Spring 2000
Volume 4 Number 4

moon.gif (372 bytes) end things


Humor and Heroism in Kosovo’s Internet Café

We sat side by side, each frustrated in front of a lifeless computer monitor during the fourth power failure in ten minutes at the Internet Cafe in Pristina, Kosovo, and, symptomatic of our virtual-Manichean age, only then resorted to talking. His first tinny words rang American. We introduced ourselves, and soon our discussion ranged from American politics to our different experiences of interminable train rides through India. Then, speaking of our relief work in Kosovo, he said, "What a joke that people think we’re heroes for doing this. I mean, we’re exactly where we want to be, doing exactly what we want to do."

We laughed as the remaining leaves of my laurel crown shriveled and fell to the ground, the final haze between reality and my heroic self-perception dissolved.

But you have to admit that there was a heroic aura to what my compatriot and I were doing. Most people were spectators of newspaper and television images that showed Kosovar refugees trudging on foot or riding tractors away from their smoldering homes and into tent camps. Most were left feeling helpless, with the best alternatives either to click to "Wheel of Fortune" or to send a small donation to help (ease the guilt). Most Americans felt distant while their only tangible involvement was that bombs paid for by their tax dollars rained down on Kosovo and Serbia.

We were there, ground zero, CNN live. Apache helicopters at the airport, tanks on the corners; breadlines during the day, machine guns shooting at night. To desperate people I gave food, clothes, and beds.

So far, so good. But somewhere in the frenzy my subconscious had constructed this little syllogism: a) helping refugees is of higher value than most human pursuits; b) I am helping refugees; therefore, c) I am more hero-like than people spending their time in ways less worthy of the Nobel peace prize. True, true, embarrassingly false.

My fellow expat in the Internet Cafe nailed it in his off-handed analysis: it was funny that some people thought us, in even some tiny way, heroic. However, his analysis was incomplete. In addition to being exactly where I wanted to be and doing exactly what I wanted to do, I was also where I believed God wanted me to be, or at least in a neighborhood to which Jesus might have led me after saying, "Follow me." There is nothing heroic about following God’s desires that have also become your own, because there — even if it is a place of turbulent violence — one finds meaning, joy, and peace.

The martyr sings praises to God even as the flames lick at her feet, smoke trying to choke her song.

After my awakening, I spent time deconstructing the heroic and in fashionable style built little in its place. Except that now maybe my heroes are those who live light years from where they want to be, are separated by an agonizing distance from their friends and family who remain alive, and are doing nothing like what they want to do. One definition of hero reads, "One admired for great achievements and noble qualities." My new version is, "One admired and mourned, who never had the chance to chase dreams, who achieved next to nothing, and whose noble qualities were wrung daily in the hands of dislocation and despair."

With this definition, the world’s twelve million nameless refugees (each with a name) should be the key-to-the-city recipients, the Super Bowl champs, the honorific title bestowees. Scratch Michael Jordan, Julia Roberts, Karl Barth, Bill Gates, and everyone else on the who’s who lists. Gandhi, Mother Theresa, and Martin Luther King Jr. would make it onto my list of heroes only to stave off public outcry at their omission, since they were people who materialized dreams and achieved much. Also, scratch self-discipline, bravery, and creative genius as heroic qualities. My revised definition holds the following much higher: generosity flowering in poverty, humility born out of humiliation, and dignity shining through disappointment.

If all went well, the man I talked with in the Internet Cafe in Pristina finished training paramedics in Mitrovica and is currently backpacking his way through Iran ("…because, I mean, it’s the perfect place to go now; it’s just ripe, isn’t it?"). And when the power wasn’t down I was emailing Princeton Seminary about the job of associate editor for the Office of Communications/Publications, which I’m now doing. So we’re both far from where we met, but still doing what we want to do and living in the places where we want to live. Meanwhile millions aren’t and millions don’t. They need us, but responding to their need is hardly heroic.

Kent Annan worked for six months in Albania and Kosovo after graduating from PTS in 1999.  He is now the associate editor/writer for the 
Seminary's Office of Communications/Publications

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