Hanging on to “centerposts”

Demaris Wehr shares lessons learned from stories of Bosnian survival at the Vineyard Haven Library on Tuesday night.

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File photo by Susan Safford

In 1992 the world applauded a new and brighter day for the former Yugoslav people, finally free from Communist rule.

As the fledgling nations of Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, and Macedonia took flight, their prospects were rendered more idyllic in world memories of a picture-postcard Olympic venue in Sarajevo eight years earlier.

The carnage that came was sudden and savage. Perhaps we didn’t understand the history of the multiethnic and religious divide in the region. More likely, nothing could have prepared the world for the ferocity of the killing and inhuman savagery that took more than 100,000 lives in two and a half years (1992-1995).

The Olympic bobsled track in Sarajevo became an artillery emplacement. Sarajevo’s streets and the pastoral meadows formerly strolled by Olympians and tourists became killing zones. (For purposes of understanding: Based on population, the numbers of dead in the Bosnian conflict would translate into well over one million American lives lost.)

When it was over, there remained an imbedded nest of live landmines across the landscape and a complete list of human atrocities, including genocide, murder, and rape. Many of the perpetrators are in jail, serving shockingly light sentences for their brutal actions. Many of the survivors will serve life sentences for the crimes committed against them. But as we have seen over time, the human condition seems to prescribe that after the warmongers have done their worst, the peacemakers arrive to nurture and heal.

One such peacemaker is Demaris Wehr, whose work in the postwar region has impelled her to tell the stories of how eight people survived the ordeal. Her book, awaiting publication, is titled Making It Through: Bosnian Survivors Telling Stories of Truth.

Ms. Wehr, a psychotherapist and author with a Ph.D. in religion, will present a slide show of eight survivors’ stories and an overview of the events at the Vineyard Haven public library on Tuesday, Jan. 13, at 7 pm, and again on Tuesday, Jan. 20, at the same time. Last week The Times spoke with Ms. Wehr at her off-Island home in Calais, Vt.

“Of all the work I’ve done in my life, this [experience] is the most connected to my soul. The truth really does free us. I saw that happen in Bosnia,” she said. The “truth” she references is a spiritual trait or quality of character she found in each of the war survivors — it’s something they believed which enabled them to survive, and now, ultimately, to thrive.

Ms. Wehr made her first trip to the region in 2000 with the the Karuna Center for Peacebuilding and Conflict Transformation, a project called the Dialogue Project.

“I worked the summers of 2001-2002 in Bosnia with a team of facilitators. We did peace-building groups with Muslim and Serbian educators. It was transforming for me. As a result of ongoing interest in Bosnia, I attended a seminar in Sarajevo in the spring of 2003. Island resident Paddy Moore, a specialist in arbitration and conflict resolution and a board member of the Karuna Center, was also on that trip.

“That was the point at which I decided that I had to write the book. I wanted to write about how these people made it through. I picked out eight people I had met, four men and four women: a Serb, three Bosniaks (as Bosnian Muslims prefer to be called), a Jew, a person of mixed faith, and two nonpracticing Muslims,” she said.

The all-Slavic group represented three religions, and multiple ethnicities and intermarriages. One of her subjects today is a Nobel Prize candidate, another is an ambassador. All are people Ms. Wehr describes as “ordinary people who rose to extraordinary heights:

“How they made it through — that was the central question. The experience of interviewing them ended up to be inspiring rather than depressing. They all clung to some sort of quality or strength in which they believed, that helped them avoid going crazy with the madness around them,” she said.

Ms. Wehr adopted the term “centerpost” to describe the individual character traits on which they relied, including: forgiveness, humility, devotion to family, integrity, faith, optimism, duty, and transcendence.

In all, counting the peace-building work, Ms.Wehr would make six trips to Bosnia, interviewing, transcribing translations, checking the stories with the subjects. During the process Ms. Wehr encountered her own tragic circumstances. Her husband of 30 years became ill, and after a year, lost his battle with the illness. One day, as she went about her caregiving, Ms. Wehr said, “I realized that I was using the centerposts I learned from the Bosnians in my own life. I found myself using my Bosnian teachers to learn how to make it through life.

“I found myself using my centerpost qualities as a checklist. Practicing integrity, faith, forgiveness, and duty all became my centerposts while David was dying,” she said.