Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Power of One

I am going to miss American diplomat Richard Holbrooke -- I think the world is noticeably diminished now that he's gone. Too soon. Much too soon.

I was peripherally aware of his work through the years in a general sort of way, but always of the opinion that he was a diplomat of substance and tremendous personal integrity.

And then I discovered the Power of One and shortly after that, I really paid attention to his words and deeds. We were of similar minds.

You know how you grow up hearing ancient axioms like "the pen is mightier than the sword" and that one person can change the world? And you know how frustrated you feel when you see evil out there and you want to make it stop but feel your words will fall on deaf ears or that your donation of a measly buck to a cause will be of no use because what's needed is an ocean of money-- not a teaspoon, and no one else is contributing, so what's the point?

That feeling of frustration and anger worked overtime on me in late 1993.

I had been in a lather -- a serious one -- since 1992 when the Bosnian War got underway. As months wore on, stories of madness, violence and mass rapes dominated the news along with the words "ethnic cleansing." News of concentration camps was reported. The Serbs were going after all the Muslims in Bosnia-Herzegovina and their political and military actions were spearheaded in Sarajevo and elsewhere by fiendish sicko, Dr. Radovan Karadzic. 
I feel pretty much the same about Karadzic as I do about the Nazi Dr. Mengele. Karadzic was a psychiatrist. Guess he had some inkling into the depths of shame and self-loathing 20,000 women would experience during rape and afterward. He really knew how to get his jollies.

I never understood why the rest of Europe turned a blind eye to what was happening only miles away from the nearest wine bar and hot plate of pasta.
And where was the UN?
And where were the millions of available Muslims in the world to save their brethren from this ethnic cleansing?

I was being deliberately naive because I didn't want to think the world had learned nothing since World War II and Hitler's near-eradication of the world's Jews.
I didn't want to think that when people said "Never Again" it was ever going to be more than a symbolic reminder.

I certainly didn't want to think that most of the world's Muslim community didn't care about Muslims of the former Yugoslavia because they were "too western" and therefore not really good-quality Muslims.

And then one evening as Christmas approached, CNN did a story out of Sarajevo. They interviewed a woman standing on the balcony of her apartment. 

I was struck by many things at the same time. 

In the first place, her apartment building looked just like all the other apartments built in the 1970s in most North American cities. A slab of concrete, a high-rise, with standard issue sliding windows etc. Hers, however, was riddled with bullet holes.
The next thing that struck me was the obvious similarity between Sarajevo and Montreal. We are officially "sister cities" and as I gazed at the rooftops and remembered with fondness, the recent Olympic Games held in Sarajevo, I was overcome with an incredible sense of disbelief. How on earth could all this be happening, right in the glare of the lights of the CNN cameras?

Finally, what brought me to tears was the woman herself. She was wearing fashionable red-framed eyeglasses and watering potted vegetables on her balcony as she spoke to reporters. She said she had no lights, no heat, little food, and no hot water. She said this had been going on for two years. Soap itself was scarce. I think she was a professor, I am not sure, but definitely a well-educated professional. Anyhow, as she spoke, her voice took on a tinge of bitter sarcasm. Staring into the camera she said in a calm voice that the people in the west didn't care about her or anyone in Sarajevo or Bosnia. She spoke in such matter-of-fact tones that I felt my blood run cold.
"I care," I yelled at the screen. "Goddammit to Hell, I care!"

Days later, as I sat in warm tub of bath water, holding a fragrant bar of soap I had received as a holiday gift, I began to shake and cry. Suddenly, I started chanting names: Sarajevo, Mostar, Tusla, Srebrenica, Auschwitz, Treblinka, Belsen...and then, I knew what I had to do.

The Power of One.

I sat down and wrote a strong op-ed piece for the Montreal Gazette. I said that towns in Bosnia were not meant to live in the annals of history in the same way the Nazi camps did. And yet, and yet, why was I chanting them with the same horror? I accused the world. We had always used the excuse of so-called ignorance when it came to knowing what was happening in the Nazi concentration camps. But, what was our excuse now?
I implored people to take action. I accused the UN of being a broken promise in the East River. I said I had heard that woman on her balcony and I was not impervious to her pleas.
I challenged readers and journalists to rally, to go with me and march on the UN if necessary, if our own governments refused to act.
And, I exhorted people to rise to their better  natures. We are, I said, made of Gandhi and Joan of Arc. I just knew that people had to be more good than bad and indifferent.

Sensing I might have tapped into a zeitgeist of some kind, I rented a PO Box because I had a feeling I might receive mail.

The story ran in the Gazette, and was then picked up by the wire services and appeared out west, and the Calgary editor smartly placed the piece alongside a picture of the Sarajevo marketplace which had just been bombed.

Do you know how many letters I received? More than 1,200. 

Ordinary people wrote, local and far away. School teachers had their children write to me, draw pictures. I got some mail from Holocaust survivors and some mail from Nazis -- why the Nazis were upset, well, I guess it's because I had mentioned how names lived in infamy when they had no business doing that. I even got mail from prisoners who wanted to send money. Everyone was touched, everyone was angry, everyone wanted to help. 
And that's when the Bosnia Help Committee and other organizations contacted me and then I was able to direct people and donations etc. to the right places in Washington and Ottawa.

Through all of this Richard Holbrooke was actively pursuing positive and decisive action. What a horrible, horrible failure we made of things with the UN who were not mandated to shoot and fight, and who ended up running for their lives out of Szrebrenica while men were rounded up and major assassinations and crimes against humanity rained down.

Nevertheless, Holbrooke, cobbled together the Dayton Accord and finally, the war stopped. He was tough and determined. I was grateful for that.

In 2008, he returned to Bosnia and said he was reminded of his Jewish grandfather who had had to surrender his worldly possessions to the Nazis and run for his life. Holbrooke supposed one didn't have to be Jewish to imagine the kind of anguish and horror of the Bosnian War.
I realized he and I thought about the same things.

On a personal note, I have to say, that each and every letter I received as a result of my editorial made me cry. Strangers spoke so eloquently. I was moved more than I can say by the outpouring, and proud of Canadians and thankful for them touching me and making me feel less alone, as I had, apparently, done for them.

Of all the writing I have ever accomplished, that one small editorial and its ripple effect has to be the finest use of my "pen" to date.

I remember hugging those letters (which I still have locked away) and saying out loud, "If I were to die now, it would be all right. I finally did something good. Something to be proud of."

Indeed, I had proven that each and every one of us is imbued with great power and resolve, and that it only takes one act, one book, one idea, one incredible sense of drive and determination to help change the world.

Something to think about as we all gather around hearth and home this holiday.

I would love to know where that lady on the balcony is these days. I would love to wish her a continued good life filled with hot water, soap and electricity -- things we take for granted far too easily. I hope she has changed her view of ordinary people in the west. 

Finally, and not the least of this post, my sincerest condolences to the Holbrooke family -- and my deepest gratitude to a great man.

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