ARTS / The fragments of a culture (1): Karen Johnson reports from what was Yugoslavia

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I am in Zagreb to give a paper at the Literary Talks, a conference organised by the Croatian Writer's Association and the local PEN. organisation. The subject we are discussing is ostensibly 'Big Europe, Small Nations' but the question that keeps being asked is, why doesn't Europe accept Croatia without reservation as a part of itself, and why doesn't the world, especially France and England, back Croatia in the war?

History seems to get rewritten to suit whoever is speaking, although there are moments of rationality. Don Branko Sputega, a Montenegran priest, describes the former Yugoslavia as the stress point where the tectonic plates of the Catholic, Orthodox, Muslim and Jewish religions crash together. What can you do, he asks, when you live in a seismic region?

On the last day there is a summing up. One of the characteristics of these talks is that people seldom discuss, they fall into set speeches. One of the speakers, a well-known writer, asserts that Croatia should have the right to take over Serbia. Another: 'The world does not understand . . . we are a nation bleeding on the world scene . . . Croatia will not forget.'

And then, a change. The founder of the first opposition party in Croatia speaks. He speaks quietly about the systematic suppression of free speech in Croatia, where various newspapers are controlled by a government board. Now Slobodna Dalmacija, the last independent paper, will have such a board. He appeals to writers to save free speech in Croatia.

On Monday I crash a meeting that a fellow delegate has arranged with Drazen Budisa, leader of the opposition Croatian Social Liberal Party. Over coffee, he tells me that the opposition has been marginalised, that Tudjman's governing party is hand-in- hand with the police, and that although there is no official censorship, most papers and all television are controlled. During the recent elections, Mr Budisa was permitted only one interview on television.

I am travelling to Dubrovnik to meet people involved with the theatre festival and to consider future theatre work there. I go by train to Rijeka, to catch an overnight boat. My compartment is already filled by three young men. In my pidgin Croatian and the pidgin English of one of their number, we engage in elementary conversation. My most eloquent companion is from Karlovac and he has been fighting for a year. The war is no good he says, and with a flourish he takes out his wallet and opens it, revealing a couple of low denomination notes, the equivalent of 50p. Croatia is suffering from terrible inflation. War is not cheap.

When the boat arrives in Dubrovnik I make my way by bus and foot to the Hotel Argentina - the only one functioning. A notice on the doors requests 'No arms please' in English and Croatian. The hotel is dark. I go to check in, and am relieved to find they are expecting me, and that there is a message from Snjezana telling me where to meet her in the morning.

I feel my way to my room. The lifts are not working, the lights are off, and a lot of windows are missing. Once in the room, all is normal. There is even a bunch of scrubby wild flowers in a vase on the table. I try to make some phone calls. No luck.

I have been told to ask for Misa, who used to be an important figure in the Dubrovnik festival and now works as interpreter for the army and the UN and European Community Monitors. In a few minutes a handsome man, tall, full of vitality, wearing his camouflage uniform with panache, sweeps me upstairs. A hotel room has been converted to an office-bedroom-living space. He points out a window behind me, now boarded over. In one attack a mortar bomb came straight into the room. I tell Misa about my theatre work, about the literary talks in Zagreb, and how I have been frightened by the anti-Serbian feeling. Misa says frankly that he now hates all Serbs. He says it without reservation, without hesitation.

In the morning I walk down to the old city to meet Snjezana. She is wearing black - a month ago her brother was killed in the fighting. We go to the burnt-out festival office where she and Misa both used to work before the war. A mortar hit the building next door, and flying sparks set fire to the office, which was full of festival records and papers. From the outside it doesn't look too bad. We climb upstairs to the first floor which is stone and so survived - except for one part which was brought down when heavy cabinets crashed down through the burning wooden floor above. The old frescoes on the walls are blackened and spattered with sooty water. But one good thing: the fire has revealed older frescoes, buried and forgotten beneath layers of paint and old wall-paper.

Snjezena takes me around the town, telling me where people sheltered, pointing out damage to buildings, the place where a young photographer died. In the old harbour we walk out along the jetty. In the hills above the hotel you can see each tree and rock picked out clearly by the light. She points up. You could see the snipers, she says. We came out here and watched them.

The Dubrovnik Symphony Orchestra is giving a concert before they go on a world tour. The stone stairs of the Rector's Palace rise up behind the musicians, and Mozart and Beethoven float up to a soldier sitting at the top. Afterwards people chat and walk up and down the main street until the 10 o'clock curfew. The cafes are all shut, the windows boarded up.

We walk around the city walls. They have been locked up because of snipers, but Vesna has brought the keys. We feel a holiday spirit, with the deep blue sea on one side and the old city below. Toni becomes our porter, jiggling the massive old keys in sticky locks. He's a doctor, and everywhere we go people greet him. During the attacks he worked on the ambulances. He lost everything when his flat was hit. When he had to shelter from the mortar fire, he would put on his Walkman and play good music very loud to cut out the noise. Everyone agrees that the noise was the worst, that the city seemed to magnify it. We look at innumerable holes torn in the red-tiled roofs. Vesna picks up a piece of shrapnel and hands it to me.

In the evening I go to a poetry-reading in honour of Milana Milisica, a Serbian poet who was the first civilian victim in Dubrovnik. He and his wife stood on their balcony and watched as a mortar bomb fell on the beach where he had just been swimming. They decided to seek shelter, but first he wanted to get something to eat. While he was in the kitchen preparing food a mortar bomb came through, killing him. His dog, a large, beautiful animal, wouldn't let anyone near his body, and had to be put down.

I am having a drink on the terrace with some of the EC monitors when suddenly another races in to tell them they must go into town. There has been a message from the Orthodox priest - he's in some kind of trouble. Another local Serb, a lawyer who has lived in Dubrovnik for all his life and is married to a Croatian, was attacked recently. Men tied him up with wire, beat him, robbed him, locked his son and daughter into the lavatory, and then threw a grenade into his house, another into his cart and another into his boat.

Last summer, while Dubrovnik was still under fire, the theatre director Ivica Boban directed a production of Euripides' Hecuba. In Hecuba, the women who are victims of war take terrible revenge on one of the men who wronged them. In Ivica's production the women of the chorus spoke with pointedly local accents. Boban says that the hate must be given time to burn itself out, that people who have suffered so much cannot be quite sane.

Back in Zagreb, I meet my friend Ivana, who is of mixed background and is here to sort out her papers. She is pale, and under great strain, partly because of a hand to mouth existence, partly because she finds herself under attack as a Serb, although in Belgrade she has devoted herself to campaigning against the war.

One of the cries I hear again and again from Croatians when I ask them how they can hate even the Serbs who used to be their friends is that these friends did nothing to help them when they were attacked, that they were silent against their leaders, that they did not even telephone or write. They do not, or cannot, understand that some, at least, did - that communications were cut, that what they hear on television is controlled.

How do you live in a seismic region?