Wednesday, August 5, 2015


Dubrovnik, 1991. Photo by Pavo Urban

There is a difference between listening and witnessing.
I cannot explain it. But I know when the moment arrives, when the former becomes the latter.
I've done my share of witnessing while working as a child and family therapist. I even fell into the role of witness when working with patients in sleep laboratories—those electrodes take a while to hook up, and sometimes, well, people start talking.

You begin casually listening to whatever comes. And then, a word or phrase or facial expression arises, and something changes.
It's as though a cord connecting listener and speaker is drawn taut, like a fishing line when you've hooked something. You know then that you're bound one to another.
Your joy or your suffering are the same.
The heart expands and its door opens. You step through.

Like this morning, when the woman in front of me with the kind, brown eyes full of light and of life says, "They took ten of the best years of my life from me."

Bombed Harbor, Dubrovnik, 1991

She is my landlady during my brief visit to Dubrovnik, Croatia. I'll call her Natalija, though that's not her real name.
She has, from the first day, been warm and welcoming, so sincerely desirous that we enjoy our stay here and have everything we need; so desirous that we might see what she loves of the city in which she was born.
But the life that comes through in this woman's eyes is not only the energy of openness and joy. Another side of life has also made its mark and lends an intensity to her gaze.

On this morning she has joined me on her garden patio, and somehow — I can't recall exactly, but maybe it's something I mentioned about all those bright, new-looking roof tiles in the city—talk turns to the war. The Siege of Dubrovnik by remnants of the Yugoslav People's Army (JNA) and Serbian forces in 1991.

That's the "they " she's taking about, who took those ten best years.

She tells me of the many months without water or power or food; of the people in the Old City center, gone below ground to seek shelter. 

She spoke of the terror of knowing the enemy was there on the hill, just above their neighborhood, and the terror of the explosions and mortars screaming through the air.

Somewhere between 82 and 88 civilians were killed in tiny Dubrovnik, and many more soldiers before the three month siege came to a halt.
Don't be fooled by the coldness of numbers; their neat roundness.
They represent real people. Neighbors and friends, unsuspecting of theirs and their city's fate.
Even the loss of one is a heavy burden for those who remain.

Natalija tells me she is angry, still, about one loss
a friend who seemed to have beaten cancer before the siege began. She'd had what seemed to be complete remission.
Then, a mortar came through her kitchen roof, and shrapnel lodged in her head.
For reasons I didn't fully understand, she had to take the long boat to Pula in the north when no nearer hospitals, even in Split, would take her. She was in a coma for a while, yet she survived the shrapnel wound. 

But the cancer came back after that. And this time, cancer won.
Natalija thinks the stress and trauma of that experience brought it back.

Her eyelids flicker. I think she will cry, but she squeezes her eyes shut as she squeezes her hands into fists at her sides and moves on to other memories.

At least 15,000 refugees from nearby towns that had already been taken by the JNA came to Dubrovnik. Maybe they believed as many in Dubrovnik believed
no one would touch this pearl, this UNESCO World Heritage city. Or maybe it was simply the last place left for them.
But ultimately, 16,000 refugees had to be evacuated from Dubrovnik by sea.
Some people fled to nearby hotels. 
But the JNA bombed the hotels.
And when firefighters came to put out the fires, the JNA bombed them, too.

Abondoned Hotel Belvedere, Dubrovnik
Ruins of Hotel Belvedere, Dubrovnik. Photo credit: Gin and Ginger website

Natalija's sister's family joined them outside the city walls. Even though Natalija and her own family lived closer to the source of the bombs, they reasoned it was better to all be together.
At one point 15 of them stayed in one room, sleeping like sardines. 

Memories come to her now, it seems, in an impressionistic stream-of-consciousness. She talks of a transistor radio they had that ran on batteries, and the voice of their aggressor over the airwaves, saying "We will drink coffee on the Stradun!" (the Stradun is the main street that runs through the middle of the walled Old Town). She rolls her eyes at this in disgust. 

She speaks of having no food left except for a big square of chocolate, and discovering one day, to her dismay, that her very young nephew had devoured it.
She speaks of other young family members, boys of 18 or 19, saying they would go off to fight, to defend their city. 

Natalija shakes her head, with a look that expresses both resignation and affection. "At that age, you don't think. You don't know. You believe you cannot die."

Her eyes are alight with horror as she recalls December 6, 1991. 
"They started early, early, early in the morning. And they did not stop. They Did. NotStop. All day the bombs came." She squints now, as if bracing again for the next explosion.
It was the worst bombardment of the whole siege, it's true. On that day alone, 13 civilians were killed.

Dubrovnik Stradun, Dec. 7, 1991. Photo by Željko Šoletić

She speaks then of a flotilla of boats
civilian vessels, including the Jadrolina ferry boats that still run todaythat defied and evaded the naval blockade in order to bring food and supplies to the people of Dubrovnik. She nearly cries again as she speaks of it. 
But this time, it's from joy. 
It's from her body's memory of that joy amid so much suffering. 
The joy of that day the boats arrived is still moving through her as it did on that day.
She says, her eyes wide, "Oh! When they came, we had such a party, such celebration!" She even let's loose a little laugh.
But it's short-lived, as she becomes pensive, thinking out loud.

"I don't know why they did what they did . . . I think it will still be many more years before any of us really knows what happened. We were just a tourist town. We had no army here. And the Serbs had thousands of soldiers . . . yet, they stopped. Somebody did something. It was political. Somebody, somewhere made them stop."

I express my own bewilderment at this fact, as well.
She says, "You know, it's hard to explain. But maybe it's like when a man sees a beautiful woman, and he wants her, and he realizes he can't have her, so he must destroy her . . ."
At this I'm speechless for a moment. I think it's a good and plausible analogy.

A macro version of the twisted, sick machismo that destroys everything it touches, and eventually destroys its host, as well. Maybe she's right.
But as she says, it may be a long time before anyone really knows. If ever.

She says she doesn't hate anyone. "I am strong, open person. And I am in mixed marriage, myself. My husband is Bosnian. But still to this day, when I go to Montenegro to see friends, I don't feel right or good. I have a bad feeling there."

I can see on her face that this doesn't sit well with her. She doesn't want to feel this way. But she does. I think it pains her to have bad feelings about anyone.

"Everything was destroyed. I had good life before the war. I had credit, two cars, all these good things. But after . . .we had to start over; everyone did. There was nothing. No money, no economy. That should have been the best ten years of my life. . . they took the ten best years of my life."

I'm quietly crying at this point. I'm taking in the reality of what she's saying, all of it. And I'm thinking of how many other places there are people who have similar stories. I'm thinking of how my own country is responsible for a lot of those stories in the world, even if not this one.

I'm thinking of how readily, even blithely, so many in my country will take up the rallying cry for war. The reality of that word "War" is not a living, breathing memory for civilians in my country. It is only a memory for those sent far away by the men in suits to do the dirty work. There is a reason why an organization called "Veterans for Peace" exists.

I'm thinking of the sheer terror of it. The sound of bombs in the night, in the dark house with no power, no water. The person awake in the night, looking around at the family sleeping (or failing to) together on the floor, and all they can do is pray and ask, "Why?"
Why here? 

Why now?
Why us? 
Why this? 

Natalija sees me trying to speak, but unable to cry and speak at the same time.
She says, "You cry. It's OK," then adds, "I can't cry."
She says this last part in a sort of puzzled way, as if to say she doesn't know why she can't cry, she knows she should, or she knows it's a reasonable thing to do in this instance. 

I've seen this as she speaks. Always she stops short and chokes it back.
I can see the memory of those days move in her body as she speaks, like it's trapped there, trying to get out but finding no exit.
I cannot cry, she says.

Ok. I'll do it for you, I think.
Let this grief, this trauma, find its exit through me, if it can.

This is witnessing.

Later that afternoon, I go into the old city to the ethnographic museum. I see explanations of traditional Croatian architecture and building techniques. I see farm and household implements from centuries past. I see samples of traditional costumes, elaborately embroidered and embellished; these extraordinary yet humble objects that show the necessity for our species of beauty in even the most ordinary, quotidian things. 

Woman does needlework on the street, Dubrovnik, 2015

I leave the museum, and as I make my way toward the harbor, the streets feel different than in previous days. Natalija's stories are there with me.
I can hear the shelling, feel the ground shaking.
I can feel the fear and uncertainty beneath my feet where whole families once hid.
I can see the wreckage where now there are bright new terracotta roof tiles.
These skinny, hungry looking cats all over the city remind me of the bigger hunger of 1991.

My partner and I, and even Natalija herself, have in previous days bemoaned the ubiquity of Dubrovnik's tourist industry and its erosion of the true history and culture of the area.
A city that went months without food is now lined on every street with restaurants. Indeed, there is now even a feeling of crass excess at times, as you weave your way past tables and wait staff on every side street.
The sheer number of poor quality, ever-changing restaurants; the "Croatian" souvenirs made in China
the city has in many ways succumbed to the lure of the easy tourist dollar.

But I will not judge these people for that. Not now.
They've been hungry in ways I never have been.
They've personally known a very particular kind of uncertainty that I have never had to face.
I've no doubt it leaves an indelible mark on the psyche and the soul.
I've no doubt the remembrance of scarcity lingers here. The drive to get what you can, while you can is, in this historical context, entirely understandable.

It's my last day here, and I'm on a narrow back street, nearing the portal through the city walls by the bustling harbor.
My dark reverie about events of nearly a quarter century ago is interrupted by a sprightly stream of notes that wend their way around corners and curves and over walls. It's a clarinet, some acoustic guitars and the distinctive, hollow thrum and slap of an upright bass.
I can't help but pick up my pace. The music demands it.
Swing-era jazz, for me, always demands movement. A tapping of the toes, a shimmy of the shoulders, a twirl —especially if you've got a partner, but even if you don't.
I round a bend in the street and there they are, with the sizable crowd they've already reeled in before me. The energy of these fine musicians is explosive, contagious, so full of joy. It is irresistible.
People lining the street and leaning against the walls can't be completely still. They tap, they sway, they rock and bounce and smile. They shine brighter than this torturous August sun.
They can't help it.
The waves of music resonate and set that street vibrating and pulsating with life.

Beneath the surface of all stories, all life, there are hidden mysteriesjoy, confusion, entrenched beliefs, hopes, traumas and pain.
A city is also a living thing. It also hides much below the surface.

But a family tucked away in a basement below the street on this day would hear, instead of shelling and explosions, the spirit of Django Reinhardt or Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five. They'd hear and feel the lightness of heart in those gathered above, each (for the moment, at least) in love with this Pearl of the Adriatic on a summer's day filled with music.

There is, and likely always will be, a darkness in the world that must be witnessed. But there is also emergence from that darkness.
There is resilience.
This, too, wants a witness.

Candles in Dubrovnik's cathedral, August 2015

Thirsty lad, Dubrovnik, August 2015

Band break, Dubrovnik, August 2015
Moon over the bay, Dubrovnik, August 2015


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