We lost our childhood. We lost our homes and families. The only thing we have left is hope | PARADE
BY LYNN MINTON | A unique event took place last year, when the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity brought to Venice, Italy, teenage leaders from strife-torn areas of the world and the U.S. to meet with each other and world leaders. It was hoped that by sharing their experiences, feelings and ideas, the future generation of leaders would have a better chance to understand each other and to reduce conflict in the world.
What follows came from several conversations that took place during the course of a week.
Where is my Family
Whether they came from the former Yugoslavia or the Middle East, Northern Ireland or Africa, these young people had similar experiences to share: Living in fear of what may happen to them, losing family and friends, having their world disrupted. Many spoke of the pain and suffering in their lives.
“The Serbs occupied our town when I was 16,” said Goran Mesarek, 19, a Croatian. “They arrest me and put me in a camp. When I come out, I find out my parents and little sister are gone. I ask some Serbian friends, ‘Where is my family?’ But they say they don’t know. But no one will tell me. Some people say they are dead. Some say they are in some camp in Serbia. A couple of my good friends and their families have also just disappeared.
“I want to know, are my parents alive or no? It’s driving me crazy. I was pretty desperate for a while—you think about suicide.”
“There was a period when it seemed as if every day a soldier was stabbed or a bomb went off,” said Meital Cohen, 15, of Jerusalem. “It was so terrible, every day, to turn on the television. You knew that something bad had happened, and you just waited to hear it.”
“Until 1991, I didn’t know what nationality I am,” said Jelena Postic, 18, who lived in Croatia. “Then, one day in school, they asked me. I didn’t know, so they called and asked my mother. She said, ‘Serb.’ Later one, these men came to our apartment. Croatian soldiers. They took all our belongings. Everything. Even my pictures I had since I was 3. What did they want with my pictures? After that, we moved to Poland.”
“The soldiers came to my house when I was sleeping and made me feel afraid,” said Ruba Musleh, 16, a Palestinian from Jericho. “I want to help everybody not to feel like I felt, because it was very bad.”
“I had a friend who was with me in school from first grade to seventh grade,” said Haris Hadzic, 16, a Bosnian displaced to Croatia. “Then, suddenly, he left us. Just disappeared. Then we see on television, his father on an armored tank, shouting and laughing. That broke our hearts. All we knew then is that my friend is in Belgrade, and his father is in Bosnia in the Serbs’ army.”
The Cycle of Anger
These young people also spoke of the cycle of aggression and revenge, blame and recrimination—going on for years, decades or even longer—that fueled these deadly conflicts and sometimes seemed impossible to stop. “In Israel, for many years we tried to do to the Palestinians what they did to us,” said Yehoyada (“Yoyo”) Mande’el, 16. “If they made a terror attack, we went inside Gaza, we went inside the territories. We took people, and we put them in jail. We still do. We went inside their houses and harassed them. I really believe that we did it as a must. It was a security risk.
“The Palestinians see it differently. It doesn’t matter how I see it. They see it differently. Because of the revenge they saw we did to them, they revenged more. There was another terror attack. It was like ping-pong, and every time 20 people died or were captured.”
“Four years of our lives have been destroyed,” said Goran Mesarek. “We feel desperate. We want to be safe. I’m not an animal to hate someone. But I can’t live with the people who killed my parents. I can’t live with them anymore.”
“My granddad and my dad’s oldest brother were killed by the white man,” said Kim Muhota, 20, of Kenya. “And my dad’s second brother was put in prison for life. This kind of story happened to many families. If you told someone like that, ‘Let’s forgive the white man for what he did, let’s leave that in the past,’ that wouldn’t really be practical. Because there’s a lot of anger there.”
“You cannot say that we don’t know who bombed Bosnia-Herzegovina first,” said Tarja Krahic, 19, who was born in Bosnia-Herzegovina but displaced to Croatia. “In my city we were living peacefully. My dad is Muslim. My mom is Croatian. My best friend was a Serbian girl. Suddenly, one morning, my city was occupied.”
All Sides Are Victims
Still, many of these young people realized that peace will only be possible if notions of revenge are put aside.
“In a conflict situation, everybody must bear some responsibility,” said Keith Jacques, 20, of Belfast, Northern Ireland.
“From my experience—and I’m active for peace in Israel—it’s not so important, the past,” said Yoyo Mande’el. “If I was there before or the Palestinians were there before—right now, for me, it doesn’t matter. Because my family and friends are hurt, and I knew people who were killed in wars of terror attacks. And if we argue about who was in Israel before, it won’t solve the problem. We have to say, ‘What is going on right now? We should try to compromise. We should try to speak with each other, to see each other as a person. Maybe we can work for a better future.’”
“We all suffer,” said Laith Arafeh, 16, a Palestinian from East Jerusalem. “And we all are very eager to find a solution to our suffering, because we can’t take it anymore.”
“All sides are involved in the war,” noted Aleksandra Cvijanovic, 17, a Serb, “and all sides are victims, mostly the children.”
“Most of us have been hurt, one way or another,” said Omar Hassan, 15, of Cairo. “And I think the only way we can accomplish peace in the Middle East is if Israel helps the Arabs solve their hurt, and the Arabs help Israel solve their hurt. But if each country keeps making accusations, that only makes the wounds that much bigger.”
For the American teenagers, these conflicts were at times difficult to understand.
“The thing I find discouraging is that, with each of these conflicts, it’s almost like people have to die,” commented Daryl Bernstein, 19, of Scottsdale, Ariz. “And then, after a period of time, everybody gets tired of the fighting and dying, and they eventually come together and make peace. And it’s almost like these lives were lost for no reason at all. If only the people had just sat down in the beginning and said, ‘Let’s imagine what it would be like to have our friends and our families die, and let’s make peace now.’”
“Regardless of who started a war, people are dying,” said Ron Fox, 20, of San Francisco. “Forget about how it started and why it started and solve it.”
“But how do you eliminate the anger and bitterness?” asked Anil Soni, 19, of Northbrook, Ill.