Boris A. Novak: WfPC - essay
Boris A. Novak
“I DON’T WANT SOLDIERS,
I WANT CIVILIANS”
(a report on the humanitarian help for refugees and writers in the besieged Sarajevo organised by the Slovene and international PEN)
in memory of the brave, beautiful souls,
Susan Sontag and Maruša Krese
In early October 1991, when in Slovenia we awaited with relief the final withdrawal of the Yugoslav “People’s” Army and when the aggression on Croatia had just been tragically unleashed, as the president of the Slovene PEN Centre I set in motion a humanitarian campaign for the refugees who were beginning to arrive in Slovenia from different parts of our former common state because of the dangers brought by the war and political persecution. Among the first were the Dubrovnik poet Luko Paljetak and his wife Anuška, a translator; the Montenegrin poet Jevrem Brković; and the journalist from Belgrade and founder of the Roma PEN Centre Rajko Đurić. Our humanitarian activities were very diverse: they encompassed financial help, the search for temporary work and shelter, facilitating health care for refugees and their family members, organising numerous joint literary and peace events, translating and publishing their works, resolving legal problems (mostly in connection with visas, transit visas and their legal status in Slovenia and other countries), enabling children of refugee families to attend school, and so on. Collecting financial help was actually the simplest part of these activities. During the war, we financially assisted 40 refugee writers and this number should then be multiplied by the number of their family members; the total amount was about 40,000 German marks.
It soon became clear that the Slovene PEN would be unable to bear such a heavy financial burden, and we asked for the help of PEN International, which responded with some cheques from its Emergency Fund based in the Netherlands; the fund was headed by the now deceased poet Henk Bernlef.
From November 1992, our humanitarian help focused on the besieged Sarajevo, the city where the tragedy of the 20th century began and ended. The Bosnian poet Josip Osti, who at the start of the siege happened to be in Slovenia, suggested that we should send help to ten writers who he was certain were in Sarajevo. This was followed by another twelve consignments of money. Osti continued to offer significant help with information and connections. In the following years, the list of the recipients grew to 155; the total amount sent was 165,000 German marks.
We stuck to the principle that help should be given to all writers, irrespective of their ethnicity, including Serbs – under the proviso, of course, that they did not take part in attacks on Sarajevo. In order to financially “cover” as many misfortunate people as possible, we asked our Sarajevo colleagues to interpret the term “writer” as widely as possible; thus, the recipients of our help included journalists, literary translators, university professors, etc.
The money was smuggled across the borders and into the areas of armed conflicts by our brave and reliable couriers, and on one occasion in November 1994, even myself. Five times, it was carried by Sašo Novak, a Slovene who had lived in Sarajevo for quite a few years. I was very touched when he told me that as a child during World War Two he had been a courier for my father Ante, a partisan commander. All the consignments arrived at their destination. The only loss we suffered was 500 German marks, which one of our couriers was forced to pay at the border crossing between Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, as otherwise they would have taken the whole amount he was carrying. The money was delivered around Sarajevo, in very dangerous circumstances and exceptionally fairly, by the poetess Ferida Duraković and poet Goran Simić, the latter an informal leader of the community of Serbs who stayed in the besieged Sarajevo, faithful to their commitment to co-existence with their fellow townsmen and countrymen of other ethnicities.
If we add up the help to refugees and Sarajevo writers, we arrive at a total of 205,000 German marks, which means that the writers on our humanitarian list received on average 1000 marks. So that you can better imagine what this amount meant at the time, let me say that as an editor at a publishing company in the early Nineties, my salary was 300 German marks, while the average salary in Bosnia and Herzegovina was considerably lower, 100 marks. The poet Marko Vešović used the first consignment to buy a “furuna”, a wood burning stove, which helped his family to survive three ice-cold Sarajevo winters when there was no electricity in the city.
We organised a network of PEN centres and other organisations, which donated help. The most generous amounts were contributed by the Viennese organisation Literar-Mechana at the initiative of the Austrian PEN; exceptional solidarity was also shown by the German, Swedish, French, Danish and Galician PEN centres. Help was also sent by a group of American poets and creative writing students, led by the poet Richard Jackson. Many individuals also contributed important amounts: among them, let me mention the generous Chinese poetess Han Suyin. We also used our channels to convey to Sarajevo the help collected by other organisations, such as American and Slovene theatre workers. Taking into account all these different sources, the help we sent involved 445 intellectuals, writers and other artists.
In addition, we developed other forms of help. The most difficult thing was to convince embassies of various countries to give refugees the visas and status that offered them protection. Working with the authorities in the newly founded Slovene state was particularly arduous and full of disappointments: the border regime and the attitude to refugees kept changing, and I often had to intervene with the highest-ranking politicians I knew from my dissident days; sometimes they listened and helped, but most often not. My proposal to medically treat refugee artists was rejected by the government, but it did promise that it would informally hint to those responsible to take care of the matter. The lower ranking officials were curt, they even shouted at me. It must be emphasised that our humanitarian activities had the moral support of the then president of the Republic of Slovenia, Milan Kučan. The besieged Sarajevo was visited by the foreign minister Dimitrij Rupel and the interior minister Igor Bavčar. The Slovene police force was not favourably inclined to our activities, but it did stick to agreements, which is not something I can say about all our diplomatic and consular offices that I contacted in this connection. We must take into account here that during that period, 70,000 refugees fled to Slovenia, which was a significant burden for the young state also in the economic sense. If we compare this to the present state, when the considerably richer Slovenia is trying to stop a considerably smaller number of refugees from entering the country, we must conclude that the sense of solidarity in the Nineties was considerably better developed than it is now, when our country boasts the slogan S-LOVE-nia.
I remember with gratitude the generous help offered to the wounded and sick refugees by Slovene doctors and other medical staff – sometimes even without it being covered by the state and without the knowledge of the official bodies, i.e. more or less illegally. Nothing but praise is due to these noble successors to Hippocrates!
I helped a considerable number of refugees by sending them to third countries with the help of the hospitality of many writers’ associations around the world. Let me mention just a few examples: in 1993, the American PEN, on my initiative, gave a peace award to Zoran Mutić, a refugee from Sarajevo, and Svetlana Slapšak, a dissident from Belgrade. The German and Austrian PEN organised grants for refugee writers. As part of this scheme, following my proposal, a number of Sarajevo writers – Kaća Čelan, Josip Osti, Valerija Skrinjar Tvrz and Stevan Tontić – received grants from the Böll Fundation, which enabled them to enjoy a few months and literary work in Germany; also the Belgrade poet Milan Đorđević and others. The Sarajevo poet Mile Stojić and his family set up temporary residence in Vienna, where he received a Literar-Mechane grant. Together with the Writers in Prison Committee of PEN International and with the American and Swedish PEN, we proposed a number of refugee writers for various peace awards. The Swedish PEN organised accommodation and all the necessary care for the refugees and their families.
None of the humanitarian activities of the Slovene PEN would have been possible without the self-sacrificing work of the recently deceased Sonja Tomše, an incredibly meticulous book keeper, Elza Jereb, who for many, many years worked as the secretary of the Slovene PEN and was its moving spirit, and the tireless Josip Osti, who helped us with a great deal of advice. Whenever it was necessary, help was also offered by the brilliant, deeply sympathetic secretaries of the Slovene Writers’ Association, Anja Uršič and the late Barbara Šubert, and others. The Slovene Writers’ Association also established a special fund to assist refugee writers.
At the Pen International World Congress in Rio de Janeiro in December 1992, I was appointed as the organiser of the help to refugee writers and our colleagues trapped in the besieged Sarajevo. At the PEN congress in Santiago de Compostela in September 1993, the delegate assembly founded an ad hoc committee, called the Sarajevo Committee, joined by 35 centres. I was entrusted with the position of its chair. After long-lasting efforts and painful discussions, the Bosnia and Herzegovina PEN Centre was established, which meant a great deal to Bosnian writers: they elected Prof Dr Tvrtko Kulenović as the first chairman.
The humanitarian help for Bosnian writers was not limited only to the members of the Sarajevo Committee. Some PEN members organised exceptionally extensive solidarity campaigns which, due to their general humanitarian character, far exceeded the help aimed at writers. Perhaps the most extensive activity of this sort was the Belgian Balkan Aktie, founded and led by the then chair of the Flemish PEN, the writer Monika b. van Paemel. She organised no fewer than 42 refugee centres, mostly in Bosnia (she also looked after the Koševo hospital in Sarajevo), while there were also a few centres in Croatia and even in Serbia (Deliblato); in Slovenia, help from this organisation was aimed at the refugee children in Ptuj and the refugees who were at that time gathered in the Ljubljana barracks on Roška Street. Baron van Paemel also organised a special status for Bosnian refugees in Belgium.
Maruša Krese also distinguished herself with her personal courage, bringing to Sarajevo generous help from Germany, where she had prior to this lived and worked for a number of years. In memory of the late writer and friend, let me say that in 1993 I was trying to persuade her not to go to Sarajevo since she still had an open wound after an operation, in which her kidney was removed and donated to her sick son. She did not listen to me, this big, beautiful soul. She went to the besieged Sarajevo.
In addition to the joint activities, some PEN centres that were members of the Committee also developed their own, for which they deserve special praise and gratitude. I must emphasise the huge material and moral support offered by the American PEN and brought to Sarajevo by Susan Sontag. Allow me to boast a little – during the preparations for her journey to Sarajevo, this fascinating lady studied in detail the extensive documentation I sent her via the then executive director of American PEN, Karen Kennerly. Later, Susan Sontag and I worked together on the settlement of some refugees in Western countries. As is generally known, Susan Sontag’s visit did a great deal for the besieged city, both in terms of concrete help and in terms of a striking symbolic gesture: her direction of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot in the Chamber Theatre, lit only by candles, will remain written in the history of ethics. The same applies to Juan Goytisol, Monika van Paemel, Bernard-Henry Lévy and others. I never met Susan face to face, for during those difficult years we communicated via intensive correspondence. She honoured me greatly with a nickname she gave me – Novak the Good.
Let me evoke the memory of the visit of Slovene writers to the besieged city. The group included Niko Grafenauer, Drago Jančar, Josip Osti and myself. We were invited by the Cankar Cultural Society, in which Slovenes living there were gathered, and the Bosnian and Herzegovinian PEN Centre that was founded during the war. The energetic moving spirit of the cultural life of the Sarajevo Slovenes, Stanislav Koblar, organised the visit with his typical meticulousness. After lengthy preparations, a suitable moment came in late October 1994. The Slovenian National Commission for UNESCO, with the kind help of Zofka Klemen Krek, supplied us with all the necessary documents: we had the status of a UNESCO delegation, since this UN scientific and cultural agency was organising visits by artists to the besieged city; the procuration was provided with a special letter signed by Federico Mayor, the then UNESCO Director-General. As it later transpired, this document probably saved us many problems, maybe even our lives. I was also travelling to Sarajevo as an organiser of the PEN humanitarian help, which is why the four of us also had the status of PEN International deputies. On the basis of these documents, UNPROFOR (the then military UN formation for peacekeeping in the Yugoslav wars) issued us a permit for flying there with a military transport plane. UNPROFOR representatives seriously warned us in writing and verbally that the situation in Sarajevo was rather unstable and dangerous, they advised us against travelling there and told us that in case of any complications, they could not guarantee a return flight for us. It was much easier to get into Sarajevo than out of it. The name of the military air service itself was very meaningful in this sense – MAYBE AIRLINES.
We flew from Zagreb airport, not directly to Sarajevo, but in a wide curve across the sun-lit Dalmatia. I was glad and surprised to meet on the plane the Sarajevo writer Amela Simić, the wife of the above-mentioned Goran, our confidant in the distribution of help to Sarajevo writers. Amela was Susan Sontag’s translator. After a short journey to the normal world, distanced from the war, she was on her way back home, to her family, and gave us plenty of useful information and instructions.
At Sarajevo airport, which looked like one big bunker, the British Embassy staff, who had come to meet Amela in a jeep, offered to take us to the city. We rejected this kind gesture as an UNPROFOR armoured vehicle was there to meet us, but this proved to have been a mistake that could have cost us dearly. The vehicle was driven by Egyptian soldiers who, in spite of the clear instructions as to where we were heading, for reasons that were not quite clear (ignorance? naivety? carelessness? disrespect for orders? intentionally?) drove us across the territory controlled by the Bosnian Serbs. I was sitting next to the narrow opening behind the driver’s seat. I got the first inkling that something was not right when I saw on the road a group of people, many of who did not want to get out of the way of our vehicle; children were running along the pavements, jumping in front of the fast-moving vehicle, lifting their middle finger and making other provocative gestures. The crowd in front of us was getting denser and denser, and the driver had to slow down. In the end, we were stopped by a tight circle, consisting of around a hundred, perhaps two hundred people. It was clear to us that we were among Serbs. Our vehicle was surrounded by a group of young men who were aiming Kalashnikovs at us. An automatic memory from my military service whispered to me that this was not dangerous in itself since the machineguns could not shoot through the steel vehicle; heavier weapons would be needed for that. At the next moment, a boy of seventeen or eighteen, with a Kalashnikov on his chest, walked to the rear door and ordered in Serbian for it to be opened. Until then, we had been calm. What unsettled us was the strong fear we noticed in the behaviour of our armed escort – the Egyptian UN soldiers, who started shouting nervously “ID, ID!”. Then they did something that was strictly forbidden by the UNPROFOR rules and was also completely unnecessary: they opened the vehicle door! (We were all vividly remembering having heard on the news how the vice-president of the legitimate Bosnian government was captured one day in this way and shot on the spot). I was worried for Osti: he was a renowned critic of the aggression of the Bosnian Serbs and something could easily have happened to him. A thought flashed through me: we must not show our IDs. I was carrying 20,000 German marks for the Sarajevo writers; I had them hidden beneath my bullet-proof vest, but it involved a hefty bundle of sweat-suffused paper, in banknotes of 5, 10 and 20 marks, for larger denominations were useless in the Sarajevo black market. If they had searched me, I would probably not be here today to write this. I pulled out from my pocket just the UN documents and gave them to Niko, who was sitting by the door. The old fighter did very well: calmly and confidently, he shoved the papers under the noses of the armed young men. They mumbled something unhappily, clearly wondering what to do. We all remained quiet so as not to let on that we were Slovenes. We knew that if they found this out, they would not let us go on easily. – It all ended happily. It happened so quickly that there was no time for fear. That we had been in deadly danger occurred to us only when we reached our destination – Sarajevo.
The fact that the conduct of the Egyptian soldiers was cowardly and irregular became clear upon our return from the city to the airport, when we were driven by an armoured vehicle belonging to a French battalion that was holding positions at the most sensitive point in the city – in the very centre, by the River Miljacka. Throughout our journey, the French soldiers had their machine guns at the ready through the openings at the side.
We were received by the member of the Bosnian presidency, Mirko Pejanović, and the president of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Alija Izetbegović. We expected a short, official audience, but the increasingly lively and warm discussion stretched to over an hour. I told president Izetbegović about the humanitarian activities of the Slovene and international PEN, while Drago Jančar drew attention to the difficult position of those Serbs who had faithfully remained in the city, exposed to both Serbian cannon fire, as well as the mistrust of their neighbours of different national backgrounds. Our high-ranking host received Jančar’s criticism well: he said, that the Serbs were the only segment of the Sarajevo population who had the possibility of a moral choice – to either stay or leave the city, and that those who stayed had to be respected all the more.
To the end of my life, I will leaf through the memories of the images of the besieged Sarajevo: Josip, Niko, Drago and I in an armoured vehicle with the registration plate UNPF 6278 – Vaso Miskin Street and the market where the murderous grenades had exploded – Amela and Goran – Ferida and Stanko – our dear Jurica, i.e. the good-hearted Juraj, Prof Dr Martinović, the professor of Slovene literature at the Sarajevo university and former mayor, wounded during the war – the dignified and wise Prof Dr Hanifa Kapidžić Osmanagić – the great poet and a huge spirit, Izet Sarajlić, who in way of a thank-you wrote me a poem in which he said that I was a boy-twin of Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, a German poet whose portrait adorned the 20 German mark banknote – the photographer Božović, who took some of the most precious photographs of our lives – the good-natured driver Siniša – a taxi driver who drove us through the Sarajevo night at one hundred kilometres an hour with the lights off because he was afraid of the snipers – and children, children carelessly playing in the Sarajevo streets, turned into targets … And the quiet lady, who cooked for us at the Cankar Cultural Society, while we were always so embarrassed, doubly so, because our excellent hosts ensured we were fed in a city that was desperately hungry and because we were not sure what the right thing to do was – to accept or to refuse this precious gift ...
Allow me to tell you a story in connection with this quiet lady, whom I also included in my epic Vrata nepovrata (The Door of No Return). Among other things, Susan Sontag gave to her dear translator Amela Simić a perfumed soap and then Amela, as a sign of gratitude, gave it to me – or rather forced it on me. After I handed over to the Bosnian PEN members the 20,000 German marks, we were shocked during our contacts with the Slovene cultural society to find out that Slovenia was not providing sufficient help to the Sarajevo Slovenes. With the agreement of my fellow travellers, I gave the Sarajevo Slovenes the spare money that the worried Elza Jereb and Sonja Tomše had given to me in case we had to stay in the city longer than planned. Since I had nothing left for the quiet lady who had selflessly helped us throughout our visit, I gave her the perfumed soap that Susan had given to Amela, and Amela to me. Years later, when I was in Sarajevo to read my poems, the lady waited for me and thanked me for the soap. I poetised that fragrant soap that went from hand to hand and finally landed in the hands that needed it the most in my epic Vrata nepovrata as a symbol of the besieged city and solidarity. The soap became grace. I am certain that this small story says more about the horror of the long siege of Sarajevo than any loud, big, pathetic words could do.
The truth of our visit was nicely summed up by Goran Simić: “Many people offering help have visited Sarajevo until now, but did nothing. But the Slovene writers first did something for us and only then visited us.” He addressed us with these words on the premises of the Cankar Cultural Society, which was then based in Marshal Tito Street, in the partly demolished building of the bank Ljubljanska banka. In connection with this, let it always remain known that, in contrast to the Slovene writers, the main Slovene bank let its Bosnian customers badly down. If during the war the Slovene bankers – those selfish idiots! – had acted in Croatia and Bosnia like Slovene writers did, that bank would now be the strongest one in the region, but instead the Slovene taxpayers, including writers, are now paying for the bankers’ selfishness and stupidity.
We returned from Sarajevo unharmed and in one piece. We had mixed feelings: while being very shaken and upset, we were at the same time happy that our Sarajevo journey – among the subterranean shadows of death – was behind us and that we were returning to life …
I am certain that all four of us felt that in Sarajevo we became “comrades in arms”. Our close cooperation during the organisation of the humanitarian help strengthened my friendship with Josip. On 27 June 1991, he also took part at the literary evening organised by the Slovene Writers’ Association in the Cankar Centre in Ljubljana, and on the eve of the first day of the war for independent Slovenia, when outside a storm in every sense raged on, and the audience was smaller than the number of those appearing. I spent all the days and nights of that luckily short war with Niko and Drago in the editorial office of the journal Nova revija: to our best abilities, as intellectuals, we fought for Slovenia, sending around the world messages about the truth of the aggression of the Yugoslav army. Together with Jaroslav Skrušny, Tomaž Zalaznik and Gordana Vrabec, we formed the “war editorial office” of Nova revija. Being comrades in arms is an intense and lifelong relationship that cannot be reduced to the usual relationships of camaraderie and friendship. It has a special emotional colouring exactly because it appears as the consequence of a shared experience of something most horrible – war.
In our humanitarian work, we faced very painful psychological problems: refugees are people who lose their families, homes and homelands, and even the most generous humanitarian help cannot replace their loss. They may perceive the reception of help as a humiliation: some refugees were at times upset in spite of our best intentions. Many were living under such stress that they became nervous wrecks or completely passive, expecting everything to be done for them. Sometimes, there were signs of a subconscious hatred towards the humanitarian activists helping them. In these cases, we had to behave rationally and be aware of the psychological mechanism that had led them into the state they were in. There was clearly a case of transference: instead of those who had caused their suffering, they transferred their hatred to those that were closer, the ones helping them. And: those giving help have power over those receiving it, which is why the latter – in addition to the conscious feelings of gratitude – they sometimes subconsciously hate those they depend on. In some, luckily rare, cases we also encountered attempts to abuse our humanitarian good will, or even the appropriation of money someone did not really need or which was needed much more urgently by someone else. Although in view of the tragic war conditions we understood these reactions, they were of course unacceptable if we were to maintain good relations and because of the other refugees. One of the most extreme examples of this kind was a Bosnian writer, who on account of her sick children kept borrowing money, saying that I would return it. The Swedish PEN initially settled her and her family in a small northern town, but the writer managed to convince our Swedish colleagues to move the family to Stockholm, where we met in 1994. The writer said to me openly: “It’s true, I tricked everyone, what else could I have done in my predicament?” And my reaction? I laughed. And we all laughed, even the seemingly cold, but in reality such good-hearted Swedes.
Especially painful were the accusations, motivated either by jealousy (that others got more or too much) or by politicised and nationalistic motives. The most unpleasant example was connected with the Fund for Free Expression from the USA, which had asked us to put forward for their award writers from the former Yugoslavia. I proposed the whole group of writers who had stayed in the besieged Sarajevo. My proposal was not accepted. The Fund undoubtedly had the best intentions, but it made the mistake of limiting the number of awardees to a maximum of 24. Even though we did not like the idea of limiting the number, for it involved a selection among the writers who had all been equally struck by misfortune, we passed on the money to the awardees (24,000 US dollars = 1,000 dollars for each one on the list). On account of this award, four Sarajevo writers, members of the Croatian PEN, in an unjust and malevolent manner attacked our humanitarian activities in some of the Croatian printed media, specifically mentioning Susan Sontag and I, and above all Josip Osti, saying that we had conspired to cross off the list the names of Croatian writers. A number of times we were forced to publish denials. The Croatian PEN firmly took our side and publicly rejected the unjust accusations. One of the proofs of our impartiality is the fact that all four writers who had accused us of prejudice against the Croatians were receiving help from our humanitarian fund – a fact that they deliberately withheld in their accusations.
Even worse was the unfortunate development of our efforts to help in the restoration of the Bosnian National Library in Sarajevo, the famous Vijećnica, which was destroyed in 1992 during the bombing of Sarajevo. The director of this important institution evacuated to safety the most valuable books, such as the famous Sarajevo Hagada, one of the most important monuments of the Jewish culture. The musical journalist Ognjen Tvrtković, who helped to save the books from the fire, was just carrying to safety the collection of poems by the Slovene poet Dane Zajc, when due to thirst he drank a liquid he thought was water, but which unfortunately turned out to be vitriol, which damaged his stomach; he received treatment at the Ljubljana University Medical Centre. In 1993, the library director took refuge in Slovenia, where he organised a group for the restoration of the library within the framework of the University of Maribor. The Slovene PEN, the Sarajevo Committee and PEN International helped the group to establish contacts with national libraries and various groups around Europe that showed readiness to help with the restoration of such an important cultural institution; the presidents of a number of European states were also included – the Czech writer and our colleague Václav Havel was very active in this. Part of the destroyed library fund was restored because all the national libraries in the former joint state (in all the capitals of the former republics) had as a matter of course received copies of the books from all the Yugoslav publishers; the National and University Library in Ljubljana was also actively included in the project, donating some of its books in order to restore the book fund of the Sarajevo National Library. In the spring of 1994, a high representative of the Bosnian government appeared in Ljubljana and invited me for dinner. He informed me that a new director of the National Library had been appointed since the previous director was harming the interests of the institution and had started the fire himself. In a very unpleasant manner he expressed the expectation that I would distance myself from my activities for saving the library. I made it clear to him that I did not believe the accusations. Obviously, the Bosnian government had the right to lead the policy of its national library, but it was clear that the change of library management happened only because the previous director was a Serb by nationality. This unfortunate conflict paralysed the activities of many groups around Europe.
I can still see the list of the recipients of our help very clearly in my memory. I still follow from afar these colleagues, the publications of their books, their successes and problems and, sadly, deaths. I cannot not do this for I still feel responsible for them. Let me mention just a few stories.
Needless to say, the wounded and sick writers and their family members had priority in receiving help. Thus, for example, we covered the cost of specialist examinations for the husband of the playwright Kaća Čelan, who was operated on for a brain tumour. We also took care of the treatment of the sick son of the writer Ivan Lovrenović. For the poet Rešad Hadrović, wounded in the bombing, we organised and paid for an eye operation, which had to be done immediately otherwise he would have completely lost his sight within a month. When I heard about his death a few years ago, it was a very dark day for me.
One of the Bosnian poets used our financial help in order to bribe a paramilitary formation, and protect himself and his family from death during their flight from the Bosnian hell.
I saved the poet Amir Talić from prison in Banja Luka. I collected protest statements and demands for his release, written by a number of European PEN centres. And then, by coincidence, the private address of the prison director came into my hands. I was afraid that the highest Banja Luka gaoler would not receive my consignment if I sent it from an official Slovene post office, as it would probably have been intercepted by the censors in Republika Srbska. This is why in the middle of the night I went to the bus stop next to the Ljubljana Exhibition and Convention Centre, which was the departure point for the bus for Banja Luka. I paid one of the passengers to mail the package at the Banja Luka post office. Only three days later, I received a notification that Amir Talić had been released from prison. The director had clearly become very concerned about the international community knowing his personal address and that he may one day have to answer for the violence he had committed with an arrogant sense of security, thinking that no one could harm him.
I declared the great writer Dževad Karahas dead. I received the news of his death and, as customary, verified it with a number of mutually independent sources, and they all confirmed it. Then I wrote an obituary for Dževan and sent it around the world. After a few days, it transpired that the news was not true. Upon our first meeting Dževad, amidst laughter and with typical Bosnian humour, thanked me for the nicest text anyone had ever written about him.
Most touching were the fates of children, both those in Sarajevo and of refugees. Let me illustrate this with a story that had a happy ending. After heroically surviving the siege of Sarajevo, on the eve of liberation and peace, my Sarajevo friends Goran and Amela decided that their Serbian-Muslim family could no longer stay in that unfortunate city. Susan Sontag and I entered into extensive correspondence in search of a solution for this family. Susan used all the moral authority that she enjoyed in international circles to arrange asylum for them in Canada. In the last winter of the war, Amela with the two children – a twelve-year-old daughter and seven-year-old son – made her way across Mount Igman during the bombardment of a column of refugees. (For our generation, this dramatic event revealed the complete degradation of Serbian nationalism, since one of the most heroic and tragic epics of World War Two was the winter march by the First Proletarian Brigade across Mount Igman in January 1942; during this withdrawal from the German offensive, at extremely low temperatures many partisans lost their life, or their limbs had to be amputated without a general anaesthetic.) On their way to Canada this troika, so dear to me, stopped in Ljubljana. The children were wonderful, unusually calm. The boy had spent nearly half his life in war. It was very touching to see him enjoy the smallest details of the advantages that we took for granted. He wanted to go to the Maximarket department store to ride on an escalator. All day long, he was talking about Lego bricks, and when in a toy shop I wanted to give him a box of the bricks with pirates, his reply shook me to the bone: “Neću vojnike, hoću civile. (I don’t want soldiers, I want civilians.)”
All these years later, those words still bring tears to my eyes …
Today, this boy is thirty years old and his sister thirty-five. I wish them both a happy and peaceful life!
I have composed this report on the basis of my Report on the Humanitarian Activities of the Slovene PEN Centre and the Sarajevo Committee of PEN International between October 1991 and November 1994 (for the 61st PEN International congress in Prague, 1994) and the article Obisk delegacije slovenskih pisateljev v Sarajevu (The visit of a delegation of Slovene writers to Sarajevo) (Nova revija, no. 153-154, January-February 1995).
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