I was in a meeting the other week when we were discussing whether the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and other Al Qaeda affiliated groups are really in cahouts with Al Assad's regime in Syria. I can see why this would be an attractive hypothesis - and one which folks might take time to find evidence for - after all its so much easier on the braincells to have a clear divide between good and evil. And there really should only be one dark force in the universe.
But as always, the world is much more complicated - and there is a a great deal of difference between the rights and wrongs of 'isms' and the fate of individual human beings. In 1995 the Croatian army - tacitly supported by the west - launched "Operation Storm" to clear the Serbian forces out of the Krajina, a province in northern Croatia. It was the decisive battle of the Balkans war, and in its aftermath the Bosnian Serbs began to enter in negotiations which brought the Yugoslav wars of separation to an end. Yet it was not only Serbian military forces that were driven out of the Krajina. Serbian people had lived in the Krajina for generations and were the latest victims of ethnic cleansing - sacrificed to the greater need to find long-term political solutions in the southern Balkans.
As a humanitarian aid worker, I found myself at a reception centre on the Croatian-Serbian border. Standing among the crowds of subdued refugees - each family clinging hopelessly to a tractor loaded with sofas and electric kettles - I couldn't fail to understand the vital importance of the individual over the great political tides of the time. I was looking for someone to act as interpreter, and was directed to a teenaged girl. She was weeping, family lost, not knowing what had become of them. During the course of that day she worked with our team and I learned that she had studied English and wanted to attend university. I also learned about her beautiful house in the mountains, her brothers and sisters and dog. When the time came for us to leave, I had no idea what to say to her. How could I return to my hotel in Belgrade, and my safe western life and leave her to nothing? I mumbled some sort of apology and did what westerners do - I gave her $10 and told her to buy herself something nice.
Some five or six years later I received a letter via CARE, where I had worked. It was from that girl. She told me about how she and her family had found a distant relative to live with in Serbia, how she still missed her home in the Krajina and how she was about to study at University. She remembered that ridiculous gesture I made in the squalid reception centre, and she recalled the kindness of my colleagues. It was one of the most moving moments of my humanitarian career.
She is Serbian - and was unwittingly on the side of the aggressor in the Balkan wars, an aggressor who committed many heinous crimes. But she is also a human being and certainly not evil. There will be people like that in ISIS and JAN supporter groups, as well as on the side of Al Assad. We must not forgot those people when we seek to find good among the evil in Syria.