Friday, May 27, 2011

"We must clean our garden"

No, that was not a phrase uttered from my lips.

Or from Viet's.

Or from a neighbor's.

Or from a family member's.

No, I heard the phrase during a bout of insomnia last night. I turned the radio on at 2 a.m. to listen to the BBC, and of course the lead story after the bulletin of main news was the Ratko Mladic arrest. A follow-up report focused on the reactions of Serbs: some were notably irritated by the arrest, others pleased but sobered by contemporary political realities that compelled the decision. And that's when I heard the phrase pass the lips of one young Serbian woman, who was 8 at the time of the Srebrenica massacre: "we must clean our garden."

What does ethnic cleansing--let's dispose of the euphemism and call it for what it was: the slaughter of 8,000 Bosnia Muslim men and boys--have to do with the garden?

This must be the Serbian, or Slavic, or Eastern European equivalent of the American expression, "get your house in order."

For afterwards, she spoke of the European Union's condition for Serbian application to become a member: arrest Mladic.  (I wonder how cheap his life was, considering that the Serbian government "sold" Milosevic for a mere $50 million in aid--badly needed aid, but a drop in the proverbial bucket when it comes to such things.) The arrest seems to be Serbia's Meiji Restoration and its Hiroshima: the former, because the arrest symbolizes the beginning of Serbia's "Europeanization," the latter because the arrest symbolizes the price paid (albeit in this case a very small one, considering the Bosniaks whose lives were horridly robbed from them) for its entry into membership--a defeat of nationalist pretenses for some, a bit of shame for others, and Serbia's ultimate relinquishing of ironclad control over its past and, in strong measure, its future.

The garden metaphor, while odd to the American ear, is an apt one, perhaps more so than the house metaphor we use on this side of the Atlantic. Gardens are living entities, subject to forces beyond human control. True, houses are too; but houses do not live in the biological sense, and thus do not grow (exuberantly or feebly) on their own or suddenly (or not so suddenly) die. Such it is with communities of people: untended or misdirected, they may grow into an unmanageable, uncultivated state; tended and managed well with proper regard to the care of others, they may flourish as coherent, healthy wholes (coherent and healthy precisely because the component parts are healthy and in dialogue--and thus in some measure in communion--with others).
That seems a fitting lesson to be gleaned from an otherwise heart-wrenching event. At the base of the Mladic arrest is not the man but the deed associated with his name: the irremediable slaughter of men and boys in one instant on a steamy July day in 1995, a slaughter that was wrapped up in a wider context of brutality and violence.

If only we'd grasp the lesson...but apparently we prefer to look and venture occasionally into the abyss.

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