The good man of Gorazde
16 June 2010
The story of a Bosnian farmer who, for 442 days during the civil war, delivered milk to save the life of a baby on the opposing Serbian side forms the basis for sociologist Eva Kärfve’s new book "Det moraliska spelet" ("the Moral Game").
Her colleague Goran Basic, who is himself a Bosnian refugee, sought out the farmer who still lives on his farm outside Gorazde.
The story of the Muslim farmer first appeared in an interview in the New York Times in 1996. For one and a half years, at the height of the war, the farmer had delivered milk to the Serbian baby every day, despite harassment from Muslim neighbours. It was a dramatic story with strong contrasts – in the indiscriminate slaughter of the civil war, the journalist had found someone who went against the grain, a good person.
The article had a great impact and donations streamed in for forwarding to the farmer, who was not interested in receiving anything. He had only done what he considered to be right.
A discussion began on the Internet between two well-known sociologists – Randall Collins and Peter Baehr. Collins claimed that the farmer’s goodness was the result of environment – that he had been brought up to care for his neighbour, whereas Baehr considered that there is an innate impulse for goodness in people and that this was perhaps decisive.
Lund sociologist Eva Kärfve, who has written about good and evil in the context of witch trials, among other things, followed the debate but wanted to know what the deeper forces driving the farmer were. With the help of Goran Basic, a doctoral student in sociology, she was able to indirectly interview the farmer, Fadil Fejzic.
“I hadn’t heard of Fadil Fejzic, but I returned to Bosnia each summer and offered to interview him on Eva’s behalf”, explains Goran Basic, who was forced to flee Bosnia in 1993.
In summer 2009 he travelled to Gorazde to try and find Fejzic – unsure whether he was still alive. There Goran Basic told the story of the man who had saved a baby on the enemy side, but no-one had heard of him. It was only when he asked for a farmer by the name Fejzic that he had any luck. After that it was quite easy to find the little farm by the river on the edge of Gorazde.
“Fadil Fejzic was mucking out the barn when I arrived, an active elderly man. ‘Would it be possible to have a chat?’ I asked. ‘Yes, no problem’, said Fejzic. ’Take a seat here’, he said, pointing to a stool in the yard while he carried on working.”
The first question Basic asked was whether Fadil Fejzic had any idea why he had come:
“He knew straight away. He was well aware that he was quite famous in the world outside Gorazde and Bosnia. But he didn’t think he had done anything particularly outstanding.”
The most important thing for Fadil Fejzic was that the baby had survived and that was also what he wanted to know when the New York Times journalist found him in a miserable state at the end of the war. His home had been destroyed by Serbian artillery, his cow had died and he earned a living by selling windfall fruit. “And the child? How is she?” wondered Fejzic, when he heard that the journalist had met his former Serbian neighbours, the child’s grandparents.
And yes, the girl did survive. She even visited Fejzic several times after the war, he said in summer 2009. The girl kept coming to visit for as long as her grandparents lived in Gorazde, until she was 9 years old. Her grandparents had been colleagues of Fadil Fejzic at an arms factory before the war.
At the Department of Sociology in Lund, the recorded interview was transcribed and translated into Swedish. Eva Kärfve found what she believes is the key to Fejzic’s moral attitude.
“He is both a devout Muslim and a communist. His grandfather and the baby’s Bosnian-Serb grandfather had fought for Tito together. Fejzic was the third child in his family and his mother died when he was born. As a child he learnt two things, that all people are of equal value and that we should care for the weak.”
Fadil Fejzic acted like the Good Samaritan in the Bible and one could believe it was inner goodness that prompted him do what he did, continues Eva Kärfve. However, her conclusion is that it was primarily the morality he had been taught that guided his actions and she therefore supports Collins’ ‘environment theory’ in the Internet debate.
All societies are built on loyalty to one’s own group, Eva Kärfve explains. Fadil Fejzic was able to rise above this and extend the same loyalty to ’the other’. According to Eva Kärfve, this partly stems from the fact that he learnt to take care of the weak, as he was cared for when his mother died, and partly from the ‘universalism’ in Islam and Communism. The two ideologies have influenced him and their universalism is expressed in the fact that they both recruit new followers without regard for of nationality, race, class, etc.
Environment and upbringing ‘programmed’ Fejzic to do the right thing, according to Eva Kärfve. But this does not mean that everyone who has had a similar upbringing will act in the same way – far from it, as history shows. Neither does it exclude the idea that there is something in human nature that makes people prepared to take moral responsibility far beyond the boundaries of their own group.
“However, upbringing and moral instruction are still our way to make the world better, because we express goodness in the way that we are taught. This is why a woman can be a good mother and take care of her children even if she does not experience maternal feelings, unlike an animal. She has learnt that this is how she should act. Humans are not only guided by instinct. Taught morality can be a way to try and ensure that people behave humanely”, says Eva Kärfve.
The morality that Fadil Fejzic had been taught helped him to go against his own group and do what to him was quite clearly the right thing. This type of goodness also influences others. The baby’s father was murdered by Bosnian Muslims, but her family is eternally grateful to a Muslim farmer. That family can never denounce or place blame on an entire people.
What did Eva Kärfve’s research colleague Goran Basic think? He has grappled with issues of good and evil in essays and research reports and has to some degree studied his own experiences; his family was forced out of north-western Bosnia, where the Serbs carried out ‘ethnic cleansing’ and established concentration camps for Muslims, Croats and Serbs who did not share their views.
Goran Basic says that he agrees with Eva Kärfve that morality is created in interaction with other people.
“Morality is learnt and imposed by situations. But it is difficult to give a simple answer to what is decisive in a certain situation of war”, says Goran Basic.
Eva Kärfve concedes that a large number of different factors play a part.
“However, I don’t believe one single awful event would have made Fadil compromise on his moral principles; for instance if he or his close family had been severely affected by the violence. He saved the girl and would not have forgiven himself if he had not done so.”
The universal moral code
Morality is a cornerstone in the construction of society – this is Eva Kärfve’s conclusion in her book Det moraliska spelet (the Moral Game). Morality holds human groups together and the central, overarching rule is loyalty. One must not betray the group to which one belongs.
“Without loyalty no agreements could be entered into, no-one would be able to trust in anyone else’s promises – it would be like a dope den”, says Eva Kärfve.
Blind loyalty to one’s own group can also be threatening and dangerous. Eva Kärfve’s second conclusion is therefore that morality must encompass more than just ‘one’s own’ if people are to live in peace in a multicultural society.
In human nature there is a disposition to do good, but it needs to be strengthened through instruction and training in ’interaction rituals’ – a series of situations where people meet and show respect for cultural symbols and values that they consider important, which in turn produces solidarity and helps to generate new symbols, new rituals and an even stronger sense of shared values.
The realisation that morality is learnt is something we need to be aware of more than ever, says Eva Kärfve.
“We must stand up for good and reject the view that morality a relative concept.”
In the same breath she goes on to what she calls “our time’s labelling and identification frenzy”:
“We lump ourselves together; stare blindly at what holds our own group together, rather than looking up and seeing what we all have in common. Consequently, society also heads towards more identity-focused support, e.g. for women, homosexuals, immigrants. I am strongly against this. We must develop general structures and safeguard human rights, not the rights of individual groups”, she says.
Det moraliska spelet is published by Brutus Östling’s publishing house Symposion.
- Britta Collberg