Sarajevo2.jpg

That's How it should be

It was July 24th, he said; he’d never forget that day.   Because of the war, he and the other children in the city were forced inside, into their basements, for days and months on end. Finally believing that it was safe, his father took him out for a long-promised bike ride.  He still remembers the few moments of joy, of freedom, before he was shot off his bicycle, before the bullets tore through his young legs.

 

After having interviewed some of the survivors of Ravensbrück, many of whom had their childhood or teenage years disrupted by war, I was deeply saddened to hear yet another tragic story, this one during my own lifetime.  My husband and I were visiting family in Sarajevo and were on our way home from dinner at a restaurant perched high in the hills overlooking the city.  As I watched the soft night sky gently settle onto the peaceful valley earlier that evening, I had found it hard to picture Bosnian Serbs, hidden in the surrounding hills, shooting at the residents, at unarmed civilians including, as I was soon to discover, our Muslim cab driver, who was just 13 years old at the time.  

 

He was lucky, he knew – so many others had died.  But he spent three months in the hospital and many, many months later in rehab relearning how to walk.  Thankfully, the United States eventually took him in, giving him refuge in Seattle.  He moved back home nearly a decade later, hoping to reclaim the life he left behind.  He spoke lovingly of the old Sarajevo, of a place where you could hear the church bells ringing and the Muslim calls to prayer at the same time.  The synagogue was just around the corner.  It was so “beautiful, just beautiful” he said, as he explained how close they were with their neighbors, despite their different religious beliefs.  Indeed, Sarajevo is famous for centuries-long peaceful coexistence of Eastern Orthodox Christians, Catholics, Jews, and Muslims.  It is believed to be the only city in Europe where these churches, synagogues and mosques were nestled in the same neighborhood together - and one of the few cities where Jews have been able to live in relative harmony with their Christian and Muslim neighbors, since they emigrated from Spain in the 16th century.

 

I couldn’t help but ask him, as I asked many of the survivors from Ravensbrück, can you forgive what happened?  Can you forgive the person or people responsible for shooting that 13-year-old boy, who was just riding his bicycle?  He answered without hesitation and with the resounding response which no longer surprises me, “Yes.” he said, “Yes, of course I forgive.”   

 

When Martha Hall Kelly and I first heard this from Stasia, we were astonished.  She was in a wheelchair as we spoke to her; she still suffered greatly from the pain in her legs, caused not by damage done by bullets, but by a Nazi surgeon’s scalpel.  Neither the years of suffering in the camp nor the pain from the experimental surgeries had caused her to be bitter or angry; she had forgiven the Germans - and long, long ago.  Stasia further explained that in the camp, you could only count on living the next five minutes, so why fill that time with fear and anger, with hatred and resentment?  Instead, she chose to focus on friendship, gratefulness, even laughter. Stasia carried that lesson with her from the camp.  She chose to forgive, to fill her minutes, her days, her years with joy, not bitterness.  She chose to be grateful for what she had, for the family she had, for the life she was living.  Given this unexpected perspective from someone who had suffered so much, Martha went home and changed the ending to her soon-to-be NYT best seller, Lilac Girls.  I began to understand how much I had to learn. 

 

So it was with this 13 year-old boy, now a father of three.  He said he forgave so that he could enjoy his life - enjoy his children.  He wanted his kids to grow up in a place where they could take their child for a bike ride and not worry about a sniper’s bullet. For him, it started with forgiveness.

 

I didn’t think my young daughters were listening; they seemed to be mesmerized by the narrow and unfamiliar streets as we drove along.  But as we arrived at our hotel, one was eager to talk to him, “I want to tell him something, Mommy!”   He was kind and listened patiently as she explained in a 4-year-old’s sometimes disconnected detail how she too hurt her legs once in soccer.  “And I got better, just like you did.”  He smiled wistfully and nodded, “That’s how it should be.”  

 

My daughter beamed with his understanding; I was suddenly struck with not only a profound gratefulness for my own many blessings, but once again, with overwhelming admiration for those who forgive the unforgivable.     

 

Yes, that is how it should be. And the choice, as I am discovering, is ours to make.