Before a war, there's always a lot of talking. And after a war, they always have peace conferences. So why don't we just eliminate the war in the middle?
—MARCO LOKAR, July 4, 1991
From our position high on a hill, beside the ruins of a 15th-century church whose name even some locals did not remember, we could see plumes of smoke left by a bombing raid. The previous night, on TV, we had witnessed the red glare of defense rockets, both antiaircraft and antitank. In the days before this Fourth of July, in Slovenia, just over the Yugoslav border from where we stood in Italy, yet another war for independence had been fought.
"They are slaughtering my people," said Marco Lokar, "and no one in the world seems to care." Although he is an Italian citizen, Lokar is a member of the substantial Slovene minority that has resided for centuries in the port city of Trieste and its surrounding hills. On June 25 the government of the Republic of Slovenia declared its independence from the Yugoslav federation, and since then Lokar's "people" had been pounded by Yugoslav planes and tanks.
Marco's older brother, Andrea, joined the Slovene army before the fighting broke out, and he hadn't been heard from since. Marco's love and admiration for Andrea are boundless, and Marco's commitment to the Slovene cause is as deep as his brother's. But the same bedrock philosophy of nonviolence that had made Marco a cause célèbre in South Orange, N.J., five months earlier, when the Persian Gulf war dominated the American consciousness, still prevailed.
"This is a much more difficult time for me," Lokar said. "My whole family is involved. I have passionate emotions for freedom and will support the Slovenes in any way I can, but I absolutely can never condone war." His intense eyes melted. Suddenly he was not there. "To do that would be to reject the teachings of Jesus."
You may recall Lokar as the Seton Hall basketball player who declined to wear an American flag on his uniform in support of Operation Desert Storm. Several weeks after his refusal, Lokar and his pregnant wife, Lara, returned to Trieste, driven away from the U.S. by threatening and obscene phone calls from anonymous "patriots" that kept Lara continually tense and caused Marco to worry about her well-being.
"I know you have to pay a certain price for taking unpopular positions during a war, but I never expected anything like what happened to us in America, a country everyone looks to as a house of individual freedom," Lokar said. One might think that the passing months, the events in Slovenia and the impending birth of his child would have taken some of the edge off his disappointment. They hadn't.
Seton Hall coach P.J. Carlesimo remembers Lokar as "a really great kid. Bright, articulate, fine student. At first, when he wouldn't wear the flag, it wasn't that big a deal. He played without it for a few games, and there were no problems. But before the St. John's game, the media picked it up, and that's when things got out of hand."
The date won't quite live in infamy, but it was Feb. 2, and Seton Hall was playing the Redmen at Madison Square Garden. The bombing of Iraq by the U.S.-led coalition was among the most devastating offensives in human history, and Saddam Hussein countered with Scud attacks against civilian populations in Israel and military targets in Saudi Arabia. There was no way then to know how the conflict in the Persian Gulf would be resolved and at what human cost.
Seton Hall, in visitors' blue, warmed up at the end of the Garden court away from its bench. "I heard something going on down there," recalls Carlesimo. "Sounded like some heckling, nothing major."