NS July 23rd, 2009
Have you ever accidentally witnessed something so achingly beautiful and touching that it haunts your dreams? Have you ever felt honoured to simply have been there when someone else did something so small but so raw that you could almost feel their pain, or joy, or grief?
In the summer of 2001, The Noble Husband and I went on a week-long holiday to Dubrovnik, Croatia. Situated on a stunning piece of coast of the Adriatic Sea, Croatia was just becoming a more popular tourist destination after the Bosnian-Croatian-Serbian wars that raged throughout the 90s. We spent a relaxing few days in a small town across the bay from the main city, clocking in a lot of time on the beach or reading under the shady trees and dining together in the evenings.
We decided to do a day trip that we saw advertised at the hotel we were staying in. It involved taking a coach on a scenic route through Croatia, over the border into Bosnia and then canoeing down a river. Up for some adventure and fresh air, we eagerly signed up.
During the coach ride I remember the tour guide telling us a bit more about the war and what it had done to the area and its people. She said tourism was increasing now and things were being rebuilt but that the people hadn’t recovered yet. Hardly surprising, given the genocide and mass rape campaigns that took place. The mood on the coach was somber as we crossed over the border.
Along the roadside we began to see piles of rocks, some with white crosses perched atop them. Wilted flowers lay alongside many of these rock piles. The tour guide explained that these marked spots where local people and solidiers had been slain. One crumbling pile of stones was anchored by a ratty, worn teddy bear with a deflated red balloon tied to its neck. Even it had no motivation to float.
Once we were past the checkpoints and before we headed down to the river, we stopped in a small village to refuel and stretch our legs. We were warned not to go into any local bars and to stick to the shop attached to the petrol station, where the meagre few tourists were catered for. I imagined big, dusty men whose eyes had seen horrors humans should never witness sweating into their beers and simultaneously being encouraged and disgusted by the tourists outside, ready to go on a boat tour of their misery.
I paddled half-heartedly once we were in the river and discovered that I was not a natural canoeist. TNH and I spent a lot of time tangled up in trees alongside the riverbank, swearing and arguing while trying to take in the “scenery.” The land is beautiful, no doubt, but seeing entire families living in one room houses held together with a few nails and a prayer, washing clothes in the river and picking berries, didn’t feel scenic to me. It made me incredibly sad instead.
At one point the guide told us that there was a waterfall coming up, one that we would be going over (it wasn’t a very large drop). He said that the local children would undoubtedly be there, waiting to see if we had anything to offer. He came round to each canoe and gave us a couple fistfuls of candy each. I looked down at the metallic wrappers glinting in my blistered and splintered hands and couldn’t decide whether to laugh or cry. I felt like such an interloper, a fraud. What the hell was I doing on VACATION in this place? Why hadn’t I paid more attention to the world when this war was going on? The extraordinay privilege of my upbringing and geographical location hit me square between the eyes. And boy, did it sting.
As we approached the waterfall, I saw a few dark heads bob into sight and heard the unmistakable sound of children shouting. I have no idea what they were saying but they ran alongside us with their arms outstretched, laughing and calling out as the slightly wet candy rained down on them, the afternoon sun capturing perfectly their innocence. I wanted to jump out of my canoe and swim to them, take them in my arms and promise them the moon and stars. Instead, I gave them all I had to show that I cared: a smile and reciprocated laughter.
Their mothers watched from the shore, hands shielding their eyes from the glare as they balanced laundry baskets and babies on their hips. Their eyes did not smile. What use would candy be to them, or their children after it had been gobbled up? The world as they knew it had been eaten alive and left empty; shiny wrappers couldn’t fool them.
After the canoe trip had finished and we’d had lunch on the bank, we were allowed to explore the area we now found ourselves in. Most of the people we had come with opted to sit in the shade and drink beer after buying souvenirs from the gift shop. We were told there were some ruins to explore, and a salt flat. We had a quick look at the latter and then started the hike up to the top of the large, tree-covered hill to see what we could see. We took in the view, read some plaques and after a few pictures and some somber reflection, started to make our way down.
TNH had gone ahead to have a look at something that had caught his eye but I stood looking at the bombed, crumbling, centuries-old cathedral and imagined what it had seen in all the years it had withstood mankind’s hypocrisy; building and creating and nurturing things but then knocking them down and strangling the life out of them, again and again. I ran my hand along the rough edges of the wall and rubbed the grit between my palms. I swore to myself that I would never forget these people, this tragedy, this place. It was the beginning of my political awakening, my awareness of and sympathy to human suffering and my anger and indignation toward those who perpetrate it.
It would lead me to study international relations and European politics when I return to university the following winter. It would lead to my interest in NGO aid for women, as I searched for ways I could help, in some tiny way, the tens of thousdands of girls and women who had been systemically raped and used as pawns of war. This, in turn, would lead to my invigorated interest in feminism, something I am absolutely 100% passionate about today. So to say that this holiday had an effect on me is to say the very, very least.
But that isn’t the haunting, beautiful moment I was speaking of in the beginning of this post. None of that was about me, I was merely having a privilege epiphany on a forest-laden hill. No, the real moment occured when, as I stood there with my thoughts and emotions bashing into one another inside my head, I heard something coming from inside the cathedral’s walls. It was music! I strained to make out where it was coming from and tried peering into some of the charred holes left in the battered brick, but all I saw was rubble. I circled around to the other side and noticed a door slightly ajar. A heavy rock prevented it from closing and revealed a gap just wide enough for my face.
At the front of the cathedral, before the altar and at a piano covered in a thick layer of dust and sorrow, sat a raven-haired woman with her back arched over the instrument, her feet pumping the pedals and her fingers flying over the ivory keys. She played alternately softly, then angrily, but always speedily. Something about it was urgent and so raw, like her fingers couldn’t keep up with her heart.
She wore a plain brown dress and her hair was tied into a tight bun. A strand of it escaped and loitered lazily on her forehead, pressed there by the heat of the sun and her emotions. She didn’t notice my presence and I didn’t dare breathe. I knew I should leave her to her moment, all alone, but I felt rooted to the spot. I thought, this is what it must be like to witness a miracle, or a child being born, or a person taking their last breath: you don’t feel worthy of being there, just so grateful that you are.
When the song ended, the woman stood up, looked down at the piano for several moments and then genuflected before the cross. Then she sat back down on the bench, closed the piano’s lid and lay her head on it.
At that point, I left. To keep watching felt too much like an invasion of privacy, even though she must’ve known that there were tourists rooting around up there. She was so oblivious to anyone and anything else that I doubt she’d have even noticed. I still wonder who she was playing that song for. A murdered husband? A lost child? A sister who will never be the same after enduring unspeakable horrors? God? Or maybe it was a song for us, the tourists come to view her pain. Perhaps unable to speak English or knowing she’d be punished in some form if she tried to speak to us about what happened there, her only way to communicate with us may have been through music. Softly explaining how life was before it ended, and then angrily asking us how we let it happen, and why.
I’ll never know how war happens. I’ll never know why. But I know that I will always hate it and fight it and wish to banish it. And if ever I should doubt why peace matters, I will reach into my memory bank and call forth the raven-haired woman who bared her soul amongst the rubble of our undoing.