The National Catholic Review

Kosovo is a land in need of a voice. And the only one I can hear, or even imagine, is Sylvia Poggioli of National Public Radio. As I ride along on the bus I hear her describing the shattered houses and ruined streets. I wait for her to tell me about the tragedies peppered all over the sometimes-beautiful countryside. Hers was the voice that first told me about this place, and about the sadness here.

This is a land of unspoken and oft-broken promises that history shows have duped the people who live here. This is a land on the verge of something. On the verge of what remains to be seen. It is a land that sears images into the mind. I marvel at the cartons of black-market cigarettes stacked in neat little towers next to the roadside along a one-mile stretch. In the next, I recoil from the land mines placed with similar precision alongside the road. The mines have been placed there by farmers and townspeople for collection and destruction by the Army’s ordinance teams. But as they lie there in the sunlight, their flat green coloring and their dreadful utilitarian shape speak of the evil that has ravaged this country. An old and virulent ethnic hatred, sometimes in remission but never cured, waits just beneath the surface for the unwary to activate. Its power and force simply rip apart anyone or anything that gets in its way.

Coming to Kosovo was not a choice for me; it was part of my duty as an Army chaplain. A priest was needed in the theater, and when the Army cast its eye about for one to meet the needs of the soldiers, its eye settled on the 82nd Airborne Division and me. I went by myself, not with my unit, which meant that in a certain way I was on my own. I didn’t like the idea, but that was where the mission was; that’s where the soldiers are; so that’s where I needed to go.

Despite those initial misgivings, I’ve learned a great deal from being here. Most of what I have learned has been taught to me by the children of this region. They have taught me lessons about grace and beauty, and about the darker things in our lives too, revenge and greed and the other things we carry deep in our hearts.

A few weeks ago I was out with a group of priests from several different armies, the Irish, French, British and Spanish. Together we went out to the grave site of a group of 30 villagers who had been massacred just prior to the start of the NATO air war. According to local lore, it was the massacre of these people that finally brought NATO storming into the region. It seemed somehow unlikely, but it was important to these people to believe that, as if by being the trigger it somehow gave the deaths meaning.

As we walked up to the graves, a crowd of children quickly surrounded us. They clutched their class photos in their hands and followed us with great solemnity (at least as much solemnity as a herd of more than a dozen 3- to 12-year-olds can muster). The foreigners were here, and they had come to see the graves. The graves were situated on a hillside overlooking a steep valley and a small village. They all bore huge red wreaths, the color of Kosovo and a symbol of Kosovar independence. The interpreter, an older man with a huge silver and black mustache, pointed out the grave of a 99-year-old man whose throat had been cut as he lay in bed. The Serb police had accused him of being a rebel and executed him on the spot. The graves were located some distance from the actual site of the massacre, so we began walking. As we walked, the children told us through the interpreter about the night of the massacre. It was like the Greek chorus of some tragedy.

Then the police came, intones an eight-year-old boy.

And they dragged them out of their houses, continues a little girl with black hair and shining blue eyes.

They brought them here. Solemn nods from all of the children ratify this pronouncement.

The children go on telling the story of the massacre, each relating the part he or she knows, or perhaps has learned. Their group telling continues like a strange hymn, the lyrics of which are nearly obscene coming from the mouths of children.

As we arrive at the site, which is in a small clearing in a gully that runs up the steep hillside, one boy finished the story with the exclamation, Here is where they all died. And he points. The scene is bizarre. These children could not possibly have been witness to the events they have described, and yet they recite the tale over and over for all who come to see the place. The import of this chant is hammered home when one of our group observes, You know, they’ll keep telling this story for the rest of their lives.

Too true. This event will give them meaning, will make them important among their peers, will allow them to be a part of their local history. It will also teach them to hate Serbs and keep that hatred alive for at least one more generation. The hatreds and killing for honor (they call it besa) are not merely an obligation, but a privilege as wella privilege that feeds on hope and any sort of peaceful future for these children or anyone else here. That the future of children is sacrificed on the slights of the past doesn’t seem to bother anyone much. It is met with shrugs; that’s just the way it is, the way it has always been. Like a strange Glory Be of hatred. From these children I learned of the dark power that history might have over us if we cannot learn to forgive, if there is nothing more important than ourselves and our pride.

But the children here have taught me to hope too, have taught me about grace, and how it is to be received. As I drive down the road in a convoy, children spill out of the houses lining the road and rush, too close for the comfort of most drivers, to the roadside to wave. The Americans are here again, as we are every day, and they are to be greeted and celebrated. Everywhere I go in this country they come out to wave, to shout greetings, to welcome us and to rejoice in our presence and the delicate freedom that we represent.

I was initially surprised by this phenomenonbut we, the Kosovo Force, or KFOR, had by now been in the country for over a year, and yet the children still greeted us in this way. Surely the novelty should have worn off by now. Then I came to realize that they saw us not as a novelty, but as a source of hope and light in their lives. We represented something new, yes, but somehow we were the bearers of something to be relished and cherished, something not to be taken lightly and not to be forgotten. We were to be acknowledged and welcomed always. Our presence didn’t necessarily mean our visits were pleasant ones; sometimes we came to search for weapons and explosives and other contraband, but the children always delighted in our presence. And that was where I began to realize that they were teaching me about God’s grace as well.

As the deputy task force chaplain, I had received an enormous shipment of leftover Easter candy from the European Post Exchange system to give to troops and the local children. I knew the troops were well saturated with gooey, cream-filled eggs and other sweet delights; they had begun to avoid me whenever they saw me coming with a chocolate bunny tucked under my arm. I had befriended a Special Forces team that was working locally, and they invited me to go along with them to distribute some of this candy. They had armored HUMVEEs, like old-fashioned jeeps on steroids, and we set out from camp for some very rural villages that didn’t see Americans much. As we approached the first village, the driver popped open the top hatch and said, Go ahead sir, climb on up!

Shouldering a box of chocolate and lollipops, I climbed up into the hatch, riding like some sort of sugar-bearing imperial Roman general after a victory. Instead of coins, I tossed marshmallow duckies to the crowd. And the response was far more enthusiastic than I would have guessed. These children were overjoyed. The playground at the local school emptied in seconds and the armored behemoth in which I was riding was suddenly threatened by a mass of sixth graders who wanted candy. It was as though they had never seen the stuff before. Perhaps they hadn’t. They didn’t just rush the vehicle, they positively swarmed it. After several minutes of refereeing the melee (the big kids trying to take candy from the smaller ones and the like), we made good our escape with the aid of some well-placed Tootsie Rolls thrown by the fistful toward the back of the crowd. The kids bolted for the loot, and we were off in a cloud of dust, trailing 8- to 12-year-olds for about a mile.

It was several miles farther on that I once again learned something of God from these children. We had climbed well up into the hills, deserted except for a few houses. And as we rounded a corner, I spied from my perch a boy walking home from school with his head down. He never even turned to look and see who was coming up behind him. He had sandy blond hair and as we slowed to pass him, his expression was dour. I pounded on the roof and the driver slowed to a crawl. I whistled to him and he looked up, just in time for me to toss him a fistful of sweets which he scooped from the air with his arms.

His expression immediately went from disbelief to elation. He could not believe his good fortune. He waved and beamed a smile at me that I can still see. Pure, unadulterated gratitude. He shouted something I could barely hear and surely wouldn’t have understood, but I suspect it meant Thanks!

Later, as I prayed about the expression on that boy’s face, I realized that he had taught me much about God’s grace and our needed acceptance of that grace. Like us, he was going along, thinking that nothing new, different or good could possibly happen today. Then, out of nowhere, goodness rained down upon himunlooked for, unhoped for, unearnable, just a gift, freely given, beyond price and beyond the means of the recipient. The only thing he could do was accept it for what it was, be grateful and move on. That is what we need to do: be stunned by the explosion of God into our everyday life. Accept the gift of grace, use it for the purpose for which it was given and be grateful for it.

Ultimately, I don’t know what the future will bring for the people of Kosovo. I know only that God is there with them in every dark moment and every joy. I know too that God’s grace can heal even the deepest scars and help us through the darkest times into the light. I learned that right before I was deployed from Fort Bragg. I received a written phone message one day with a familiar but unplaceable name scrawled at the top. After dialing the number, a woman’s voice answered and I asked for John Marks, the name on the note.

Why is this name so familiar? I asked myself while he came to the phone.

Hi, this is John came the voice. I identified myself and waited, hoping that would be enough to figure out who this person was.

You don’t remember me, do you Father? chuckled the man. I admitted that I didn’t, but that his name was very familiar.

Well, you helped us through a really difficult time a while back, when we lost our son.... Then it clicked. I knew why the name was so familiar. The first significant ministry I did after arriving at Fort Bragg a year and a half earlier was when I was called out to help a family who had lost their son, their first child, in childbirth. Going through that experience with them was painful; and though we had prayed together, I felt ill-equipped to help them. I wondered aloud why he was in touch now.

Well, we’ve had another child, and we would like for you to baptize him before you go to Kosovo.

I was stunned. God’s grace had healed these people, brought them through something so hard and painful I couldn’t imagine it. Most importantly, though, they had never given up hope, and now they were living an act of faith in seeking to baptize their son that humbled anything I would probably ever do. I was witness and beneficiary of God’s grace, poured out through these parents. I had seen them come full circle, from tragedy to triumph, from sadness to joy, and I had seen them led there by God.

It is through them that I know that no matter how horrible things are, no matter how hopeless things may seem, God will work through our hope, and bring light to our darkness with gifts too wonderful for us to hope for, too incredible for us to wish for and in such bounty that we cannot imagine. I know this is true because I have seen it written on the face of a child in a war zone and the faces of parents baptizing their child.

John J. McLain, S.J., is a chaplain with Special Forces at Fort Bragg, N.C.

 

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