20 years after Bosnia, searching for meaning after terror

During the recent 20th anniversary of the Bosnian war, I reread a court-approved email I had received from Radovan Karadzic, … Continued

During the recent 20th anniversary of the Bosnian war, I reread a court-approved email I had received from Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leader charged with genocide.

The Serbs “fought for freedom without denying the rights of others,” wrote Karadzic, a man his lawyer describes as a deeply religious Orthodox Christian who had practiced psychiatry in Sarajevo.

In 2010, I traveled to The Hague to witness Karadzic’s trial with a very different psychiatrist, Esad Boskailo, who had spent a year in six Bosnian concentration camps. Only bulletproof glass separated the two middle-aged psychiatrists, each over six-feet tall: Karadzic with his famous pompadour, and Boskailo with spiked gray hair.

Boskailo is a Bosnian Muslim and I am a Jew, but when we decided to write a book together about finding meaning after terror, we were determined to avoid easy answers about suffering and religious language that fueled men like Karadzic.

We began to think we might have something to say to people who defined religion more broadly and who faced the kind of trauma that outlives anniversaries.

Boskailo, whose family had come to the U.S. as refugees, had been inspired by reading psychiatrist Viktor Frankl’s account of the Nazi concentration camps, “Man’s Search for Meaning.” Boskailo couldn’t help being struck by the similarity of all camps and the modes of torture perfected by each generation. It was as if Frankl had been with Boskailo at the camps when bullets flew through metal hangers and heard men cry at night.

“I was convinced that survivors needed to address the kind of questions of meaning raised by Frankl,” said Boskailo, who studied psychiatry after the war. “They needed a reason to live, and I wanted to help them find that reason.”

Boskailo believed that therapists needed to help survivors recall what had brought them happiness in the past, acknowledge the magnitude of their losses, and find meaning that transcended horror. For some patients, that reason could be raising a family, writing a book or testifying in court.

Particularly resilient survivors, Boskailo knew, might never need therapy to find meaning. Others thrive in community-based programs. Still others, such as those who suffer from chronic nightmares and flashbacks, may require years of therapy to regain some semblance of a normal life, including veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Boskailo told me his own story of returning in fragments, and I asked all kinds of questions: Was the wall that surrounded the camp made of bricks? Was there a bathroom? Who emptied the can?

The interviews were easier when Boskailo, now an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Arizona, talked of survivors he saw in his hospital trauma clinic in Phoenix. He described men and women who felt betrayed by the neighbors they once called friends. He told of a housebound 45-year-old survivor of the Srebrenica massacre who was so distraught she ate little, rarely slept and almost never spoke.

“I’m from Sreberenica,” she said after months of therapy. “You know I lost my father, my husband, my brother and uncle. You Already know what happened.”

Then there was the 50-year-old unemployed Iraqi veteran, who used to spend his days at home counting his breaths.

“Doctor, you have to find me a pill,” he begged Boskailo.

“I have no pill to take away loss,” Boskailo told him.

Over time, the man recounted his losses: his wife, his friends, his country, his work, his Orthodox religious community. Boskailo avoided imposing beliefs on patients, many of whom had been harmed by soldiers who fought in the name of religion and by leaders offering pat answers about God’s will.

But in this case, Boskailo knew that his patient’s faith could sustain him and help him imagine a future. So Boskailo assisted the man find his first job in decades — packing boxes in a factory — and he arranged for transportation to the local Orthodox Church.

Boskailo had finished his own therapy, but when we first talked about his experience in the camps, he had a panic attack. He cried when reading a chapter. And while watching Karadzic’s trial at The Hague, Boskailo stormed out, as if to say he had enough of this business of remembering.

When the final draft was done three years after we started, Boskailo had a record of his life and a commitment to patients that no war criminal could take away — something Frankl described in religious terms as a “vocation or mission.”

“I don’t imagine, anymore, that I will be in the middle of a conversation and find myself back in the camps,” Boskailo said. “The book was about the beauty of healing, this time my own. “

(Julia Lieblich is the author, with Esad Boskailo, of the new book, “Wounded I Am More Awake: Finding Meaning After Terror.” A longtime religion writer, she is an assistant professor of journalism at Loyola University Chicago.)

Copyright: For copyright information, please check with the distributor of this item, Universal Uclick.

  • nitko

    I am interested in how Boskailo interpreted Karadzic’s statements; is it legal spin or revisionism, delusion or denial or something yet to define. Given that Boskailo is the living manifestation of all Karadzic wished to separate himself from- an educated, urbane, compassionate Bosnian who just happened to be his Moslem neighbour.

  • vemonb

    sta da komentarisem sve se da reci kad se procita knjiga .i je jednostavno zaplacem cim pocnem da pricam o ratu i kako sam izasao iz dretelja doduse jedanaest dana sam tamo bio ali kao jedananst godina ,imao sam panik atak vjerovatnmo prelilo casu akli uz alahovu pomoc sve ce mo istrpiti i prevazici.cestita,mo na hrabrosti dr esadu da zaroni u ovako gustu vodu psihologije

Read More Articles

Top 10 Reasons We’re Glad A Catholic Colbert Is Taking Over Letterman’s “Late Show”

How might we love Stephen Colbert as the “Late Show” host? Let us count the ways.

God’s Not Dead? Why the Good News Is Better than That

The resurrection of Jesus is not a matter of private faith — it’s a proclamation for the whole world.

An Untold Story of Bondage to Freedom: Passover 1943

How a foxhole that led to a 77-mile cave system saved the lives of 38 Ukrainian Jews during the Holocaust.

Friend or Foe? Learning from Judas About Friendship with Jesus

We call Judas a betrayer. Jesus called him “friend.”

Fundamentalist Arguments Against Fundamentalism

The all-or-nothing approach to the Bible used by skeptics and fundamentalists alike is flawed.

Mary Magdalene, the Closest Friend of Jesus

She’s been ignored, dismissed, and misunderstood. But the story of Easter makes it clear that Mary was Jesus’ most faithful friend.

The Three Most Surprising Things Jesus Said

Think you know Jesus? Some of his sayings may surprise you.

How to Debate Christians: Five Ways to Behave and Ten Questions to Answer

Advice for atheists taking on Christian critics.

Heaven Hits the Big Screen

How “Heaven is for Real” went from being an unsellable idea to a bestselling book and the inspiration for a Hollywood movie.

This God’s For You: Jesus and the Good News of Beer

How Jesus partied with a purpose.

Jesus, Bunnies, and Colored Eggs: An Explanation of Holy Week and Easter

So, Easter is a one-day celebration of Jesus rising from the dead and turning into a bunny, right? Not exactly.

Dear Evangelicals, Please Reconsider Your Fight Against Gay Rights

A journalist and longtime observer of American religious culture offers some advice to his evangelical friends.