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Global Conflict Survivors Share Stories, Talk Forgiveness

Two of the most notorious acts of violence of the last quarter century, the Bosnian genocide of the 1990s and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, were given human faces at a recent panel event hosted by the University of the Virgin Islands on its St. Thomas campus.

Lejla Mušić, a professor from Bosnia, and Danny Tom, a 9/11 survivor, shared their personal experiences of conflict and trauma with the goal of highlighting issues of what panel facilitator Janet Gerson called "The Moral Imagination."

The event, which was titled "Stories and Conversations," was organized by Lorna C. Young-Wright, who is UVI’s Ann Elizabeth Richardson Distinguished Professor of Music, along with Gerson, who is the education director at the International Institute on Peace Education.

Part of the funding requirements of the Ann Elizabeth Richardson Distinguished Professorship required that Young-Wright organize a public event for this academic year, and UVI President Dr. David Hall said he was pleased to see she had decided on an event that would speak to issues of global conflict and peace.

"One tends not to think of a music professor as convening a gathering of individuals engaged in peace and conflict resolution, however, if you know music, you know that it is one of the healing forces of the universe and it is not strange that someone who is a music professor would be interested in bringing together people who are scholars in the area," Hall said in a brief but poignant prelude to presentations by Mušić and Tom.

Mušić, who teaches at the University of Sarajevo in Bosnia and Herzegovina, said she was 10 years old when the Bosnian war began as an ethnic-religious conflict over territory. Muslim Bosniaks, Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croats battled over control of Bosnia and Herzegovina from 1992 to 1995 in what ended as Europe’s bloodiest conflict since the Second World War. Over 100,000 people were killed in the Bosnian war, which captured the attention of the world due to war crimes committed primarily against ethnic Bosniaks by ethnic Serbs.

Mušić, a Bosniak who said she once spent an entire year in an atomic shelter during the war, explained that her experience of the conflict as a child lead her to pursue an academic career in understanding human conflict. Mušić says she is interested in the concept of Eco-Nationalism, which she has recently published a book on.

Mušić described Eco-Nationalism as a form of nationalism that is superior to traditional ethnic nationalisms because it is based on shared environmental imperatives that exist in a given region rather than opposed forms of group identity. She also shared quotes and insights from various philosophers and scholars on the ethical dimensions of responding to crimes against humanity.

The personal account of New York City native Danny Tom, who described himself at Friday’s event as "an ordinary man with an extraordinary story," was less academic in content than Mušićs presentation, but no less interesting to the crowd of students and community members who gathered at the event.

Tom, an employee of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, was working in his office on the 70th floor of the North Tower of the World Trade Center on "a cloudless September morning" when he heard an explosion and felt the building shake intensely. While Tom had felt the building sway previously in conditions of high wind, he said that on that occasion he knew something was not normal. Tom likened the motion of the building to the wobbling of a car antenna that has been pulled in one direction and released.

Upon exiting the building, which took him 45 minutes due to the amount of people escaping via the stairs, Tom said the scene above — black smoke pouring from a hole in the tower — was so unbelievable that his first thought was that that his workplace had become part of an elaborate movie set complete with special effects. He said his mind literally did not allow him to register the reality of what he was witnessing.

Although Tom’s story ended in his reunion with his family, including his wife — who also was an employee at the WTC but who had taken the day off — he said that the trauma of the event affected him deeply. Not only did Tom lose friends and coworkers on September 11, he also suffered from weeks of survivor’s guilt and much longer confusion on how to grapple with his own emotions towards the perpetrators of the attack.

At Friday’s event, both Mušić and Tom were asked about the capacity of human beings to forgive the sort of violence that they had experienced. Mušić implied a sort of academic detachment in her way of coping with the events of the Bosnian War, saying that she never talks to her students about her personal experiences and leaves the heavy issue of forgiveness "up to God."

"I never think about forgiveness … It’s up to a higher force … I think I am too small, just a human being. It’s unforgettable, but we haven’t even come to the issue of forgiveness," she said.

Tom, while saying his first reaction to his experience was a desire for revenge, was more willing to take a stance on forgiveness as part of conflict resolution. "I think we need to forgive, for our sake, for humanity’s sake," he said.

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