The countries of former Yugoslavia are dear to me. The first time I left the U.S., I went to Belgrade in the Serbian republic and Dubrovnik in the Croatian one.
I fell in love with the people, so full of life, so easy to talk with, even about long-forbidden spiritual topics.
That was 1986. After many more visits to Yugoslavia and a bloody civil war, I hadn’t returned to what is now the country of Serbia since the NATO bombings of 1999. Until this week.
At first, Belgrade seemed unchanged, as lively as ever. Young people still fill sidewalk cafes with laughter and cigarette smoke.
A lady spontaneously kissed me when I bought her art work made from dried flower petals (and tried out some Serbian phrases). The concierge at the Hotel Moskva proudly gave Steve and I a private tour when I asked about famous guests. Sofia, our guide, peppered her commentary for our ship’s excursion with humor and history.
The South Slavs are passionate people who like spicy food and strong opinions. Croats and Serbs are the same people. I love them both.
Their disagreements, brewing for centuries, led to many deaths and much destruction. Reminders are everywhere. The issues are complicated and I don’t claim special insight. All I know is neither side was faultless.
People on our cruise heard from Croat guides the day we visited Vukovar, probably confirming what most of them already thought about the conflict of 20 years ago.
The next day, we heard from Serbs. I could sense the other passengers’ conflict. They were beginning to see that there is more than one side.
I thought of my own country. We’re also the same people, now sharply divided. I have friends with definite opinions on both sides of our great political divide. I had friends on both side of the Balkan conflict.
Some of my American friends are so angry, I wonder if they could ever be friends with someone who doesn’t agree. Someone they used to like.
If we look hard enough, aren’t we certain to find some common ground? If we focus on our similarities, maybe that will be a starting point to rebuild friendships and love our neighbors.
How do we love our neighbor exactly? Jesus said the only thing more important is to love the Lord. He said to love your neighbor as yourself. That means putting their interests above your own. It involves caring for their well-being before yours.
I wonder what will happen to my country. Will we ever learn from the mistakes of the Serbs and Croats?
If I asked people in either country if it was worth it, I doubt anyone would say yes. There’s been too much loss.
Our Croatian guide gave the simple answer. He said, “We just need to get along.”
So do we all. So do we all.