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Stopping six centuries of violence

 

Weingarten's work with common shock has taken her to some of the most violent corners of the globe. When she returns, she brings back stories that, in keeping with the witnessing tradition, move and empower with their poignancy.

She recalls her work in Kosovo, where the war between Kosovar Albanians and Serbs took place in 1999. While the war was short-lived, it's roots are six centuries old.

It all began, she says, back in 1389, with the Battle of Kosovo, an epic clash between the Serbs and the Kosovar Albanians, during which Prince Lazar was killed and buried in a field.

Six hundred years later, in 1989, during a rousing speech by Slobodan Milosevic, the alleged remains of Prince Lazar were dug up and carried from one Serbian village to the next in a cart.

The chosen trauma of the Serbs and, by implication, the Kosovar Albanians and the peg on which the grim war of the ensuing year was hung, was the 1389 Battle of Kosovo, says Weingarten.

"It was as if they created a time collapse by doing so. It was as if there was a collective awareness of the chosen trauma," she comments. "That was what created an appetite in the Serbs for getting behind the oppression of the Kosovar Albanians, the structural oppression of them and then military action." The Serbs, who acted as the perpetrators of mass violence in the recent conflict, were seeing themselves as victims of the Kosovar Albanians, whom they perceived in the present moment as having been perpetrators of violence against them.

With hope from Kosovo

On her first trip to Kosovo, Weingarten recalls being unable to get out of the country, forcing her to leave via Macedonia. She was riding on road where a mass exodus had taken place. The road still had land-mines. Throughout the country, and alongside this road, there were burial mounds, covered in plastic flowers and guarded by United Nations forces. At one point, Weingarten recalls noticing an area with burial mounds guarded only by two armed UN peacekeepers. "I asked to stop and saw that there were people in the area to whom we might speak. I got permission from our interpreter to speak to them," she says.

A man working at one of the burial sites told Weingarten that 283 people had earlier been murdered there in the presence of everyone in the village. He was tasked with the exhumation of the bodies and their reburial in a dignified and traditional manner.

This man had been a member of the Kosovo Liberation Army and he saw it as his job to exhume the bodies as a new way of responding to the atrocities he had witnessed, Weingarten recalls, her eyes tearing as she recalls the moving encounter. "Some nights he couldn't leave the burial site because he couldn't bear leaving the dead. Mostly, he said, people just passed by the burial site and he said it had made an enormous difference to him that we had chosen to stop and talk to him."

He went to a shed to get plans showing a mausoleum which would mark the burial site of 83 people. The mausoleum would house a history of the region and the people that had lived there. "He was crying, we were crying, and it was clear that he was moving out of the cycle of revenge and doing the deep work of mourning the dead. He told us how much it had helped him that we had chosen to witness him and his work," she recalls.

In keeping with her approach to witnessing, Weingarten told the man that one day she would use his example of mourning the dead as an inspiration to others to do the same in the face of violence. That was on September 10, 2000, Weingarten recalls.

The next year, ten days after the September 11 attacks on New York, a woman consulted Weingarten about the aftermath of the attacks on New York and Washington. The woman's husband had been going to three funerals a day for victims of attacks and the trauma was wearing her down, and consuming her with worry that her husband would never recover. Weingarten pulled out a polaroid picture she had taken of her encounter with the Kosovar Albanian and told the woman about the meeting.

"The message for this woman was that yes, it is possible to recover. The message I am giving you here is that small moments of connecting, and witnessing can matter. I tell the story in South Africa and who knows then how it travels. It is one of the most powerful experiences of my entire life."

 

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