— Sherman Jackson’s On the Bounds of Theological Tolerance In Islam.
The victors in wars re-build the cities they conquer or occupy in the image of their triumph; the myriad peoples who have to live in such cities after wars bear the image of that victory on their faces, in their daily lives and in what circumstances after the conflict make of them. The losers tend not to see the city ever again, unless, like prisoners of the Roman legions bought back to the centre of Empire to die as gladiators on the sands of the Colosseum for the pleasure of the crowds, they get to enjoy one last afternoon of urban sunlight before they meet their maker.
Kigali, capital of Rwanda, is and was such a city. So is Pristina in Kosovo, and Grozny. And Sarajevo, Phnom Penh, Saigon, Kabul and Beirut – the list is as long as history. For a city to be re-born after a war, it first has to be destroyed, torn down, fought over or re-invented. Grozny in the first Chechen war in 1994 was, for the world, a series of images that bought to mind Stalingrad and Dresden. Kigali was different. Despite being the epicentre of the 1994 genocide, and despite being fought over as the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front invaded from neighbouring Uganda to put a halt to the slaughter, it always somehow looked beautiful. The simple size and dominance of geography in Africa makes sure of that. A million bullet-holes could be covered up by that vast and eternal blue sky.
Pristina never looked beautiful. “The ugliest city in the former Yugoslavia even before NATO bombed it,” quipped one British Army officer arriving in a Challenger tank at the head of liberating NATO forces in June 1999, just after a 78-day NATO bombing campaign forced then-Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic to the negotiating table, and the atrocity-prone Serb soldiers, paramilitaries and policemen to retreat back to Serbia proper.
Then, led by the Albanian political cabal that sprung out of the Kosovo Liberation Army, Pristina became Albanian. The Serbs left, or were forced out. And the Albanians that made the new Pristina have many abilities, many talents, much drive to make their new homeland their own. But unfortunately when the Gods were giving out a sense of visual aesthetics, architectural style, litter control and urban management, post-war Kosovo was in the bathroom.
And out of the ruins of war spring the nine cities inspired by the Thornton Wilder book, Theophilus North. The central theme to this book is that nine cities are hidden in one, and despite their differing politics, geography, economy and climate, Kigali, Grozny and Pristina fit this theme. The first city is always the one that ceased to exist through war, where the leaders and much of the population are dead, fled or imprisoned, the city that will always live in the past tense, its name constantly prefixed by the words “before the war.”
The second city is the war itself, and the expressions thereof. Genocide memorials in Kigali, Chechen rebels hiding in the mountains outside Grozny, NATO soldiers still on the streets of Pristina. Religion comes hand in hand with godlessness these days, and into the moral vacuum that combat leaves behind it come the Gods, in all their different shapes and sizes, normally decided by whichever altar or temple the winning warlord, dictator, general or president worships at. The taste for conversion to Islam in post-genocide Rwanda as a reaction to the implication of the Catholic Church in the events of ’94. The wholesale destruction of Serbian Orthodox churches in Kosovo by Albanians. The Islamicisation of Chechnya.
Men and women are the fourth and fifth cities, the women discovering a new role for themselves, often, as in Rwanda, having to take the lead in households where there are no men anymore. Or in Kosovo, well-educated Kosovo Albanian girls and women leading the employment market in the new, international-community led economic environment. And behind them come the men, either dynamic and forward-looking, like many Rwandan Tutsis, somehow determined never to be doomed to repeat the past. But conflict stirs complex emotions in men, and far too often the menfolk still drag their psycho-social knuckles, and many is the Chechen, Albanian and Rwandan male who looks in the mirror in the morning and still sees the reflection of the warrior that fought in the war, or, too often, somehow missed it.
The victims of wars, those from the ethnicity that lost, those who pay heed to the ruling class form the sixth city, the city of servants. The Pristina physics professor turned taxi driver, those whose socio-economic lives were upended by war leaving them at the bottom, rather than the top of the pile. Number seven is the city of money, of why people so often fight, of Chechnya’s oil interests, of Kigali’e elite looking westwards to the mineral wealth of eastern Democratic Congo. Wandering the city are the eighth city, the strangers, those out of place, not from there, the eternal visitors, or, like in Grozny, those left behind by change, like the ethnic Russians. Or, conversely, the newly arrived, like the four-wheel drive vehicles, large budgets and inane Brussels gibberish of the newly-arrived international community.
And all around these eight cities is the ninth city of normality, of people for whom life is reflected in micro concerns, where the bullet-hole, the shell-crater, the new government, the shift in religion, all is forgiven, all is ignored so long as daily life can go on, the concerns those for whom life can drop anything from the sky, so long as it does not arrive in their backyards.
By Christian Jennings