Note: this is the 2nd part of a rather longish piece started here.
The first Balkan War of the 1990s had ended and wanting to remain involved, I started working for a venerable human rights foundation in 1997. We were bringing the Promethean light of democracy to Eastern Europe and I decided to be one of its torch bearers. What I didn’t realize was that it would come in the less luminous form of grant proposals, travel arrangements and workplans. I was now part of a new crusade of world-changers. Prometheus the Paper-pusher.
And still in DC, the Beltway, the suit-and-tie, I was far removed emotionally and spiritually from the drama I craved. So in 1998 I accepted a transfer to Budapest, hoping that by being closer to the cauldron my love affair with the region would be rekindled.
Of course there was still more paper-pushing. However, this time I was helping organize families of missing persons, most of whom were women whose last glimpse of their husbands, sons and brothers was in the shadow of violence. One woman was forced to watch her husband and young son have their throats cut before she and her daughter were raped. Others saw them march off to war and never return. There were Serbian families who suffered as well. But they were mistrusted and despised by the others because it was their men who “started the war” and their pain was borne on the home front, far from the blood and the burning.
They were all very ordinary people trying to see a way out through tears of loss, anger, fear, and hatred. They were doctors, peasants, clothes designers, teachers, engineers. Widows and grieving parents. Victims. A few were no strangers to bloodshed, and remembered the last time war descended upon their homes in the 1940s. They prayed that neither they nor their children would ever see it darken their doorways again.
Our job was not to console them or find their family members but turn them into, in effect, lobbyists. And I couldn’t even give a shit. Here I was asking them to forget their horrible experiences and transform into a textbook special interest group. And I hated myself for it. They only wanted answers. Where is my son buried? Are the remains of my husband among the bones, too? Who will look for our loved ones after we’re gone? What about justice?
The only thing I could offer was grant money, workshops, and travel expenses—which they accepted because they had need, albeit grudgingly because it only reminded them of their powerlessness. I felt useless and worse, a charlatan. The gimmicks I had used to sustain my interest no longer worked: the policy wonkery, self-righteous advocacy, the media-savvy smarminess.
All I wanted was to lose myself in conflict waving a blazing torch of what was really just sturm und drang. But the flame had gone out And with a heavy heart, I let it go.