For five days we had been on the Danube, sliding ever eastward along the tree-skirted river whose waters in places broadened to as much as a mile across. The grim fortress was a reminder that peacefulness was deceptive in this a beautiful but unhappy land.
Alice and I had booked rooms on a riverboat cruise through half a dozen former Soviet-bloc countries in the Balkans. The Huns and Ostragoths once passed through here, as did the Christian Crusaders. Until the past century, most of these lands were under the control of the Ottoman Turks. The history of this region is one of war and violence.
Historical memories run strong in this part of the world. On bus rides into the countryside, our tour guides invariably recounted the wrongs visited on their particular nationality. Inevitably the villains were neighboring ethnic groups that at one time or another had wrenched away ancestral lands. Compared with Germany and Austria, these are poor nations, and the needs of the population for employment, housing, and even sufficient food are strongly felt. But these countries are also spiritually tormented and bear indelible scars of distrust, even hatred, of other nationalities.
Only occasionally were there signs of life along the shore. At times the river seemed to move not at all, but then a glint on the water would betray a ripple showing that the Danube was steadily washing toward the Black Sea. Life on the ship between periodic trips ashore was well regulated and reflection came easily.
I wondered if the tendency of Americans to ignore the darker aspects of our human condition would be seen as somewhat odd in the lens of time. Certainly our Catholic tradition, with its reminders of sin, guilt, and forgiveness does not shirk from the mystery of evil. Yet within American culture as a whole, a spirit of secular optimism has largely displaced any perceived need for redemption. Among Danube peoples, by contrast, the darker side of human nature is palpable.
The day before we reached Belgrade, our ship passed the Croatian city of Vukovar with its burned out buildings still visible. In 1991-1992 the Serbian army had ferociously shelled this city during the opening phases of a civil war. Further east we passed the remains of the suspension bridge at the Serbian town of Novi Sad, destroyed by American bombs. The breakaway efforts of various states in the former Yugoslavia had brought out the worst in human nature. As our ship rippled along the Danube, a memorial service was being conducted in the Bosnian city of Srebrenica, less than 150 miles away, where some 7000 Muslim men and boys had been executed as part of the “ethnic cleansing” in the summer of 1995. Later we encountered a Croatian family driven from their homes and farmlands by the “Serbski.” Among those in authority at that time, none of these actions were occasions for remorse.
From our ship’s mooring at the Belgrade dock, a tour bus delivered us to the city fortress that dominated the bluffs above the river. An Ottoman general, defeated in battle by the Christians, had once committed suicide here at the order of his Sultan. Now the bad and the beautiful of human nature were inextricably mixed. It was Sunday morning, and on a lawn within the fortress an elderly woman had spread a blanket on the lawn and was selling hand-embroidered goods: tablecloths, napkins, baby bibs. On a nearby street, a Sunday morning craft fair was underway. Young women were helping children make pictures by gluing seeds, dried corn, and macaroni onto large sheets of paper. But nearby, newspaper headlines announced a NATO ultimatum demanding the extradition of one of their top generals because of war crimes. As we drove off we passed the charred remains of the Serbian army headquarters that had been destroyed by a cruise missile. Our young female guide, oppressed by forces and powers beyond her comprehension, repeatedly assured us that her people were good at heart.
Adjacent to the fortress stood the Greek Orthodox Saborna Cathedral with its tall onion-domed bell tower. As we entered, the Eucharist was being celebrated, with men standing on the right, women on the left. The congregation was surprisingly youthful. But there were less than 100 worshipers in the Church, a small gathering for this busy urban center.
The Gospel of St. John speaks of Christ as providing humankind with living water—nourishing refreshment from a moving stream. Standing there in the cathedral, I thought of that enormous swath of the Danube Basin, and the flow of broken humanity that has crossed these lands over the centuries. Within this great saga, the Good News spoken by a carpenter’s son from Nazareth appears as a mere ripple glinting in the sunlight. Faith alone could tell us that this tiny movement of the water is a telltale sign of the deeper presence of God’s mighty and ceaseless compassion for all people.
August 29, 2004