At the age of ten, I stood at the edge of the hill, gazing into the distant flames that waved above the forested mountains. At that moment I knew that kids my age had lost their homes, their innocence, their land. I quickly learned what nationalism, pride, and hate meant in a falling nation of Yugoslavia.
Being Serbian, I never learned to hate the Croats, as many did. I rather felt sympathy as a Croatian town waved goodbye to us in flames. In 1995, Croatia successfully executed their plans. Ethnic cleansing. We left our homeland, my heaven on earth.
But the war taught me that no violence is solved through violence itself. The violent tactics varied, but the pain remained the same for both sides. The war between Serbs and the Croats has greatly altered my views on attachment to ideas, beliefs, and social standards. How can a loving father nurture his kids, and then be sent out to kill others? How can a child, forced to become aware of this by simple observations or intuition, accept his or her father in the aftermath?
A child remembers well, but at the same time, one can unconsciously forgive, become persuaded by the dominance of another, or one can easily conceal those lingering memories buried deep within for prolonged periods of time.
But the real question is: how is it that some people are capable of such destruction, yet, at the same time, they are competent of expressing love and compassion towards their family members and or society?
I listened to a group of soldiers recapturing the memories of their “victorious” battle. One described the time when he forced an elderly woman to lift her skirt up so that he could shoot her, another pulled the dentures out of a dead peasant’s mouth, and another told a story of a man beheading a villager with a chainsaw. All of these men returned home to their loving families.
Not long after the flames had descended into the ashes, my 93 year-old great-grandmother said to us, “You children do not know that you are alive.” This was the beginning of my awakening, even though, at the time, I had no knowledge of what awakening meant. But some sort of insight penetrated through to the core of my being.
Years later, I started to believe that attachment to people, ideas, beliefs, and the ways of our society is what eventually might alienate us from others, and construct a possible pathway to ignorance. These solders were not attached to the opposing society, therefore, it became easy for them to terminate the other side in the most atrocious way possible. When a sense of self is defined through pride and superiority, then it becomes work of an ego, which can lead to delusion and possible destruction.
Since we live in a more diverse world, we must learn the meaning of the word “us” as opposed to us or them, or me and him/her. It is crucial that we become aware not only of our differences, but of our similarities as human beings. Awareness and action is the key. So how do I forgive? Through educating others by bringing awareness and observing their progress.
Mr. Vrcel currently works as a photographer and designer living in Schererville, Indiana. All photos in this essay by Goran Vrcel and used with his permission.
He submitted this essay through our First Person Outreach page. Submit yours too.