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Stephen J. PopeSeptember 23, 2000

What caused the war in the former Yugoslavia? Over 15 or 20 years ago we had a feeling that the end of Communism was coming. The whole Medjugorje event was an intimation of things to come. We were happy that Communism was going to end, but we also knew that Marshall Tito’s powerful bureaucracy would not dissolve quietly. While we saw that the situation was one of terrible danger, I believed, wrongly, that we would be able to avoid a real catastrophe. The problem was that the Communists would never allow problems to surface. They always pushed them under the rug. But in 1988 the problems came to public light. At the outset, Slobodan Milosevic and the Serbs lit the fire. They justified it by a propaganda campaign that created massive fear. They made people think that Christians were being attacked by Muslims. In 1992 Serbs attacked Croats and Muslims. At first the Croats and Muslims joined together against the Serbs, but then Franjo Tudjman, the president of Croatia, decided to take the Croats to war against the Muslims.

How did you survive the war?

I was at our seminary located in a Serbian neighborhood of Sarajevo. We were always friendly with our neighbors, and they were friendly with us. Then paramilitary units from Serbia took over. On June 8, 1992, a Serbian paramilitary unit arrived at our residence. We had no weapons, but they kept their guns trained on us anyway. They put us in a basement room. One morning at three or four we heard them arguing in the next room about what they would do with us. They debated whether they ought to kill us right then or wait for an officer with more authority. Luckily our Franciscan provincial found out what was happening in the house and called people outside of Bosnia, and they demanded our release.

We were sent to the Croatian side of Bosnia. I went to the middle of Bosnia, where we had all once lived together in peace. It is painful to see neighbors who had once lived together in peace begin to fight. People started killing, and killing produced deadly fear, and fear drove people into their own groups. Once this process gets going, it is very difficult to stop. Later I went to Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, and worked there for three or four years. I worked with peace movements in Europe, trying to explain to them what was happening in the Balkans. Peace movements were very harmful to our people. They opposed any use of military force by NATO to stop the war. So in effect they allowed the Serbs to kill many people, since the Serbs had prctically all the weapons.

How were those who insisted on nonviolence in fact assisting the Serbs?

I am also against violence. But innocent people were being killed, and I wanted to stop the aggression. In effect the pacifists said: We speak for God. So in the name of idealistic nonviolence, we will let thousands of innocent people be killed. I didn’t want to have Serbs killed, but I was in favor of destroying the arsenals holding their weapons. In the beginning of the war their ammunition could have been destroyed from the air. In addition, there was a spiral of violence in this conflict. It is much easier to stop violence from the beginning than it is to stop it once it has gained momentum. The military intervention done later by NATO was too late for many victims. The lesson here is that sometimes we need to be pro-active if we want to avoid war. There are dangerous groups in society that simply do not want peace.

How did you go from being a prisoner of a Serb paramilitary unit to working as a peacemaker? Why didn’t you run away?

I was not stricken with fear. I felt responsible as a Christian to be a peacemaker. We Franciscans have a spirituality that is very open and very friendly with all people, including Orthodox Christians and Muslims. In our interfaith choir, for example, I am just a member of the group; I am not father to the members of my choir. When I reflect on my decision to become a Franciscan, I am reminded that I have a vocation to go where I am needed. If I didn’t follow my vocation, I would be a traitor to my own identity.

Another important factor is my own experience of catastrophe. In 1993, my father, 9 of my relatives, 32 neighbors and 84 parishioners of my native parish were killed. The rest of my family was expelled from our home. In one day, the entire environment into which I was born was destroyed. Some days I was very, very sad. But I had an experience of grace, and my feeling of sadness was transformed into positive energy for peace. I realized that I had no time to sit around and feel sad. I had to work for peace.

How did you work to influence world opinion from Zagreb?

We set up a small news service, the Christian Information Service. The air was so befogged by propaganda that it was important to provide correct information about the war to the world. Once we got started we were able to gain the attention of different news agencies around the world, such as Reuters, the Catholic press and others. They saw that C.I.S. information was accurate and so reported it to the wider world. We also sent information to leaders, including the German chancellor Helmut Kohl and the president of the United States. I managed to meet many influential people, told them about what was happening and asked them to send messages by fax to members of Congress, the White House and to other influential people so that they would know what is going on.

How were you able to help the Serbs and Muslims in Croatia?

Muslims and Serbs in Zagreb were in a particularly difficult situation. If a Croatian returning from the front line was walking along a road and met a Serbian, he might just kill him on the spot. It was extremely dangerous for them to come to Croatia, and they were in desperate need of help. They were expelled from their homes and had nothing, not even personal papers. Identification papers were important because without them you couldn’t work, couldn’t get an apartment and really couldn’t do anything. I was able to write to the Croatian government, validating the identities of people who had no papers. I explained in writing who they were, where they came from and so forth. I wrote hundreds of recommendations for people, and the government always accepted them.

How were you able to get the Serbs to trust you, a Croatian?

The Serbian refugees were told by their friends that they could trust me and other Franciscans. In Zagreb, some people, even priests, called me a traitor and a Communist and said that I hated my Croatian nation.

Why would priests not want you to help someone in such dire need?

Priests can be very nationalistic. In the Balkans many priests are more like national workers than priests. I believe that the reason why priests sometimes move from preaching the Gospel to outright nationalism is laziness of spirit. It is difficult to be spiritual; one needs to pray but also to read and to write, because faith includes thinking, awareness and a desire for intellectual order. Nationalism feeds on passion, irrationalism and group bias. Such uncontrolled and irrational passion regards the other purely as a danger to our group. It allows no room for mutual understanding or communication.

I take it that the Croat clergy are not the only ones guilty of nationalism.

This was a problem with Serbian clergy and Muslims, too. The same social mechanism functions in all of these groups. Members of the Bosnian clergy were for the most part on the side of their own nationalities and they interpreted the meaning of human rights, justice and peace from this nationalistic point of view. We have nice official statements praising peace and human rights. But in practice the concern of many priests has not been, How does this stand with God? but more, How does this stand with our nation? Badly needed prophetic voices were almost totally silent. The courage to follow the Gospel is something at the center of our Christian vocation. Cowardice leads us away from following the Gospel. We need to have the courage to follow the Gospel, especially when political interests tempt us with money.

How does your choir address the problem of nationalism?

Politics in Bosnia is obsessed with national identity. Nationalists are very angry at us, but people who were once regarded as enemies have intensely supported us. Our interfaith choir tries to give hope. Serbian friends in Belgrade, for example, have worked hard for peace for 10 years without success. It is demoralizing to get nowhere. We want to inspire hope so that peacemakers will be strengthened in their commitment. So we have given more than 100 concerts in Bosnia. Lots of people come.

Do you think there ought to be something like a joint Muslim, Croat and Serb Truth and Reconciliation Commission for Bosnia?

Such a commission is being organized now, and I hope that it can start to work soon. We have many national perspectives on what counts as truth concerning the war in Bosnia, and therefore the building of a united society has become practically impossible. We have to overcome our partial truths based on ethnic bias and look for what is really true. We have many people in Bosnia ready to take such a step. We need leadership from people whose national, cultural and religious vision embraces all the relevant groups, so that the whole society can be built on universal justice and the common good.

What can Americans do for peace in a place like Bosnia?

Americans should not ignore their responsibility. The United States is a big, powerful and successful country. Yet it has an isolationist tendency. Because of the burden of its past, Europe was not able to stop the war in Bosnia. The United States eventually stopped it. Americans must be vigilant so that the exercise of American power is in the service of peace and not just a means of dominating other countries. If the United States uses its power as a kind of ministry of peace, it would be a blessing for all of us. But if it uses it simply to control other societies, it would be very bad.

It is also very important to acknowledge the great power of small groups and even of single individuals. Many individuals from the United States have come to Bosnia because they were moved by a calling from God. The work of such people is a blessing. They are independent, highly motivated and bring new views and solutions to each situation. We all need to keep developing our awareness of the needs and problems of the world, and where we can contribute to the building of peace. After all, helping people in need provides much greater satisfaction than does pursuing a consumerist way of life. It is in this way that we reach the deeper sense of life.

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