On Sept. 11th, 2001, I was in Belgrade, the capital of Serbia. I was part of the management team of a USAID-funded program called Community Revitalization Through Democratic Action, and we were in the middle of a big meeting to decide which 60 community projects we would fund.
I had been in Serbia for about two weeks, and on a whirlwind trip around Western Serbia, the area our project was assigned, before the meeting. (There were five projects in all over Serbia, and I had been told they were part of a peacebuilding approach in post conflict countries.)
It must have been just after lunch time in Belgrade when the mobile phones of the Americans on the management team began to ring. In shock, Angela, our head of mission, and I went looking for a television in the hotel to see what was happening in the US.
And we watched in utter shock as we saw the planes fly into the towers, one after the other, and heard the journalists do their best to explain what was going on.
Somehow, being so far away from North America made it feel even more shocking, because one could not hug family and friends, and one could not do anything to help.
When we restarted the meeting, everyone’s thoughts were understandably scrambled.
The local Serbian people we were working with expressed their condolences and shock at the attacks. In the Balkans, too many people had had that kind of experience over the years of war in neighbouring Bosnia. They understood loss, and the impact of terror.
People around Belgrade, who also wanted to share their condolences, brought flowers to the city block that is the US embassy there. This seems to be one of those human instincts that we all share – to lay flowers in remembrance and sympathy.
I am not sure if the Americans present took in that empathy, because they were in shock and their primary concern was if, given that they were so far away from home, their relatives and friends were safe. But I hope they did. It certainly gave me comfort.
There was, of course, confusion about at least one of the 60 projects that had been approved at the meeting, as we discovered when our team was in that community to discuss the approval. It turned out that the project our team thought had been approved was not the one the community had been told was approved – which was to fix up the roads leading into the local cemetery. I don’t remember now which project we thought had been approved..
There was an argument that went on for a while. I didn’t understand Serbian so I didn’t understand a lot of the back and forth.
But I do remember, some months later, hearing from the mayor that the community had been so embarrassed by the argument – because it is considered a family and community responsibility to maintain cemeteries – that people organized themselves to fix up the entrance roads themselves.
Barely two years later, as our community team was holding a retreat in Palic, in northern Serbia, another television news bulletin galvanized us. The dynamic young premier of Serbia, Zoran Djindjic, its sixth premier, was assassinated on March 12, 2003 as he was leaving a government building.
I remember the trip from Palic back to Belgrade, with the occasional stops to look at our papers and search our vehicle. There were soldiers with guns outside my hotel, and around the city.
And then I remember, back in Uzice, where I lived while I was working on CRDA, sitting on the sofa and watching the coverage of his funeral, over and over again. Along the roads, weeping women held up his picture.
It felt to me so much like the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy in Dallas in 1963 – the end of a particular kind of order, and the beginning of something that felt chaotic and frightening. One of my team said of Djindjic: “I didn’t know how important he was til now.”
And – not for the first time – it reminded me that dedicated work by local people in their communities, to which I have devoted much of my life, can be overtaken by wider events that wash over us like a tsunami.
Cover image: Irina Anastasiu, Pexels