f r a g m e n t s  o f  w i t n e s s 

‘ h e c u b a ’  




you asked, How had I felt while acting the part of the Trojan queen Hecuba? I tried hard to answer, but I couldn’t. Except for the glamorous fact that I was a part of an off-Broadway production, I did not find anything remarkable in my acting. Acting by itself was the intimately unnoticed affair of a heart surprised by experience and emotionally immature, and was left for the future to dwell on its spiritual outcomes.

Buried in my subconscious, your question was calling for a different and deeper answer. A response – a complex, ambivalent, amorphous matter – tended to release more about my emotional involvement in the project than my conscious mind could accept. At the same time, somewhere in my heart the query kept claiming a true answer, causing an immense intellectual and emotional disturbance. I had to meet something deep in myself and solve it as a problem. It called upon my profound involvement in Bosnian affairs, which were contrary to everything that could be explained simply to the reader educated by reports of current events. The conflicts of my traditions and deep feeling of Bosnian citizenship were so complicated that they were difficult to explain even to myself.

In April of 1997, I suddenly received an invitation to act in Euripides’ The Trojan Women. An actress, playwright, educator, and director, E.,offered her beautiful adaptation, so contemporary and yet ancient. I had never acted before. Though I was panicked at the thought of the stage and the public, I accepted the role of one of three Hecubas. I was always attached to the theater but visited it more frequently during certain times of my life. A play and its plot, its culmination and resolution, its actresses and actors, their movements, expressions, voices, and their changes, lights, scenery, music – all this entangled in one endless excitement – bewitched me. I would sit in the audience, most often without company, motionless, breathless, and unaware of my own existence. The inexorable end would come, and I would painfully return to reality. I felt I would remain in eternal self-oblivion in the magic of the play. Thinking of my burning love for playhouses, and especially for the tragedies performed in them, I realized that it had begun in the intervals of my life when I felt lonely and somehow had lost contact with my spiritual side. I needed to live those other lives of drama to find a path to myself. And this was true: now spiritually and intellectually hungry, deprived of my own identity, which had been built up by my traditions and smashed by the Bosnian war, I plunged into this new experience.

You are probably asking what Greek tragedy has to do with the Bosnian war. My answer is: a great deal. The play underlined the nonsense of that war. It was an irresistible challenge to live in its imaginary world and metaphor. The text suggested fragrances and sounds, tastes and colors of a dazzling, roaring Mediterranean that I left behind to escape the war. To explain that all to you, and myself, I offer you these fragments of witness.




E., our director, wrote the adaptation of The Trojan Women and offered me it on a golden plate of hovering fantasies. I am designated queen in this powerful poem of beauty and its destruction, the tragedy of women caught in the net of warlike men and their universe of vandalism set off by a god’s trickery. This is a story of endless grief of women stricken by unimaginable havoc.

I am fascinated by a dream of a dazzling Troy before the war ruined it: its stone-paved streets washed and bleached by sunlight, its shade-trees and elegant architecture of simple, dignified stone; its lively markets with their lavish choice of sun-ripened fruits, vegetables, fresh fish, and goat cheese. Happily-laughing women engaging in talk with their husbands, lovers, fathers, children, merchants, pass before my gaze. They are clad in transparent, neatly wrinkled chitons puffed out by the sea breeze. Eager to touch the offerings of life spread before them, they test the quality of goods with their sensitive fingers and savor it on their mouth-roofs. In the galleries – feasts for the eyes – vases and friezes are displayed. Artisans have painted images of goddesses, gods and heroes on them with black and brown water-softened clay coloring. And the shrines are, as I picture them, marble, shaded, solemn; full of religious people engaged in quiet procession and practices of worship of the gods that would protect and bless them.

Everything is a celebration of life. Detached from reality, I am one of those joyful Trojans. I hear their resonant voices, and their fiesta fills my being with energy. The sun and breeze touch my face, and the smell of the sea is intense. But, the celebration is interrupted. In the script, these scenes of life are proportionally narrow to the tragedy that follows. The dark contrast of the events that Hecuba, Andromache, Cassandra, and the wretched Chorus of ill-fated common women subsequently experience devastates my senses and agitates my self-defense. Out of the human instinct for survival, out of the attachment to the myth of magnificent (‘magnificent’ in contrast to the fragility of humans) and unpredictable Nature, glorious heroes, and righteous gods, I linger on Troy’s famous beauty, as I dwell on the memory of Sarajevo’s, in its splendor, before its destruction that I never physically experienced. The generations needed a myth, with its symbols and metaphors that explain and justify everything to humans and their not-always-easy interactions. Men have gathered strength from the spirit of legends to endure and resist disasters and famines, wars and plagues.

And that thin strip of light which The Trojan Women offered at the beginning brought back to me the dream of my former happiness. It was a bridge between my memories, my desires, and cruel virtue. Sarajevo’s centuries-old shrines of the Muslim, Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Jewish, Adventist, and other faiths; its oriental fountains set amid structures of ages clashing with modern industrial expansion; its fragrant chestnut, acacia, oak, and linden avenues; the sites of the Olympic Winter Games of 1984; the freshening banks of the Miljacka River in the middle of the city; the soothing silence of the whispering, intimate, and leafy suburban neighborhoods on the hills; the narrow cafés in the middle of the Turkish center of Bas Carsia; theaters and museums; everything that I can recall of my native city: all of that beats in my heart. The sotto voce tunes of sevdah, the Bosnian songs of longing and passionate love, are vivid in my mind. Brought to us centuries ago from the Orient, they express the power of secret desire for the always-unreachable loved one. Over time they were cultivated by the tenderness of our Slavic souls. So many nights my friends and I awaited the dawn singing those soft melodies, to the remote sound of instruments. The ancient music would sometimes include a very old oriental chord instrument, the saz, which survived on our soil. In those fond nights, the delicate songs united us in the flow of the Bosnian soul. And these beautiful people of all origins, who had so often intermarried and bonded in love without prejudice, instilled with their own tradition the common life: these carefree, happy, sophisticated men and women drunk on love for their own city and life: their playful children: where are they now? Thoughts of the one-time happiness of Troy, and of my own in Sarajevo linger, and I hardly can untangle myself from them.


I have begun studying Hecuba’s lines in Montauk, in early May. My stage is a deserted stretch of the beach sparkling in the sun. The weather, unusually warm, is God’s gift. There is no cloud in the serene blue sky. This scenery is ancient and divine. The waves are wild horses rearing onto the heights and hurling themselves mortally to the depths right before me, braking their gracious heads and throwing the lavish white foam of their manes onto the sand. The Sun, riding across the skyway in his daily course, paints the sea in stripes and patches of indigo, azure, turquoise, sapphire, cobalt, murky gray, violet, and black. The transparent air smells of sea-salt and moisture. Starved but friendly sea gulls scream around me on the innocent, lustrous seashore. I let myself believe: Poseidon will emerge from the sea.

I read Hecuba’s lines silently, trying by the effort of intellect to understand and accept her personality. I understand more, and accept less. The queen is despotic. After the fall of Troy, trying to maintain her royal superiority in her debates with Andromache and Cassandra, she commands. Although she’s a war prize herself, she shouts at the faces of women enslaved on the shore. I can’t prevent an image of my late mother surfacing from my childhood: she is dark of face and points her index finger at me, threatening. Both the Hecuba whom I am trying to animate and my mother’s image frighten me: I feel a profound guilt that I can’t explain. There are many unwelcome thoughts associated with the Trojan queen lingering in my mind these days. In my memory, formed long ago and now pulled from my inner being, shaped by prejudice and a humanly limited knowledge absorbed from my readings, Hecuba was not an attractive figure. One legend taught me that she knew her son Paris, born to her and her husband, Priam, the Trojan king, would set Troy on fire. The seer warned that any child born on a certain day, as Paris was, would cause the distraction of Troy. The prince and his mother had to die to save the city. On that same day, Priam’s sister gave birth to her son. Instead of killing Paris, the royal couple decided to kill the sister and her baby. Paris was exiled to Mount Ida, and his parents believed they would never see him again.

Youthfully idealistic, inspired by fairy-tales, inexperienced in motherhood, I condemned Hecuba as a malicious woman. At that age I was not attracted to this old woman whom I knew only superficially. Instead, the young, tragic Greek heroines compelled me with magnetic power. In the script I study, the legend of Paris’s birth is not told. Hecuba is depicted as a figure devastated by the war: her sons, her husband, and her grandson are murdered; she loses her throne and homeland, cradle of her ancestors; and Odysseus will bring her, disgraced, to his home as a war prize. There is not the place for my bookish prejudice: I struggle to free myself from those unwanted impressions.

I spent three peaceful days on the beach meditating on the ancient Greeks. A powerful impression of ever-lasting nature and the insignificance of human life ruled by gods and controlled by heroes overwhelms my soul. In these moments of my intimacy with the universe, I feel that the energy of time and space and the spirit of human generations shifting in it, are penetrating my existence. Enfolded by the light from this (unique) stage, I discover an eternity.

I slowly recognize Hecuba’s life as biding in my flux. The magnitude of her loss and the beauty of her sentiment are tempting. Her lamentation for the lost, charming Troy identifies my own expatriation. I stage her on this magnificent beach, read her lines many times, now loudly; her vibrating heart is my own. I know she is conceived in me, but I don’t know when that happened.

Little by little I am giving a structure to my queen, and I am filling it in with my emotions. Later at home, sitting in the lotus position, my eyes closed, I picture her figure lying on the beach on the morning after the Trojan War. She is motionless on the pebbles and I can feel the imprints of their rough surface on my skin. The slow movement of her eyelids and her fingers mark her awakening. She becomes alive. Both of us do not want the morning of a dreadful truth to come.

The film that is unrolling in my mind is in black and white. Colors are not needed to penetrate the depth of the Greek tragedy. It is black, and the white serves only to underline its darkness. And Hecuba is a woman in black, as was my great-grandmother, mourning for my Eastern Orthodox priest great-grandfather. Jelisava, a Catholic woman from the Dalmatian coast who was not blood-related to me, but who for decades served as my surrogate aunt, was also eternally clad in the plain black cloth of grief for her late husband. Black is in my perception a color of elegance and dignity, and a symbol of the melancholy that often accompanies me. The queen’s dark silhouette is familiar. I feel her blackness softly wrapping my body. It is reflected on my lifeless face.

The early morning sun gently touches my eyes and lips. My conscious mind resists the sunbeams breaking through the florescent dawn. My dress is moist, my cold body shivers, and the taste of sea salt is in my mouth. Smoke is in the air. The brutal truth finally awakens me: Troy is in flames. Reluctantly, I raise my eyes toward Troy’s towers. My heart, disbelieving, shattered, can’t accept the sight of this beloved city: its milky, stone spires, which glittered yesterday, are dissolving in the blaze. I remember now: all Trojan men, all my sons, and my husband, are killed. The Trojan women, chained and thrown on the beach, are the war-price of the Greek conquerors. As Poseidon whispers in my ear, I am Odysseus’ spoil, and he’ll bring me to Ithaca to his patient Penelope. My pain is unendurable. Spontaneously, in agony, hysterical, I yell the words that I memorized from the play: “Women, rise and be slaves.” I wake from the trance, only to face the true tragedy of my heart.

In January 1992, my family had come on a business trip from Sarajevo to the United States. Our goal was to return home that June; we still keep the expired tickets for the memory. Instead, between Spring of 1992 and 1995, I watched my own catastrophe unfolding in front of me on the TV screen , like an evil dream, and my mind could not accept it. Bosnia was in a war, and the war was devised by my once-respected psychotherapist, my surrogate father, Dr. Radovan Karadjic. For almost five years, his forces shelled my city, killing people in bread lines, bombing their homes, sniping at children on the street. Sarajevo’s beautiful old architecture, its monuments, Orthodox and Catholic churches, synagogues, libraries: all that could be a witness of the harmonious life in the city was destroyed. Karadjic was killing the international heart of that civilized city in which he studied medicine, fell in love with a girl, married, raised his children, counseled people as a therapist, made friendships, drank in night clubs with writers, and wrote children’s poems. Across the country, his soldiers and paramilitaries rounded up thousands of men, mostly civilians, and kept them in Nazi-type detention camps, torturing, starving, and killing them only because they were Muslim. During a few days in Srebrenica, under the command of Karadjic’s murderous general Ratko Mladic, Bosnian Serb forces mass-killed about eight thousand men.

In their madness of ethnic cleansing, the Serb military gang-raped thousands of Muslim women and impregnated them with “Serb” babies. They didn’t save Croats either, because they all were considered “fascists who had killed Serbs in the Second World War.” Any Serb who resisted Karadjic’s bloodthirsty policy was also the subject of his purges. Witnessing that through the media, I went mad during these years. Three generations of my ancestors, Serbs, Croats and Slovenians, and I myself, were born in the city. We had lived in harmony among ourselves and with everybody else. I couldn’t accept that Dr. Karadjic planned this war that scandalized and terrified the world. Although he counseled me for only a short time, he did it during a difficult personal crisis of mine. He was charismatic and powerful in his impact, and had kept me in spirit for almost a decade. Usually, to solve difficulty in my emotional life, I would in my imaginations address my father for advice. Now I was more wretched than ever: Doctor Karadjic was killing the people I loved and had lived with for forty-two years, my brother in the Bosnian military trenches, and my heart.

Whenever I phoned him during these years of horror, my brother was laughing, full of life and hopes for the future, as if death’s aura didn’t hover over him; as if he were not a soldier on the front line. And I, a living ghost of my former self, was petrified by the pictures of the people in the death camps that Karadjic designed. At night, a dream would come to me: my brother captured, detained, sentenced to death. His ghastly face, as if he is already dead, is smiling faintly. I, accompanied by my Muslim husband, come to fetch him. I beg Dr. Karadjic for mercy, to release my brother. He is laughing innocently at me, as if he doesn’t comprehend the evil character of his act. Karadjic is trying to comfort me and convince me of his righteousness, and my frantic scream awakes me. Night after night I dreamed this; always the same dream.

In our phone talks, my brother always referred to our glorious past. Seven hundred years ago, my father’s ancestors, Croats, lived as the nobility in Bobovac, the king’s stronghold, in central Bosnia. It is told that they were shield-holders during the period when medieval Bosnia was at her most powerful, when her borders were their most extensive. My brother needed this memory, surfacing from the Bosnian collective conscience, to survive. He was so proud of the lilies on the new Bosnian flag, taken from those ancient times. Before the war, Bobovac was a medieval ruin; but I could see its high towers now, its lush evergreen surrounds, and stecaks around it. Some time between the 12th and 14th centuries, magnificent sculptures, tombstones, called stecaks, were built in many parts of Bosnia. According to numerous historians, they are related to the heretic Bosnian church. The schismatic religion spreading at that time in our land was accepted by the aristocracy, and plebes as well. In their struggle for independence, organized within their own church, Bosnian people tried to retain their land-holdings, which were threatened by both Roman Catholicism from the West and Orthodoxy from the East. The carved stones survived through centuries. Witnessing the everyday life of the rebellious mediaeval Bosnians, those stone dwellings of the dead amazed the contemporary world with the beauty of the dancing men and women, hunters, chevaliers, warriors, worshipers, flowers, moon, sun, stars, deer, birds, lilies, that had been cut in them. I always felt a warm closeness to these sculptures, enjoyed hours of looking at those displayed in front of the state museum in Sarajevo. They were, to me, the strongest proof that Bosnian identity reached back to those remote times.

I learned that, after the Turks conquered Bosnia, and Bobovac itself fell, in 1463, my father’s very old family had split apart. Some of them went to Vares, a rich mining town nearby, and remained there. Very pious, they practiced Catholicism. Most likely, some fraction of my kinsmen accepted the Muslim religion. Five hundred years later, as an elementary and high school student, I spent parts of my summer vacations in Vares and in the mountains around it. In that beautiful hilly and grassy countryside I gathered hay with my Catholic cousins. In town, I visited other relatives coal miners and smelters. In the hardship of life lived on the edge of poverty, nothing remained of their famous past, except that they always whispered of it. I never understood then why they didn’t talk about it proudly, in a loud voice; or, I paid too little attention to the reason. I understood it later, as a woman matured by the war: in Yugoslavia, after the Second World War, the aristocracy was forbidden, and nobody would dare claim to belong to it. I forgot that my uncle, my father’s brother, after the war had publicly criticized the new regime and gloried in his origins. First he was beaten by the police; then, when he wouldn’t stop talking, he was incarcerated in a mental institution. I have never believed he really was insane. I was convinced, he was agitated by the injustice. I had loved him dearly with a deep protective devotion.

Many of my relatives in Vares kept our forefathers’ last name – my maiden name and the name of the noble shield-holders from the Middle Ages. A great many of the females married into other families and, in the patriarchal fashion, called themselves differently; but we all knew we belonged to the same origins, and secretly were proud of it. My grandfather, a metal-smith, moved to Sarajevo in early years of the 20th Century; in 1930 he handmade a brass coffee grinder for the household of his Slovenian wife; all glittery and functional, it stands now in my New York living room.

When the Bosnian scale of battle escalated in the ‘90s, and Croats and Muslims, allies at first, began to “ethnically cleanse” each other, the TV screen showed the fields around Vares full of refugees of both nations; newspapers described and graphically pictured their physical extermination. My bloodied, shredded heart asked: Where are those warriors who, under the medieval flag of the Bosnian kings, had fought their enemies and extended the Bosnian lands? Are their descendents aiming their knives and rifles at each other? Is it possible that we, heirs of this long-lived family glory, whatever our confession is now, might shamelessly shoot our own past?

There is so much linking me to Hecuba, who is, more and more, becoming myself, as I am becoming her. Her humanity is decomposing in the unending spin of her havoc, and this is, I realized, the haunting point of my ambivalence toward her. Wasn’t I a ghost, a piece of stone in the Bosnian war? Her spirit and mine are entangled and symbiotic: we are here, suddenly, to explain each other. And, both of us know that Troy was not destroyed for Helen’s love, and that Bosnia was not devastated for national difficulties. Human greed, vanity, a thirst for wealth are the creative force of any war, from ancient to contemporary times. I am glad she and I understand each other better now.



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