"They took my sixty-year-old mother and my sixty-eight-year-old father outside. These Chetniks, these boy soldiers who grew up with us, went to primary school with us. They were our neighbors, our close friends. They took my father first and made him stand in the center of our lawn. They were holding guns to his head. Then they casually began to throw stones, big stones, at him, pelting him in his head, his neck, his knees, his groin, as he stood helpless and very confused before us -- before me, my mother, our other relatives. He was bruised and bleeding and exposed and they wouldn't stop."
I was sitting in a metal chair in a circle of women, all smoking and drinking thick black coffee from tiny cups, in a makeshift doctor's office in a refugee camp out- side Zagreb, Croatia. I was listening to a thirty-year-old woman "doctress" (as my translator called her) describe her recent nightmare experiences in Bosnia. It was the summer of 1994. I had gone to Croatia for two months to interview Bosnian refugees.
"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 possibly could. My mother turned pure white. It was very cold outside. There was nothing we could do. Three hours they tortured her like this. Then she started screaming. She was so courageous, my mother. She ripped her shirt open and screamed, 'Go ahead, you Chetniks. Kill me. Kill me. I am not afraid of you, not afraid to die. I am not afraid. Kill me. Kill me.' "
The group of refugees around me seemed to have stopped breathing or moving as they listened to this story. Except for their eyes, which filled up or fluttered reflexively from pain.
I heard myself asking reporter-like questions in a strange reporter-like voice, a voice that implied I had seen all this, it wasn't new, just another war story. I asked questions like "How do you explain your neighbors turning against you like that?" "Did you ever worry about being a Muslim before the war?" I asked these questions from behind this newly developed persona as if it were a secret shield, a point of logic, a place of safety. I was suddenly a "professional."
"After I had finally escaped and gotten here, I heard our village was safe again. The U.N. raided the concentration camp and my father was released. I began to get a glimmer of hope. Then the real horror happened. The Chetniks invaded my village. They were wild, insane. They butchered every member of my family with machetes. My mother and father were found, their limbs spread out all over our lawn."
I listened to the doctress's words and I felt the loss of gravity. Something caved in. Logic. Safety. Order. Ground. I didn't want to cry. Professionals didn't cry. Professionals asked questions and transcribed answers. Playwrights see people as characters. She is a doctor character. She is a strong resilient traumatized woman character. I choked back my tears. I bore down on the parts of my body where shakes were leaking out.
During my first ten days in Zagreb, I slept on a couch in the Center for Women War Victims. This was a remarkable place. Originally it had been created to serve Croatian, Muslim, Serbian women refugees who'd been raped in the war. Over three years it had evolved to serve more than five hundred refugee women who had been not only raped but shattered and made homeless by the war.