The classroom is perfect chaos. The crowd of seventeen year olds laugh, joke, jostle, giggle, squeal, and generally make merry. They are wearing ragged winter coats. This is because there is no glass in the school windows. It is winter in Sarajevo, and it”s very cold in the mountains of Yugoslavia. The year is 1997. The brutal four year war of blockade and genocide in Sarajevo is finally finished, leaving the city a bombed out nightmare. Earlier, I had seen the Olympic Stadium, now a collapsed disaster area, with a huge graffiti on the side—“WHY?”. Surrounding this very school are many planted red signs displaying skull and crossbones denoting “Caution! Live landmines!”
The school’s hallways are still deeply littered with shattered glass, and the walls are punctuated with bullet holes. Missile and grenade craters are everywhere. Many walls display warning signs with symbols demonstrating how the aggressors had laced the entire area with land mines, then placed a toy, or cigarette pack, or liquor bottle on top, so as to lure children or adults into picking up the item and detonating the bomb one can see through the broken windows the stark, ruined, naked elevator shaft of the rubbled communications building—a tragic skeleton many stories high- all that’s left of the center of area communications. Through the same windows, in every direction, one can see the rumbling tanks and jeeps of the UN peacekeepers.
In the high school, these children are the survivors. Many are refugees from elsewhere, most have lost family, friends and homes. And they do not hesitate to tell me their endlessly tragic stories – such as a mother shot by a sniper while fetching bread for her family, or living in the basement of their apartment buildings for four years, without daring to venture outside-with clotheslines stretching between buildings to safely pass back and forth needed supplies. Or their entire village and most people in it were destroyed and tortured. These children have been cold, starved, orphaned, abused, terrorized, and suffered every challenge we would hope our children never have to endure.
And yet, here they all are, living, laughing, telling about their sweethearts, or their basketball heroes, or their dreams for the future. They are in especially good spirits at the moment because I am there, dressed as a clown in silvery sparkly clothes and wearing a purple wig, red nose and big red patent leather shoes. Their teacher has given up on the idea of any further lessons for the day and left the room. The kids’ pure bursts of laughter shoot crystal jets of steam into the frigid air.
I wasn’t always a clown. Actually, I spend most of my time as a conservatively dressed medical doctor who doesn’t do physical humor, doesn’t get in peoples’ faces, and doesn’t behave in a silly way. But my friend Dr. Patch Adams (not my husband, ex-husband, brother, uncle or father) persuaded me to clown with him and others in challenged places on the planet, and I decided it was a good thing to do.
So here I am in Sarajevo, alone with these feisty children of war. It had been daunting to enter this room of teenagers. It’s one thing to clown for 5 year olds, quite another to make a teenager laugh. Teenagers everywhere are testing their newly acquired worldliness, while careful not to look silly to their friends, etc., and these kids are no different. Looking cool sometimes doesn’t allow free laughter in front of adults. And teenagers in troubled places can sometimes be violent mirrors of the disasters they are living.
But I decide to use face paint, which I mostly just smear around. Face painting was never a my forte, but the kids here think it’s hilarious. So we are laughing, and jumping around in the crowded room, and being silly, and the kids are telling me their stories.
These stories are their gifts to me—precious gifts I have received from similarly challenged and damaged folks in many places on the planet. These gifts are worth more than anything I might be able to do as a doctor or clown for them, and I am so grateful. This is wisdom from the trenches, from those for whom living another day or eating a meal or having warm clothes or surviving an episode of strep throat are not givens. They are stories from those who know full well how to thrive on a challenged planet and in difficult times, and have been living that hard-won knowledge on a daily basis.
Suddenly, a magic thing happens—that unexpected thing that stops time and bathes the scene in the brightest, purest, most healing light. A handsome, dark-eyed boy named Ahmed asks if I will paint a yin yang on his buddy’s forehead.
These are Muslim children, so my own internal bias clicks in. Since a yin yang is a symbol of eastern philosophies and religions and not a Muslim tradition, I ask Ahmed, “Do you know what a Yin Yang means?”
Without hesitation, he says “Sure, do you know what it means?”
“I do,” I answer, then ask,”What does it mean to you?”
“Well,” he says, “It means Where there is great Darkness, there is great Light, and Where there is great Sadness there is great Joy, and where there is Death, there also is Life.”
It takes a moment for me to catch my breath. I’m not hearing any sound, though the room remains riotous. It’s just me and the dark wells of this ancient boy’s eyes. I’m thinking about all this 17 year old boy has survived, and how deeply he understands what he has just said.
He smiled and laughed at his buddy as I did my sloppy version of a yin yang on his forehead. And I was thinking that I would never forget the amazing wisdom this child of war has shared with me. And I am grateful – all these years later, his words reverberate in my heart as the world explodes with senseless violence. There is hope, there is always hope – he taught me.