According to the story, my third word—after Mommy and Daddy—was “picture.” In Zagreb, where I spent the first two years of my life, my mother lifted me from my pram to see the pieces of art. “Look, Jehanne, look at the picture.” On sunny days, we took the funicular from our apartment in the old section of the city, downhill to the lower, newer portion, where we visited galleries or just toured the neighborhoods. Or, we wandered closer to home, through cobblestone streets to St. Mark’s Church—with its ecstasy of colorful roof tiles—only a few blocks away. Even if we stayed indoors, we could gaze down from the windows of our apartment into the courtyard of the Meštrović Atelier, a gallery dedicated to one of Yugoslavia’s most renowned artists. The rumor went that, years before, Meštrović himself had slept in the very rooms where we now slept, ate where we ate, regarded the same medieval views of Zagreb. Our dining room, which was punctuated with a series of rounded alcoves, once displayed the sculptor’s works-in-progress.
And, so, I kept saying, picturepicturepicture. I stretched my hand toward the beautiful. In my first year, laid on the living room floor, I often pulled lint from the wool rug, rolling the soft balls of color between my finger and thumb. My mother swears she used to find me arranging these kernels of bright lint in intricate patterns, placing small nubs of orange beside specks of yellow and green. I could stay like this for hours, my liquid, infant gaze focused on the swirl of design and hue.
It was the mid 1970s, my parents’ first post. Before my birth, they spent a little over a year in Belgrade, after which they moved to Zagreb, where my father was the Deputy Cultural Affairs Officer. At the U.S. Cultural Center, the Foreign Service Nationals (or FSNs, as they’re known), called me sweetica, the English word paired with the affectionate, Serbo-Croatian diminutive, “ica.” Little sweetie. I was so tiny my father could fit my head in his palm, my feet barely reaching the crook of his arm.
At the end of four years in Yugoslavia, less than a week before we were about to leave for our next assignment—this time in Zaire—my parents received a phone call. Good news: Mersad Berber, the great Bosnian Muslim painter had agreed to sell my parents something. As a general rule, the artist didn’t accept American patronage. Apparently, an American tourist, upon entering his studio, had once asked with dismay, “Is this the only stuff you do.” But Berber had been persuaded, at last, that my parents were sincere in their admiration of his work, and he decided to let them have two paintings.
In contrast, the blue painting is a site of serenity. At the bottom of the canvas: the top half of a woman. The shape of her headdress mirrors the city behind her, a skyline of narrow turrets and onion domes. The ever-blue of the sky is streaked with gilding, its metallic shimmer like a constant nightfall.
Later, I would understand that in these women I saw the visual echoes of religious icons. There was something both ornate and plain about the paintings. The women’s faces are round like porcelain bowls glimmering with hand-applied gilding, their pointed chins perching on the tall, formed stems of their necks, the continuous, slender lines of eyebrow joined to nose joined to eyebrow, and the delicate dots of their mouths. The artist treats the women with tenderness, his brush respectful against their features.
Throughout my childhood, the two women watched me from their elevated positions on the wall of the dining room. They were there, through hundreds of evening meals, the many afternoons I did my homework at the long table that seated eight. In college, when I read Plato’s Phaedrus for the first time, I thought about the two horses in the red painting, the pale one rearing back, as if attempting to escape the frame, and the other a muscular shadow, leaning over, as if to nip the neck of its companion. “In the case of the human soul,” Plato writes, “first of all, it is a pair of horses that the charioteer dominates; one of them is noble and handsome and of good breeding, while the other is the very opposite, so that our charioteer necessarily has a difficult and troublesome task.”
Throughout my childhood too, we lived in a number of places that might have been called divided. Consider the linguistic discord of Belgium, the international push-pull over Zaire’s natural resources, and Poland, which so often, throughout its history, was merely territory to be invaded by the armies of its powerful neighbors. But no country seemed more divided than Yugoslavia, its soul dragged in opposing directions, like a chariot pulled by a pair of antagonistic horses.
My parents often speak about how much they loved their time in Belgrade and Zagreb. They remember the roasted meats, the assertive green of the olive oils, the sturdy, rough table wines. “The people were so warm,” they tell me. But, my mother says, it was unwise to mention the Croats to the Serbs or the Serbs to the Croats. Then, she explains, the response was always, “those terrible, terrible people.” No American could understand this kind of long, historical memory, both sides talking about battles that occurred eight hundred years before, as if the wars had happened yesterday.
[e]ver since Emperor Constantine decided to split the Roman Empire in the fourth century A.D., the tectonic plates of imperial, religious, and racial interests have ground together in the Balkans. Rome and Constantinople, Catholicism and Orthodoxy, Christianity and Islam, Germans and Slavs, Russia and the West—all have clashed along a shifting fault line running down the middle of the former Yugoslavia.
Like strata of soil, successive enmities—such as the “cycle of unrest and violence” of Hapsburg rule, of WWI, and then of WWII—were layered over earlier grudges and resentments. By the late 1980s, Doder explains, “Serbian communist strongman Slobodan Milošević rode to power…on the crest of a powerful nationalist wave,” and “nationalist parties were swept into power in all republics in the first free post-Cold War elections in 1990.”
What followed the rise of nationalism in the former Yugoslavia were wars in Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kozovo, as well as conflicts in Macedonia and the Preševo Valley. The worst of the violence was called ethnic cleansing, a term that ensured the United States and other nations could avoid the kind of intervention that might have been necessitated by labeling the crimes genocide.
By 1993, when the war was already well underway in Yugoslavia, we were posted to Brussels. One night, my mother told us that, in addition to the bombings, the sieges of towns, the mass disappearances of civilians, there were now rumors of rapes emerging from the territories of the former Yugoslavia. No, not just rapes. There were rumors of rape camps. And my mother, with her excellent language skills and her knowledge of the region, had been identified as a suitable representative to fly to Zagreb and to interview Bosnian refugees.
In an unpublished essay she once wrote for a creative writing workshop, my mother recounts how she felt at the time: “When I received a message from a former State Department colleague that my name had come up on the language database as possible team leader, I had shoved the cable aside and tried to ignore it.” Over dinner, we discussed if my mother should take the assignment. “I don’t want to go,” my mother said. My father stayed silent. And, although I have no memory of this conversation, my mother writes that I told her, “Mommy, if you don’t go, somebody else will have to. And what if that person doesn’t believe the women?”
Believe the women. I would have been barely seventeen when I said this. In her essay, my mother hypothesizes that I knew women could be disbelieved because I had heard her own story from thirty years before. When she was nineteen and living in Miami, my mother was held hostage by a man who had escaped from an institution, the kind of place that used to be called an asylum for the criminally insane. For nearly a day, he held her at knifepoint in her own apartment, saying over and over again, “Tell me a story, tell me why I shouldn’t kill you.”
My mother obeyed. She told him about the college classes she was taking. She pointed to the textbooks that lay open the dining room table. She bandaged the man’s hand, which she had cut in the struggle, after he broke into her rooms. “Tell me a story,” he said, “tell me why I shouldn’t kill you.” She offered to cook him dinner. Spaghetti and meatballs, she suggested, knowing she didn’t have those ingredients in her kitchen, that they would have to walk to the grocery store and that the store stood across the street from a police station. She took a purse from the closet; its sides were sturdy, the bottom studded with four metal feet. She placed her shopping list inside the bag. And when my mother finally managed to get away from the man—knocking him over with a sudden strike of the purse—she ran and ran. In the police station, her face and neck, her wrists still bruised from his fingers, the officers on duty didn’t believe the story she told. Women like this were always coming in to complain about their boyfriends’ fists. “Go home,” they told her, “just tell him you’re sorry and won’t do it again.”
And, so, my mother decided to go to Yugoslavia to listen to the women.
In Zagreb, she stayed at a hotel. There had been shelling in the suburbs, but the war was mostly felt in other ways within the city. Refugees were everywhere. And hyperinflation rapidly changed the price of a cup of coffee or a loaf of bread from one day to the next. It was cold in Zagreb. My mother had packed thermal underwear, sweaters, a thick scarf to wear indoors if the heat went out. On some days, she and the rest of the team interviewed women in the offices of NGOs or in the makeshift spaces of refugee camps. They went to hospitals, often sitting with women in the psychiatric wings. Depending on a woman’s health—how hurt her body, how abraded her speech—an interview might last four, six, even eight hours. With some, the conversation would become too difficult, and my mother would sit quietly in a nearby chair, while nurses or doctors shuffled through the corridors beyond.
And although my mother, a gifted linguist, spoke Serbo-Croatian, she brought a translator with her to each interview, the pace of the conversation halting and stumbling, as questions and answers were mediated through translation. My mother wanted it this way. She wanted to construct a small, artificial barrier of language, so that the women’s trauma might take longer to reach her. “I was quite certain,” she writes in her essay, “that the stories I would hear would be devastating. I needed to make sure that my emotions did not interfere with getting the facts.”
Interviews began with slow, careful introductions. This is who we are. We understand you might have a story. We are interested in hearing your story, but only if you feel comfortable talking to us. Tell us about your life before the war. Tell us about your town. Did you know your neighbors.
The work of the team was to collect testimony for the U.N.’s War Tribunal. Patterns of abuse—pointing to the systematic use of rape as part of the Serbs’ genocidal practices against their Bosnian neighbors—needed to emerge carefully from the interviews. The questions could not lead, could not force an answer, must be able to stand up to scrutiny in an international court of law.
My mother stayed in Zagreb approximately six weeks. Each night, when the interviews were done, she came back to the hotel to work on her notes. The Embassy had given her a secure typewriter; after she transcribed each interview, she locked the pages and the typewriter ribbon in the safe in her room. My mother has never been a drinker. Instead, she took a long shower, trying to wash the words off her skin. She went to bed, although she seldom fell asleep easily. She hadn’t been raped by the man who held her hostage decades before, but my mother couldn’t help remembering her own story when she heard the Bosnian women recounting theirs, his hands around her neck, how he kept saying, “Tell me why I shouldn’t kill you.“
And once she returned to Brussels, my mother spoke “incessantly,” as she recalls it, about the interviews. Each night, she sat at the dinner table, the rest of us listening, never interrupting the tumble of her words, as she recounted more details of her weeks in Zagreb, perhaps the lacerated face of a victim she met in the hospital or the dried-leaf tremble of a voice.
I often wonder if my mother chose to go back to Zagreb in 1993, in part, because she was seeing, up close, in the daily cables and other communications from Washington, D.C., that the U.S. would not intercede to stop the fighting. Academic and diplomat Samantha Power writes in her Pulitzer Prize-winning book A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide:
Before I began exploring America’s relationship with genocide, I used to refer to U.S. policy toward Bosnia as a ‘failure.’ I have changed my mind. It is daunting to acknowledge, but this country’s consistent policy of nonintervention in the face of genocide offers sad testimony not to a broken American political system but to one that is ruthlessly effective. The system, as it stands now, is working. No U.S. president has ever made genocide prevention a priority, and no U.S. president has ever suffered politically for his indifference to its occurrence. It is thus no coincidence that genocide rages on.
There were a number of reasons for political inaction. As Power explains, “the U.S. military advised against it,” the Clinton administration “would act only with the consent and active participation of their European partners,” and the President “was worried about American public opinion.” So, the violence continued. And, according to the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, in Bosnia and Herzegovina alone, “[i]t is estimated that more than 100,000 people were killed and two million people, more than half the population, were forced to flee their homes as a result of the war that raged from April 1992 through to November 1995…Thousands of Bosnian women were systematically raped. Notorious detention centres for civilians were set up by all conflicting sides.”
In 1992, Mersad Berber—like many Bosniaks—was forced to flee his home. Both during the Balkan Wars, and after, until his death in 2012, the artist produced paintings that could be said to function as a form of witness, as testimony, or as visual representations of the region’s trauma. He created ambitious sequences such as Dubrovnik War Diary, Sarajevo War Diary – Midnight Talks with Il Guercino, and later The Great Allegory of Srebrenica. Art historian, Aida Abadžić Hodžić, writes that Berber “tried to find a human face in this vortex of what was often a brutal history, to reach out to the Other and to show the multi-layered and turbulent history of Bosnia and Herzegovina.” These pieces combine collage, drawing, painting, and digital printing which, as art critic Edward Lucie-Smith says, “do not deal with single images but with conjunctions of images, in some cases simply placed side by side, but in others layered one on top of the other. In this way they often seem to mirror some of the complexities of Balkan culture and history.”
I study a painting from a 2015 exhibition catalogue. “Great Allegory on Srebrenica VIII” (2005) is described as mixed media on paper. Against a background of torn pages of books, old photographs, and rough splotches of cream, like crumbling plaster on a building, Berber has painted the anguished torso of a man, who could be dying or already dead, his eyes fixed on something we can’t see. The man is painted in the style of Velázquez, one of Berber’s great influences, his body touched with a chilly moonlight, shadows darkening behind him. He is surrounded by blocks of red paint the color of dried blood. Three armless hands float near him, some too large in proportion to the scale of his form, as if he has been laid among the remnants of classical statues, his limbs blending with the marble miscellanies. And, near the top right corner, is a horsehead, sepia-stained and still, so different from the horses in the red painting of my childhood.
Abadžić Hodžić calls the horse “[t]he central metaphor of most of Berber’s cycles…Yet, it was not, in Berber’s words, a grand horse, but the working packhorse of the mountains of Bosnia, so deeply linked to all paths of life: hard labour and weddings, funerals and wars. That was the horse in whose expressive power, pain and imperfect beauty one may read the biography of his people.” To be a divided country is not to be a land always at war with itself. There are many horses. Sometimes the horse pulls a wagon full of hay. Or it is adorned with bright ribbons in honor of a neighbor’s wedding. Perhaps, it is hitched to cart that carries the body of someone beloved by the village. And, only occasionally, is it used to escape the fighting or to charge at the terror.
Berber made “Great Allegory on Srebrenica VIII” ten years after the massacre in that city, during which more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were murdered by Bosnian Serbs. About Berber’s paintings of Srebrenica, Lucie-Smith writes that “[t]he images are a lament, not only for those who died, but for the demise of the plural culture that flourished, despite all ethnic and religious antagonisms, for some hundreds of years in the Balkans.” I look at the pieces Berber created in the last decade of his life and can see how paper and paint are placed on top of one another, sometimes obscuring what’s underneath, sometimes revealing, unsettling intersections of media.
I had always preferred the fearful drama of the red painting, the two horses challenging one another with their bright, unbalking eyes. Art is about tension, I so often tell my creative writing students. I loved the red painting because it was entirely tense, bared teeth and tightened muscles. But the blue painting—or, at least, this reproduction—would have to do. I would hang it in my hallway, so that I might pass the woman every day, her eyes always on me and mine hers.
And, maybe, it is better to have this blue-gray tranquility, instead of so much red. Maybe it’s better to live without the multiplicity of horses and their “expressive power.”
It now seems impossible that the former Yugoslavia was ever a landscape untouched by hurt, just as it is equally hard to imagine my mother was ever unafraid of blacked-out rooms, not frightened by the wind that jostles the door handle like someone trying to get inside. Even today, she does not enter a darkened room. Instead, she reaches a hand around the corner, feeling for the light switch.
As for all the women she interviewed, what happened them? My mother doesn’t know. She doesn’t even know what happened to her own interview reports, once they were transmitted to the International Criminal Tribunal in the Hague. The testimonies she collected joined hundreds of others, some of which were eventually used in the Tribunal’s court cases. But she is certain her reports did “add to the corpus of evidence that had been gathered from numerous sources, proving that war crimes had been committed.” I hope this comforts her. We both know that many of the women continue to crouch within the shadows of their rapists, who often live in nearby villages, only a few kilometers away. Intimate partner violence is common too. And the children born out of wartime rape are often despised for their parentage or flattened into symbols.
Today, I call my mother. I ask how clearly she remembers the women she met in Zagreb twenty-seven years ago. She says that many of them blur together. “Their stories were so alike.” But there is one whose voice my mother can hear. The woman had been raped and then, in the camp, was forced to take care of a young girl who had been assaulted too, to wash her face or force bites of food into her mouth, to keep her alive so that the child “could continue to be raped.” One day, the girl was taken away, and the woman never saw her again. “She had her own grief and then the additional grief that she had somehow failed. She lived with these two terrible things.” My mother goes quiet on the other end of the line. I am quiet too. For a minute, we sit together, listening to one another’s breathing.
Jehanne Dubrow is the author of seven poetry collections, including most recently American Samizdat (Diode Editions, 2019), and a book of nonfiction, throughsmoke: an essay in notes (New Rivers Press, 2019). She is a Professor of Creative Writing at the University of North Texas.
Photograph by the author.