Letters from Zagreb on the nature of war

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The Independent Culture
In 1991 Slavenka Drakulic was Croatia's finest literary export, writing a weekly column, fiction and subtle personal essays about the collapse of Communism. Then she found herself living in a country at war. The fighting came closer, and she kept writing as she had before, addressing the political through the everyday - describing train journeys, shopping, drinking coffee in an open-air cafe - seeking out the war's hidden emotional impact. And now she is ignored inside Croatia, suspected, uncommissioned. 'Communism,' she said last week, 'was hard to stand, but nationalism in a war is hard to stand, too.' As the war in Croatia reignites, we publish two of her short pieces: one from her new collection of essays, 'Balkan Express', and a letter to Frances Coady, her British publisher.


JULY 1991

I'M SITTING in a cafe on Duke Jelacic Square in Zagreb. It is a pleasant, warm mid-July afternoon and a waiter is cranking out the yellow awning to protect us from the sun. The bamboo chair has a soft, pink cushion, the table cloth is neat and my cappuccino a little bitter, the way I like it. In the concrete vases edging the cafe they have planted roses - this year, I think - while the sun gleams on the marble pavement as if it was just another Thursday, another perfectly ordinary summer day. Perhaps a month ago I would even have said that it was. But events over the past three weeks in Slovenia have changed our lives and our whole perception of reality. Suddenly I recognise signs, scenes and signals of that changed reality all around me that I hadn't noticed before - or had noticed, but pretended they didn't matter - and they are telling me we are at war.

On the front page of a newspaper lying next to my cappuccino, there is a note from the Red Cross. It's short and impersonal, giving information on the dead, wounded or captured in Slovenia: 39 Federal Army soldiers, four territorial defence soldiers, four policemen, 10 civilians and 10 foreign citizens, all dead; 308 wounded and 2,539 prisoners of war. As I read it over and over, this list of nameless, faceless people summed up together in numbers, it feels like a final sentence, proof that what we are living and experiencing now is something different, unprecedented. More than pictures of tanks pounding through cars and barricades, or of the frightened faces of young soldiers lost in action, the anonymity of this number means that war has been declared. All last year war was a distant rumour, something one managed to obscure or ignore - something happening to other people, to people in Knin or Slavonia on the outskirts of the republic, but never to us in the centre, in Zagreb. We were busy with our private lives, with love, careers, a new car. War was threatening us, but not directly, as if we were somehow protected by that flickering TV screen which gave us a feeling of detachment - we might just as well have been in Paris or Budapest. For a long time we have been able to fend off the ghost of war; now it comes back to haunt us, spreading all over the screen of our lives, leaving no space for privacy, for future, for anything but itself.

Not far from the cafe I notice people gathering around a taxi to listen to the news. The volume is turned up high, the small group listens in silence to news of the latest manoeuvres of the Yugoslav Federal Army as the speaker's voice echoes across the half-empty square. For these people, as for me, war is not only a state of affairs, but a process of gradual realisation. First one has to get used to the idea of it.

The idea then has to become part of everyday life. Then rules can change, rules of behaviour, of language, of expectations. The speaker first reads an army communique, then a declaration (one of many) of the Croatian President, Franjo Tudjman, about the need to defend ourselves. In this type of discourse, there

is no room for dialogue any more, but only for opposing sides to issue warnings, threats, conditions . . .

I remember with vivid clarity the details of the past few days. In a grocery store, I overheard a woman reading a long shopping list to a salesman: 16 litres of oil, 20 kilos of flour, 20 kilos of sugar, 10 kilos of salt, canned beans, rice . . . Are these measurements an indication of how long this war is going to last? And how would I know what to put on such a list, how to compose it? The assistant loaded the provisions into cardboard boxes, then took them to the woman's car. Later on, he tells me that the other day they sold three truckloads full of flour. 'It all started when Slovenia was occupied,' he says. With a pretence at normality, I buy bread, fruit, milk, the usual things. I don't want to be part of this hysteria, I think. But once at home, I call my mother to ask whether she remembers anything about stocking up for the war? What should I buy? She hesitates a little, not because she doesn't remember - she does - but because such a precise question confronts her with the new reality of our lives. Then she recites: oil, flour, salt, candles, potatoes, bacon, sausages, pasta, rice, tea, coffee, soap . . . 'But I don't have a place to store it,' I tell her in despair. 'You have to make room, store it in your bedroom,' she says, as if it is normal by now to keep potatoes where you sleep. 'And don't forget salt]' she adds, in a tone of voice that makes me think that salt is likely sometime to save my life, even if I don't at the moment understand exactly how. Last year, when a friend told me that she found some salt in her cellar that her grandma had stocked there during the last war, I hooted in disbelief. Now I wouldn't laugh.

There is still an impulse to ignore the war, to lead your own life. I see it in my friends planning to go to the coast (but roads are dangerous, last night a train was shot at, and airports might close at any moment). On the other hand, as my daughter pauses a little before packing her suitcase for a holiday in Canada, 'Shall I take only summer things? Perhaps some light autumn clothes, too?' she asks me, as if not sure how long it will be before she comes back. In her question I recognise war creeping in between us, because the real question behind her words is: am I coming back? But this question is unspoken, because we are not able to face the fact that we might not see each other for a long time. Instead, she writes out instructions for me about what I have to see to for her at the university where she is a student of archaeology. But while she is packing, I notice at the bottom of her suitcase a little shabby grey dog, her favourite toy. I hold my breath for a moment, pretending not to see it. How does one recognise the beginning of it all? I wondered not long ago. Now I see the answer in a tiny padded dog: the war is here, now.

A few weeks later, returning from a short visit to London, I hear a girl next to me, no older than 12, say to her friend as the aeroplane flies over Croatia: 'If we were forced to land in Zagreb, I would have to lie about my Serbian nationality, or those Croats would kill me on the spot.' We are all trapped. The two girls are at war, too: and even if hostilities were to cease instantly, how long would it take for these girls not to be afraid of landing in Zagreb.

The other night in Zagreb, Ana called me from Berlin, where she managed to escape while Ljubljana was bombed, telling me that her five-year-old daughter, hearing the sound of a distant aeroplane, asked her: 'Are they going to bomb us here too?' How long will it take Ana's little daughter to forget the sound of a military airplane attack.

While I wait at a tram stop near my house in Zagreb, an ordinary-looking man, a civilian in a light summer suit, opens his jacket for a moment and I can see that he has a pistol tucked in his belt. The tram comes and we get on. But I have this uneasy feeling that my future is in his hands and there is no way to step down off the tram any more.-


Dear Frances,

In your letter you asked me if I would like to write a new introduction to my book. I agree with you that this is a good idea, especially as I finished writing it in the spring of 1991 when the war in Croatia had not started, or at least we did not call it war. Then everything, but everything in Eastern Europe seemed different - more promising, I mean. Now, people are tired of waiting for a better way of life, better food, jobs and greater democracy. Moreover, they are frightened by the future, the prospect of a continuing war that threatens to spill over the border of what was once Yugoslavia like a contagious illness.

And this is why, while I can write you this letter I cannot write a new introduction: I too am tired - what an inadequate word that sounds. I have just finished a book of essays on the war. I feel totally empty, uncertain if anyone will understand what I have written about, utterly isolated and locked in by the war here in my shrunken and renamed homeland. My words seem to me like birds too young and weak to fly far.

I spent the last days of summer in the most peaceful part of the country, in the middle of the Istrian peninsula. There was almost no fighting or shelling there. When you stood on one of the hilltops overlooking a small valley with a river and road leading south this seemed another world entirely. But this heightened sense of tranquillity and beauty only made me feel more strongly that this war has another dimension. There is another more hidden face of war, and regardless of where we happen to be we carry this war inside us.

On the wall next to my bed I keep a postcard. It is a black-and-white photograph of the corner of a bedroom: the bed with white crumpled sheets seems somehow bare and naked. You can see that just before the picture was taken there were two people lying next to each other in the bed. In the untidy sheets, the mark of their bodies and the warmth they left behind, I can sense their intimacy, their love perhaps. This photograph, which was not even taken here, captures the atmosphere of loneliness that, for me, is the essence of war and I realise that there is no one I can send it to who could understand this special kind of loneliness which enters your soul in the middle of war. It is like having a piece of ice inside my chest.

Where are they now? I keep asking myself. What happened to the people from this room? What happened to us? To me? To love? The emptiness, the absence of people bothers me, and makes me cry.

Once you feel the presence of death all around you cannot remain the same person; it is not only love that changes its meaning, everything alters - bread, light, water, friendship. In the last year we have had our lives changed from the outside force of war but we have all internalised the war; our values, emotions, ethics are all different now.

Several months ago in Sarajevo, two babies were killed by a Serbian sniper. I wondered then what more could happen in this godforsaken blood-soaked part of the world? And immediately afterwards came the discovery of concentration camps all over Bosnia, and we understood that the extermination of Muslims and Croats meant that a new holocaust was happening here. What can happen next, is this the end of the horror? No, I am afraid that we will have to live with this war for years. But you too will have to live with it, and it will change you, not immediately, but over time.

The Balkans seems so far away when you are in London, but that is exactly how people in Sarajevo thought when Vukovar, Osijek and Dubrovnik were shelled last winter. We all thought that the war would not come to us, that it was impossible. Wars happen to people in Latin America or in Africa, not to us in Europe. But it was not impossible, and it will take so long to understand.

You see, Frances, I still don't understand what this war really is even now. It took me a long time to move away from classical definitions, ideology, political concepts and the familiar media images of shelled cities and death so that I could begin to catch a glimpse of what this war encompasses.

In the beginning, war was only a word. It did not have substance for me. Journalists and political leaders used the word occasionally at first, then more frequently. But people did not utter the word because no one believed it could really happen. In the long phase of preparations and denial the substance began slowly to fill that ugly word until it became fat and real, like an insatiable dangerous animal.

What was hard to realise was that the animal of war feeds only on blood. While it still seemed far away, it had a mythical quality. Everyone knew about its existence, but not many people had seen it and the stories we heard sounded so horrible and exaggerated that it was difficult to believe them. Everyone read reports, listened to the news and looked at the television images but its mythical dimension remained preserved by the distance - the majority of us had no direct experience. In the meantime, the war came closer, the phase of denial was replaced by acceptance and adjustment. At this point, the war became real, and it was accepted as a calamity, a disaster, something that could not be prevented, a fact bigger than life.

It was a woman friend of mine who, escaping from Sarajevo, losing her apartment, her job and all her valuable possessions, became a refugee and asked me the question that now seems so important: 'What is the war?' How strange, I thought, she is suffering the most and is asking that question. Can't she read the answer in what is happening to her? Then it occurred to me that at 30 years old she, like me or anyone born after 1945, has only lived with the idea, imagery, cliche and myths of what war might be. We had lived with the big myth of the Cold War that told us that if the two super- powers had atomic weapons World War Three would most probably be a nuclear holocaust and, as much as we found it a threat, no one believed such self-destruction was possible. Secondly, and perhaps equally important, was the idea that during the Second World War Europe had learnt its lesson: there would never be another war in Europe, where the worst atrocities in the history of mankind were witnessed and the wounds have barely healed.

But now there is a war in Europe (the obvious reluctance of the West to call it war instead of a civil war, or a conflict, or a tribal war has much to do with the denial that a war, almost as monstrous as before, is happening in Europe). This war is not nuclear but local; civilians are suffering brutalities comparable to those inflicted in the Second World War; and the largest European migration - two million refugees - this century has witnessed is taking place. Together with the end of the Cold War and the fall of Communism one is therefore forced to re-examine and re-define the concept of war itself. 'What is the war?' The answer to this question will not be found through political analysis or historical facts, it can only be reached by understanding and articulating our relation to it.

Since the war here began, my friend from Sarajevo, like me, has had time to study war; she has had a chance to read about the disastrous consequences following from the formation of an artificial state in 1918, and she knows about Tito's communist state holding the nations together by force.

She is well able to judge how much this war is the legacy of communism and the repression of national and religious feeling, the lack of civil society, its values and institutions . . . This is all true, but it is not all, and does not answer her questions until one is willing to see that every war begins as an external event but already lives inside us too.

This I learned when I realised that I was also reducing my friend from Sarajevo to a category - that of the refugee - and denying her personality and my responsibility altogether. In my reaction to her I recognised that my precious I had become us: us the non-refugees, us the 'real' citizens, us the Croats, and so on, as once you accept the division of us and them there are endless possibilities. You see war all around you, and recognise the brutality and readiness to kill but you still keep thinking that you are different, that you are somehow better, until something banal forces that righteous, knowledgeable, sensitive, intelligent person to turn to her inner self.

You do not see the animal that feeds on blood, but you clearly see the seed of division, one single cancerous cell from which the war multiplies and grows. Just as the cells in our organism have the ability to change into malign agents destroying healthy tissue so, providing that the circumstances are right, a certain part of ourselves changes, eats away at our soul. It is an in-built possibility and we are responsible for it; there is nobody else to blame.

I would prefer to be writing about what happened in the countries after Communism, about the fact that women were forced to be sterilised in order to get jobs in former East Germany; about the anti-abortion movement; the new autocratic leaders, and the lack of democracy. I would like to have written a couple of lines about the economic crisis, or the new Berlin Walls erected at the western borders, but I cannot, because doing so would mean writing about life and there is too much death around me. I wish I could have written to you about something transparent and as light as the feeling that photograph of the empty room gives me, but then I'd be sending you something else - that would be poetry. I realise that I only have words and that, from time to time, as I hold them in my arms, I am less lonely.

Yours, Slavenka.

'Balkan Express' is published by Hutchinson, 8.99; the above is reprinted in the new Vintage paperback of 'How We Survived Communism and even Laughed'; both published on Thursday

(Photograph omitted)