After this experience, my journey was transformed. I began to re-perceive the nature of my interviews, the nature of interviews in general. I began to see these encounters as sacred social contracts. I, the interviewer, could not simply take stories, events, feelings from my subjects. I could not sit there icy and objective, absorbing. I had to be present. I had to be in dialogue. I had to be insecure. I could no longer protect myself, stand outside the stories I was hearing. I had to allow myself to feel the sadness, torture, fear, loss, and particularly the courage and strength of the women I was meeting. 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. I experienced aspects of myself -- defenses, identities, approaches -- dying away.
I changed continents. I changed clothes. I went from a tiny village on the Adriatic where I visited Croatian refugees to the hot dusty Asian landscape of Pakistan, where I was covered in purple Indian cotton, the traditional salwar kameez. I was there to visit a group of Bosnian refugees who were living in dreadful circumstances. This particular group of Muslim men and women had previously lived in a hostel in Croatia. There they had been offered the choice of being moved either to a dangerous and overcrowded Muslim refugee camp close to the Serbian border or to Pakistan, where, they were promised, they could begin a new life of "bungalows, swimming pools, and jobs."
So about five hundred of them had come to Rawal- pindi, Pakistan. The reality they found could hardly have been further from what had been promised. The temperature was 120 degrees Fahrenheit and higher during monsoon rainstorms. Initially they had to live thirteen people to a room. Malaria was rampant, as were diseases from the water and food.
The culture was radically different from their own. The majority of these Bosnians were Muslim, but they were more modern and Westernized than they were religious. Suddenly they were in a fundamentalist Islamic country.
Because their Pakistani hosts were offering them even more than they offered most of their own citizens, more than most countries had offered them anywhere in the world, the Bosnians felt guilty not feeling more grateful. They spent their days waiting—waiting for the weather to cool off, waiting to get out of Pakistan (those that were waiting for entry into America had been waiting the longest), waiting for news of their hometown, waiting for the nightmares to pass, waiting.
Each day I would sit with these refugees for many hours in a saunalike room; we would form a huge circle and the people would tell their stories. Everyone was sick in some way, everyone deeply traumatized from the horrific events they had suffered in the war. And yet, there was great humor, generosity, and community.
During my last days there, I became very ill with some kind of flu. The Bosnians overwhelmed me with kindness, offering me homemade remedies and soups. There was this particular little bottle of nose drops that had clearly passed through the entire community. When they offered it to me, I felt I was undergoing a rite of passage. Now I was infected with refugee illness, with a tiny bit of their suffering.