After every war someone has to clean up

Things won’t/ straighten themselves up, after all.

This is how the great poem, “The End and the Beginning” by the great poet, Wislawa Szymborska, begins. I couldn’t help thinking about this poem on the two occasions when I was in Serbia this year. And it’s not entirely clear to me why I can’t shake this poem when thinking about my visits, but I think that there is still a rawness to Serbia that reminds me of the poem—the way that a place and its people move forward in time.

It’s been twenty years since Slobodan Milošević and the terrible war in Bosnia. It’s been sixty-nine years since Nazi Germany and the Italian Fascists invaded Yugoslavia. And it’s been almost 100 years since that day in June when Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Duchess Sophie in Sarajevo, setting in motion WWI.

Someone must drag in a girder
to prop up a wall,
Someone must glaze a window,
rehang a door.

Photogenic it’s not,
and takes years.
All the cameras have left
for another war.

When we first visited this summer, there was the immense strain at the boarder control stops trying to get back into the EU. In fact, we were turned away at one border trying to get back into Hungary. The agent told us that the border was only for Hungarian nationals and that I wouldn’t be permitted to re-enter the EU. In retrospect it wasn’t that serious, but at the time, there among the deserted fields, the rundown factories and the cracked signs that said “YUGOSLAVIA” rusting on the side of the unpaved roads, it felt like one of the scariest things I’d ever experienced.

There is something insincere about the way we tell the story about war in the United States. I think this has changed since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but I grew up a Cold War baby. I believed Russia was the embodiment of evil and that there was a good Germany and a bad Germany and a very scary wall. And the war in Bosnia is something that I really only remember from the television, and only then as fast flashes of lights as bombs whizzed across the sky like electrical fires. Györgyi heard those bombs. There were over a million refugees from that conflict.

But a few weeks ago we went back to Serbia. To Subotica, which is a town pretty close to Hungary. Hungarians call it Szabadka, which sounds like the way that it used to be pronounced when the town was under Ottoman rule. And until 1920 it was the second largest city in the Kingdom of Hungary. But like everywhere in this part of the world, it suffered from wars and occupations. In the last twenty years, the town has slowly started to modernize. Despite the fact that many ethnic Hungarians and Croats left the town when there was a rise of Serbian nationalism during the Milošević period, there are still signs in Hungarian and just about everyone we encountered spoke Hungarian.

It was a brilliant day of sunshine and people were out enjoying it. Walking through the shopping streets, enjoying musicians near the central fountain and drinking coffee at the local outdoor cafes.

Sobotica’s Great Church was built in the 17th century by a Hungarian architect. It’s dedicated to St. Theresa of Avila, the Spanish mystic and writer (Let nothing trouble you/ let nothing make you afraid…). As you can see from the picture, there is an enormous crack in the church. It’s pretty awesome.

Life was just moving along. It was a Friday. Signs of the modern, globalized world mixing with older paces. Strange in a way.

In the green outside of the church, women were taking a break from cleaning the war memorial. It was lunchtime. They took off their jackets and rested their hands on their rakes and brooms.

School was just letting out as we got into our car to drive back to Hungary. Modern teenagers running through the leaf-covered streets to the convenience store where they bought scones, cigarettes and energy drinks.

On the highway near the border we passed a horse pulling the last of the season’s corn harvest. All I really know is that the world speeds up and then gets slow again.

Those who knew
what was going on here
must give way to
those who know little.
And less than little.
And finally as little as nothing.

In the grass which has overgrown
reasons and causes,
someone must be stretched out
blade of grass in his mouth
gazing at the clouds.


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