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Being Peace in the Balkans

I have been mesmerized. Through the Falklands and the Gulf, sitting in England in front of the TV set, the passive command center of those two wards, I protested this diet of media scrutiny. Nonetheless, I too became addicted to the news, with all its conditioning us to the notions of good and bad, stimulating our animosities, and providing a substitute for direct experience and action. In short, not doing—just viewing. During the Gulf War I wept to see pictures of bemused, piteous surrendering Iraqi troops and became physically sick at the sight of slaughtered civilians. Nevertheless, on hearing news of a cease-fire (later proved false), I felt cheated of the expected climax. It seems that peace and war exist side by side in all of us, and that we must make the choice to tum in the direction of peace.

My own choice to engage with the events in Yugoslavia was made after being wrenched from sleep by images of the carnage and speeches of 1914. I contacted the major British peace organizations to see how I could engage in this process but was saddened to discover the lack of any significant organized response to the first full-scale conflict in Europe since the Second World War. It seems that given the lack of any easily identifiable enemy, like the Bomb or Western intervention, the peace movement has a design fault—the pursuit of peace as an idea or an end, rather than something to practice and promote as a way. The energy of the peace movement seems reactive, coming more from opposition and criticism than from understanding and reconciliation.

I finally linked up with the European Peace Caravan. Before I left in late September 1991, I was able to attend a 5-day mindfulness retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh in Devon, and the practice of "being peace" provided a solid foundation for me to embark on this journey through the Balkans.

Only one other Brit on the caravan, Jean Pike, a non-denominational renegade peacenik, a granny saint constituting with me, a grandad, a mature, calming presence up front on our bus. Across the aisle is Harky, a New Jersey Dutch Mennonite minister and former Martin Luther King worker. The journey will be stressful for all—the war situation and route security is constantly uncertain. The spokesperson warns us that various factions will try, metaphorically, to hijack the aims of the caravan.

We stop the first day in Opicina, a Slovenian community in Italy. Brief poetic local speech: "You bring water to the parched desert of minority rights." Our first lessons begin—listen to different, tendentious voices, and understand where bridges can be built.

In Zagreb, impressive "civic" greeting. The caravan has, nonetheless, bypassed public awareness. We meet with religious leaders and talk of their role in a "defensive" war much equivocation. Harky and I assert spiritual responsibility as an uncompromising principle of nonviolent teaching. I proclaim the interbeing kingdom of God and Buddhaland in the present moment (where else?) and ring my mindfulness bell for silent contemplation. The Helsinki group representative reads an impressive Civil War Rights document, giving the church something new to chew on. One ecclesiastic surprises himself and us by saying, ''I'm a part of everyone and everyone is a part of me." The seed got watered.

Then, an interminable drive through the darkness. We lose part of the caravan. Delays, stress, and ill-temper follow. Jean and I point out that being here at all is an orchestrated miracle. We go in and out of Hungary, and into Vojvodina. The atmosphere in Subotica is affected by fear. The previous night, peace demonstrators lighting candles in the main square were beaten by police. I offer to remain and demonstrate with them- they decline. Repression has left strong marks here. Later, German Peter, Harky, and I go alone to the square to light symbolic candles. There is no interference to our low-risk but highly symbolic act.

Nothing prepares us for the incredible welcome in Belgrade. We reach an imposing venue in the center for talks and a concert. We are crowded by a throng of clapping, smiling, weeping people. A TV journalist offers the microphone: "What are you doing here?" "I'm part of these people." We are being mobbed and hugged. A lot of people wanting peace. I wonder if that is being reported on the evening news. Lots of talks and speeches. A nationalist politician is booed off the stage. I am unable to absorb more words, and sneak off to meditate. Later, have an interesting exchange with a women's group, and I am invited to teach meditation.

To Sarajevo through the mountains; enchanting little houses like in a child's drawing. How could there be war in a place so beautiful? The caravan participants, 500 strong, march through the streets of Sarajevo. I hear later that there is still no media coverage in the UK—we haven't shot anyone. Jean is capturing local women and hugging them into the march. We walk behind the Macedonia banner with Jan, a Dutch parliamentarian who now looks 20 years younger. With the aid of an interpreter, I make a public address to a large crowd gathered in front of the cathedral. "Here is where the first steps were taken into war in 1914. We now make our steps for peace by 'being peace.’” Amazed at the receptive and enthusiastic understanding of my message. Then, a most moving experience as a chain of human hands throughout the city link the various seats of worship. Everyone is hand in hand, smiling tears of joy and sadness—men and women, old folk and children, different races and religions.

There are armed killers in Yugoslavia who weep in confusion at the distorted chain of events they are trapped in. They need a new way to replace old hatreds. Yugoslavia is merely a rehearsal for what can happen in a disintegrating Soviet Union and go on to engulf the world. We have to point out the interconnections and communicate the reality. There is no such thing as "someone else's war." This will require great patience and understanding; the ability to respond and appeal to what is best in humanity. We have to learn to practice peace as a way. That final night in Sarajevo, Jean pointed out a little miracle she had heard on the "chain of peace." The adults were chanting, "We want peace." The children were chanting, "We are peace."

I decide to remain for a few days to contact ordinary people outside of the rarified atmosphere of the group visit and deepen my contact with individuals I have met. After two days in Sarajevo, I managed to find a bus service chancing the route to Zagreb. The journey is interrupted by a succession of paramilitary, civil police, and self-appointed vigilante drunks playing at being border guards.

In Zagreb I am greeted by the sight of young boys self-consciously sporting revolvers and automatic weapons. Whatever happens, the future will pay the price of this. Two hours later, guided through the blackout by young boys who explain to me that "the only good Serb is a dead Serb," I find the four-storey block of flats in Samobar where my wife's parents live. Two days later I kneel in front of the presidential palace in Zagreb with a young peace worker, Sandra, and place a rose with a note: "For the children who will die in a war."

I return to London. Sitting with my wife, I listen to reports that the Samobar barracks are under attack. We ring her parents and her father answers. He refuses to hide in the basement with his wife and neighbors. We can hear the bombs fall 100 meters away, and we persuade him to join his wife and lend her comfort.

The day after, the presidential palace is bombed, some say in retaliation for the attack on Samobar, some say it is a self-inflicted wound. The propaganda war, like the military one, is a nightmare of distortion and self-fulfilling myth. Its voice is very loud. At times it seems to overwhelm completely the voice of peace. The place where Sandra and I knelt to lay our flower, our seed of peace, is now a heap of rubble. The seed will need much watering.

John Bloss
London, England

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What is Mindfulness

Thich Nhat Hanh January 15, 2020

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