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Susan Sontag's Lasting Gift To Sarajevans Under Siege

For Susan Sontag, staging a play in wartime Sarajevo was an act of conscience rather than a political act.
For Susan Sontag, staging a play in wartime Sarajevo was an act of conscience rather than a political act.

Editor's Note: April 5 is the 25th anniversary of the shootings in Sarajevo of two peace demonstrators, a flash point leading to the 1,425-day siege of the Bosnian capital by Bosnian Serb forces.

I will never forget April 5, 1992. I was working for the Sarajevan daily newspaper Oslobodjenje, and on that day I was downtown covering a large peace demonstration in front of the parliament. Suddenly, shots were fired into the crowd and we all cowered instinctively.

Two women were killed that day. But when I returned to our newsroom, only one of the victims' names was known. She was a student from Dubrovnik, Suada Dilberovic, and she had been killed by a sniper's bullet fired from the Holiday Inn hotel, where the Serb Democratic Party (SDS) led by Radovan Karadzic had positioned its gunmen.

Later, it emerged that another woman, Olga Sucic, had also died. The bridge over the Miljacka River is now named after these two women, who were killed while demonstrating for peace. Occasionally, people leave flowers next to the plaque that bears their names.

Although we weren’t fully aware of it at the time, that was the first day of the war in Bosnia. For Suada and Olga, of course, it was also the last. For most Sarajevans, it was the beginning of nearly 1,500 days under siege, with its daily suffering and humiliations. The structure of civil life was broken. The mountains surrounding the city became our worst enemies. The city was relentlessly bombarded for the next 3 1/2 years. All telephone lines were cut, along with virtually any other form of communication with the outside world.

PHOTO GALLERY: The Siege Of Sarajevo

The only visitors to a city that had hosted the Winter Olympics a few years earlier were war correspondents, and UN officials and soldiers. That's why the rare appearances by foreign writers and artists were so precious to us. Perhaps the most fondly remembered among those few who risked their lives by coming to besieged Sarajevo was Susan Sontag (1933-2004).

Her first "mission" was to meet with members of the Bosnian chapter of PEN International to help them cope with wartime scarcities. A few short visits later, she came with a more ambitious and unlikely project in mind: to stage a play in wartime Sarajevo with local actors. Her closest friend and guide was director Haris Pasovic. He had been doing his best to keep theater alive under impossible conditions; Pasovic saw it as a way to preserve normality.

Sontag thought of it in similar terms. Rather than a political act, she preferred to see it as an act of conscience. In her words:

"I was not under the illusion that going to Sarajevo to direct the play would make me useful in the way I could be if I were a doctor or a water-system engineer. It would be a small contribution. But it was the only one of three things I do -- write, make films, and direct in the theater -- which yields something that would exist only in Sarajevo, that would be made and consumed there."

Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot was an obvious choice. That play seemed as if it had been written for Sontag to stage in wartime Sarajevo. Like Vladimir and Estragon, the play’s central characters, waiting for a mysterious "Godot" who never arrives, Sarajevans waited in vain for the West to take some action to prevent the daily slaughter in their city and country. After a year and a half of the siege, every day was exactly like the one before, the only variable being the number of dead and wounded.

The square in front of the Bosnian National Theater is named after Sontag.
The square in front of the Bosnian National Theater is named after Sontag.

We did not publish the time and date of the performance, as copies of the newspaper were finding their way to the hills surrounding Sarajevo, where most of the Serb guns and artillery were positioned. Such information would have meant the addition of a theater, cinema, or exhibition to the list of targets.

We learned that the hard way. Once, in the first month of the war, we published information about a 5 p.m. opening of an exhibition of political cartoons, providing the address. Less than five minutes after it opened, the shelling began. I was not hit, but the detonation threw me to the floor. I was unable to move or to help the wounded who were just meters away.

So when it came to Sontag’s Godot, invitations were circulated strictly by word of mouth. A friend of mine told me about the premiere. It was at 2 p.m. on August 17, 1993. Once the lights were switched off, I felt like I was at some theater on Broadway or London’s West End. No one in the audience made a sound. During those two hours, Sarajevo felt like part of the civilized world; it was not abandoned. At the end of the performance, the Sarajevan actors received a standing ovation.

Once the curtain came down, the mayor of Sarajevo, Muhamed Kresevljakovic, called Sontag to the stage. He announced that she would be declared an honorary citizen of Sarajevo and that, as a token of that honor, she would receive something to identify herself as a Sarajevan. I had no idea what that something might be -- which marked me or anyone else as a citizen of Sarajevo. Sontag came onstage and was presented with a miniature traditional Bosnian carpet. Kresevljakovic told her that every citizen of Sarajevo dreams of leaving the city on a magic carpet and that now she would have one of her own.

Today, decades later, the square in front of the Bosnian National Theater is named after Sontag -- "in the heart of Sarajevo forever," in Pasovic's words.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.

About This Blog

Balkans Without Borders offers personal commentary on contemporary Balkan politics and culture. It is written by Gordana Knezevic, senior journalist and former award-winning editor of the Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje, as well as the director of RFE/RL’s Balkan Service between 2008 and 2016. The blog reflects on the myriad ways in which the absurdities of Balkan politics and the ongoing historical shifts and realignments affect the lives of people in the region.


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