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Goodbye to All That
By Janine di Giovanni
London Winter, 2004 (The Times Magazine)
I am not a big television fan, but recently a friend rang and told me to watch Prime Suspect. It was a two-parter in which Helen Mirren was investigating the murder in London of a Bosnian refugee who had witnessed a brutal massacre during the Balkan conflict. I watched it. The next night I stayed home to watch the second part. There was an actor I knew from Sarajevo playing the bad guy, and there was Helen Mirren, slowly going mad as she became more and more embroiled in the case. Eventually, she became obsessed. She disobeyed her boss, sacrificed her job and flew to Bosnia at her own expense to investigate the massacre. Strange behaviour. But I recognised that look in her eyes.
My friend rang me after the second part ended. "What was it with Bosnia," he asked, "that made people so obsessive?" I could not answer, but I have been thinking. I began reporting the Bosnian war in 1992, and while I am fortunate enough not to have been injured or to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, not a day goes by in which the conflict does not enter my mind. I met my husband in Sarajevo. I forged some of my closest friendships in Bosnia. And, in a horrible way, my most powerful memories come from those years.
One of my colleagues from Bosnia recently said, "Reporting the war in Bosnia was the highest point of my life." I understood what she meant - that the intensity had never been surpassed -but it was an odd statement.
After all, 250,000 people died in that war, and 3.5 million from a prewar population of 23 million were displaced. If you asked their families what the high points of their lives were, they would surely not be the years 1991-1995.
But, of course, what my friend meant was that she could never duplicate that passion, even in another war. She went on -as most of us reporters did -to work in other war zones, but nothing could match the wars that ripped the former Yugoslavia apart in the last decade of the 20th century.
I do not believe journalists report war for adrenalin rushes, unless they have some sort of psychological problem. And Bosnia was not the most brutal or dangerous war that I have reported (for that, Chechnya or the wars in West Africa take the unhappy prize). But the injustice and cruelty of it haunted me for many years, even more than the piles of bodies I saw by the side of the road in Zaire, or the blind people I encountered trapped in a bombed-out house with no food, water or assistance after the fall of Grozny.
While I rarely spoke of my experiences in Bosnia, I would dream about them; vivid, Technicolor dreams, like drug-induced hallucinations. People I knew and loved would return as perfect as a colour photograph. Snatches of forgotten conversations would be replayed. I wondered if it was because I was so young when I began working there, or so impressionable. But this was not a coming-of-age war. I was even younger when I reported from the Middle East, and later, Rwanda or Liberia. Yet those conflicts did not move me to the same extent or provoke the same outrage.
I began writing Madness Visible in 1999. The book had a strange genesis.
During the Kosovo war, I got caught in a Nato bombing raid on a KLA (Kosovo Liberation Army) front line in which many men died. While trapped there, I wrote a long, stream-of-consciousness piece which did not just stick to those gruesome days, but which drifted back and forth in time to years of conflict and memory. The piece won a prize, and the prize got me publishers.
I wanted to write the book in a detached way, so that it was not a book about a journalist's experience, but the experiences of others. There is one scene in which I and two other reporters are captured by a drunken Serb paramilitary and made to march in the woods in mock-execution style. It took me ages to write the scene because I didn't want to overdramatise it.
After all, I am still alive and I emerged without having been raped or beaten. But, after reading it and commenting on the detached style, an American critic kept pressing me, "But how could you write about this in such an impersonal way?" The answer was that it was not my book. It belonged to the people who allowed me to write about them. I wanted to capture what war smells and feels like, what it looks like, what it is like to sit under a bombardment. Most of all, I wanted to write about what it feels like to die.
Before I began reporting war, I thought death came with dignity; with angels descending poetically from the heavens; with the strains of Pachelbel's Canon or the Albinoni Adagio; with closure. But that is not death. Death is a room full of old people in Sarajevo dying from the cold, while I was unable to help them. Death was the Rwandans who collapsed at my feet vomiting some disgusting green substance during a cholera epidemic.
Death was the naked men, their hands tied behind their backs, who I found by the side of the road near my house in the Ivory Coast after the coup d'etat.
Recently, I and a small group of colleagues were interviewed by a Canadian psychiatrist for a three-year study on the effect of war on journalists.
"How many dead bodies have you seen?" was one of the questions the shrink asked me. "I have no idea," I said. I wasn't being glib. I have spent a lot of time in Africa. I have stared into many mass graves, and seen bodies stiff with rigor mortis stuffed down wells. I honestly did not have a clue.
"Don't you think that's an odd answer?" he said. After all, he added, most people just see their grandparents' bodies at funerals. I tried always to keep that in mind as I was writing Madness Visible. I wanted the people I wrote about -a cast of characters ranging from teenage soldiers to mass murderers -to speak through me and tell their stories.
But getting back to Bosnia: why did it etch itself so deeply into so many people's souls? Martha Gellhorn once wrote of the Spanish Civil War, "You can only love one war; afterwards, I suppose, you do your duty." My colleagues and I did fall in love, in a gruesome and horrible way. We fell in love with a country not far from England, one which we could fly to in less than three hours, then drive overland through the dark fir forests and mountains to a city that was enduring a medieval siege. There, we found poets burning their books and doctors operating without antibiotics and opera singers going mad and children still playing in the snow, despite the constant thud of the mortars.
Recently, I saw Nic Robertson, the talented CNN correspondent, being asked by some naive anchor back in Atlanta whether Baghdad was as dangerous as Sarajevo. I saw his face twitch and I knew what he was thinking -"You moron! How can you compare the two?" Because nothing really compared to Sarajevo.
"No, Sarajevo was far worse because it was dangerous just to go outside your door," Roberston replied patiently. This was true. There were kids who were shot in front of their houses having been allowed out to play because their parents simply could not keep them confined any longer. There was an old man who was shot between the eyes when he went out to chop wood, because his friends were freezing to death. Sometimes, even those who had not ventured outside found themselves in danger. I knew of a family whose mother was shot by a sniper while washing dishes at the sink.
No, nothing else compared to Bosnia.
Sometime in 1993, I made an unconscious decision to record the war as dispassionately as a stenographer. Almost every day I climbed the hill to the morgue to count the bodies. I wrote down the recipes people used to make cheese and wine from the rice in their humanitarian aid packages. I recorded conversations and images carefully: like the dog seen running near the Bosnian presidency building with a human hand in its mouth. Or walking through makeshift graveyards reading the markers: born 1971, 1972, 1973I There was a poem by a Sarajevo poet, Beginning After Everything, that I read over and over following the war:
After I buried my mother (under fire, I sprinted from the graveyard)
After the soldiers came with my brother wrapped in a tarp (I gave them back his gun)...
After the ravenous dog feasting on blood (just another corpse in Sniper's Alley)
The writer and historian Misha Glenny once wrote about the seductive spell that Bosnia cast: "It is through the middle of Bosnia that East meets West; Islam meets Christianity; the Catholic eyes the Orthodox... Bosnia divided the great empires of Vienna and Constantinople... it is both the paradigm of peaceful, communal life in the Balkans and its darkest antithesis..."
I and many others were caught up in the dangerous spell. It was not just the fact that this was our generation's Vietnam, as someone pointed out, or that we felt, initially, a strong obligation to report the evil that was happening so close to home just 50 years after the Holocaust. It was not even the draw of the multi-ethnic, cosmopolitan city, or the heartbreakingly beautiful country ripped apart by war. It was more a question of what had driven these people, in these neat villages with pretty church steeples and pretty rivers winding through them, to destroy each other's lives? From where did this evil come? That is what drove all of us, I believe: the desire to find out how humanity could plunge to such darkness.
Sometimes, it came at a huge cost. One weekend early into the war, my incredibly tolerant long-term boyfriend took a weekend trip to Zagreb. His plan was that I would leave Sarajevo by one of the UN humanitarian flights and stay a few days in a nice hotel with him. I was uneasy: I was worried the aid flights would shut down, as they always did, or that a major event would happen in Sarajevo and I would miss it. I also felt terrible guilt that I was going to be pampered while my Bosnian friends were stuck inside the siege. But he was persistent, and finally, one Friday lunchtime, I flew to Zagreb.
It was a grey, drizzly day. We ate schnitzel and drank heavy red wine at a faux-Hapsburg restaurant, then walked the streets. But I was miserable. I felt as though I was missing a limb. I wondered what was happening in the Reuters office, or if my Bosnian godson, Deni, had got over his fever. I spent most of the day shopping for supplies to take back to friends. I worried the whole weekend that the Sunday flight would be cancelled and I would never get back.
My then-boyfriend -who has since died young -and I had been together for several years. He was an uncomplicated person who wanted to live quietly, get married, have kids, watch Match of the Day and read the newspapers in peace in the morning over his breakfast. He had it in him to be happy.
I, on the other hand, was complicated. On day two, he said brightly: "When you get back, we'll have a great holiday and then try to start a family!"
My heart sank. If I had kids, I would never be able to go to Sarajevo again. What kind of life would that be? The thought was intolerable. I smiled and said, "We'll see." But on that wintry Sunday morning, he went back to Notting Hill, I went back to Sarajevo and I did not come home again for a very long time.
A few years after the war ended, and before the war in Kosovo erupted - around 1997 -I burnt all my Bosnian notebooks. It was a strange thing to do, an act of defiance and rebellion against the past. Every morning I had woken up staring at these notebooks. They represented war and misery. I had begun to hate them. Letters, documents, diaries -all went into the raging fire. I wanted to move on. I did not think of them again for some time.
Then, a few years later, a researcher from the war crimes tribunal at the Hague rang. They wanted me to testify about the siege of Mostar.
During that siege, I lived on the east side of the Neretva River, the Muslim side, in a bombed-out apartment with two young soldiers. We spent our days on the front line, where my friends were snipers with a small unit, and the nights trying to avoid being hit by shrapnel. What do I remember from that time? Lying on a mattress at night watching red tracer rounds; the sound of the bombing; eating cherries and cold beans for dinner, the only food available; my soldier friends laughing over some silly joke. But most of all I remember the feeling that there was no life outside that room, that front line, that city. In that limited, dangerous world, I was strangely happy. How could I report that to the war crimes tribunal? Instead, I told the startled researcher that I had burnt my notebooks -the documentation of Croat atrocities, the count of the dead, the interviews with witnesses. "You did what?" she gasped. Only then did I realise what I had done.
But it had not erased the memories. I could not forget the dead. They were everywhere I looked. And when I went back to Sarajevo over and over after the war, they were still there -hanging around the brand-new Benetton shop or the internet cafe or the Mexican restaurant that served bad margaritas.
They followed me around like warm, grey clouds. Only my friend Dragan, who had been with me during the war, understood. One day he drove me to the airport and told me to get a life. "Get married, have kids, forget this place," he said. "Say Dovidjenja Bosna (Goodbye Bosnia)."
But in the end, only writing Madness Visible did that. As I gave all the characters, living and dead, the freedom to roam around my book - because it reads more like a novel than a work of non-fiction -I liberated them, and, ultimately, myself. Only when I finished the last page, printed it, and sent it off to my editor did I finally begin to forget about them.