building without the remnants of sniper fire or shell fragments.

Most of the 200,000 people killed were civilians. The war displaced another two million, many of whom became refugees. A staggering 70 percent of Bosnians remain unemployed today. Industry operates at a mere 20 percent of its prewar capacity.

Although technically at peace, Bosnia remains divided by illogical borders and NATO tanks. Every village tells its own tragic story: Croats attacked Muslims, Serb aggression targeted Muslims and Croats, Muslims retaliated against Serbs, and so on.

I desperately searched for the right and wrong groups so I could discover a sense of order in this place. As we traveled through beautiful hills into yet another destroyed village, I would ask our driver, Zoran, to tell me the story of this place. “So, who attacked whom? Who was in the right?” Calmly, methodically, he would reconstruct the history of towns with names like Drvar, Livna, Bihac and Mostar. It wasn’t until about half-way through our trip that I realized I had fallen victim to the most prevalent and destructive mentality of Bosnia: I had come to see people only in the crude terms of their ethnic heritage.

God calls us to see each other as His children, people He individually created and loves. In Bosnia, and sadly throughout the world, we too often view each other by category — race, ethnic heritage, religion, economic class, and gender. Bosnia is a living and tragic testimony to the consequences of such categorizations.

A Catholic priest solemnly reflected on this dilemma while he attempted to describe the plight of his church in Sarajevo. “As Christians, we should stay where we’re from to serve the needs of our parishioners,” he said. “But the ethnic approach thinks in terms of groups and going where there are more Catholic Croats. This would maybe be safer. But God created us different. Therefore we should stay here as different.”

Many tools must be used to bring healing to Bosnia: economic development, physical restoration, and prosecution of the indicted war criminals. These are just a few of the crucial building blocks required to ensure long-term peace. But until we find the courage to see each other as unique miracles of God’s creation, the borders will remain.

I pray that God will show us daily how to cross these borders—and that Bosnia will emerge from the rubble, find lasting peace, and serve as an inspiration to us all as we individually strive to cross the borders in our own countries, cities, and neighborhoods.

Amy Beard, a co-leader of the Westmont alumni chapter in Washington, D.C., works with Porter Novelli, an international communications firm in Washington, D.C. She chairs the Bosnia Task Force at National Presbyterian and plans to travel back to Bosnia at the end of the summer.

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