Columns 2017

Would we have the strength

Sometimes we spend an inordinate amount of time in America gazing at our navels without really paying attention to the rest of the world. It’s not that we don’t have our own tragedies = Las Vegas will remain with us for a long, long time. But we sometimes don’t do much more than take a passing glance at the horrors happening in other parts of the world.

In many ways that makes sense. What touches us directly is always going to have more of an impact than something that touches people far away with strange names, strange customs and strange languages; strange to us, at least.

This is why travel is sometimes a very eye-opening experience. It brings the world home as the rest of humanity experiences it and makes me, at least, ever so much more appreciative of the life I’ve been privileged to have in America. And I say that even though I spend most of my days horrified by what currently passes as leadership in Washington.

On my most recent trip, I visited some countries that had once been off limits to those of us of a certain age, the children of the Cold War. I’m going to these countries now because I was to see the people and places that had for so long been described as frightening and forbidding. As I’m sure will come as no surprise, the people aren’t scary or forbidding. For the most part, they simply want to get from today to tomorrow with their family fed, warm and safe. Pretty much what we all want for ourselves and those we love.

So it was particularly interesting while in Dubrovnik, Croatia to listen to a woman speak about the day that her city was shelled in the opening salvo of what would be a five year siege of the city. Without going into too much history, Dubrovnik was involved in the war that resulted in the dissolution of Yugoslavia and the creation of independent states such as Croatia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina.

She spoke about waking up one day and getting her eight year old daughter ready for school when the shelling started. At first she didn’t know what the loud bangs were. She soon found out. For the next five years her life would be anything but normal.

One of the prides of Dubrovnik is that the city has never been invaded. So when the shelling continued, offers were made to the residents – especially the women and children – that they could evacuate safely. But most did not go because they knew if they did, they would leave their city open to the enemy.

As the woman spoke, tears came to her eyes because to this day she feels as though she should have left for her daughter’s sake. But she didn’t. She stayed in a town that overnight had no water, electricity or sewage services. No heat in winter. Nothing to cool them in summer.

School was sporadic. If the shelling was quiet that day, her daughter went to school. If not, she stayed home.   Heat was from a fireplace. Heating fuel was old wooden furniture broken up and thrown on the fireplace. Flushing a toilet meant risking going to the shore for seawater. You only did that at night.

Despite all this, her daughter’s school continued to function as well as it could. And the ballet school her daughter attended continued to teach in the dark and cold auditorium, putting on performances by the young cast whenever possible, Food came in by sea as a flotilla defied the shelling to bring necessities to the city. And amidst all this, the woman simply stated that life went on because… well, what else can you do. She spoke about how the human condition can adapt to anything if necessary. She said that her daughter has no regrets about staying and is proud that she withstood the siege. She told her mother that if the choice had been hers to make, she would have done the same thing.

I wonder how we Americans would handle something like this. Just waking up one day to find all those things we take for granted, from electricity to sanitation, taken away. Would we have the stamina to survive? Would we find the sense of cohesion and fellowship that kept the people of Dubrovnik going for five years of shelling and war?

I want to think we could. I want to hope we could. But mostly I’m grateful that we have never had to be so tested, that our land is safe and a power outage in fixed in hours, not years.

And no, Dubrovnik was never invaded. The people never left and those who stayed can proudly say that they did not desert their post when the going got tough. You have got to admire that. You’ve got to hope that if push ever came to shove, we too would find that courage.