Dreams of Kindness, Love and Grace by Carolyn Berry“
How can this be?” His wet eyes impaled me. A letter from his mother trembled in his hands.
Ivan (pronounced "ee-VAWN")was Yugoslavian. That’s what they called themselves back in 1993 … “Yugoslavian.” The youngest and sole surviving son out of five—the older boys already sacrificed to the ethnic turmoil of the Yugoslavian Civil War. At the urging of his mother and grandmamma, Ivan came to the US on a temporary visa to avoid death at the hands of the Serbs or Muslims. Portland’s Croatian community welcomed him. Ivan beamed as he described the beauty of Sarajevo countryside. He sang gusty folk songs with his Croat comrades as they tossed down Yugoslavian liquor called slivovitz (exactly like butane with a licorice aftertaste). Their pride exploded whenever they spotted their homeland’s newest economic venture driving down the road—an economy car called the Yugo.
Ivan struggled to translate his mother’s letter. “She says that Serb soldiers kidnapped a young boy from our town. He was eight. They took him into the woods. Killed and gutted him. Filled his body with explosives. They left the corpse on a deserted street under a moonless sky. Next morning the townspeople joined with family to help recover the boy and prepare him for burial. As the body was tenderly lifted, 13 people died as a result of explosives cleverly planted in his belly. Woman, children, elderly … dead. Others injured.” Ivan paused to wipe his eyes. “We will never be the same again in Yugoslavia.”
I became possessed to show Ivan as much Oregon beauty as my gas tank and schedule could afford. One spring day, we headed to the Washington side of the Columbia Gorge for a picnic atop Beacon Rock. In the parking lot, his eye caught sight of something that elicited a hoot of exhilaration. He excitedly approached an attractive dark-haired woman. They embraced, then spoke excitedly for a few minutes – not in English. Then, abruptly, I saw all 6’3” of Ivan’s frame stiffen. His arms flailed wide. His voice boomed. He face was twisted in fury as he stormed past me.
“What happened, Ivan? Did you know her?” The look in his eyes scared me. I ran to keep up with his stride.
“No, I did NOT know her. I only knew she was also from Yugoslavia.” He exploded every consonant as the words shot out. His jaw pulsed with angst. His fists were clenched tight.
“SHE … she … is a … a goddammed SERB!”
In that moment, the War in the Balkans crossed halfway around the world and became manifest on the state line between Washington and Oregon. I bore somber witness to the dynamics of fear and loathing between two connected strangers. Two who shared a trickle of camaraderie, but an ocean of ethnic and religious hatred … bigotry buried as mysteriously in their marrow as DNA. Had I known Ivan earlier, say back in 1984 - during those magic days when Sarajevo hosted the Winter Olympics - and had I told him then that his beloved country would fall into a long and bloody civil war within eight years’ time, I can only imagine how he would have tossed back his head and laughed out loud. He would have tried to detect the scent of slivovitz on my breath and accused me of being drunk, or crazy, or both.
Had Ivan told me, back in 1992, that the USA would fall victim to terrorist attacks in nine years’ time - that the World Trade Center Twin Towers would crumble before our eyes and take with it thousands of American lives … instantaneously turned to fine gray dust and tracked for months on boots of recovery workers —I would have told him he was delirious. This is America. Those things simply don’t happen here.
By early 1994, Ivan was gone … sucked into the American underground inhabited by illegal aliens avoiding deportation. By late 1994, the powers involved in the Balkan crisis knew that the former Yugoslavia was essentially being left to twist in the wind. In those dark days I ran across a poignant death notice in The New York Times. It read: “IN MEMORIAM: Our commitments, principles, and moral values - Died: Bosnia, 1994, on the occasion of the 1,000th day of the siege of Sarajevo.”
December 2001- IN MEMORIAM: Our sense of invincibility, our collective innocence—Died: New York City, 2001, on our learning that we could be devastated by a new language of human violence and bigotry. We are no longer exempt.
Carolyn Berry serves professionally as a public policy dispute resolution coordinator throughout Oregon. She is also a writer, a social/environmental activist, and public speaker. Contact Carolyn at <[email protected]>