In a seventh-century cathedral on the Adriatic coast of the former Yugoslavia, a massive stone carving over the portal depicts the life of Christ. In true Balkan fashion, however, the scenes are not arranged according to time. In the first scene, Christ is baptized; midway he hangs on a cross; at the end the Wise Men gaze at him in adoration, and Mary smiles. Here, specific order is not as crucial as generating spiritual fervor. Who you were is not as important as who you are becoming. And suffering is the rough road one must take to love.
Bosnia is a spiritual laboratory, a place where spiritual hypotheses can be tested and observed. I first visited in 1996 at the end of the vicious four-year siege of Sarajevo. The question I asked then was: What makes average people in extraordinary circumstances behave as sinners or as saints? Now, during Bosnia’s long post-war reconstruction period, and particularly in the aftermath of Kosovo, I ask: This is a people who had raging evil sit on them like a stalled hurricane. Is it possible for them to be born again? Initial evidence suggests that they can.
An Antidote for Fear
Vjeko Saje, project director for the Center for Religious Dialogue in Sarajevo, is a passionate, energetic man in his mid-40s. Saje was an architect before the war. He spent five years working in Baghdad for an engineering firm before NATO air strikes in Iraq sent him home to Sarajevo in 1990. Saje is Catholic, though not Croat; his wife, Azra, is Muslim. The witnesses at their wedding were Serbs. They have an 18-year-old daughter, Irma. They are a fairly typical Sarajevan family.
In 1993, Saje was assigned to dig trenches along the front lines outside Sarajevo. There were three other engineers with him a little further down the line. In a flash of mortar fire one morning, he tells me, all three were killed. He and I are silent. What is there to say?