By Anna Fujiwara (My Eyes Tokyo)
In a charity event for the tragic Serbian flood of May 2014, jointly hosted by The International Center in Tokyo and My Eyes Tokyo (MET), MET had the opportunity to interview Ms. Jelena Jeremic from the Republic of Serbia and a cooking instructor of Serbian cuisine in Tokyo, and Mr. Nemanja Grbić, Attaché for the Serbian embassy, both whom are currently residents of Tokyo.
Serbia and Japan have reached out to one another in times of tragedy and need, with Serbia offering help after the March 11 earthquake of Tohoku, and Japan in turn, providing assistance in the flood at Serbia. As Jelena and Nemanja reflected upon their memories of the Yugoslavian war, their Tohoku earthquake experience, and thoughts on the latest Serbian flood, we were enlightened to the idea that humans have the power within themselves and collectively as a community, to find the positive – in even the most tragic of situations.
MET began by asking Jelena stories of her childhood memories of war, secretly bracing ourselves inside to hear heart wrenching episodes of an innocent little girl in an era of trauma and instability. Immediately however, as Jelena opened up to the audience of her childhood recollections, we were positively surprised to learn of an uplifting consequence of war:
“We grew up in a time of suffering in the Serbian history, but even then, we never felt any suffering or anything, and I think actually that brought us closer. We realized the importance of family so family in Serbia is really strong and we have very strong bonds. I call my mother every day or every second day even though I live halfway across the globe.
Friendship, also. We really have close friendships, and friends are like family. The third thing is solidarity. Serbia was the biggest donor in Europe after the Japanese earthquake. That’s the solidarity we’re talking about – we help each other in times of need.”
Luck can be found in unlucky situations
Jelena’s perspective was not a case of rarity. As Nemanja and Jelena continued on to exchange their pieces of memory, we learned how the Serbian community played an active role in ensuring their children were not only physically protected, but emotionally also. It was these efforts that enabled children to be blind to the unfortunates of the world surrounding them, and rather, receptive to the lights of positivity the adult community had shined upon them, helping the children to be guided out of pain or suffering.
Nemanja: “For young people it was kind of a really relaxing time which is paradoxical, because there was no school and all the friends got together and enjoyed the time. Thankfully it didn’t last for too long, and the bomb didn’t hit the civilian targets, only the factories and military targets. After that, we didn’t have entrance exams to high school so we were lucky in that sense as well. Everyone got into the school they wanted, which was another lucky circumstance.”
Jelena agrees as she explains her recollections of the context at that time, and explains how the circumstances of today’s tragedies are no different from that of the past:
“It was difficult; it was impossible for the children to prepare for any exams. Imagine having sirens going off at night and having to go to the shelter, sleeping during the day and awake during the night. The bombs didn’t hit the civilians, but we weren’t in a position to study.
…Children were not aware of what was really happening. For us, the more immediate things like school, homework, and exams were more important. Our parents really did everything to protect us from seeing everything that was going on during the war. My father was the commander in the military so my father was away all that time, and I saw him even on TV, but still I don’t have any stressful memories. Our parents did a really good job of protecting us emotionally. There was the same discussion after the flood whether children should take the entrance exams, because in those situations it’s difficult. Imagine children in the affected areas after March 11th – they couldn’t really study for the exam.”
Right: Jelena Jeremic Left:Nemanja Grbić
At Balkan Flood Charity Event (Sept 5, 2014) *Photo by ICT
In times of tragedy, the word positivity may sound like a foreign concept, a kind of fantastical notion that only naïve children believe in. As she continued however, Jelena hinted how the lens of positivity has been embedded deeply in her eyes, enabling her to view the world no differently in times of tragedy experienced now an adult. Jelena was in Tokyo at the time of the March 11 earthquake, and recalls her moments of terror:
“I heard sirens going on and immediately went to the embassy. On our way to Arisugawa Park where the evacuation area was, there was a Panasonic shop that sells TVs. On the TV they were selling we could see huge dark brown waves… sweeping away all the houses. Of course I couldn’t read Japanese so I couldn’t understand where it was going or whether it was coming to us, so at that moment it just snapped in my mind – oh I’m going to die here.”
The experienced survivor of multiple hardships spots the positive as she shares her post-quake reflections of Japan:
“It’s very, very sad, but the good thing is that Japan is one of the most prepared countries for these kind of things and the speed in which you could recover; at least the buildings and the cleaning up of the area – though human casualties can never be recovered; but I think no other country could do that. Not even Serbia – we’re going to be recovering from these squads for a long time to come.
…After the separation of Yugoslavia, we’re still recovering from those wars because it hit strongly on our economy, and then those floods happened. When you live in a country where there is no technological advancement like Japan or where the economy is not as strong as Japan, the recovery takes 10 times longer than here, and that’s the sad part.
Of course there are human lives that cannot be recovered, but then, how long will it take to recover from all this? I think the damages exceeded the damage from the Yugoslavian wars in fact. Can you believe that? The damage of the flood right now is larger than the damage of the war.”
When we hear or see stories of natural disasters or man-ignited tragedies in the media of distant lands, we are easily inclined to separate ourselves and become passive audiences of whatever visual or text that lies before our eyes. Nemanja however reminds us that tragedies are not a foreign concept, and can fall on our plates at anytime:
“In every day life when we hear about some tragedy like even a car accident or something like that, you think “that cannot happen to me” but in fact in can happen to you. Back in 2011 all the people in Serbia saw Japan and thought “that’s half way across the globe and cannot happen to us” but 3 years after that, it did happen. When you have your friends and family packing the affected areas, that’s when you can actually really feel the affects – when you start hearing the real life stories of those who went through all of that”.
What MET observed through the interview of Jelena and Nemanja was a beginning of co-creation where two seemingly differing countries, tied by experiences of tragedy, got together to join hands for the exchange of positivity and brotherly love. When one experiences tragedy of scale equating to that of the Yugoslavian war, Tohoku earthquake, or Serbian flood; the kind of life-altering heartache that can take a lifetime to recover from, it only seems human that the last thing you want to be thinking about is keeping a positive mindset. Tragedy however, is not a foreign concept saved for news stories of countries half way across the globe.
Jelena and Nemanja compelling story reminds us of this and offers inspiration, comforting us with the thought that trumping tragedy is possible, and that finding meaning in the worst of situations can cause beautiful surprises to bloom from tragic seeds.