A Time For Stories About Heroes - 7/28/2011

In the wake of the Oslo bombing and the massacre on Utoyo island, we have learned so much, too much, about the protagonist and villain of the whole tragedy. His name, his face, his life, his writings will live on. He can claim something close to victory, because the electronic archivist remembers him deeply--completely--and he is now known to us. But what of those who were at the scene of the explosion in Oslo, unharmed themselves but who helped those who were? They deserve to be remembered, they should be known to us, but by some unfortunate accident, they seem destined for the memory hole.

In George Orwell's 1984, the memory hole is an ugly contraption. It is a wall with several utilitarian slots for the erasure of truths, housed in a cubicle at the Ministry of Truth. "In the walls of the cubicle there were three orifices ... For some reason they were nicknamed memory holes. When one knew that any document was due for destruction, or even when one saw a scrap of waste paper lying about, it was an automatic action to lift the flap of the nearest memory hole and drop it in, whereupon it would be whirled away on a current of warm air to the enormous furnaces which were hidden somewhere in the recesses of the building."

Our current memory hole seems to be an accidental, collective neglect of human actions and interactions that ought to matter. It seems unfair that evil should be remembered comprehensively and into perpetuity, when good is not. We ought to give quiet acts of uncommon courage their due, as much as we do acts of cowardice and spectacle.

There's a remarkable story in war correspondent, Chris Hedges book, War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, that I keep hoping Hollywood will consider adapting to film. It is a memorare that, once read, takes root in the soft, liquid, feeling places of one's heart and mind.

Serbs, Drago and Rosa Sorak were living in Gorazde in 1992, when their lives became ensnared in the war between Serbs and Muslims. After Serb forces shelled their city, cutting off basic amenities, the family dug in and cast their lot with the Bosnian Muslim government. The Serbs attacked them daily from the mountains, and branded them as traitors. Both their grown children were killed--one son by the Muslim police, and the other in a car accident while fighting with the Bosnian Serbs. As one of only 200 remaining Serbs in Gorazde, they were a target for Muslim nationalists and bitter about the tragedy wrought on their lives. "How can you expect us to live with those who murdered our son?" Rosa told Mr. Hedges in his searing account.

Five months after their son's disappearance, his young widow gave birth to a daughter. The city was being shelled constantly, there was little food for anyone, the mother could not nurse her baby, and people were dying in droves. The baby began to fade after five days of being fed tea in place of mother's milk. "She was dying ... it was breaking our hearts," Rosa recalled.

On the edge of the city, Fadil Fejzic, a Bosnian Muslim, was keeping his cow in a field and milking it at night to avoid being hit by Serbian snipers. Roza told Hedges: "On the fifth day, just before dawn, we heard someone at the door. It was Fadil Fejzic in his black rubber boots. He handed up half a liter of milk. He came the next morning, and the morning after that, and after that. Other families on the street began to insult him. They told him to give his milk to Muslims ... He never said a word. He refused our money. He came for 442 days, until my daughter-in-law and granddaughter left Gorazde for Serbia." "It is our duty to always tell this story," Drago Sorak told Hedges. "Salt, in those days, cost $80 a kilo. The milk he had was precious ... he gave us 221 liters."

In viewing the reports in the media of the Oslo explosion, the image below -- captured by a Reuters photographer and accompanied by the caption, Passerby offers assistance to a woman wounded in the Oslo bombing -- moves me. The young man was on his way to work or school, his backpack filled with what he predicted he would need for the day. He could have kept walking. He didn't. It would have been more convenient not to stop. But he did. It is regrettable that he will not be celebrated for comforting a stranger, in the same way the media fell all over the Australian youth who was comforting his girlfriend with a kiss during the riots in Vancouver. But, what does this photograph capture if not a moment of boundless humanity, generosity, compassion, tenderness, and grace?


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