Posted by Barbara Epstein on March 2nd, 2010
Dijana Milosevic recently returned to Belgrade after touring with her new production. Read on to hear about her experiences…
“We have just returned from a tour of our play ‘Crossing the Line’—a production based on a book published by Women in Black, Belgrade. It tells the women’s side of the war through the testimonies of women from different ethnic groups of ex- Yugoslavia. It’s the first time the women’s voice can be heard without being manipulated, distorted, or changed; it’s genuine.
“We started to tour while the play was still being developed, to accompany Women in Black to launch the book. In the play, we’re speaking in the name of all who have been victims: Bosnian Muslim women, but also Serbs, Croatians, Albanians, and others. It is an especially important thing to do in Bosnia and Croatia. It creates an opportunity for women to hear what happened to them and to their neighbors, and there is healing in the public acknowledgment. After each performance, we would start a dialogue to help women speak up.
“Our performance in December in Bosnia was an extraordinary experience. We were in the city of Prijedor at the cultural center. The event was arranged by a Muslim woman whose story is in the book; her name is Mother Mejra—that’s the only name she uses now. Her son was killed and her daughter raped and killed in the detention camp, and her story is about her search to reclaim and bury their bones. She was invited to testify and allowed to search among the recovered remains. And among the thousands of bones she searched through, when she touched her son’s bones, she had a vision and she knew it was he. She buried him and has devoted her life since to helping other mothers.
“I saw Mother Mejra in Belgrade the day before the anniversary of Srebrenica massacre, and I was deeply moved; it is so important to hear publicly her story. There was no money available to bring us to Prijedor, but she put together the venue, the PR, everything under nearly impossible circumstances. The performance was combined with a promotion of the book Mother Mejra wrote and the book by Women in Black. Fortunately, it was supported by the Charles Stuart Mott Foundation.
“The journey from Belgrade to Prijedor typically takes about 6 hours, but we traveled 14 hours to get there through a snowstorm. We felt strangely calm and patient, and it was magical to arrive in the middle of the night.
“It was freezing in the cultural center and we spent the next day setting up for the performance. The hall filled with people. It could be challenging for us to perform outside of Serbia, but when we travel with Women in Black especially we are very much appreciated, and here people welcomed us and were very positive about the work.
“Being in that beautiful setting in that small theatre, sitting with the light technician, was one of the most moving experiences I’ve had. People were sobbing. We had come to them with a woman whose story is so painful and universal. I had questioned whether we had a right to do this, is it the right thing to open this up? But by the end, the audience had experienced a sort of catharsis. We knew it was all right because people stayed for the talk after the performance in spite of the cold.
“For them, it was very important to hear publicly what had been done. It would be different if the Serbian government would say they are sorry. The current government was not in power during the war, but still it has not acknowledged the circumstances of the war. After the performance we went to Mother Mejra’s house to eat and drink, and that too was very special. Humor is a big and important part of our culture, and when we gather, the first 15 minutes or so are like old times. But after that everyone turns to war stories. In Serbia we are having a future. In Bosnia, they are frozen in pain. When someone acknowledges this, they can start to move.
“Our tour in Serbia eventually took us to some of the small towns in the south. These had been economically destroyed in the war, and they are very poor and bleak. There is massive unemployment. Leskovac, for example, is very close to Kosovo, about 50 km. Serbian men from that area were drafted to go to Kosovo, where some of them took part in the atrocities. Also, Serbian refugees from Kosovo took refuge in Leskovac, and now they are afraid to go back.
“In Leskovac, it was the first time we had done the performance for ordinary Serbian people, not people in the city who are used to seeing a lot of theatre, and we didn’t know what to expect. Again the hall was filled with people, and they clearly were deeply moved. When we ended, people were crying but they were silent, but then they began to speak. They can shield themselves against the media, but in our performance there is no judging. We create a special place, an island of safety where we can share these stories. These islands are growing bigger. For me it’s important to create a place where we can cry together.
“We visited another tiny place with especially harsh conditions: Vlasotinac. We performed in a cultural center, but this time it was just a big tiled room, and it was under 0 degrees centigrade. We had been invited by a local organization that helps women who were victims of violence, but they didn’t tell us there was no heat. Once we were there we did our best without any technical amenities at all. And again, the audience was amazing. Women came who had been working in the fields, Roma women, and lots of men—we were surprised. Throughout the show there was an incredible quiet. After the show we tried to talk, but it was too cold, and people were too shy to talk. There was that feeling again of being frozen in time and fear. But we stayed anyway and welcomed anyone who wanted to come and talk with us individually, and they came. They told us about their own experiences, and how moved they were, and how terrible it had been.
“In that last place our actor who is also our sound / light technician and I both got sick; we had been sitting still a long time in the cold. I was worried about the actresses, who had some very light costumes, but they were fine. They have a different temperature and adrenaline and different state of mind for the performances, and it protected them physically.
“Now I turn to fundraising to find money to perform in a few more places. There is so little culture coming to these areas and so little space for remembering and grieving, it is that much more important to do this.“