In 1999, I found myself in Skopje, Macedonia, an evacuee from the Kosovo war. While there, I headed a war crimes documentation project, interviewing some of the 800,000 Kosovar refugees. In the midst of tragedy and suffering, I had the privilege of meeting the great humanitarian, Elie Wiesel, who left this earth a little over a year ago. Today, more than ever, we need these gentle, heroic souls, and I need to be reminded that they have walked this earth -- and left a lasting legacy. The following is what I wrote at the time, included in my memoir in progress.
The U.S. Embassy called to say President Clinton was sending Elie Wiesel here as a personal emissary to speak with refugees. They would like me to meet with him. Would I be available? I said I might be able to rearrange my dance card. I didn't hear anything more for a week, when the Embassy officer called from Stenkovac 1 camp and asked if I could come there to meet with Mr. Wiesel. I grabbed Sebi, one of my young Albanian-speaking staff and a refugee from Kosovo, and hopped in a taxi for the hot ride out to the camp.
Despite the fact that UNHCR had still not issued us badges to enter the camps, Sebi and I flashed the badge Aferdita (our office manager) had made for us using a stapler, a business card, and a safety pin. We entered with no trouble. An embassy staff person met us and walked us through the camp to the tent where Mr. Wiesel was meeting with refugees and staff of the International Rescue Commission, of which he was a board member.
This was my first visit to a camp. About what I'd expected, given oral reports and television footage. Hundreds of grey, white, and khaki tents of various sizes lined up in rows on a dirt field with no trees or foliage. Laundry hanging on tent lines. Women bending over, washing plastic cups in shallow basins of water, carrying babies, changing diapers, tending toddlers. Men lying inside tents with little to do. Children teasing strangers, saying "hi" in English, but no boisterous play, no running and shouting. International aid organizations and insignias everywhere. A group of Japanese Peace tourists. My impressions were gleaned from stolen side glances, as we walked and talked with our escort.
Eventually, we approached the small IRC tent, where a couple dozen people gathered around a slight, grey haired man. When he saw me, he stopped the discussion and came forward to greet me, hand extended, saying "Hello, Judith!" That was enough to impress me for the rest of the century -- and well into the next millennium! I introduced him to Sebi, he ushered me to a chair beside him, and the conversation resumed.
The speaker had apparently just finished telling of his ordeal at the hands of Serb forces in Kosovo. He was expressing his anger and bitterness. Mr. Wiesel listened intently, without interruption. Another man entered the conversation and told how his Serb neighbor had killed a member of his family. Mr. Wiesel asked respectfully, "Do you hate all Serbs?" "Yes," the man, a staff member of IRC, replied in perfect English, without hesitation. He said they were a bad race. He'd read about it in a book, so there must be a scientific basis for it. Mr. Wiesel did not argue with him, but turned to a young girl of about 16, who was going to Canada, and asked her if she fell in love with a boy, agreed to marry him, and then found out his parents were Serbs, what would she do. "I would not take him," she replied firmly. Later, with tears in her eyes, she told Mr. Wiesel how a Serbian man had tried to rape her. With her permission, he held and comforted her.
A man who was with Mr. Wiesel, perhaps another IRC board member, urged him to tell about his experience in Auschwitz. He gently but firmly declined. It was these people's pain he had come to witness. He would not belittle it by judging their hatred. Later, I asked him if he hated all Germans. Quite simply, he answered, "No, I never did." And he acknowledged, again without judgment, that some others who survived the Holocaust still shun everything German. Sebi told him that she had worked with Serbs, had Serbian friends, but she would not see them now. He understood. For the Albanians, the terror was immediate. In Kosovo, it continued.
Mr. Wiesel told me he still struggled to understand hatred and the evil of which humans are capable. He asked the refugee whose neighbor had killed his relative, "How could he do that? To someone he drank wine with, whose children he knew, who had worked beside him and laughed with him?" The man had no answer -- except that he was Serb.
At one point in the discussion, I said that the international community bears some responsibility for what Milosevic has wrought, in that they chose to negotiate with him to end the war in Bosnia. Mr. Wiesel disagreed. He said the Bosnian war had to end, but the fault of the international community was that they failed to intervene sooner.
Mr. Wiesel clearly had a heavy heart after listening to so many tragic stories. He shook his head and wondered how this could happen at the end of the 20th Century. And he offered his concern as well as his deep appreciation for the work we were trying to do. I tried to convey my gratitude for how he chose to live his life and all he'd given to the world. He answered humbly, "We have such a short time here. We must do what we can."
And then I boldly asked if I could get a photograph. He graciously complied, pulling Sebi and me close to him, then telling the photographer to take her time as he was enjoying himself! The cars arrived and he was bustled off to his next appointment, while Sebi and I walked slowly back through the camp. She was as moved as I -- and she had not known of him before this meeting, nor read any of his books. There is something about greatness of spirit that one recognizes in its presence. It is indefinable, yet a palpable presence. I almost think that alone could conquer all the evil in the world. Perhaps, if it wasn't for that, there would be no world left worth struggling for.