Ferida Durakovic (Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina) graduated from the Faculty of Philosophy. Her first collection of poems, published in 1977, earned two literary awards for the best young author.
Her published titles include 16 books of poetry, prose, columns, essays, and literature for children, Books of her selected poems were published the U.S.A (1999), Bulgaria (2015), Italy (2015), and Poland (2019). She received the Fund for Free Expression Award USA in 1993; the Vasyl-Stus Freedom-to-Write Award in 1999. Her children book was nominated for Astrid Lindgren Book Award in 2002.
She held the position of Executive Director of the PEN Centre in Bosnia-Herezgovina from 1992 till 2013. Presently she lives as a freelance in Sarajevo.
It was war. It was terrible. And it was amazing:
Because the human heart in war showed itself
In all its perversity
As in all its beauty.
A woman, a friend of mine, a refugee from Bosnia and Herzegovina living today in Belgium, sent me a video over Facebook Messenger: a young artist, Ahmad Joudeh, a dancer, performing his remarkable dance in front of the institutions of the European Union in Brussels for an engaged and smiling crowd. Ahmad is a refugee (should I say: of course?), and he has come from Syria: he traversed thousands of miles to save his bare skin and, finally, when he’d made it to the West he had been dreaming of for so long, his dream came true: to dance instead of waging war for foreign interests. While the video shows his lithe movements, a beautiful combination of European ballet and oriental dance, I hear his voice, off:
“Being a refugee doesn’t mean that you are not human… We are all refugees in this life; we are all leaving… The cultures will keep us together.”
Tanja Fajon, the Slovenian representative to the European parliament, was also here; she is well versed in the history of the Balkan wars after Yugoslavia fell apart. She is a spokesperson for the rights of the refugees, and, enthralled, she said of Ahmad: “He is dancing instead of dying!”
At these warm words my heart begins to bleed: I recall what our life was like during the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, 1992–1995, in my Sarajevo under a siege that lasted for a long 1,425 days.
I remember the city and what we did as artists—like that young dancer from Syria—to show the world that we aren’t all wild savages who do nothing but slaughter and annihilate each other. That we’re normal human beings, people with a European education, mired in the quagmire of onerous Balkan history and the high-level political interests of Europe and the world, their feigned humanism and weekend diplomacy… We were artists who needed help and who had nothing but our art with which to shield ourselves from the shells that followed, and to keep from being erased. In the war we devoted ourselves to our art and showed the world our literary, musical, artistic, theatrical, multimedia work so that we wouldn’t lose this only life we have, anonymous and unrecognized, ripped to shreds by a shell or shot from a sniper in the hills above, on the streets of the besieged, bizarre city that lies at the intersection of the four great religions of the world—such a treasure yet with such a cursed fate!
And, of course, this reminded me, immediately, of a story we read in elementary school, “Aska and the Wolf,” by Nobel-prize winner Ivo Andrić (who used to be a Yugoslav writer, a writer who belonged to all of us, while now he is claimed by first one side and then another, as ‘ours’ or ‘theirs,’ depending on which ideology is refracted through his books). In this tender yet cruel story—as Andrić always sees his native region—a little lamb, Aska, tries to charm a wolf by dancing, to keep him from tearing her to pieces.
And Aska began to dance with an abandon beyond schools and the known rules, beyond anything that could be taught or learned. Who knows if this world, since time immemorial, had ever seen what the simple and nameless woods above the Sloping Meadows saw that day? Over the green swards, through close passages, between the grey, massive beech trees and above the smooth, brown carpet of leaves that had layered year after year, Aska, the little sheep, danced, not lamb nor ewe, light and lively, like the white willow catkins borne by the wind, misting as she entered a patch of fog, ablaze as if lit from within when she danced onto a meadow dappled with sunlight. Following her with silent step and fixed stare was the old wolf, the perpetual, invisible butcher of her flock.
There, that captures how I felt during the post-apocalyptic horror of the late twentieth century: that I would—as Sarajevo rocker Goran Bregović says in his song—fend off the world, “like a rose with two foolish thorns or a dream,” that with my fragile art (the only thing I do well) I would hold death at bay, elude it, charm it so it would leave me a little longer in this world, whose horrible side I knew and whose marvels and glory I had yet to see… Like Aska. Or Scheherazade, the woman who came up with tales over a long thousand and one nights to fend off a gruesome end.
Spin your tales, Scheherazade, tell stories that will soften the heart of the cruel master of your fate—you’ll prolong your life and touch the heart of your executioner! Dance, Aska, little lamb, dance, make art that will enthrall and move the heart of the terrible wolf! Write, Ferida, write poems, write stories, make art that will assuage the hearts of the generals, politicians, and masters of your fate! Write for the frightened children who are growing like frail, wan plants in the Sarajevo basements because they don’t dare venture outside into death. Let it somewhere remain written that you lived, created, suffered, loved and nurtured others during the terrible time of the bloody undoing of the Yugoslav state and its meaning.
From today’s vantage point, twenty-five years after the war and the horrors I experienced and survived, in the peaceful years at the threshold to old age (Aska did survive!), all this may sound a bit pathetic. But so be it: war in all its facets is an extreme source of pathos: death, destruction, blood, wounds, dead children, raped women, starving old people, grief, grief, grief… The tragedy of a whole people, of individuals. A calamity for hapless civilians, especially children, the elderly, pregnant women, all the frail and defenseless, especially women (to them I dedicate this text), all those who find themselves between the political leaders and the generals of their armies in every war. Empty-handed people with no power whatsoever, whom history will record as nothing more than statistics of the killed, wounded, raped, disappeared… And especially those who have no one left to grieve for them and remember them.
Here are the numbers: the siege of Sarajevo waged by Bosnian Serb units with the support of military and paramilitary troops from Serbia lasted 1,425 days, during which time 14,000 people were murdered, of whom 1,600 were children, there were 70,000 wounded, and 35,000 dwellings were destroyed. These figures are approximate because historians have still not agreed on them and there are people who disappeared who are still being sought on all the sides that fought in the war. Behind the cold, objective numbers are each and every one of tens of thousands of human fates, and the suffering of those who were closest to them, who will not be able to overcome their horror and grief as long as they live. Every one of these lives is an unpenned book, the tragedy of a human being who was swept away by the winds of war into oblivion and the void.
And how did we, those of us from culture and art, free ourselves from death and erasure? Incredible but true: never had so many people read books, shared them, talked about them, even wrote, whether or not successfully—all driven by the desire to mark their own existence in the world and find a reason for living one more instant, minute, hour, year… In books we sought ourselves as we were then. I was helped, for instance, psychologically, by Albert Camus’s Plague: an incredible story about people, good and evil, in borderline situations.
Everyone in Sarajevo during the war went to the theater: even soldiers came straight from the front lines to the National Theater, the Youth Theater, the Chamber Theater, the Collegium Artisticum… to places where there might be shelling and sniper fire any day, where there was electric power only intermittently, where you could meet people like yourself: too gaunt, hungry, their eyes like searing embers full of fear and hope, longing for something so much more human, tender, hopeful than the death, the wounds, the trenches, the combat. We attended all those events because culture and art made us different from the monsters who were shooting from the hills into the city. Even the aged Sarajevo tram, whenever there was electric power, rumbled through the center of the city as a portent of culture, urban resistance to the savages who wanted to level the city only because Others were living here, people who were different from them. Interesting: the siege of the city was run by a poet, and another poet joined him once, delighting as he did so.
The chroniclers and researchers of the Sarajevo siege have carefully recorded the facts about culture and art in the city under siege: there were 3,102 artistic events held in the three war years, the Sarajevo philharmonic gave 48 concerts, 263 books were published, 177 art shows held, 156 documentary films made, and 182 plays premiered with more than 2,000 performances. Beyond this number are the prayers for peace, the countless artistic improvisations held all over the city, the reading of books to children in the entranceways to buildings and in cellars, and all of this was done, as people say, on a wing and a prayer, most often in candlelight, with humanitarian food packages as compensation for the artists.
The first non-governmental organization to be set up in besieged Sarajevo was the P.E.N. Center of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which we launched on 31 October 1992. After the news of the founding the ‘self-styled center’ of the international P.E.N. organization was broadcast to the world by the foreign journalists who were in Sarajevo, our efforts were greeted with acclamation and applause in September 1993 at the Congress in Santiago de Compostela by the world family of writers. We couldn’t be there because we weren’t able to leave our closed city, but our colleagues from the Slovenian P.E.N. Center did us proud, led by the marvelous writer Boris A. Novak.
Jasna Diklić, an actress who acted in many plays during the war in Sarajevo, once said: “We had a book in which people wrote down their impressions of the plays they’d seen, and this served as the symbol for all that we did during the war. One woman wrote: Thank you for keeping me from losing my mind.”
Numerous artists, actors, writers, engaged intellectuals and people calling for peace (as well as adventurists and hot-air vendors of a variety of stripes and intentions) came to besieged Sarajevo. I can’t remember all of them, but I will always remember Juan Goytisolo, Vanessa Redgrave, Maruša Krese, Annie Leibovitz, Nedim Gürsel, Predrag Matvejević, Christopher Merrill, Drago Jančar, Joan Baez, Bruce Dickinson, the Leibach band, Boris A. Novak, Zubin Mehta, David Wilde, Phil Alden Robinson, Bibi Anderson, Bernard-Henry Lévy… And hundreds of journalists and politicians of various profiles. Ironically, I remember French President Mitterand’s wife, who during her meeting with members of the Academy of Science and Art of Bosnia and Herzegovina actually fell asleep, and then during her meeting with Sarajevo artists at the Art Academy, in response to my question of whether she would take a wounded child with her when she left Sarajevo, answered, “No one has asked anything like that of me,” and then disappeared in a fog of dishonor along with her pretentious spouse who was greeted warmly by the people of Sarajevo who, full of hope, thought he was on their side.
Joan Baez—the famous singer and anti-war activist who walked through Sarajevo and wept with us in the middle of Vase Miskina Street where 26 had been killed and 108 wounded while waiting in line to buy bread on 27 May 1992—responded to the question of why she’d come to Sarajevo, by saying:
“I feel music is vital for uplifting the soul, and this why I came here. A line from the song ‘Bread and Roses’ says ‘We need bread, but roses, too’. The world has sent some bread, but that is not enough for life. The soul needs music and this really is the reason I came.”
The artists of Sarajevo, all of Sarajevo’s people, cherish special memories of Susan Sontag, the American writer, theater director and activist, who put on a performance of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot at the Youth Theater with local actors and a bare minimum of technical support. Opening night was 17 August 1993. Beyond the brilliant job Susan did as director (no need to explain, of course, why Godot was the play to put on just then in Sarajevo!), beyond the respect she showed for the actors and their input, beyond all of that, what completely bowled over the people of wartime Sarajevo was when, on her second day with us, she removed her bullet-proof vest, saying: “I can’t wear this while I’m walking side by side with you who don’t have a vest like mine to wear. I’ll fare as you fare.”
In early January 1994, for the first time in history, a play was premiered in a hospital: the opening night of Silk Drums was performed on the surgical ward of Koševo Hospital. The director, Haris Pašović, says of the play: “This experience was unique and I hope it remains one-of-a-kind—the entire audience was on crutches. The communication we had with the audience was what made this one of my most thrilling experiences. People loved the play. And we loved the audience, among them doctors, for whom I have profound admiration.”
It is difficult for a poet with a selective memory such as I have to stop at just listing the names: I want with my words, at least with a poem, to build a monument to each of the people who lifted our spirits, buoyed us and read, translated, listened, watched and sent our wartime art out into the free world: maybe someday I’ll do it. Because—I’ll paraphrase Franz Kafka’s famous sentence about books: art in besieged Sarajevo was the axe to break the ice inside us.
So what is happening now, twenty-five years later? What has happened, meanwhile, to us, we who naively believed in a different, non-Dayton end to the war, in coexistence without entities and increasingly visible and harder nationalist walls, in a dream of a multi-cultural, multi-confessional, multi-national Bosnia and Herzegovina? We who believed (listen to this) that Bosnia and Herzegovina was an amazing echo of the Spain of 1936? What to say about this brand of naiveté? Should this make us laugh aloud? Or weep as if we’re at the funeral of someone we loved best?
We live in a beautiful country full of potential, and in the appalling, dysfunctional, three-headed state of Bosnia and Herzegovina that is being governed by ignoramuses and the arrogant from all three “constitutive” peoples. They are supportive of culture only as long as it serves their own community, their blood and soil, but not the public good or progress beyond their country, the contemporary world, which is all so fatefully interlinked. War spills over from one country to the next, provoked by the inscrutable paths of politics, secret agreements, and the flow of capital. Elvedin Nezirović, a brilliant writer from Mostar—yet another city where the walls keep rising higher while the wealth of our political “elite” accrues—has said:
“It would be good if we were the kind of society that heals itself through culture, that allows culture to transform us through catharsis. Sadly, we live in a city where culture is like a tin can into which politics and ideology cram their stuff, and where cultural institutions are merely services for political parties, much like religious organizations.”
That axe from Kafka’s sentence has, clearly, not (yet) broken the ice inside us.
Sarajevo, August 2019
 Ivo Andrić, from “Aska i vuk,“ printed here by permission of the Zadužbina Ive Andrića, Belgrade, Serbia.
 Poet Radovan Karadžić, leader of the Bosnian Serbs, was sentenced by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague to life in prison for, among other things, the siege of Sarajevo. A guest of his on a hilltop above Sarajevo was Russian poet Eduard Limonov, who was glad to shoot into our city.
Translated by Ellen Elias-Bursac