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Peace Between Us Starts One Person At a Time

September 30, 2012

In scouring the Internet news outlets for signs of evidence that the Golden Age is approaching in its varied forms, I came across a few articles of love, faith, hope and compassion.  They serve to remind me that Peace in our world does not have to enter the room with a floorshow; it actually starts at street level, one person at a time.

The following two articles embody one person’s version of peace through love for his fellow human beings and compassion for their plights.  Two little acts of kindness that have spread ’round the world, enticing us and inciting us to follow.

Story 1: Serb Hero Fishes the Desperate From Danube

In this photo taken Sept. 18, 2012, fisherman Renato Grbic steers his boat under the Pancevo Bridge over the Danube river in Belgrade, Serbia. Grbic has saved the lives of 25 people who attempted to kill themselves by jumping from a nearby bridge. Over the years, Grbic has rescued people of all ages, social background and gender. There were young girls, middle-aged women, younger and older men.

By Jovana Gec, AP, Belgrade – September 29, 2012

On a bright autumn day, Renato Grbic was out fishing on the Danube with his brother when he heard a big splash. At first, he thought somebody had thrown something off the bridge.

Then he saw a man flailing in the water.

“We hurried and pulled the man out,” Grbic recalls. “I remember telling him: Such a glorious day and you want to kill yourself!”

It was the first time Grbic saved a life. From that day 15 years ago, his own life would never be the same. The bright-eyed, tattooed restaurant owner from a shabby industrial zone on the outskirts of Belgrade has rescued 25 people who tried to kill themselves by jumping off the tall bridge over the Danube.

Always on alert in his little wooden motor boat, the burly 51-year-old has pulled people out of the river’s muddy waters without asking for anything in return.

“I couldn’t turn my back on them,” Grbic said. “They are desperate people.”

Grbic has been dubbed the “Superman of the Danube” by his admirers and awarded a hero’s plaque by Belgrade city authorities. But even “Superman” can’t save everybody who jumps off the 18-meter- (60-foot-) high bridge: At least as many as he had saved have killed themselves at the spot since Grbic’s first rescue.

“When I hear that someone has jumped and I wasn’t there I really feel bad,” he said. “My eyes are always on the bridge.”

The Pancevo bridge became a favored suicide spot because it is Belgrade’s only bridge over the Danube, which is bigger and colder and has stronger underwater currents than the city’s other river, the Sava.

The first person Grbic pulled out of the Danube turned out to be a mental patient. Grbic took him ashore, gave him dry clothes, hot tea and cigarettes. Later, an ambulance came and took the man away.”That was it,” Grbic says. “He didn’t speak, they never do.”

Over the years, Grbic has rescued men and women of all ages and social backgrounds. Grbic remembers them all, but “they never return or call, they hardly ever say thank you.”

Goran Penev, a researcher with Serbia’s Institute of Social Sciences, said Serbia’s suicide rate is at the upper side of the European average. Penev noted there was a sharp rise in the early 1990s, at the beginning of the wars in the former Yugoslavia, but the situation has been relatively stable ever since. In 2011, nearly 1,300 people in Serbia — a country of 7 million people — took their lives.

Grbic has found that some of the people he rescued had cancer or other terminal illnesses, while others cited poverty or unrequited love.

All, he said, felt lonely.

“It is a cry for help,” he said. “They often do it in daytime so they would be seen. They want attention, love.”

Only a couple of weeks ago, a 22-year-old girl threw herself off the bridge near Grbic’s restaurant. He was there to pick her up and ask: “Why did you do it?”

“For my boyfriend,” she replied. “Do you think he would do it for you?” he asked in return.

Grbic said the girl was conscious and clear-minded when he plucked her out of the water. In winter, however, it is a question of minutes before people will lose consciousness in the freezing Danube and drown.

On one of those days, in mid-January about seven years ago, Grbic was just preparing to turn his boat to shore and go home — when he heard a scream.

An 18-year-old woman going through a mental crisis had burst out of her parents’ car at the bridge, taken off her jacket and jumped, shouting: “Goodbye mom!”

Grbic said something had made him stick around: “It was a very windy day, a few minutes later and I would have gone.”

The girl, Grbic said, is the only one who has stayed in touch.

Every January she comes to his fish restaurant to celebrate her “second birthday.” She is married now and has a child. Grbic was invited to the wedding reception.

“My heart leaps every time I see her,” he said.

Grbic has little or no information about what happened to the others he saved. It would be nice, he says, if they came to tell him how they were over a brandy at his restaurant.

“I gave them a second chance and it was up to them to use it well.”


Story 2:  ‘The First People of Freedom’: Courageous Share Taxi Driver Recalls Life in Chechen Warzone

By Nadezhda Kevorkova, RT – September 30.2012

Musa is one of Grozny’s many share taxi drivers, but he’s also a local celebrity for giving free rides to those in need. It’s all part of his daily routine, which saw him saving dozens of lives during the Chechen conflict.

I am meeting Musa in the lobby of a gorgeous hotel in Grozny, where nightly rates are higher than a teacher’s monthly income. I see him park the old minibus he operates as a share taxi right next to a brand new Maybach that delivered an overseas VIP guest.

I heard of Musa totally by accident. I had just come across an ad published on the Internet saying this particular share taxi gives free rides to all seniors, children, handicapped individuals, people who have no money or accidentally left their purse at home, people riding to attend a funeral or to visit a hospital and those who have completed the Hajj. I asked around to find this share taxi’s driver to write a story about him.

When I found him, he wasn’t willing to give an interview, but his story had already gone viral on the Internet and eventually reached Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of Russia’s southern Republic of Chechnya. He rewarded Musa with the opportunity to undertake the Hajj pilgrimage.

So, my first question to Musa was: “Have you got your travel passport and visa yet?” I was curious, as it often happens that people get gifts they cannot actually use, and it is not easy for Chechen residents to get travel passports for trips abroad.

Musa submitted all the paperwork to the authorities, and he’s not speculating whether or not his passport will be ready in time, although he’s been dreaming of undertaking the Hajj for 20 years.

“My first attempt at the Hajj was back in 1993,” he says. “The travel agency just didn’t get the timing right, the borders were already being shut down at the time.”

Musa hasn’t always been a share taxi driver. He spent 17 years of his life in Russia’s Penza Region, where he had a career building railways. Penza is also where he married a Chechen national and raised two of his sons. As the Soviet Union collapsed, Musa returned to Chechnya.

When general Dzhokhar Dudayev was in power, Musa was the head of the rescue force. He traveled to Moscow where he arranged to open in Grozny the country’s only – both then and now – environmental crime protection agency.

He stayed in Grozny through both anti-militant campaigns. “I never left – I had my both parents here, both quite old,” Musa explains.

His younger son still has a bullet under his eye from a shooting during the violence: “It kicked his eye out, they were able to put it back, but the vision was lost. It was a miracle – my son took a mere four days to recover from the wound; the bullet just found a cavity where it sits till today.” Musa tells me this story as if it were something perfectly ordinary, and no reason for drama.

The school his sons attended was one of the first to be destroyed. But one of its teachers, a Russian national named Natella Olegovna, refused to leave. She teamed up with Musa to find one of the few standing buildings in Grozny, and relocated all the school furniture they could find to there.

“And Natella Olegovna started up the school program again, while I was elected to be chairman of the republican parent council. We have a saying, ‘a fool gets pushed to the frontline,’” Musa says.

He eventually started driving people around during the second war campaign, and each of those trips could have been lethal: “I made trips every day. Bombings occurred pretty often. Once they stopped me at a checkpoint and searched the entire vehicle, took off panels. Then they said, your engine number belongs to a car reported stolen, and quoted the issue date of that engine, but my car was nearly twice as old. So, I got away that time.”

“Share taxi drivers were the very first people of freedom – at a time of no order, no governmental control. We, drivers, got warning fire coming at us, but we would stop the car, step out and walk to the check point to negotiate. We were the first to know that traffic police was now in control. I remember that Dudayev’s traffic police patrols were the first to appear on all roads, and it was their rule, the rule of the traffic police. There was no other,” Musa says.

Share taxi drivers became the liaison between groups of society that previously looked at each other only down the barrel of their guns.

“I knew all field commanders, I met many in person. Thanks to that, we have rescued 270 people.” Musa is quite unwilling to talk of what is, by all standards, an heroic feat. From his point of view, the past belongs in the past, and he would rather focus on overcoming the hardships of war than the hardships themselves.

“My father was an outstanding person. When chaos set in, he volunteered to act as the elder in our village. All refugees found shelter at our home. He also ran negotiations with the check point staff trying to have the arrested people released, and he would say that the military would honor his requests – not for money, but because he had vouched for them.”

“They even mentioned our house as ‘the mullah’s house’ in the wires, when the OMON (Special Purposes Mobile Unit) friendly fire incident occurred. There were no militants involved but the new agencies issued wires saying the fire came from our house…” Musa recalls. His family could have just as easily been eliminated, except for a sheer miracle. Musa has had quite a generous share of such miracles in his life.

He once met Anna Politkovskaya in person at a local share taxi park in 2001. He said hello, and went on his way. People in Chechnya revere this woman as no one else, except perhaps teachers.

“For 10 years, there was no payroll for teachers in Chechnya – we had to buy them food. Teachers in Chechnya are saints,” Musa says. In 1999, he succeeded in contacting Russian Prime Minister Sergey Stepashin, who promised to allocate 27 million rubles to teachers in Chechnya. Stepashin signed the order, but the money wasn’t coming in. Musa undertook another trip to Moscow and got through to the ministers of education and finance, only to find out that the money was never wired to Chechnya. No one could give him an explanation where the funds were. Three months later, the Second Chechen Campaign broke out.

In 2001 and 2002, with war well underway, Musa organized a teachers’ trade union: “We got arrested, detained, they were nearly charging us with assisting terrorists,” yet it all worked out this time too.

“I’ve made it my mission to remain a Chechen no matter what. We, the Chechens, have never been afraid to tell the truth – it keeps your spirit pure. It is my right. I am willing to give up some comfort, but I want to be independent. Telling the truth is the virtue of the Chechens.” As Musa speaks, seems to be talking to himself rather than a person in front of him, a habit of the highlanders from this area.

I ask him why he made his pledge to give people free rides. “Because that’s how it should be. And it’s just a small part of how it all should be. Our ancestors praised abstinence and altruism, they never indulged in luxury – either in clothes or in food. It’s a shame to have your doors closed to visitors. That’s what you need a big house for – for your guests, for weddings or funerals, not for showing off. Everyone can do things for himself, but it doesn’t make you a man,” Musa says.

He thinks that good deeds should be performed to please Allah, not for fame or notoreity. For example, he refused to raise his taxi fee when everybody else did. He thought the money he made was enough, and didn’t need any more. One of his friends counted how much money Musa lost because of his charity project, and told him that he could have bought a new vehicle by now.

“But I don’t need a new vehicle, while people do need to go places, and many of them don’t have the money,” Musa explains. He is no eccentric – he’s a strong man, who knows war firsthand, not from stories or computer games.

Musa agreed to talk to a reporter only after he was convinced that what he was doing touched people’s hearts. “And you, reporters, send the message to the people, right?” he asks.

He has been performing altruistic deeds like these since childhood. No one ordered him to, he just felt like it. Once, as a young boy, he saw a group of seniors standing at a bus stop. He made a bench and secretly installed it at the bus stop. He never uttered a word about it to a single soul – and then he heard the seniors’ words of gratitude to the unknown “good carpenter.” After that, he built a bridge over a local spring, and also heard people praise the “unknown builder.”

“Everything you do for Allah makes you happy,” Musa says.

I walk him to his taxi van – it’s time for Musa to go pick up the people he had earlier taken to the seaside, and it’s a few hours’ drive away.

“You know, when I was a little boy, there were only two mosques in Chechnya and no one below the age of 60 ever attended then. Now, I took a group of young men to the seaside and the very first thing they did was unroll their mats and pray,” he says.

Musa steers his van out of the parking lot full of expensive cars and waves goodbye with a smile so peaceful, it’s as if there had never been a war on this soil.


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