Balkan express: no light at the end of the tunnel

Interview with Croatian writer Slavenka Drakulic

By Patricia Albanese (interviewer) | 1995-01-01 12:00:00

PATRICIA ALBANESE: How has the war affected your family?

SLAVENKA DRAKULIC: It affected my family in many ways: it split us. I was once married to a Serb, and my daughter is from that marriage. My daughter's grandfather, who is a Serb, became a refugee in Serbia, because he did not feel safe in Croatia. It affected my daughter and her boyfriend, now husband. I did not want him to be drafted. I thought that they should leave, so we were split up. My daughter left for Canada and in the middle of the war I was alone in Zagreb. It was a mother's impulse to want her child to be safe but I suffered in her absence.

It also affected my relationships with [the international writer's association] PEN. You think that friendship is stronger than nationalism, but it's not. I had friends who became nationalists. They started talking to me in a language that I couldn't understand. I was not brought up as a nationalist; I married a Serb and my parents did not say a word against it-they were Communists. In school and society, there was a kind of multi-culturalism. You were aware that you belonged to a specific ethnicity but it was not important. You were not prevented or encouraged to do this or that because of ethnicity.

I had colleagues who stopped saying hello to me. You work with someone for 10 years and the person stops saying hello to you in the street. There is also fear of being bombed or killed.

People change under such pressure, without being aware of it. I was astonished at changes in my friends, but I was also astonished at my own change. Balkan Express is a kind of diary of personal change. It begins not realizing that this is really war and ends with moral dilemmas that came at the very moment I was writing them.

ALBANESE: At what point did you begin to notice changes?

DRAKULIC: First, you start to notice changes in other people, not in yourself, because we tend to think, "I'm above that, I'm stronger." You notice that people don't say hello; that they have gone crazy with nationalism; that they are saying strange things; that they are becoming opportunists; that they are becoming aggressive. Eventually, you realize that you too have changed. Even if you try to escape it, it drags you in. The war creates a state of black and white; there is no space for nuances; you arecaught taking sides.

ALBANESE: What side did you take?

DRAKULIC: Always the side of the victim. This is not the government of my choice. It is not what it claims to be-democratic. I have always tried to draw a clear line between the government and the people. It was not a problem to take the side of the Croatian people in Vukovar or in Dubrovnik, but to side with the government that was manipulating such events [was another matter]. I am not a nationalist. I don't buy this ideology as I did not buy communist ideology. When you're not singing in the choir, as it were, you become an exception. If you speak out, you are no good.

ALBANESE: Are you a victim?

DRAKULIC: I don't see myself as a victim, but I am jobless. I haven't published in my country in two years. I was kicked out, with other journalists, from a Croatian weekly magazine. I was sent to the unemployment office. So you could say that I'm a victim, but I don't see myself as such because so many are worse off-the refugees. I have been published in so many opportunities to make a living, yet, I cannot express myself, so in that sense I am a victim.

I don't like to be labeled a dissident. There is no reason that some temporary government-and this government will change-should deny me my country. Everyone treats me as a Croatian writer, so how am I a dissident? They don't like to hear what I'm saying but I don't care about that.

ALBANESE: What kind of future do you see for your country?

DRAKULIC: I can't imagine the future. To my generation, the future has been denied twice. In communist times we expected that it was always going to be the same, so you would not save money, invest, or plan for the future.

My generation is tired because for the second time-because of this war-we cannot imagine the future. We can't see an end; we can't see how we are going to heal these wounds. Croats and Serbs and Muslims have to live together, but when is another question. I don't see the light at the end of the tunnel, only continued suffering and sadness. So many people are dead and lives destroyed.

On the other hand, when you go to Zagreb, it appears peaceful. People are leading normal lives-having espresso, visiting friends, shopping. People are able to construct an illusion of normality under difficult circumstances, and the country continues to function.

ALBANESE: Will ethnic cleansing be reversed so people can return?

DRAKULIC: There are about two million people in exile. People of my generation or older will return-even if their homes have been burned-to reconstruct their lives. But younger people probably won't. I know a family in Vienna-the parents are of my generation and the kids are 16 and 20. After two years there, the kids want to stay in Austria. They speak perfect German and want to integrate, but the parents want to go back.

The same is happening with refugee families from Vukovar, living in Zagreb. It would be very difficult in the foreseeable future to bring these people back. For a generation or two they will not want to live together; people are afraid.

ALBANESE: Who will rebuild the countries that emerge out of this war?

DRAKULIC: Croatia did not have much of a brain drain or migrations because it was a defensive war, at least in the beginning. I don't know how much I can trust this statistic, but I heard that about 10,000 young people left. I see many in Vienna, London, and New York. Are they going to go back? They think in economic terms, not in terms of ideology. They will go back if there is a peaceful solution and reconstruction.

People left the country because they did not want to be drafted, felt unsafe, or came from mixed marriages. They are young and can integrate where they live now. They are, however, visiting Croatia very often. There is nostalgia. Many of them wish it were as before and want to forget the last four years.

ALBANESE: Are the children of mixed marriages less likely to return?

DRAKULIC: They feel more threatened. The tragedy of the mixed marriage is that one is forced to take sides between mother and father.

If you are a Serb and a loyal citizen in Zagreb today, you are still not trusted. Even if you haven't done anything against the state and you were born there, you feel threatened because you are a Serb. You have to be twice as good as any Croatian, and it's still not enough. I understand a hundred thousand Serbs have left for that reason.

ALBANESE: Were mixed marriages common?

DRAKULIC: In Bosnia, about 30% of children were of mixed marriages. On the level of Yugoslavia it was less-20%. It was not uncommon.

ALBANESE: Are mixed marriages now discouraged?

DRAKULIC: In Bosnia the government is discouraging mixed marriages. This came after two-and-a-half years of trying to convince the people that they are religious Muslims-Fundamentalists-when in fact they were secular Muslims.

If somebody tells you for two and a half years that you are a religious Muslim, you begin to think that you can gain from the people who say they are Fundamentalists. They are giving you arms so why wouldn't you call yourself Fundamentalists and tell the girls not to marry boys of different ethnic groups?

In Croatia, the atmosphere is so nationalistic and heated that nobody needs to tell you not to marry a Serb. I imagine that there aren't many mixed marriages at the moment.

ALBANESE: You've seen your people all over the world. What memories do they have of their country?

DRAKULIC: I agree with Adam Michnik's view that nationalism is like a virus; it's dormant until it is decided that it can be used to provoke something. In every multiethnic state or federal state, there is always latent, dormant danger of nationalism being pulled out, like a card from a sleeve, played for whatever aim. The nationalist problem and the war descended upon people in Yugoslavia, especially in Bosnia, and surprised them. People were living peacefully. There were political struggles, but it was not a burning problem.

In a town like Vukovar, five or 10 years ago, there were conflicts between Croats and Serbs which could have amounted to war, but it never happened. The war did not start from below, it started from above, by politicians. These people could have lived together, but they were forced to redefine their identity in ethnic terms.

Refugees bring with themselves a memory of a good and peaceful life. They did not bring many photos and even fewer objects. It is very important that they are seen as normal people. I learned this when I visited a refugee camp. There was a woman who told me about the land, cows, and tractor she and her husband had. They showed me a picture of them in front of their big beautiful villa. She told me, "I'm happy that I have this picture, because this is how we can prove that once we were normal people."

I realized that what is cherished most is normality. These people who were exiled, poor, and who couldn't envision a future, cherished being normal-having a house, a cow, atractor, or sitting in front of the television at night drinking a beer. These are normal people, with moving stories.

ALBANESE: What role do you see your books playing in promoting peace?

DRAKULIC: My people don't read these books because I am not translated in my country, but I get many letters from readers abroad. I am told that it made war real to them because it speaks about common people changed by war.

As a writer, I don't think that I could do more. On the other hand, I feel betrayed by my own words. All this writing, reporting, witnessing doesn't contribute to any kind of peace process. As a writer or reporter, you think that if only the world knew, they would do something about it. You discover that everybody knows and nobody is doing anything because of political gain, domination, and prestige. This is how big powers play. It doesn't have anything to do with people's feelings or public opinion. When as a writer you realize that you are powerless, you ask, why am I doing this?

ALBANESE: What keeps you going?

DRAKULIC: I'm a writer; I have to write; I can't stop. It's not a big moral aim for me to be witness any longer because I don't think it makes change. Words are too weak when they confront political interests and arms.

ALBANESE: So the pen is not mightier than the sword?

DRAKULIC: Definitely not. If words, information, or truth could stop the war, it would have stopped long ago.

ALBANESE: Do you see anything positive coming out of this?

DRAKULIC: I feel pessimism and bitterness. It will take two generations at least to end on optimism, and that will be too late for me.

Patricia Albanese is a PhD student of sociology at the University of Toronto.

Peace Magazine Jan-Feb 1995

Peace Magazine Jan-Feb 1995, page 6-. Some rights reserved.

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