To be lost in the mess. : LUSENET : TB2K spinoff uncensored : One Thread


After two months among Bosnian Refugees, an American observer finds her defenses melting into love.

"They took my 60-year-old mother and 68-year old father outside. These Chetniks, these boy soldiers who grew up with us, who went to primary school with us. They made my father stand in the center of our lawn, and they held guns to his head. Then they began to throw stones at him, pelting him in his head, his neck, his groin as he stood helpless and confused before me, my mother, our relatives. He was bruised and bleeding and exposed and they wouldn't stop."

I am sitting in a metal chair in a circle of women, all of whom are smoking and drinking thick black coffee. We are in a makeshift doctor's office in a refugee camp outside of Zagreb, Croatia, listening to a 30-year-old woman "doctress" (as my translator calls her) describe her recent experiences in Bosnia. It is the summer of 1994, and I have come here, and later to Pakistan, for two months to interview Bosnian refugees. Outraged by reports of atrocities committed towards women, I have come as a playwright and screenwriter to write a film script.

"Then they took my mother and poured gasoline around her feet. For three hours they lit matches and held them as close to the gasoline as they could. My mother turned white - it was very cold outside. For three hours they tortured her. Then she started screaming. She ripped her skirt open and screamed, "Go ahead, you Chetniks. Kill me. I am not afraid of you, not afraid to die. Kill me."

The other Bosnian women seem to have stopped breathing as they listen. I hear myself asking questions, through my translator, in a strange reporter-like voice that implies I have seen all of this before, that it is just another war story. I ask, "How do you explain your neighbors turning against you like that?" and "Did you ever worry about being a Muslim before the war?" I ask these questions from behind my professional persona, as if it were a secret shield, a place of safety.

"After I had finally escaped and gotten here," the doctress continues, "I heard our village was safe again. The United Nations forces raided the concentration camp, and my father was released I began to get a glimmer of hope. Then the Chetniks invaded my village. They butchered every member of my family with machetes. My mother and father were found, their limbs spread over our lawn."

I listen to their words and feel something caving in. Logic. Safety. Order. Ground. I don't want to cry. Professionals don't cry. Playwrights see people as characters. She is a doctor character. She is a strong, resilient, traumatized woman character. I bear down on the parts of my body where shakes are escaping.

For my first 10 ten days in Zagreb, I slept on a couch in the Center for Women War Victims. The center was created three years ago to serve Serbian, Muslim, and Croatian women refugees who had been raped in the war. It now serves over 500 women who not only have been raped but have been made homeless by the war. Most of the women who work here are refugees themselves. They run support groups and provide emergency aid - food, toiletries, medication, children's toys. They help women to find employment, access to medical treatment, schools for their children.

In those first days, I spent five to eight hours a day interviewing women in city centers, desolate refugee camps, and local cafes. I met a country of women dressed in black - black silk, black cotton, black Lycra. In all the interviews, I either was filled with an overwhelming desire to rescue the women - which rendered me powerless and sometimes resentful - or tried to maintain my playwright position. I was hearing their stories as potential dramas, measuring their words in terms of beats and momentum. This approach made me feel cold, impervious, superior.

Thousands of journalists had already passed through these women's lives. The women felt invaded, robbed, ripped off. It was an honor and a privilege that the refugee workers had brought me into these camps, even at times had focused the groups around my being there. I realized I was not honoring my end of the contract. My ways of relationship were hierarchical, one-sided, based on a perception of myself as a healer, a problem solver - which in turn was based on a desperate, hidden need to control: control chaos and and protect myself from too much loss, cruelty, and insanity. My need to analyze, interpret, even create art out of these war atrocities stemmed from my inability to be with people, to be with their suffering, to listen, to feel, to be lost in the mess.

On the 10th day in Zagreb, a woman named Rachel, who worked in the center, offered me her apartment for the weekend. I was terrified. It was the first time I'd been alone since my arrival in Croatia, the first time I'd been able to process the experience, to find out where I really was. It was nighttime when I got there, and the lights in the hallway kept going off, leaving me in utter panic and darkness. In all my years as an activist - working in homeless women's shelters, tying myself to fences in protest of nuclear war, sleeping in outdoor peace camps amid rain and rats, camping on the windy Nevada Nuclear Test site in radiation dust - I had never felt so lonely. I called the States. I paced the apartment. I tried to read but was unable to concentrate. Finally, I lay down on Rachel's bed, with its splendid red comforter, and listened to a tape of Jane Siberry's beautiful song, "Calling All Angels".

From my journal that night:

My heart, breaking from the inside like an organism giving birth to itself, to the stories of itself, the cruelty: the lit cigarettes almost put through the soldier's wife's eyeballs, the decapitated heads of her old parents, the 15-year-old girl whom her soldier husband and his friends raped in the car, the pistol the soldiers put into her three-month-old baby's hand as a joke, the food they didn't serve the Muslim girl's mother who had decided to give birth to the baby of the Serb that raped her, the Canadian uncle who attempted to molest his 14-year-old niece from Sarajevo who had fled to him for safety, the dirty, stained clothes that arrive in boxes of humanitarian aid that the refugee women are supposed to be grateful for.

It wasn't the cruelty, the primitive horror, that broke my heart. What hurt was how I defended myself against my love for the refugees. The woman who made sweet pastry in what was now her kitchen, bedroom, living room, bathroom all in one - made pastry for me, a stranger. The one who kept smiling with missing teeth, who gave strength to the woman next to her who smoked cigarettes, smoothed her skirt, apologized for her messy hair. My heart broke into love. Tears broke out of my eyes like glass cutting flesh, breaking me, making me no one, no longer concrete, broke through my craving for definition, authority, fame, broke all that into tiny pieces that would not hold, becoming liquid, then nothing I could identify, nothing that resembled me or the matter of me. There was just pulp. Masses of beating, bloody pulp. There was just melting.

After my night in Rachel's bed, my journey was transformed. I began to see my interviews as sacred social contracts. I could not simply take stories, events, feelings from my subjects. There had to be an interaction. I had to be present with them. I had to be vulnerable. I had to love. I could no longer protect myself, stand outside the stories I was hearing. War was not natural. I would never be comfortable with atrocity and cruelty. I found myself crying often during the interviews. I felt little, helpless. Old defenses, identities, approaches died away.

At the end of my stay in Croatia, I changed continents and changed clothes. I went from a village on the Adriatic to the hot, dusty landscape of Pakistan, where I was covered in purple cotton from head to toe, the traditional shalwar quamiz.

I was there with Julie Mertus, a lawyer from Human Rights Watch. We essentially lived with a group of Bosnian refugees eight hours a day in dreadful circumstances. This group of Muslim men and women had been living in a refugee hotel in Croatia and were offered the choice of being moved to a dangerous and overcrowded camp close to the Serbian border or to a new life in Pakistan with "bungalows, swimming pools, and jobs." So about 500 of them had come to Pakistan, where the weather was 120 degrees and up, with monsoons and rainstorms. The living conditions were difficult at first, 13 to a room, and malaria was rampant. The majority of these Bosnians, European in orientation, had never really identified as Muslim, and here they were in an Islamic country. Their Pakistani hosts were offering them more than they even offered their own citizens, so the Bosnians felt bad that they weren't more grateful. They spent their days waiting - - waiting for the heat to cool off, waiting to get out of Pakistan (some were waiting for entry into America; they had been waiting the longest), waiting for news of their hometowns, waiting for the nightmare to pass, waiting.

Each day, Julie and I would gather with the refugees in a sauna-like room and listen to their stories. Everyone was sick in some way, deeply traumatized by the events they had suffered in the war. And yet there was great humor, generosity, and community.

During my last days there, I became ill with some kind of flu. The Bosnians overwhelmed me with kindness, offering homemade remedies and soups. There was a particular bottle of nose drops that had clearly passed through the entire community; when they offered it to me, I felt like I was undergoing a rite of passage. I was infected with Pakistan, with refugee illness, with a tiny bit of their suffering. I felt as if all of my protection had been washed away, and that didn't even matter. I sat on a mattress in my drenched shalwar quamiz while a woman with a movie-star face told her story.

"A group of them came into our neighborhood. They took my best friend into the street. There were 15 soldiers. In front of her husband and children and neighbors they raped her, one after the other. They did it to teach us a lesson. They raped many women - 72,000. The women did not lose their dignity, though. What they lost was their minds.

"Please tell people in America what happened here. We do not understand why they have abandoned us."

It was the end of two months of stories, and I could no longer contain myself. Something inside me was released. I was unable to stop my eyes from crying, my nose from running, my sweat from pouring out of me. I realized that I was, in fact, melting. Melting away the cold defenses of control, melting into this common, salty bath, melting into love.

I looked around and saw a lot of us crying, and in that moment I loved these Bosnians completely. I loved their stove-made bread and their meat filled peppers that they cooked for us each day in the heat. I loved that they had survived and that their hearts were intact and that their kindness was so deeply present even now.

I returned to the States on a plane that nearly crashed over the Atlantic. Flight attendants had concussions. Passengers had spiritual experiences they shared with strangers. For a long time after returning home, I was suspended, filled with a wild sense of grace and gratitude for being alive and a painful guilt that I had so much in America when other people suffered so profoundly only hours away.

Eventually I came back to earth. I am no longer suspended, but I am changed. Mainly it is my desire that has changed. It changed that night in Rachel's bed.

Melt me. Let me dissolve. Let me release my hard identity. Let me be swallowed by the circle. Let me not matter. Let me be homeless, homesick. Let me be disappointed so I can break more. Let me be anonymous so I can be invisible. Let me be a refugee. Send me out into the forest without anything -- no house, no clothes, no memories, no photos. Please break me. Please make me a toothless, laughing woman. Not worrying about my turn, my message, my serving, my creation, my moment. Please make me ready to sit in the circle.

Eve Ensler is a playwright, screenwriter, and activist. She is currently writing a feature film for Hollywood Pictures (Disney) based on her experience with Bosnian Refugees.

-- Debra (, August 22, 2000


Ahh yes, war, ethnic cleansing, religious hatreds, neighbors killing neighbors. My what noble creatures are human beings. Bull shit--and yet they are so fond of saying, "He acted like an animal." No animal that I know of has ever acted in such a dispicable, hate-filled manner.

Thanks Debra. I cried my eyes out.

-- gilda (, August 22, 2000.

IT'S CALLLED==SIN--YUP-OLD-FASHION=SIN OF HEART!! mankind=fallen from=original--plan!! but hey! who knows what any will do--given=enough=pressure!! only=strong=faith-keeps from=falling to level--of--devil!!!

-- al-d. (, August 22, 2000.


Thanks for the post.


Simple answers for simple minds.

-- Tarzan the Ape Man (, August 22, 2000.

Great one, Debra. How did I know half-way through that you posted this?

I didn't cry at all, Gilda. There was a sense of reality in all of this that struck me as all too familiar.

-- Anita (, August 22, 2000.

My God. I feel as if someone has reached into my abdomen, grasped my intestines and yanked them out, leaving them hanging in the cool morning air.

Why does violence seem ALWAYS to have as its source MEN?

Women create and men destroy. Oversimplifiction? I prefer this at the moment. So here I wallow.

If it weren't for the fact we - MEN - fill a key function as sperm donors I would suggest we be exterminated.

Thank you Debra.

-- Bingo1 (, August 24, 2000.

Bingo, take heart. We women share the blame for all this violence. We raise our sons, we're their ultimate teachers, advocate and protectors, at a time when their minds and souls are being formed; up to age 5.

A mother who stands by and tolerates violence in her sons at an early age encourages it.

I didn't raise my sons to be violent, and I know that a look in my eyes would put out any violent fire that might arise in them in the future.

-- (mother@somewhere.home), August 24, 2000.

Thank you mother, but I cannot take refuge in your words. Read again your last sentence. Why must you put out violent sparks within them even AFTER you have raised them properly? Are you always there for them, to stem the raging waters within them? What about after you pass on?

No, mother. I find no solace in your words, only more proof of the obvious.

-- Bingo1 (, August 24, 2000.

"If it were not for the fact we -- MEN -- fill a key function as sperm donors I would suggest we be exterminated." -- Bingo

In reality, with current technology, so few men would be needed for this responsibility, that it already makes most of the male population obsolete. If your premise is correct, of course.

I prefer to believe it is not men, or maleness, but cultural factors, the sluices that men are put through, that turns them into monsters.

As a former female radical, I can tell you that EVERYTHING changes once -- as a mother -- you hold your infant son in your arms. Total purity there. What we do later in our culture evolves the monster ... or the saint.

-- Oxy (, August 24, 2000.

In reality, with current technology, so few men would be needed for this responsibility, that it already makes most of the male population obsolete.

When I read the above I immediately thought of Star Trek: Original Series. There was an episode in which the crew visited a planet of beautiful, intelligent people. Turned out they were sterile and were using cloning for generations. The clonings had begun to produce mutations, to fail. The species was at risk. The inhabitants kidnapped the crew for their genetic material, that their fresh genes added to the mix might strengthen the pool.

Males obsolete? If only this were scientifically possible!

As to your other argument Oxy, it has much merit. However, I look deeper towards karma and reincarnation. There are reasons males are provided for in this grand play, this Lila. My guess is so those who carry violent tendencies into the next incarnation may have an avenue to act them out if they cannot transmutate the aggression, learn the pitfalls, the terrible toll violence takes on ALL concerned.

I still say men suck - inherently. Where do percentages come into play? That's Nature/Nurture debate. I won't go there!

-- Bingo1 (, August 25, 2000.

I think a certain amount of it has to do with the combination of genes which is the unchangeable given. But I think nurture plays a part too.

When my son was about 3, he played mostly with two little boys whose mother and I were close friends, and they played with cars, blocks etc, Then I visited a friend I didn't see much who had a little girl, and he played with dolls. When we went to leave he bawled and squalled to take the doll; he'd never done this over any toy, so the next day I bought him a doll. He rocked it and sung and rocked and carried it around constantly.

My mother babysat him and got a kick out of it, and so did my dad. But my father-in-law didn't like it at all, and one of my friends said I should make him play with boy things, so he wouldn't be a sissy. I let him enjoy the doll, although the singing nearly drove me nuts.

Well the crux of the thing is that he finally lost interest in "my baby." He didn't turn out a sissy, or gay, which wouldn't have made me love him any less. But he is one of the best fathers I've seen. I sometimes think we should encourage the softer side more, and luckily nowadays that is more the way things seem to be going. Of course that may have meant nothing. It was probably just the novelty of the doll.

Frankly, I tend to go with the cultural, religious, ethnic thing. When the day comes that religion is not laying guilt and sin on people, and people quite shouting MINE is the only true faith, and the color of a person's skin is appreciated for the unique difference and being poor, old or ugly isn't even noticed, other than in a compassionate way, then maybe this madness will cease????

And advertising, one of my pet hates, promotes youth, beauty, success, money and status symbol things. This certainly doesn't help matters. Two books about this sickness and bias, are Vance Packard's "The Status Seekers," and "The Waster Makers," and of course, Jerry Mander's "In Absence of the Sacred."

-- gilda (, August 25, 2000.

Debra, thanks for posting what was for me an emotionally devastating piece. Although I'm aware of things like this in a general sense, it's so important to bring the specifics -- the stark reality of it -- in front of us all. In doing so, perhaps we will make efforts to become somehow proactive (even if individually we can't do very much), leading us to that one day where these abominations will have faded for good.

-- eve (, August 25, 2000.

Violence does always have as its source men but not all men are violent.

What can women do to help their sisters, daughters, themselves? Even in this great country women have no real power. Not yet, anyway. It still belongs to men. As I've said elsewhere, women are counting on men to help fight for their rights. It is a very difficult place to be to know that you need men to help you while knowing it is men that hurt you.

I think one of the most important things is to keep the suffering in our consciousness. That is difficult because it means we WILL eventually have to feel that suffering. This essay is a perfect example. How many could read it and not feel it to a certain degree? I posted an essay recently about the feelings of women who have been raped in war. I should try to find it and bring it to the top. No discussion would be necessary ... just to bring it to our consciousness.

I look at three things here:

---There are millions of women world wide that are suffering and need help. I can't bear the thought of their suffering but I have too.

---As long as there is suffering like this allowed 'over there', it has the potential to threaten our shores, our country, our daughters. I hope the men, TPTB, here can see that by protecting women worldwide they are ensuring the safety of their own mothers, sisters and daughters.

---It's like a disfunctional family. The cycle needs to be broken. If a father teaches his son that he 'owns and controls' women then that son will grow to believe it. If that cycle could be broken today then it is only a generation away that this 'mindset' of women- hating would end.

-- Debra (, August 25, 2000.

Why can't all men be in-touch with their non-testosterone selves like I am?

-- (AlanAlda@wuss.HQ), August 25, 2000.

"Violence does always have as its source men but not all men are violent."

I disagree. There are plenty of examples of violent women, perhaps not as many as men, but just as violent. Look at Karla Faye Tucker, or Susan Smith, or Diane Downs. How about Squeaky Fromme, or Lizzie Borden, or even Lucretia Borgia?

Women are human beings, and human beings are capable of violence.

-- Tarzan the Ape Man (, August 25, 2000.

I agree Tarzen. There are plenty of individual examples of violence in women. I was thinking more in terms of a societal basis of violence.

-- Debra (, August 25, 2000.

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