“A friendship between two people is the smallest building block from which a peaceful world can be built.”
Smajos Story: A War on Friendship
What holds a country together?
What are the mechanism through which peace is entrenched, spread and maintained?
With Brexit reaching fever pitch, and the possibility of widespread political violence feeling closer than it has in Britain’s living memory, this seems like an important time to ask the question.
We all understand the power that groups like political parties, protest groups and trade unions have to organise and effect change.
But the power of one of our greatest tools for building peace is often hugely underestimated: the power of friendship.
If enough of ‘us’ are friends with enough of ‘them’, and if we actively nourish and appreciate those friendships, then violence and genocide need never be a threat.
Perhaps the best way of finding our way through the Brexit maze is not for one side to defeat the other, but for both sides to recognise their common ground and come together in a spirit of friendship.
A friendship between two people is the smallest building block from which a peaceful world can be built.
Throughout Smajo’s story so far, the unexpected nature of the genocide committed against Bosnian Muslims has come up again and again.
Bosnian Muslims, Serbs and Croats lived together, worked together and went to school together.
General Tito, the Communist dictator who ruled Yugoslavia until his death in 1980, had created formal ways of maintaining ethnic unity through his policy of ‘brotherhood’.
But Bosnian society had evolved its own extraordinary system of maintaining peaceful relations between Bosnian Muslims, Serbs (who are generally Orthodox Christians) and Croats (who are generally Catholics).
When a child was born, the child’s family would choose a kind of God-parent to guide that child through their life, called a ‘kum’ (rhymes with ‘room’).
The relationship was broader than just between the parent and the child: it became a relationship between the two families, and came with a set of rituals and obligations that made it a vital part of the fabric of Bosnian society.
But there is one important fact about the kum system that also made it a powerful instrument of peace: a family’s kums would always come from a different religion.
Among the patchwork of ethnicities that formed Bosnian society, an informal mechanism for collaboration and coexistence arose: a network of friendships crossing over religious and ethnic divides, joining together those who were not related by genes through the rituals of friendship.
The Bešos’ kums lived higher up the mountain than they did, and so whereas the Bešos would grow crops like tobacco and peppers, their kums produced more meat and cheese.
When the first harvest was taken, the Bešos would take it up the mountain to their kums.
At Christmastime, the Bešos would visit their Christian Orthodox kums; and their kums would return the visit at Eid.
Smajo still remembers the excitement of receiving coloured Easter eggs from his kums - and so although Easter is not a Muslim festival, Easter became a part of the experience of Muslim children; and likewise Muslim festivals became part of the experience of Christians, through their kums.
In May 1992, with the Yugoslav national army and the Croatian army (HVO) fighting near Smajo’s village, Barane, a 7-year-old Smajo fell ill and was taken to hospital by his dad.
It was as they tried to return home that they were stopped at a road block by an Officious Little Shit who said that they would not be allowed through (I imagine this guy to be one of those Prize Inadequates who gets given a gun and a uniform that’s eight sizes too big and suddenly thinks he’s Napoleon reincarnated).
The Officious Little Shit said that instead of going home, Smajo and his dad would be sent to a prison camp.
It is impossible to imagine how terrifying that decision must have been for Smajo and his dad.
A civilian father with a small son has no power against a man with a uniform, a gun and the weight of an army behind him (even if that man is so pathetic and shrivelled that when he was born the doctor probably handed the umbilical cord to his mother and threw him in the bin).
But Smajo and his dad were in luck.
A commander from the Yugoslav army called Zoran appeared - his grandfather was Smajo’s great-grandfather’s kum. Zoran took Smajo and his dad to the home of a man called Milan, who put on his army uniform and so managed to get them through a road block and back home again.
The Serbs who helped Smajo and his dad did so at enormous risk - perhaps even at the risk of being killed themselves.
But they did so because they realised that their obligation to their kums was greater than their obligation to any authority figure or nationalist ideology.
The statistics that come after a war will only ever tell us what was lost.
They tend to leave out the people who were saved by their friendships: the Germans who hid their Jewish friends in their homes; the Bosnian Serbs who brought food to their Bosnian Muslim neighbours; the Rwandan Hutus who risked their lives to protect their Tutsi neighbours from death.
The notion that genocide was inevitable in the Balkans is a false one: Serbs, Croats and Muslims did not only live in peace before the 1990s, they lived as friends.
To this day, the kindness of his families’ kums is still remembered by Smajo as the most potent example of the fact that the war was perpetrated by ideologues, not by Serbs or Croats.
Violence and destruction can move with incredible speed, but as Smajo’s experience on that frightening night in 1992 shows, the choice to act according to the principles of friendship rather than the principles of domination are always open to us.
The picture accompanying this post shows (left to right) Smajo’s brother, Sead, his cousin Jasko and Smajo himself at Tjentište war memorial. The memorial was part of a series built by General Tito to commemorate the Second World War.
Damon Richter, writing for Atlas Obscura, describes the significance of Tito’s memorials:
‘Instead of focusing on individuals—a Bosnian hero, a Serb or a Croat—the monuments of multiethnic, socialist Yugoslavia were also designed to celebrate universal ideals.
“Brotherhood and Unity” became the slogan of post-war Yugoslavia, and the abstraction of these monuments was a gesture of inclusivity. Often, the monuments were formed from multiple segments that rose together without touching, and yet which, from a distance, might be viewed as one single object, an allegory for Yugoslavia itself.’