Bosnia (October 5, 2013)
Sitting early one morning in this train compartment traveling from Mostar to Sarajevo, I wasn’t looking for milk. But it’s very possible that as I looked out at the foggy Bosnian landscape I remembered someone who once was.
The story is recounted in Chris Hedges’ book War is a Force that Gives us Meaning, and it came to mind often during the nearly three weeks I traveled through Bosnia in 2013.
The setting is Goražde, a predominately Muslim town in Bosnia, and the time is the early 1990s, when the Bosnian Serb army has put Goražde firmly under siege. Most ethnic Serbs have fled town, but a few, including the family of Rosa Sorak, have decided to remain.
It was a decision Rosa and her husband would come to regret, not least because they would lose two sons, one in a car accident and one at the hands of the Bosnian (Muslim) police, who took the son and presumably killed him. This second son left behind a pregnant wife. When several months later she gave birth—in the midst of continued Bosnian Serb shelling, increasing harassment from Muslim neighbors, and a food shortage—another tragedy threatened the family, for the new mother was unable to nurse. “Infants, like the infirm and the elderly, were dying in droves,” Hedges writes. After five days of tea, the baby “began to fade.”
Enter Fadil Fejzić, an illiterate Muslim neighbor who milked his cow at night to avoid being killed by Serbian snipers.
Rosa told Hedges: “On the fifth day, just before dawn, we heard someone at the door. It was Fadil Fejzić in his black rubber boots. He handed up half a liter of milk. He came the next morning, and the morning after that, and after that. Other families on the street began to insult him. They told him to give his milk to Muslims, to let the Chetnik children die. He never said a word. He refused our money. He came for 442 days, until my daughter-in-law and granddaughter left Goražde for Serbia.”
Rosa went on to tell Hedges that while she could never forgive her son’s Muslim murderers, neither could she be silent when her fellow Serbs spoke only disparagingly of Muslims. She and her family were the recipients of one Muslim’s courageous act of love, and her granddaughter was alive because of it. This story needed telling too.
After Rosa’s story concludes, Hedges locates Fejzić, who is living a hard life even after the war. Hedges concludes with a reflection of his own:
The small acts of decency by people such as [Fejzić] ripple outwards like concentric circles. These acts, unrecognized at the time, make it impossible to condemn, legally or morally, an entire people. They serve as reminders that we all have a will of our own, a will that is independent of the state or the nationalist cause. Most important, once the war is over, these people make it hard to brand an entire nation or an entire people as guilty.