4. Bosnia

MY MATERNAL GRANDFATHER, Harold Jacobs, was born in Chicago in 1916 and grew up during the Great Depression. His father, Samuel Jacobs, was a bookbinder from Warsaw, Poland, and his mother, Rebecca Newman Jacobs, was from New York. We always called my grandfather "Shah." He thought it was a reference to the former kings of Persia. My mother and my aunt have a different interpretation. When my grandfather was talking one day, I ran up to him (I was about two years old at the time) and yelled, "Shah!" My mom and aunt think that what I meant was "shush." "Shah," it turns out, is also a word for "quiet" or "shush," and my grandmother used to say it a lot to my grandfather. My grandfather could talk.

One time I pulled a frozen pizza out of the oven, and Shah began, "What's that you got there? You know, that's not really a pizza. The only real pizza they make is in Chicago. The stuff people have in St. Louis, that's not pizza. Chicago pizza, that's real pizza. Some people think that if you put a little bit of sausage on a pizza, you got sausage pizza. That's not real sausage pizza. You want a sausage pizza? You put on sausage and there's sausage on the whole thing. See how there are some pieces there that don't have sausage on it? What is that? What's a sausage pizza without sausage? What did I tell you? The only real pizza is made in Chicago. You know, when I grew up in Chicago..." And so it would go, with Shah talking about everything from the Harlem Globetrotters to forklifts to the stock exchange to baseball—"The problem today is that they rush these kids. No time in the minors. Used to be every ballplayer was trained. Take Rod Carew. Incredible hitter, sure, but he still knows how to bunt if he has to. These kids today, they don't know how to bunt 'cause they get rushed."

As a kid, I loved to hear him talk. His stories about fighting during the Depression—"We carried our clothes wrapped in newspaper to the boxing gym"—first fired my interest in boxing.

For the last eight years of his life, after my grandmother died, my grandfather was on his own. He filled his time with travel and study, and told me wonderful stories about his experiences. Shah went to Mexico to take a class on art, and he walked the museums of Mexico City. He visited with us in St. Louis, and he took classes at the local community college.

One afternoon when Shah was living in Cleveland, my aunt Audrey came home and pressed the play button on her answering machine. She heard my grandfather's slurred speech and called for an ambulance. Shah had suffered a stroke.

When I first saw him after the stroke, Shah was seated on a stationary bicycle, wearing a white shirt, gray sweatpants, and new sneakers. The wisps of gray hair that normally lay flat over the top of his head were waving in the air as he pedaled with great effort—push the right foot down, left foot down, right foot—and despite the effect of the stroke on his speech, he told me about his plans to get to Mexico again.

He never did make that trip. By the summer of 1994, he had suffered a second stroke. I visited him a few times that summer. At one point, he had to be fed through a tube connected to his stomach because he couldn't swallow. By then he was unable to speak. I remember him holding a pencil and scratching a note to my mom and aunt that read, "Don't let them starve me."

I was preparing to make a trip of my own, and he was excited for me. I was going to fly into Vienna and then take a train to Zagreb in Croatia, to work with children who were orphaned by the war in the former Yugoslavia. He communicated to my mother that Vienna had great coffee; Eric should have a cup in Vienna. If he had been able to talk, I can only imagine the soliloquy I would have received about coffeehouses in Vienna. Shah even gave my mom a few dollars so that I could enjoy a coffee.

On my last visit to see Shah before my trip, I went to the nursing home alone. I had stopped to buy him a tube of chapstick, knowing that his lips were often dry and cracked. When I arrived he was lying in his bed. I put a hand on his shoulder, and he took my other hand in his and gave it a good squeeze. I handed him the chapstick and he grasped it lightly. He focused his eyes and pursed his lips. He lifted the chapstick to his face and tried to apply it, but the tube wavered an inch away and the balm never touched his lips. I stood there and watched. The effort tired him, and he set his hand back down. I should have reached across, taken the chapstick from him, and helped him. Instead, I only watched as he struggled. Since that moment, I've looked back many times, disappointed with myself. I was motivated to fly across an ocean for adventure and a good deed, but there I was incapable of a simple helping hand with my own flesh and blood. It was the last time I would see my grandfather alive.

Shah's life had been full of real, hard experience—struggling through the Depression, fighting in World War II, raising a family in a poor neighborhood—and I know that he would have understood my desire to box, and he would have also appreciated my desire to serve.

In the summer of 1994 the war in the former Yugoslavia was raging, and campaigns of ethnic cleansing were ravaging Bosnia. After Shah's war, World War II, and the horror of the Holocaust, the world had said, "Never again." Yet every day people fled burning homes, women were assaulted, and children were orphaned by vicious acts of violence. I volunteered to work with the Project for Unaccompanied Children in Exile. Together with several other students, I raised money to cover our expenses. We intended to fly to Europe and live and work in refugee camps in Croatia.

I took a semester of Bosnian, but I found the language difficult. When I was on the train from Vienna, I was very proud that I was able to use the one complete sentence I knew in the language: Ja sam u vlaku za Zagreb—"I am on the train to Zagreb." How that sentence was supposed to carry me through weeks of work in refugee camps, I had no idea, but if I were ever again on a train to Zagreb, I could let people know.

On the train, a middle-aged Bosnian woman wearing jeans, a rumpled jacket, and thick-framed brown glasses heard my accent and stopped me in the passageway.

"Are you an American?"


She asked me where I was going and where in America I was from. Then she said, "Why isn't America doing anything?"

"Doing what?"

"Why isn't America doing anything to stop the ethnic cleansing, to stop the rapes, to stop the murders? Do you know what is happening to the people of Bosnia? You know what's happening. Now why don't you do anything about it?"

I had no answer. I tried to explain that I was here to help.

"If you're going to help, why don't you do anything?" Her hands were shaking. She added, "You'd help us if we had oil."

I walked past her and stood at the window of the train. We had crossed into Croatia, and I took my first look at the hills of the Croatian countryside. A red compact car was driving on the road parallel to the train tracks. I raised my hand to the open window and waved. The man riding in the passenger side of the car stuck his hand out his window and flicked me off.

I was dropped off with another volunteer next to a gravel path that led to the Puntizela refugee camp. As the car drove off, kids from the camp came running toward us. They looked like any group of American schoolchildren. Most wore clothes that had been donated by Americans or Europeans and they smiled and they were clean and they seemed well fed and healthy and happy. The only refugees I'd ever seen were on the news, and they were always portrayed as dirty and distraught and lost in misery.

The kids swamped us. They asked, "Have bonbons?" or "Have chocolate?" Those who could not speak English simply opened their hands or scrunched the tips of their fingers together and touched their lips to signal for treats. The more inquisitive began asking, "You're volunteering here?" Two boys grabbed my hand. I thought that they wanted to hold it, but they turned my wrist—they wanted to look at my watch. Another boy was running circles around us as we walked. One of the boys looking at my watch glanced up at me and then at the running-in-circles boy and then back at me and frowned and shook his head and rolled his eyes, the international signal for "that one's a bit crazy."

Behind the kids followed Dario and Jasna. A married couple, they were refugees themselves and ran the volunteer projects in the camp. Dario was about five foot seven, a barrel-chested guy with black hair and a face covered in stubble. Beneath the stubble his smile was full of joy, but twisted just enough at the corner of his mouth to make you think he was about to fire a sarcastic bullet. I reached to shake his hand.

"Hey, how are you doing? Welcome to paradise," he said with a chuckle. He spoke to the kids in Bosnian, then told us, "The kids love you already, and they'll keep loving you as long as they think you've got candy." He laughed again.

Jasna was a little shorter and much quieter. With dirty-blond hair and a meek but warm smile, she walked slightly behind Dario and barely said a word in our first meeting. Later I'd learn that Jasna's English wasn't great, but she managed a wicked sense of humor. She was the more practical of the pair. She made sure that as volunteers we had a place to stay and that we knew the work schedule. She told us when lunch would be served. It was a good team: Dario kept everyone's spirits up and Jasna kept the camp running.

The Puntizela camp was outside Pula, Croatia, a beautiful city that was home to Roman ruins, including the Arena, one of the largest amphitheaters in the world. The stone walls of the ancient structure still towered 106 feet in the air, providing shade for the ice-cream vendors who set up shop on the stone streets. The refugee camp was set in a park on the edge of the Adriatic Sea. Bright blue water glistened off a rocky beach, and the area was surrounded by tall cypress trees. The refugee families lived in trailers. The trailers were cramped, but given my expectations about how miserable refugee life was going to be, I was surprised when I saw families living in trailers at a seaside resort.

I started a soccer team with one of the refugee boys, helped in the kindergarten, played chess with the teenagers, and talked with the adults. I sat in trailers with families and drank endless cups of coffee. Beyond my one complete sentence in the language, I knew enough Bosnian phrases and could say them with enough conviction to give the false impression that I actually knew what I was talking about. I'd often sit for long periods not understanding a word as my hosts took long drags on their cigarettes, paused, and then exhaled a flurry of words and smoke, animatedly chopped the air with their hands, and kicked away from the table in disgust. I tried to nod my head at appropriate moments. At times a refugee who spoke good English—often a teenager who would roll his eyes because the old men were repeating themselves—would translate their conversation for me in dollops.

"Then the Serbs came to his house. He told them to go away, but..."

"And now he is talking more about his cousin..."

"Still more about his cousin. He was, like, twenty-eight year old."

The beautiful setting of Puntizela couldn't mask the underlying reality of what had happened to the people who had come here. I heard stories of horrific violence. Although I knew that Dario and Jasna were refugees, I didn't connect the word "refugee" to direct violence until Dario and Jasna said they were from Banja Luka.

Banja Luka was strategically important to the Serbs because it was where the old Yugoslav Army had built major military complexes and stored munitions. When the war broke out, the Serbian Army took control of the city, hanging white rags on door frames to mark Bosnian homes. Soldiers stormed these homes to take dishes, televisions, furniture, jewelry—whatever they wanted. Serbian soldiers beat old men with the butts of their rifles, smashed fingers with crowbars, and dismembered bodies with their knives. Serbian soldiers repeatedly raped women and girls. They shot or slit the throats of anyone who resisted.1

Mosques in Banja Luka that had stood hundreds of years were riddled with bullets; others were shelled. For some mosques stubborn enough to outlast the shelling, explosives were laid at the foundations and detonated. The fresh rubble was cleared and the land designated for use as parking lots and garbage dumps.2

Men, women, and children were rounded up and taken to concentration camps like Manjaca. Community leaders were singled out and taken to other locations where they were severely beaten and tortured. They often "disappeared," never to be seen again.3Bosnians were forced to give up the houses that they had lived in for generations, and they were made to pay for the "privilege" of leaving for refugee camps.4 Many of the families that I met, victims of the ethnic cleansing, had been forced to grab what they could and walk away from their homes. Often, the buses packed with refugees were diverted to killing fields.

Torture and deprivation were, however, not limited to Banja Luka. In cities and towns across Bosnia, the Serbian Army forced men, women, and children into mosques and held them there for days. Occasionally they threw the Bosnians a snatch of bread or gave them a few ounces of water. The prisoners were forced to defecate on the floor of the sacred mosque where many of them had prayed and worshiped nearly every day of their lives. After starving them for days, the Serbians "offered" pork to the Bosnian Muslims and asked them to denounce the teachings of the Qur'an.5

The details I heard were often so sickening, I found it hard to believe that the people sitting in the trailers telling me these stories were in fact the same people who had lived them; the stories seemed to come from another world entirely.

A Bosnian man in one of the camp shelters told me that his wife had been dragged from their house and later raped. Both of his brothers had been killed. He had heard from a neighbor that one of his brothers had been tortured before he had been shot. His sister and parents lived in a different city, and he was not sure if they were alive. He lifted his shirt and showed me the scar on his stomach and chest left by a grenade that had been thrown into his house. He considered himself lucky that his children and wife were alive. He started to cry. His children—a boy and a girl—sat listening in the corner of the shelter.6

One night all of the refugees in Puntizela gathered for a party in a common room that sometimes served as a classroom for the school. Music played, and everyone was drinking beer. After a while some of the teenagers started to throw the empty beer bottles on the concrete floor, and shards of brown glass soon littered the room. One drunken teenager hung on my shoulder and said, "This is Bosnian tradition. Don't be scared. We drink this shit beer and party in this shit place." But many of the older refugees left and walked back to their trailers. One boy cranked the music painfully loud and yelled something I didn't understand, and then two boys jumped into each other as if in a mosh pit and started to wrestle standing on the glass-covered floor. More bottles smashed on the concrete.

I was twenty at the time, and it seemed to me that the older teenagers struggled more than anyone else in the camp. Those who were parents and grandparents in the camp were actively involved in taking care of their children, and they found purpose in that love and that work. The younger children were generally resilient, as kids are. But the war had hit the young adults just as they felt their real lives should have begun. They were trapped in the refugee camp with no prospects for a job, no prospects for further education. They had limited opportunities for fun, few chances at marriage. In their situation, I might have been smashing bottles myself.

On many nights, I sat in the common room as a radio played and the refugees talked and played chess. Denis, fifteen years old, was one of my frequent chess opponents. He wore jeans and a donated T-shirt, and often had a cigarette hanging from his lips. As we played, he would ask me questions about America, questions about where I had traveled, questions about my education.

The conversations were one-way. Every time I asked him a question, he laughed and shook his head. He didn't want to talk about his life, and what was I going to ask him? I couldn't ask him the kinds of questions I'd have asked the average American kid: What do you want to do when you graduate? What subjects do you like in school? What do you want to study? Do you have a girlfriend? What do you like to do on the weekend? Denis had no school, no job, no girlfriend, no way to think about a future beyond the camp.

Denis always used the word "shit" to describe his current life. "Shit trailers, shit food, shit clothes, shit TV." He didn't want to talk about the past. He'd smoke while we played, and most of the time he angled away from me, talking to other people while I studied the board. I would move my chess piece, he would turn his head to look at the board, move quickly, and then return to his conversation.

I'd often play chess for hours. I was a weak player, and even the eleven-year-olds sought me out. One young boy always sat and stared at me while we played. He played on the soccer team that I had started, and chess was his chance to turn the tables and coach me. After each one of his moves he would watch as I analyzed the board. When I took too long to move, he would roll a short circle in the air with his hand: "OK, OK." A moment came in every game when, after one of my moves, he would begin to shake his head, as if he had hoped that just maybe this time I might have provided some real competition. Disappointed, he would proceed to put me into checkmate. The only way I could maintain my pride was to remind the eleven-year-old, "Well, I'll see you on the soccer field tomorrow."

"OK, OK."

We gave vitamins to the kids in the kindergarten, and one day I brought a bottle of vitamins to soccer practice. With all the boys standing in a line, I handed out a "vitamin for athletes." I used a combination of English and Bosnian and charades to tell them that this would make their muscles grow. But one of the kids—nine or ten years old—yelled, "Those are the vitamins from the kindergarten." I said, "Yes, but the kindergartners can't do the exercises to make their muscles strong. If you take the vitamin and do pull-ups, you'll grow strong."

One of my happiest moments in the camp came when an older man in a wheelchair rolled himself out to watch our soccer game. Soon others came out with blankets. They smoked and talked and clapped as they watched the kids play. The game became an afternoon ritual. One afternoon, however, almost all of our fans were gone. Had I done something to offend them? I asked the man in the wheelchair, but my Bosnian and his English couldn't connect. I asked one of the kids where our fans were and he said, "They are watching Dallas."

"The TV show?"

"Yes." Every day, I learned, the women of the camp crowded around a tiny black-and-white television to watch episodes of the American show, broadcast—I believe—from Italy.

Because everything was new to me—the language, the location, the Bosnian coffee, the chess—I was learning and having a great time, and I lost sight of how hard this life was on the people around me. At some level, this trip was for me another adventure, a diversion away from the comforts of home. I could leave at any time.

Walking back to my trailer with another volunteer after lunch one day, I complained about the food: the same hot mush again. She gently suggested that my problems paled next to the refugees', and I snapped out of my selfish concern.

After several weeks I moved on to work in a second Croatian refugee camp. Gasinci camp, outside the city of Osijek, was what I had imagined a refugee camp to look like. Hundreds of prefabricated shelters had been set up, laid out in straight lines like a military encampment. In Puntizela, everyone knew each other. Gasinci, by contrast, was crowded with refugees, many of whom were strangers to one another. This was no seaside resort. Volunteers from Croatian nonprofits, as well as International Committee of the Red Cross, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and UNICEF personnel were also packed into the camp.

My first morning in Gasinci, I woke suddenly to the sound of exploding artillery. I shot straight up in bed and hit my head against the upper bunk. The Croatian Army regularly conducted maneuvers on a hill near the camp, and eventually I got used to the sound. In the early years of the war, there was intense fighting between Croats and Bosnians, and despite the alliance they now shared against the Serbs, the tensions of the past still lingered in the camp. A few days into my stay, Croatian soldiers shot two puppies that the kids in the kindergarten adored. None of the kids were injured, but the refugees were supposed to be protected by the UN, and the aid workers felt that the incident had to be addressed. I watched as outraged workers for the High Commissioner for Refugees debated what to do. In the end they decided to write a letter.

Before I'd left for Bosnia, people had been debating the role of the UN in responding to the ethnic cleansing. What should the UN Protection Force be allowed to do? What role should international aid organizations play? How can the UN use its power to shape events? As I watched the outraged workers type their letter—not fifty yards from where the puppies had been shot in front of the kindergarten—I realized that the UN High Commissioner for Refugees had no real power. The United Nations only brought in aid when the people with guns allowed them to. The UN, it turned out, couldn't take a stand to protect anyone. Not the kids in the camp, and later, tragically, not the people of Srebrenica.

In July 1995 the Serbian Army began shelling Srebrenica, a town that the UN had deemed a "safe zone" for Bosnian refugees escaping the terror of the war. Days later, the Serbian Army entered the Srebrenica camp. Serbian general Ratko Mladic requested a meeting with General Thom Karremans of the Dutch United Nations peacekeeping force and demanded access to the refugees. The Dutch battalion had only four hundred or so men to protect thirty thousand refugees. Faced with the Serbian Army's superior numbers and firepower, the peacekeepers allowed the Serbian forces to advance.

As word that they had been abandoned spread through the camps, thousands of Bosnian men fled through the woods. Those that remained were packed onto buses and driven by Serbian soldiers to soccer fields and old warehouses. Some of the men and boys were lined up and shot. At other killing fields, men and boys were mowed down by machine guns. Before they were shot, some had their eyes gouged out, their ears and noses cut off. Some were taken to warehouses, stripped down, and packed tightly inside before hand grenades were lobbed into the buildings.7

In all, more than eight thousand men and boys, ranging in age from fourteen to seventy-eight, were slaughtered, and nearly thirty thousand refugees were deported to Serbian-controlled territories over a period of five days. Srebrenica remains the most heinous massacre to take place on European soil since World War II.

Later, when I thought about the UN workers in Gasinci writing their letter, when I read about what had happened at Srebrenica, I realized that there was a great dividing line between all of the speeches, protests, feelings, empathy, good wishes, and words in the world, and the one thing that mattered most: protecting people through the use of force or threat of force. In situations like this, good intentions and heartfelt wishes were not enough. The great dividing line between words and results was courageous action.

Sitting in Gasinci, I understood the anger of the woman who had approached me on the train: "Why don't you do anything?"

I tried in my own small way to be protective. In Gasinci, a director of one of the nonprofits asked if we could bring all of the kids outside to meet a donor that afternoon.


"The donor wants to throw out gum to the kids and I would like you to make photographs."

I could imagine the scene: a donor standing with a bag of candy, surrounded by children, and tossing out gum like he was throwing feed to animals in a zoo. I said to the director, "Why doesn't the donor sit down with the kids and talk with them? The kids can show him what they've been working on. I can take photos of that."

"Yes, but they want photos of the donor handing out gum."

"I won't take those photographs."

"But you must."

Many of the aid-organization advertisements for refugee children made the kids look as pitiful as possible—dirty, hungry, begging. The children I worked with in the Gasinci camp did need help, but they were also entitled to their dignity. You wouldn't walk into an elementary-school recess in America and start tossing out gum and taking photos of "desperate children." So why here? These kids were smart and creative. They were survivors; they deserved more than to be showcased like animals in a zoo.

"Actually, no." In an effort to be sure that I was understood, I added, "I don't must," and I walked away.

One night, as buses filled with refugees drove into Gasinci, a Red Cross worker told me that some of the families had been forced from their homes and then made to watch as their houses were burned to the ground. In the shelters, I listened as old men smoked and argued about the future. Occasionally someone would translate, but I couldn't follow the conversation very well. The smoke was always heavy. Once I cracked the window an inch and stuck my nose near the window to get a breath. The men laughed at me. But the conversation was serious. One man was shouting and gesturing at the camp. He believed that all the young Bosnian men living there should be out fighting.

I remember a man in the camp telling me—as he gestured at his hut—that he appreciated the shelter. He appreciated the bread. He pointed to where his children could play, and, he said, he appreciated the volunteers and the crayons and the schoolwork. But, he said, "we need the Serbs to stop burning villages and raping women and killing brothers."


It was in Gasinci that I got my first lesson in international diplomacy. There was a woman in the camp who worked with the Project for Unaccompanied Children in Exile. She was married to a Croat, and her sister was married to a Serb. This was not uncommon. Lots of Croats and Serbians intermarried in the former Yugoslavia. Yet with in-laws on different sides, the war had strained the family. She told me, however, that her entire family was gathering for a dinner and she invited me to take a break from the refugee camp. She was very insistent. "You must come to my house. I will give you good meal." And so I went.

"Welcome, welcome. Eric is from America. He is working with Project for Unaccompanied Children." I made my way around the living room of a very comfortable home in the city of Osijek, filled with the smells of warm food and the tension of relatives who didn't much like each other. I said hello and learned names, and then we were seated.

The two sisters sat at opposite ends of a long wooden table lined with children and friends and family. During dinner, I was asked about my work, my studies. Some of the conversation was in Serbo-Croatian, and though I couldn't understand the words, I could sense the strain between the two sisters: short words, tight smiles, narrowed eyes. They passed around seasoned chicken, potatoes, vegetables. After we finished the main course, the hostess disappeared into the kitchen and then reemerged. "Eric, you must eat my dessert. Everything is of my produce, this cherry, this cake, this icing, all of my produce. Please, you must have some."

Then her sister followed quickly out from the kitchen. "And this dessert is of my produce. Please. This is of my produce."

The other sister said, "Choose what you like." Both sides of the family looked on.

It was my first exercise in international negotiation. Should I side with the Croatian host cake or partake of the Serbian pie? Should I be objective and pick the dessert I really wanted? How could I ease tensions and create peace? The sisters watched at either end of the table. I reached for one metal cake server, and then I grabbed another. With a server in each hand, I dug in and plopped a piece of each dessert on my plate at the same time. "These both look so good. I hate to take so much but you have to excuse me. There is no way I could pass up one of these." I felt like King Solomon.

Then my host said, "Please, you can eat them now. Tell us what one is your favorite."


At the end of my work in Gasinci, I returned to Zagreb and met up with the other American volunteers. We had a few days to finish the report we were writing about unaccompanied children, and one night we took a trolley into the center of the city for a night out. It was late when we walked back to our trolley stop for the ride back to the hotel, and we realized that the trolleys had stopped running. The square was empty of people, and there were no taxis. Our hotel was several miles outside Zagreb, and we didn't even know which direction to start walking.

As we discussed what to do next, the sound of laughter came from around the corner of a building. Out stepped a gangly Croatian, maybe six foot four, who was flirting with his tipsy girlfriend. He pinched her and she playfully slapped him. With the rest of the city deserted, I had no other options. I walked up to them and used my best Croatian.

"Gdje je, Hotel Park?"—Where is Hotel Park?

He whipped his head around when he heard me speak. "You are America! Ohhhhhhh my sweet home Alabama! OK 'merica, OK 'mer-ica. Follow me." So we followed him as he staggered along, pointing to me and singing, "America, America, Sweet Home Alabama!" He tugged at his girlfriend as he skipped through an underground pedestrian tunnel, his voice reverberating. "Sweet Home, Alabama!" I didn't know if he was taking us to Hotel Park, Alabama, or to his house for a drink.

"OK 'merica," he said. He stood at drunken attention and pointed. "Odel Park." I might be the only person in the world for whom this is true, but still today every time I hear "Sweet Home Alabama," I think of Zagreb.


I was in Zagreb when I called home. My aunt answered and I talked with her quickly before she handed the phone to my mom. "Hello," she said, and I knew from her voice that my grandfather was dead. When she actually got the words out, she started to cry. "I thought he was waiting for you to come home."

I finished the call and set the phone down. I thought of my last moments with Shah. An inch lower to touch his lips. That's all it would have taken. Here I was in a foreign country, out to save the world from genocide, and I didn't even have the courage to reach over the bedside to help my grandfather.

When I returned to Duke at the end of the summer, a friend invited me to speak at a local church. The congregation, she said, wanted to learn more about the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia.

On a Sunday afternoon, I stood at the front of a room before some twenty people seated in metal folding chairs. The man who introduced me said, "We've all read in the newspaper about what's happening in Bosnia, but you're the first person any of us have heard from who's actually been there."

I pressed the forward button on a slide projector and proceeded to show my photographs. A picture appeared on the screen of a girl drawing a house on the ground with a chalky rock.

The photos were mostly of individual children and families living in the two refugee camps where I had worked. I pressed the forward button, click-clack, click-clack, and showed a picture of refugees stepping off the bus into Gasinci, and commented on how many of them had lost friends and family members.

Click-clack, click-clack.

"This woman is knitting as part of a project set up by the Red Cross."

Click-clack, click-clack.

"This boy's mother was killed in Bosnia..."

Click-clack, click-clack.

"This is where all the kids went for classes..."

Click-clack, click-clack.

"These are the shelters where refugees lived in the camp."

With each turn of the carousel, I could see that this was the first time that the members of this church had connected on a human level to what they saw and heard about in the news. When they read about thousands of people driven from their homes, it was abstract. When they saw one family dragging a bag across a field in search of shelter, they understood.

When I finished showing the photographs, the lights flickered back on and I offered to take questions.

A white-haired gentleman raised his hand just above his head, and in a dignified Carolina accent said, "This may seem like a silly question, but where did they get their food when they were in the refugee camps?"

The questions continued like this.

"Where did they get their clothes? How did they wash their clothes?"

"Did any of them get to return to their homes?"

"What happened to the rest of the girl's family?"

The folks in the church wanted to know not about an issue, but about another human being's life.

The photographs and video footage that people saw on TV were often of moments of incredible tragedy: women wailing, children bleeding. The photographs I showed were of people who were very much alive, some of them smiling, and the folks in the church didn't just see a little Bosnian girl drawing a picture of a home. They saw a little girl who could have been their daughter, one of their friend's daughters, or their own granddaughter.

The pictures I shared from Croatia contrasted with the typical international aid photographs that showed desperate people, desperate babies, in faraway places. My pictures didn't fit that story. When looking at photographs of ordinary people doing ordinary things—albeit in a situation that was anything but ordinary—it was hard to dismiss the war in the former Yugoslavia as simply "ethnic violence" or "ancient hatred."

One of the church members asked, "Why did they want to kill the Bosnians?"

Before I'd left for Croatia, I would have had at least a partial answer to the question. I would have described the rise of nationalist politics and ethnic tensions, the weak response of the U.S. and the United Nations. After having lived in the refugee camps, I was, I think, a bit wiser, and I said, "I don't really know why, any more than I know why any human being ever abuses or tortures or kills any other human being."

The final question came from an elderly lady sitting in the back row. She asked, "What can we do?" It was a simple question, and one that I should have anticipated, but it caught me off-guard. I could have told her to send used clothing and toys overseas, or to donate money to organizations that helped refugees. But the anger of the woman I had met on the train from Vienna— Why isn't America doing anything?—and the words of the refugee in Gasinci— We need the Serbs to stop burning villages and raping women and killing brothers—echoed in my head.

The pause extended longer than I had intended and the audience looked expectantly at me for an answer.

"We can certainly donate money and clothing, and we can volunteer in the refugee camps. But in the end these acts of kindness are done after the fact. They are done after people have been killed, their homes burned, their lives destroyed. Yes, the clothing, the bread, the school; they are all good and they are all much appreciated. But I suppose we have to behave the same way we would if any person—our kids, our sisters, brothers, parents—were threatened. If we really care about these people, we have to be willing to protect them from harm."

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