Tamo gde je Jugoslavija nekad postojala
YU: Lost Country (Serbo-Croatian)
Petnaestog septembra 1991. krenula sam u šetnju sa moje dve najbolje prijateljice obalom Save, reke koja teče kroz moj rodni grad Slavonski Brod. Bila je nedelja; nakon tromesečnog odmora od škole bilo nam je dosadno i jedva smo čekale da se sutra vratimo u klupe. Imale smo 16 godina. Obično prepuno šetalište pored reke bilo je sablasno prazno. Ipak, srele smo grupu muškaraca s brkovima. Odmah nam je bilo jasno da su oficiri - čudno je kako uvek prepoznaš policajca ili vojnika kad se maskiraju u svoju najbolju nedeljnu odeždu. Rekli su nam da se odmah vratimo kući i da ne izlazimo vani. Mrmljajući sebi u bradu opsovala sam ih i rekla im gde da idu… Dok smo, smejući se, trčale kući na nedeljni ručak, jedna od mojih prijateljica, ne sećam se koja, rekla je: “ Tako je dosadno, volela bih da se nešto uzbudljivo desi”.
Stan moje porodice nalazio se na osmom spratu zgrade nasred gradskog trga; s naših prozora gledali smo pravo u JNA garnizon. Pamtim da je majka spremala ručak kad se začulo zvono na vratima. Ispred naših vrata stajala je grupa hrvatskih vojnika. Rekli su nam da sve vredne stvari iznesemo u hodnik i da odemo u podrum. I onda je počelo. Napali su garnizon JNA.
Priča o meni kao fotografu započinje onog dana kad je naš stan izgoreo zajedno sa hiljadama fotografija i negativa koje je radio i skupljao moj otac, vredni fotograf-amater. Tog dana postala sam jedna od “izbeglica” bez fotografija, bez prošlosti. Zaista, moja sećanja na ljude i događaje pre te nedelje septembra 1991, ili su nepostojeća ili maglovita. Kao što je Josif Brodski (Joseph Brodsky) rekao: “Sećanje izdaje svakog, naročito one koje najbolje znamo. Sećanje je saveznik zaborava, saveznik smrti. To je ribarska mreža u kojoj je tek nekoliko riba, bez vode koja je iscurela. To ne možeš da iskoristiš da rekonstruišeš bilo šta, čak ni na papiru”.
Tog sam dana shvatila moć fotografije nad sećanjem. Dan nakon požara, moj otac je uradio svoju poslednju fotografiju – rutinski snimak izgorelog stana potreban za osiguravajuće društvo. Tamo gde je on stao, ja sam nastavila. Čin fotografisanja, posmatranje sveta kroz objektiv – pomoglo mi je da povratim kontrolu nad nepredvidljivim svetom.
Jednog dana, tokom teškog bombardovanja, sa nekoliko prijatelja sklonila sam se u podrum napuštenog noćnog kluba. Tamo smo sreli italijanske filmadžije koji su se tu takođe sakrili; videvši nas, odlučili su na licu mesta da naprave dokumentarac – kako je to biti tinejdžer u ratu. Svi smo bili maloletni, ali to nije smetalo Italijanima; nisu ni pomislili da o svojoj ideji obaveste naše roditelje.
Nama je izgledalo da po prvi put u nekoliko meseci neko brine o tome šta imamo da kažemo. Kad su završili snimanje, krenuli su natrag u Italiju. Obećali su da će nam pisati, obećali su da će nam poslati film. Nikad više nismo čuli za njih. Preko prijatelja, saznala sam da je film nekoliko puta emitovan na RAI 2, i da je veoma dobro primljen.
Od početka konflikta, moja porodica je odlučila da izbegava bilo koje vesti iz hrvatskih i srpskih medija; bombardovali su nas nemilosrdno konstantnim lažima, bez pauze. Zahvaljujući mom ocu koji je kupio satelitsku antenu, okrenuli smo se međunarodnim vestima, pokušavajući da dokučimo šta se stvarno dešava ispred naših vrata. Međutim, odmah smo bili suočeni s novim lažima. Poput Beduina u Turnijerovom filmu La Goutte d’Or, više ništa nisam mogla da prepoznam, nisam mogla da prepoznam moju zemlju, nisam mogla da prepoznam grad u kojem sam živela čitav život, nisam mogla da prepoznam svoje susede.
Ono što su zapadni mediji pokazivali, čak je i meni ličilo na “druge”: prljavi, necivilizovani, umašćene kose, sa očajem u očima. Sećam se da sam bila veoma ljuta, poželela sam da neko od tih novinara dođe k nama u podrum, da sedi u mraku dok zgrada gori iznad nas, bez pitke vode nedeljama. Kad je bombardovanje prestalo i kad smo konačno izašli iz skrovišta, pitala sam se kako bi se ti novinari osećali da im neko poturi kameru u lice i da to pošalje u dnevnu sobu porodice u Londonu i Parizu gde bi to gledali i rekli: “Ovi ljudi ne liče na nas, pogledaj ih, izgledaju kao divljaci”.
Dok se rat nastavljao, uspela sam da završim srednju školu i pripremam se za studije psihologije. Godine 1999, nakon završetka studija, konkurisala sam na mesto vojnog psihologa. Politička situacija bila je još uvek napeta. Očekivala sam razumnu meru provere za posao u vojsci, ali nisam očekivala da mi prisluškuju telefon i pokažu mi debeli policijski dosije s mojim imenom, mada nikad nisam učinila ništa protivzakonito.
Postajući sve razočaranija i besnija načinom na koji je nova hrvatska država počela da liči na staljinističku policijsku diktaturu, a naročito očajna zbog mojih kolega koji su pristajali na ovakvu situaciju, ništa ne dovodeći u pitanje – odlučila sam da napustim zemlju. Iznad svega, odlučila sam da ne budem deo politike nasilne amnezije.
YU: Lost Country (English)
On the 15th of September 1991, I went for a walk with two of my closest friends down by the banks of the river Sava that flows through my hometown of Slavonski Brod. It was Sunday; we were bored after a three-month-long summer holiday and very excited about going back to school the next day. We were sixteen years old. The usually busy river promenade was eerily empty of people that day. However, we did meet a group of moustached men. It was immediately clear to us that they were army officers... it’s strange how you can always recognise policemen and military even when disguised in their Sunday best. They told us to go home immediately, and stay there. Under my breath, I muttered where they could go... As we ran off giggling back to our own homes for lunch, one of my friends, I forget which one, shouted back towards me “It’s soooo boring, I wish something exciting would happen.”
My family’s apartment was on the 8th floor of a building positioned right on the town’s main square. The windows of the apartment looked at the large Yugoslav National Army (JNA) garrison. I remember my mother cooking Sunday lunch and then the doorbell rang. Outside our front door was a group of Croatian soldiers. They told us to put all of our valuables into the hallway and go down to the basement. And then it started. They attacked the JNA compound.
The story of me as a photographer starts on the day when our family apartment got burned down together with thousands of prints and negatives my father, an ardent amateur photographer, had accumulated. On that day I became one of those ‘refugees’ with no photographs, with no past. Indeed, my memories of the events and people I encountered before that Sunday in September 1991 are either non-existent or very vague. As Joseph Brodsky wrote: “Memory betrays everybody, especially those whom we knew best. It is an ally of oblivion, it is an ally of death. It is a fishnet with a very small catch and with the water gone. You can’t use it to reconstruct anyone, even on paper.”
That day I learned the power photography has over memory. The day after the fire was the last time my father took a photograph, a perfunctory snapshot to record the damage for the insurance company. Where he stopped, I started. The act of photographing, of looking at the world through the camera lens, helped provide a semblance of control over an otherwise unpredictable world.
One day, during a particularly bad air attack, I took shelter with few of my friends, in an old abandoned basement nightclub. There we met a group of Italian filmmakers, who were also hiding from the bombing. They decided then and there to make a documentary about how it is to be a teenager in a war. We were all minors; and I don’t remember this television crew running their idea by our parents. For the first time in months, we felt like someone cared about what we had to say. After they were done filming, the film crew went back to Italy. They promised they would write. They promised they would send us the film. We never heard from them again. Through acquaintances in Italy I found out that the documentary was shown numerous times on RAI2, the Italian national broadcaster, and that it was very well received.
From the very beginning of the conflicts, my family decided to avoid watching any news by Croatian or Serbian media; they were bombarding us with lies constantly, relentlessly. The media war was almost as vicious as the physical one. So my father purchased a satellite dish and we watched international news, trying to figure out what was really happening outside our front door. Except, that then, we were confronted with another lie. Like that young Bedouin in Tournier’s La Goutte d’Or (1986), I could not recognise anything, I could not recognise my own country, I could not recognise the town I had lived in all my life, I could not recognise our neighbours.
What western media was showing us instead, were people that even to me looked like ‘the others’: dirty, uncivilised, with matted unbrushed hair and desperation in their eyes. I remember being very angry. I wished that some of these international news broadcasters would come down into the basement with us, and sit there in the dark while the building was burning above them, without any running water for weeks. Once the bombing had stopped, or the city had surrendered, and they could finally come out from hiding, I wondered what would they feel like if someone shoved a camera into their faces, to be transmitted then into the living room of a family in London or Paris or anywhere in the shiny West, looking at this and thinking, ‘Well, these people are not like us, look at them, they look like savages.’
Somehow as the war raged on, I managed to finish high school and enrol in university to study psychology. In 1999, after successfully completing my studies, I applied for a job as an army psychologist. The political situation was still very tense. I expected a reasonable amount of scrutiny and background checks in order for my job application to be processed. However, I did not expect that my phone would be tapped and a thick police dossier with my name on it would be produced (I have never committed a criminal act). Growing more and more disillusioned and irritated with the way the new Croatian state started to resemble a Stalinist-style police state, and especially with the way my peers just took this situation as given without even questioning it, I decided to leave the country. Above all, I decided not to comply with the politics of forced amnesia. My parents were distraught.
Somehow via Prague, I ended up in Ireland. This is where I came across Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. A friend who was studying International Relations said I should read it. So I did. I read it first in 2000, then again in 2003, 2008, 2010 and over and over again as I was working on the project. Every timethe book provided some new revelation. As I changed and floated from different points in my own exile, from unskilled and underpaid jobs - to reasonable ones, from tiny damp flats - to my own home, from people with whom you were thrown together by necessity - to the friends you chose, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, always appeared different but with one persistent question: How did this foreign woman understand that place, that is so complex and complicated, so well? Of course I noticed the inconsistencies and exaggeration present in West’s account of Yugoslavia, but the essence of what she tried to immortalise in her words was real. It is still real. I realised while researching the life and work of Rebecca West, the sense of displacement, isolation and not belonging is quite prevalent through her existence and was a major factor in the formulation of her world-views and by proxy the way she saw and described Yugoslavia. Being ‘the other’ herself, Rebecca West never ‘othered’ Yugoslavia.
The clarity of Rebecca West’s vision and what she saw is extraordinary – clairvoyant, especially when one considers the events that took place there in the last 75 years. West calls it a “preternatural event in my life”, where she had “an extraordinary rapture”, in her words it “was like being dead and arriving near total comprehension.” Why else should she write such a huge inventory of a country that “ceases to exist?” West said that she could only remember things if she had a pencil in her hand, so she could write it down and play with it. The reason she wrote half a million words about Yugoslavia is because she did not want to forget anything about it, and because she wanted to preserve this memory for millions of Yugoslavs, who now live in exile.
On the tenth anniversary of my exile, I decided it was time to try and deal with the conflicting memories and emotions I had about my lost country and to attempt to engage with the meaning of identity. Is identity tied to a nation or a place, or can a person build their own metaphysical home, one that can’t so easily be annihilated and taken away? The subject I was attempting to investigate was incredibly complex: Yugoslavia, exile, memory, identity. I needed a definite roadmap, something to adhere to almost ritualistically. It would be, otherwise, too easy to get lost in the project. And who better to follow, than another displaced person, traveling through the land of the displaced? Rebecca West’s huge tome provided the itinerary almost to the hour.
Jean Baudrillard wrote that part of the pleasure of traveling is “to dive into places where others are compelled to live and come out unscathed, full of the malicious pleasure of abandoning them to their fate.” Unluckily, my journey was not that much of a travel, but a return to the home that was no longer mine. I did not manage to come out unharmed. The thing with exiles is that they change their home for a suitcase. There is no proper return once you forsake your home.
So, it made sense that I ‘returned’ to what was once Yugoslavia, with a camera. As Susan Sontag writes: “photographs give people an imaginary possession of a past that is unreal, they also help people to take possession of a space in which they are insecure... Travel becomes a strategy for accumulating photographs. The very activity of taking photographs is soothing, and assuages general feelings of disorientation that are likely to be exacerbated by travel.”.
Although I started work on YU: The Lost Country, as a way of putting my scattered worlds, thoughts and emotions into some coherent shape, it became evident, quite early on, that this was not an endeavour of creating some metaphysical space in which my identity could reside, quite the opposite, it was a funeral procession. I was following a ghost on her travels through a country that had disappeared. To photograph is not wanting to be present. It’s a discomfort with reality. It’s a perverse activity of vanishing but also fetishising that moment of vanishing. Photography reinforces this act of fetishism. What happens in exile is that you remove yourself from reality, as you know it. You disown a home that you feel disowned you.
So what is photography? If I had to answer that question, I believe that my answer would be somewhat similar to that given to the narrator of Dubravka Ugrešic’s novel The Museum of Unconditional Surrender. While sitting under the rain of artificial stars in a planetarium in Prenzlauer Allee, she asks her friend, an artist, what art is. He answers: “I don’t know. An act which is certainly connected with mastering gravity, but which is not flying.”