One of the many benefits of living in Milton Keynes, or anywhere in the UK, is that nobody is trying to shell us, or our government is not currently bombing our city. Nobody is in a concentration camp and our public discourse verges toward apathy rather than racial hatred and tension. We can have a church service without our neighbours looking on suspiciously and we can send our children to school safely knowing that their minds will be taught a narrative to which we all broadly subscribe. Listening to the radio over half term and hearing a bunch of people arguing about whether a bacon sandwich was carcinogenic just proved the point – the things that we think matter now are a long way from anything that really does.
To ram the point home, I have been reading Ed Vulliamy’s outstanding book on Bosnia The War is Dead, Long Live the War, which deals accurately and personally with how people feel, when, having been shelled, bombed and raped from their homes by their allegedly “Christian” Serb neighbours, and forced into concentration camps or into exile, they want to return and build a life among those same neighbours who by and large denied that it ever happened in the first place. And because the level of atrocity is higher than anything else that happened in Europe since 1945, this matters. It matters that people cannot have a “reckoning” with their neighbours and thus with their history. Germany, and to a lesser extent, Japan, have come to terms with what they inflicted on their own populations and the populations near them. Serbia, like Turkey and the United States, have not. We, living in peace for so long, have forgotten that before there is forgiveness, there must be reckoning – an agreement by all parties that sin has been committed and owned to. Restorative practice does not function without this, and whilst Jesus said that we must forgive up to seventy times seven times, the prequel to that teaching is that if our brother sins, we confront him.
Following Vulliamy’s book, I have been reading Svetlana Alexievich’s collection of monologues from those who survived or were affected by the impact of the catastrophic explosion at Chernobyl in 1986. Entitled Voices from Chernobyl, it serves as an oral history of the desperate, the moving, the deceitful and the mundane that accompanied what was history’s worst recorded technological disaster. Bacon, of course, might give you cancer; who am I to disagree? But telling that to the hundreds of thousands who are struggling with cancer because of being in the wrong place at the wrong time in 1986 is likely to generate harsh laughter.
The people in Alexievich’s book are compassionate for the most part, limping internally with pain, bewilderment and loss, but are cultured, rooted people, who loved the towns and villages of the Pripyat marshes – the book is littered with references to cows, tomatoes, cucumbers, roses, peas and lilacs. The book is most notable though, for the loss of trust that thousands had placed in their government. There are many in this book, like the many inhabitants of the Balkans who saw themselves as fully Yugoslav, rather than Bosnian or Croatian or Serbian, who are proud of having been Soviet, and all that that gave them. It is the loss of that that also suffuses this book.
Neither book has pettiness in it. It is a testament to those who survived both sets of experiences that they take life with a measured seriousness. The pettiness is reserved, perhaps, for the perpetrators or those who would cover up the seriousness of what was done (though the most moving passages of Vulliamy’s book are rare moments when Serb officials do engage with the reckoning and face what they have done). The loss of an idealism in the face of a sick nationalism or deliberate deception by those once trusted is hard to bear. We, being a nation whose ideals have been shoved sideways by rampant materialism, can hardly imagine the loss that this means. It is almost an apostasy.
As I have commented in an earlier post, there is a heaviness to sin that drags along in its wake the agony of having to try and fix things. Over half a million Soviet soldiers were involved in the empire’s effort to repair the damage at Chernobyl, and the level of heroism of many of them was as great as anything experienced in war. The brokenness of Bosnia Herzegovina is all but irreparable until those working for peace and reconciliation can see the fruit of honest and repentant communities working together in honest and realistic dealings; interestingly, a post by Ed Vulliamy in the Guardian in August, following a visit to the Omarska concentration camp site (now an iron ore mine owned by ArcelorMittal) shows some early and hopeful signs of young Serbs breaking ranks with their parents’ generation and trying to find a way to reckoning, peace and eventual reconciliation, 23 years on from the genocide. A new town, Slavutych, dubbed the Soviet Milton Keynes (really, read it here!) was built to enable the work of the undamaged Chernobyl reactors to continue until their final closure in 2000.
The final thing to think about, I suppose, is that both of these events took place in a period between 30 and 20 years ago, and as such are part of the modern era. They took place in my world. Like the appalling Rwandan genocide, they were happening whilst I was watching. They are only historical in that we can offer some historical perspective. In every other aspect, they are part of me – all of us – right now, and they exercise a hold on my imagination at this season of remembrance that I cannot shake off nor escape.