LIBERA ME: the Unfinished Story of Two Wars and One Friendship
I’ve never been in a war. Who knows now if the war will find its way to me; no one wants it, and I don’t want it. But two wars have already passed through my heart. One formally ended twenty-seven years ago, but it seems it will last, hidden, for a long time to come. The other began three weeks ago, although it seems to have implicitly started much earlier.
It so happened that last summer I found myself in Zenica, a small city in Bosnia and Herzegovina, a country that up until that point I knew almost nothing about. The city, filled with buildings in the late Soviet style, with the air dusty with the emissions from a local metallurgic factory, became a haven for the international art-residency A Beloved Enemy. We, the participants of this residency, consisted of twenty people from nine different countries, mostly actors and performers, but I turned out to be the only musician in this diverse and boisterous group. The days were filled with acting workshops, discussions, work on an open-air performance, delicious food in the hot sun, and conversations about everything on earth. And every now and then a word appeared in the Bosnian guys' brief stories and accidentally-let-loose phrases: war.
The war began here in 1992, almost immediately after Yugoslavia broke up and its parts began to declare independence one by one. This process was frequently accompanied by inter-ethnic conflicts: Slovenia, Macedonia, Croatia didn’t escape them. But Bosnia and Herzegovina, the most multinational part of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, got the worst of it. Three peoples, forty years of living in peace on the same land—Croatians, Serbians, and Bosniak-Muslims—became enemies overnight and, roused by nationalists from all sides, began to destroy each other. In the name of what? It seems that no one here, even now, knows the answer to this question. But they clearly know the facts: which army fought with which at first, which alliances they made later, how in the end one of the armies, the Bosnian Serbs, took control of seventy percent of the territory of Bosnia. How, with the total inaction of the UN forces, this army under the command of General Ratko Mladić arranged the execution of more than eight thousand Muslims in Srebrenica; how this terrible event became the reason for NATO’s intervention, after which the Bosnian-Serbs began to suffer defeat. And how this war formally ended in 1995 with the signing of a peace agreement in the unknown American town of Dayton. And how, because of these agreements, an absurd and unwieldy constitution was born, according to which two entities appeared in the country (the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Republika Srpska) and the Brčko district, three presidents (one each from the Croatians, Serbians, and Bosnians) and the UN High Commissioner above them all. And, in addition, out of this agreement came the creation of the most bloated bureaucracy in Europe, boundless corruption, and the growing indifference of international institutions to the fate of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which after Dayton, no one seemed to care about.
Srebrenica. I knew practically nothing about it—although we had been told about it a few times—until the evening of July 9, 2021 (a date I will never forget), when all the participants of the art-residency were invited to view Yasmina Zhbanich’s film Where are you going, Aida?. Shot in an almost documentary manner, the film is about a woman, a translator present at the negotiations between Mladić and the Dutch UN corps, who is trying to save her husband and two grown sons from impending disaster. The attempt failed; all men from Srebrenica were taken away under the guise of “evacuation” and shot. Aida was left alone—alone with her own grief and the grief of the entire country, where almost every inhabitant had found themselves face to face with it. The film ended, the lights came on . . . and here I was pierced by the realization that I was, in this moment, surrounded by guys and girls younger than me by a decade and a half, whose childhood was what was shown on screen. It was a shock, an unbelievably powerful experience. It was something that unexpectedly surfaced a month and a half after Zenica, in the small studio MMESS in Petersburg where I performed a twenty-minute piano solo. The realization hit me later as I listened to the recording of what I played, and I couldn’t help but share it. This recording is called Right Back from Bosnija and is now available on my Bandcamp page.
It was impossible to keep this experience to myself, and in the end, I wrote about it to someone who could understand—the Bosnian actress Maja Zećo, whom I became friends with in Zenica. Originally from Mostar, she, like many, was caught up in the war and became a refugee; her family took shelter in Austria. She graduated from the theater academy, performed in theaters—in Mostar, then in Sarajevo—and starred in films, all while working on her own projects. “The war marked my life, my childhood, my fears, my longings . . . .” she wrote, “every little thing gained a new meaning . . . . I am confronting my past and looking for the pieces I have lost to bring them back home.” At some moment during our correspondence, I learned that Maja, who had already lived in Berlin for three years, together with the designer Ina Arnautalić, who also lived through war as a child, was preparing a large theatrical project called “What We Laughed At” (“Was haben wir gelacht”) about how humor helped people survive and remain human during the siege of Sarajevo. A sharp desire arose to see this work; I wrote about it to Maja. “Crazy Russian friend,” she laughed in response. “Come, of course, I would be happy.”
I watched “Was haben wir gelacht” two days in a row, not knowing a word of German and at the same time emotionally understanding everything that was behind the text. The show was playing in a cemetery caretaker’s abandoned house not far from Alexanderplatz. The audience was led from one room to another, from one stage to another, finding themselves immersed in the environment of besieged Sarajevo in the early nineties, where the sound of shelling was everywhere, where laughter and tears blended into one mass. There were six actors, all from the former Yugoslavia; some were eyewitnesses of the war, others heard about it through stories. There was also a huge team of about thirty people that worked on the performance, including the great Luke Perceval who worked with the actors as a mentor. It was the result of three years of exploration, conversations with eyewitnesses of the war, transcripts of interviews, delving into literature about this period . . . .
Another plunge into the Bosnian theme, another impulse towards the realization that it is essential to share everywhere what occurred so that history doesn’t repeat itself. “I want to propose a joint project,” I said to Maja then. “Let’s work together?” “Let’s.”
And we started to prepare the project. At first, I had the idea of an immersive requiem where the performers in the show wouldn’t be professional singers but instead untrained people with whom stage and sound workshops would be conducted beforehand. Then only a small part of the requiem text remained, Libera me (“Liberate Me”), and the whole concept took on a more concrete direction: we decided to start a conversation about how the peoples of Bosnia get along twenty-seven years after the end of the war; how they overcome prejudice and distrust of “others” or, conversely, cultivate these prejudices; how, in the end, they see the future of these difficult relationships or whether they see one at all. The whole idea was one built around the word liberation: liberation from one’s own fears, from mental trauma, from all the painful experiences of war in the past. A lot of topics were raised implicitly; we spoke about manipulations of patriotic feelings, about how easy it is to seduce people with the ghost of country’s greatness (and after all, out of the striving to build a “great Serbia,” “great Croatia,” that bloody massacre began); about the division into “our own” and “others,” about the imposition of “collective guilt,” cleverly used by politicians of all sorts to divide peoples and stoke hostility, about the movement from nationalism to internationalism . . . . There were many deep conversations, interspersed with constant jokes and laughter and relaxed chatter about everything under the sun. The project took shape without much effort—we felt like absolute like-minded people. “Such a great team,” as Maja said. We decided to begin researching, collecting interviews from eyewitnesses of the war, and recording them on audio and video; then it was proposed that I assemble an audio mix from the recordings to use in a performance alongside live music, and, based on the interviews, we would write a monologue for Maja. Simultaneously, we started the search for funds. There were a great many of them in Germany, each fund with its own application form, its own word count requirements. Together, we wrote texts in English, which Maya then translated into German, carefully checking over each sentence. At the same time, each of us stayed active in our own creative life: Maya had a festival in Portugal, projects in Bosnia, filming in the legendary German TV series Tatort (“Crime Scene”); I had a concert in Switzerland, wrote music for theatrical productions in Russia and Estonia, taught at a college . . . .
We coordinated meetings on Zoom, regardless of the time difference; together we corrected numerous google docs, compiled questions for the upcoming interviews, and looked for venues where our performance could be held—in Berlin, in Sarajevo . . . .
And then came February 24.
Early morning, Tallinn, two days before the opening night of Vodolazkin’s Aviator at the city theater. I’m reading my news feed. Numbness, horror, and pain. And then, a message from Maja: “How can I help?” And another: “Ordinary people in Bosnia didn’t want war. They couldn’t prevent it . . . . I know you’re upset and angry, but you’re doing the best you can.” In the afternoon we met on Zoom: “Well, did we manage to prevent the war with our project?” “No, we didn’t . . . .” And yet no thought arose about abandoning the project; on the contrary, now that something had happened that no one expected, all our work took on new meaning. What is happening between Russia and Ukraine, and even inside Russia, raises a mass of parallels with what occurred in Bosnia thirty years ago. Just as in that war, innocent people are dying for the sake of the illusory “greatness of the nation” and “unity of peoples.” Just as then, propaganda plays on one’s feelings, relies on patriotism and “historical mission.” Just as then, “enemies are everywhere.” And just like in Bosnia, families are collapsing, time-tested friendships severed, only because someone supports “krymnash” (“Crimea is Ours”), while someone else does not, somebody has the letter Z on a poster, while somebody else is at an anti-war meeting. And this is not even under the bombs but in front of television and computer screens. And this is scary, although it’s scarier for those now under bombardment . . . .
The present inevitably made its way into our interviews with the Bosnians, whose own war was a thing of the past. But then again, is it truly in the past? “It wasn’t that someone in some American city signed some papers—and then the war ended,” says one of our interviewees. “The war never left my life; I live with it, just as the whole country continues to do so after thirty years.” “A truce?" another grins. "Do you know how many times we've heard about such truces? This is done only to regroup the troops. War is always for a long time.” “Imagine a post-war Germany where the Nazi regime had been preserved on part of its territory,” another interviewee says with fervor, “and at the same time, it’s a single country. It’s been like this in Bosnia for a quarter of a century.” She was speaking about the Republika Srpska, one of the entities of Bosnia and Herzegovina: the opposite version of history is taught here in schools, here Radovan Karadžić and Ratko Mladić are not bloody murderers convicted by the Hague Tribunal, but national heroes . . . . How can one not recall the very high-ranking official of the Russian Ministry of Defense, who said that he was lucky to work with Mladić and Karadžić! How can one not recall the very well-known employee of the Russian Foreign Ministry, who stated that there was no genocide in Srebrenica . . . .
Now, these people are leading a “special operation” in a neighboring country. Now, we have all been drawn into this—because of them, and due to our thoughtlessness and inaction. Now, Bosnia’s past has become our present, and Bosnia’s present, our future, in which the concept of liberation will be relevant for a very long time. After all, neither moral pain, prejudice, fears, nor mutual suspicion can be avoided. Wars happen in different places and for different reasons, but their result is the same—everyone loses; to win, you have to go through this painful path of liberation, again and again, generation after generation . . . .
This is why we continue to work on Libera me. And this is why we aren’t giving up.
Maja Zećo as Nina, “What did we laugh about” (Berlin 2021). Photo by Maria Shulga.
March 2022 Translated by Samuel Driver
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