Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

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Introductions are in order

My Croat friend lives in Croatia. He’s in his late 20s and serves with the police force as an explosives expert. He’s defused hundreds of bombs and thousands of land mines with his hands. He has a great collection of Croatian music and hopes to open a café in Zagreb with his girlfriend.

My Serb friend lives in Serbia. He’s in his mid 20s and teaches English to schoolchildren in a building that has about eight rooms for 500 students. His village (the name begins with four consonants) is five miles from the site where a stealth bomber was downed during the NATO air campaign against former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. His neighbor has a piece of the plane. It looks like black hair, but it doesn’t burn.

I live in Madison. I’m 21 and a fourth-year civil engineering student. I haven’t decided what I want to do when I graduate sometime in 2003. This semester, I’m your regularly scheduled Tuesday columnist.

My Croat friend served in Croatia’s upstart army in the 1990s, defending his newly independent country from Serbian forces. He doesn’t really talk about it, but his eyes betray a sad emptiness. This calm, gentle man explains he had no choice but to go to war: “My country is my family. If you saw someone punching your brother, what would you do?”

My Serb friend also grew up in Croatia, where his father was the popular police chief of a mixed Serb and Croat community. When the Balkan conflict began, their Croat friends and neighbors turned on him and his family, dynamiting their lifelong home and all their possessions mere hours after they escaped. (“Dynamite?” I wondered at first, “Not just looting?” That was before I saw the pictures.) They became refugees, and his father was blacklisted and still cannot return.

I was born in Madison, grew up in Verona, and moved back to Madison for college. Since then, I’ve lived in a different apartment every year. Last year, I studied in Munich, Germany. My brother goes to St. Olaf up in Minnesota. Distance-wise, his city is about as far from Madison as Belgrade is from Zagreb, but only the latter trip requires two tense border stops that can add an extra hour to the traveling time.

My Croat friend talks at great length and with admirable passion about how he loves all people. He thinks every refugee should be able to return, and he tells me that if a Serb came to his country, he would take him out for a drink. But if the Serb had fought in Croatia, my Croat friend explains without hesitation that he would kill him. Looking into his eyes, I know he is completely serious.

My Serb friend and his family made their way to Serbia proper, where they lived as refugees until they were able to swap land with a Croat family. They built their own house, just like they now grow their own food in a backyard plot that requires constant tending. Like most families in the village, they sell what they don’t need on the street. They have a pig.

I love to travel, and I have discovered American money and an American passport are a powerful combination. I’ve also realized people have stories to tell and opinions to articulate which are far more complex and human than our news reports often suggest.

My Croat friend can’t understand why his country’s top generals are now considered war criminals. Without these men, Croatia wouldn’t exist as an independent state, and his country needs and deserves heroes. Americans are unique in the world for the way we view ethnicity and nationality, he tells me. “We call our country Croatia because we are Croatian. You call yourselves American because your country is America.”

My Serb friend detests Milosevic but has equally harsh words for former President Clinton and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who enjoys seemingly better name recognition in Serbia than in America. His stories about the NATO bombing are chilling. But he likes Americans and hopes to visit the United States someday.

I can think of few things more malleable than information, and some might suggest that my job as a columnist requires me to mold and shape such information to support a particular conclusion or to make a certain point. But when you ask where someone is going, it doesn’t hurt to know where they’re coming from. This week, I’ll just leave it at that.

Bryant Walker Smith ([email protected]) is a senior majoring in civil engineering.

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