Vernon Foster, of the American Indian Movement of Arizona, stood before a drum and looked straight at five weary Croatian human-rights activists.
"We are all warriors," he said.
Foster, wearing a beret with a feather, jeans, cowboy boots, a leather vest and a belt with a bright red AIM buckle, told the Croatian delegation that whites have trampled the Indians for 500 years. Then he brought them up to speed on current offenses--the controversy over the Disney cartoon Pocahontas, the bad taste surrounding the name "Squaw Peak," the offensiveness of fans doing the "Tomahawk Chop" at sporting events.
Foster's litany of modern ethnic conflicts between Anglos and Indians shouldn't be dismissed, but the Croats had arrived in the United States only two weeks ago from a country where ethnic differences do not manifest themselves in debates over Disney cartoons.
Since 1991, when Croatia broke off from Yugoslavia, Serbs and Croats have intermittently slaughtered each other not only in Croatia, but in neighboring Bosnia. Although part of Croatia is occupied by Serbs and the country's border with Bosnia is the site of violent skirmishes, Croatia is a relatively "stable" country among the newborn nations that once made up Yugoslavia. "We are not at war and we are not at peace," one Croat said at last week's meeting with the Indians.
The Croats who visited Phoenix do not have particularly easy jobs back home. They document human-rights abuses, then publicly demand that they stop. They also open their files to journalists, politicians, lawyers, international human-rights groups such as the Helsinki Commission and anyone else who's interested.
Foster himself had organized the June 20 event at a South Phoenix community center. "You have an opportunity to be heard and share your thoughts with seven Croatian diplomats from Croatia. Come join us in welcoming these future leaders of their country to Indian America," Foster's promotional flier said.
Foster assembled a group of speakers to educate the Croats about human-rights abuses in America. Among them were Joel Muhammad, "the Arizona representative of the Honorable Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam," and Pedro Ruiz, an octogenarian patriarch of the farm-worker movement.
So what in the world brought five Croatian human-rights activists to Phoenix and this AIM gripe fest?
The United States.
The Croats arrived in Phoenix last week as guests of the U.S. Information Agency. Phoenix was just one stop in a monthlong tour of America's cities designed to enlighten the Croats on how the United States deals with ethnic and human-rights issues. The Phoenix stopover was planned by the World Affairs Council, a Scottsdale nonprofit group, at the request of the USIA, says Sue Reiner, executive director of the council. Reiner says she chose Foster because the USIA asked her to focus on human-rights issues. She says foreign visitors are usually interested in Indians, so she hooked up the Croats with Foster, because AIM is involved in human-rights issues.
On June 19, Foster shepherded the Croats and their interpreter around the Gila River Reservation. The next day, he hosted the South Phoenix event, which began with a benediction given by the 84-year-old Ruiz. His prayer was gentle and hopeful that all races would unite.
After Foster spoke to the Croats, an AIM member named Bernard talked about how the entire Western Hemisphere should be devoid of all borders. He also told the Croats that he was broke, which prevented him from attending an upcoming gathering in Seattle to discuss that very issue.
The Croats did not visibly react to Bernard's review of his financial condition.
The final speaker was Muhammad, of the Nation of Islam. He looked like a businessman, dressed in a conservative beige suit with a matching polka-dot bow tie and pocket handkerchief. But his speech was not as conservative as his taste in clothes. He said the United States military had inflicted AIDS upon Africans. He said black Haitians had been "vaccinated" with smallpox serum tainted with the AIDS virus. It was all part of a plan to exterminate blacks, he told the Croats.
At this point, Don Pedro F. Ruiz dozed off, caught himself napping, and wearily rubbed his eyes just as Muhammad was telling the Croats of his group's depth of tolerance: "We could not be Muslims if we were violent."
But something was lost in the translation. The Croats, not realizing that Muhammad was talking about an American group, seemed surprised. In their country, Muslims and Christians have been butchering each other.
Finally, it was time for the Croats to speak. "We are very grateful to you for presenting your views," a Croatian lawyer said through the interpreter.
"We will carry a lasting memory of this event."
Next, everyone stood in a circle and held hands, and the event concluded.
Unfortunately, the speakers didn't get an opportunity to hear the Croatian delegation's reaction to their complaints, or to hear the Croats' own stories of ethnic injustice. Even if there had been time for feedback, the Croats likely would not have disclosed their personal tales of loss and horror. The visitors, by necessity, are used to saying little about themselves.
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Radovan Jovic, a judge, told New Times that some of the speakers at the meeting seemed to whine a bit. He added hastily that he did not want to seem impolite.
Jovic, who never wanted Croatia to break off from Yugoslavia in the first place, said his own life is at risk in his homeland because he has dared to publicly speak out against endemic violence. "What I wanted to say to these people is that war is not a way to solve things, including the kinds of problems we heard today," he said through the interpreter. "Unfortunately, we've proven that in Croatia. Ethnic problems only become more exaggerated and solutions become more distant."
Veronica Reskovic, a human-rights activist from Zagreb, the Croatian capital, said in English that she empathized with the speakers, but problems in Croatia just can't be compared to problems in the United States.
"People in the United States can go about their lives, they can make plans," she said. "In Croatia, we just try to make it through the day. A few years ago, I was free. I would not have believed that this could have happened. But it happened slowly. "If you put a frog in cold water and each day you raise the temperature by one degree, the frog will get cooked and not even know it. That's what happened to Croatia.