Wednesday, December 15, 2010


Her name was Marina, and she taught me conversational Serb.  Or at least she tried. For the most part the three young soldiers who met with her for two hours every morning just let her talk.  It was better to watch her and listen to her birdlike voice talk to us about life in Bosnia, how things were said, and how different groups said the same thing in different ways.  She had no English, but spoke enough Russian that when we didn't understand her she could explain herself to us.

She was a couple of years older than me, and was beautiful in an all-American Bosnian girl kind of way.  She had green eyes, a creamy white complexion, and had dyed her hair that reddish purple color that European women seemed to favor in the early 1990's.  The difference was that she made it look good in the semi-unruly just-tumbled-out-of-bed she was able to pull off day after day. 

I didn't talk much, but she didn't mind doing most of the talking.  You sit across from a goddess for two hours a day and try to speak in a foreign language.  I was lucky to be able to speak English, let alone Serb, to her.

She came from a small village near Mostar, and had gone to university in Sarajevo.  Her family was Muslim, but wasn't religious.  She had studied to be an engineer of some kind, and hoped that after her gig with the U.S. Army that she could find a good job with a German company.   Her refugee status didn't allow it, but her husband (damn the luck, and my own wedding ring) had applied for a work permit, and things were looking good. 

She had married her university sweetheart, and moved with him to a small town near Tuzla.  When the Bosnian war broke out, her husband and all of his male relatives had ended up in one militia or another under the Bosnian government's umbrella.  She had stayed home until the night her Serb neighbors decided it would be nice to live in a Muslim free area.  That night she, her mother-in-law, and young sister-in-law got out just ahead of the mob.  Her neighbors who didn't leave everything they couldn't carry and run endured gang rapes and worse. 

Marina ended up in Sarajevo, staying with friends from her university days.  When the Serbs encircled Sarajevo and cut it off from the rest of the country in order to starve it out, she and her mother-in-law became responsible for a small group of younger children whose parents were either fighting, dead, or missing.  She endured the first winter in Sarajevo, where all of the trees in that beautiful city were sacrificed to survival.  Food was in short supply.  She liked to joke about how fat she'd become in Germany after being so wonderfully skinny in Sarajevo. She would sometimes tearfully talk of the children who she was responsible for.

Eventually, she and her little group were evacuated to Germany.  The children were distributed out to the NGO sponsored foster programs that had been hurriedly put together.  She and her in-laws were eventually able to find her husband, who had his own adventure making his way out of Bosnia through Croatia and Austria. Her husbands uncles, father, and brothers weren't quite so lucky. 

The Americans found themselves with their pants down when it came to Serbo-Croat speakers, so she found a job teaching us bluntskulls who already spoke one Slavic language or another how to speak Serb. After a few months of failing to teach people Serb in 21 days, the Army moved the language program from Augsburg to Garmisch and extended the program to 16 weeks.  This put the Serb teachers under the wing of a proper language school, since the Army's European language training center was there.  It also gave them proper jobs, and I've heard that many of them were able to use their work there to get permanent residence in Germany. 

Marina was the first Bosnian I ever got to know, and when I think of Bosnians, hers is the face that pops to mind.  For the most part, she didn't care about ethnic differences prior to the war.  She was ethnically Muslim, but in that country all that meant was that her ancestors had decided to stop being Catholic or Orthodox and start going to the mosque.  If you put her next to the Croat teachers, other than the fact that she made them all look drab and plain, there was not real difference.  But somewhere in the collective psyche of the Serbs, Croats, and even the Muslims, a difference was found and exploited. 

We find a lot of differences between ourselves here in the United States.  A lot of vitriol is exchanged between left and right, black and white, rich and poor.  I have heard Baptists insult Catholics, Christians spew hate about Muslims, and atheists ridicule them all.  For the most part, I let all of this flow past me.  I make the occasional pithy remark, but I try to stop short of personal attacks against individuals or groups.  A lovely young woman with sparkling green eyes once taught me that neighbors can rise up against neighbors in horrible ways, and my greatest fear is that our wars of words, ideas, and talking heads will turn into wars of bullets, rapes, and burning.

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