Most of the women who worked there were refu- gees themselves. They ran support groups, provided emergency aid: food, toiletries, medication, toys, et cetera. They helped women find employment, affordable medical treatment, schools for their children.
In those first ten days, I spent between five and eight hours a day interviewing women refugees in support groups in city centers, desolate refugee camps, and local cafés. I interviewed mothers, widows, grandmothers, lawyers, doctors, professors, farmers, teenagers. I heard stories of atrocities and cruelty. I met a country of women dressed in black: black silk blouses, black cotton skirts, black lycra T-shirts. The courage, community, kindness, and miraculous sense of forgiveness I witnessed on the part of these war victims threw me into moral chaos and deep questioning.
In all these interviews either I was filled with an overwhelming desire to rescue the women or I tried to maintain this "professional playwright" position. I was observing these women as characters, hearing their stories as potential plays, measuring the drama in terms of beats and momentum. This approach made me seem cold, impervious, superior. Both postures were attempts at maintaining a distance and, more important, maintaining my security.
Thousands of journalists had already passed through these women's lives. They had visited for a day, a week at most. The women felt invaded, robbed, ripped off. The reporters were interested only in the most sensationalistic aspects of these women's lives -- the gang rapes, the rape camps. One journalist had actually sent a fax (these were still the days of faxes) saying, "Get me one raped woman, preferably gang raped, preferably English speaking." The women had taped the fax to the bulletin board as evidence and a warning.
It was a great honor and privilege that the refugee workers had brought me into the camps, allowed me to be in their most intimate groups. They had even, at times, focused their groups around my being there.
I felt I had not honored my end of the contract. I realized that if I wasn't "saving" these women -- offering solutions -- or transforming them into literary substance, I had no idea what to do. My ways of relating were hierarchical, one-sided, based on me perceiving myself as a healer, a problem solver. All of this was based on a desperate and hidden need to control -- to protect myself from too much loss, chaos, pain, cruelty, and insanity. My need to analyze, interpret, even create art out of these war atrocities stemmed from my real inability to be with people, to be with their suffering, to listen, to feel, to be lost in the mess.
On the tenth day in Zagreb, a woman who worked at the center generously offered me her apartment for the weekend. I was actually terrified. It would be the first time I'd be alone since my arrival in Croatia, the first time I'd be able to digest the stories and atrocities.
In all my years as an activist -- working in desolate shelters for homeless women, tying myself to fences to prevent nuclear war, sleeping in city parks in women's peace camps with rain and rats, camping on a windy Nevada nuclear-test site in radioactive dust -- I had never felt so lonely. I called the States. I reached answering machines in place of loved ones. I paced the little apartment. I tried to read but was unable to concentrate. I lay down on the bed.