Syria – why there is hope.

Time for my blog in English again.

The terrible situation in Syria brought back to me an experience I had in 1993. It is a long story – so this will become a long blog. Here is the story:

 Peacetrees Bern, Switzerland, 1993

I met Slobodan . . . it must have been the fall of 1993. We were together in Switzerland for a peacetree program (planting trees for peace, and practicing collaborative communication together). I myself facilitated a group in which nine young people spoke seven languages. A derailed young man from Zürich, who could speak Swiss-german only, worked together with two Ukrainian, who could speak just Russian and Ukrainian, a Russian girl who spoke also English, a Thai girl and a Yugoslavian boy from a Swiss asylum center, who spoke hardly and reasonably English respectively,  a French girl who could speak French only, and another Swiss girl who could speak some French, and an Irishman. Along with the work we had group meetings in which we were supposed to learn about each others cultures and conflict resolution. In the beginning we were mainly busy with nonverbal communication and translating. Group dialog was very difficult and not very popular. The actual tree planting went better, soon a division of tasks developed where the men courteously did the heavy labor, al did everyone his bit. (Although. . . also in this situation not everyone was fully motivated every time, and sometimes people ran away. This then was a cause for emotional discussions in the group meeting)

In the beginning the young people didn’t care much for each other, but when the goodbye time came after three weeks. . . there were tears and moving presents – poems, pictures, little souvenirs for each other and for me (who in the meantime was called ‘papa Erik’) – , kisses and hugs. The group had become a family, maybe not friends for life, but certainly a positive recollection that everyone would carry with him forever; a point of light in times of despair or doubt, that certainly would come again for them. A vision of how life can be. Magnificent how a groupprocess can work. But actually I wanted to share something else. About Slobodan, who was not a member of this specific group.

Switzerland is an expensive country, and for peacetreeprograms there is always a shortage of money.That is why we were lodged in a cheap, very simple accomodation somewhere in the middle of the mountains of Berner Oberland. Unfortunately this place was quite a distance from the place where we would plant the trees. A bus for transport every day would cost far too much. But the organisation had found a solution for this – in collaboration with the Ukrainian and Russian participants. They could save travel costs by coming by bus, all the way down from Kiev. That bus then could be hired against Russian rates for our own transport, which would make quite a difference.

No one had counted upon the delay and the bureaucracy at the borders (1993!). A total of two day was spend in waiting and fullfilling the fomalities, and in the end the Russian and Ukrainian particpants arrived two days late. But then our own transport system could actually start. Belching forth terrible clouds of smoke – this peacetreeprogram was meant to be an ecological program! – hawling and rattling, jerky and bumpy this vehicle, that was in his final days, carried us to our destination and back. We were always in anxious suspense if the steering would make it through the next bend or the brakes in the next descent. Wat happened really twice or three times, is that we didn’t make it to the top of a slope. But that didn’t matter. . . than the bus was simply manoeuvered backwards for a new try.

Slobodan and I had something in common: we were sensitive to travel sickness, and that phenomenon was very likely to occur in this vehicle and on these curving roads. We found a solution by sitting brotherly together on the first bench in the bus. Thus a twenty times Slobodan and I sat together.

Slobodan was a refugee from Yugoslavia. I belief a Serbian, but he might well have been a Croatian, I don’t know anymore. He always made jokes and was very popular in the group, but underneath this he was as close as a pot (as we say in Holland) – nobody learned anything about his history or his family. Neither did I in the beginning. He had found a walkman (in 1993 there were no IPods), and sat completely closed off from his environment, listening to his music. Due to the noise of the bus I couldn’t even hear the bass.

But in the second week something started to change. Pointing at a nice little farm that we passed, he said: ‘It is great to have a home’. I nodded agreeingly, after which radio silence again that day. The next day he began to tell, not more than a few sentences at the time, and gradually the terrible story became clear. How his family home was destroyed, how his brother was shot, and how his father, who never wept, had cried bitter tears over the grave. And had said: it is over here, and had fled with his mother and his sister to Switzerland. And now Slobodan had nothing anymore: no possessions, except the walkman, a few tapes, some clothes, no friends, no school. The rest of the family unreachable, maybe dead. On one of the last days he said, and rarely I heard someone express his pain and despair so intensively: ‘You know . . . I am so angry! . . . but I don’t want to fight.’

And thus Slobodan, the seventeen year old boy with the same first name as Milosevic, there on that sunny autumn morning in Switzerland, spoke the message that Jesus taught us twothousand years ago. He doesn’t want to fight. And you know what I think? He will succeed. He already was struggling to refind and develop his inner strength. He will radiate out peace. And like Slobodan I met many: men and women, young and old, Serbs and Croatians, Russians and Americans, Palestines and Israelis, Dutch and Germans, English and Irish and Irish – people with rage, yes, but without hate. That’s why there is hope, notwithstanding Bosnia, Kosovo, Eastern Timor (and nowadays Syria). The seed of love is sown.

I am sure that today as well, amidst the terrible war atrocities, there are young people who don’t want to fight. That’s why Syrian refugees deserve our support, so that these guys can survive. Let’s be generous and pray for them.

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