In Croatia, Olja Savičević writes, ‘WWII crimes are being relativized, and history is distorted in the name of religion and patriotism’.


It has been a fresh, cold and rainy spring, when it is more customary to be bathing in the sea by this time of the year. There has been so much rain in the last month that it has been impossible to even walk the dog and stay dry. The rain chucked it down, the dog and I dried ourselves near the stove, but in the end it wasn’t altogether bad: I ended up with a completed collection of poems and finally got some pending paperwork sorted. Among the newspapers, magazines, postcards and letters, I found an anonymous piece of writing in a box of chocolates, dry with age and written in a rough, childish hand. I remembered some of the letters from the box, but not this one, without even a signature.

The paper had lost its moisture long ago, but the tone of the letter remained decisive, while the content was naïve; the attributes of a young high school student. This letter written almost thirty years ago, before the war, tells me that if I ever find myself in trouble, all I have to do is dress in something red and this guy – the guy writing the letter – this guy will take care of it; the problem will be resolved. Later on, I remember that in high school, I had suspected the author to be a guy who played the guitar and used to tease me. He had disappeared at the beginning of the war, shortly after the letter arrived, without a word and without trace, just like so many others of the ‘wrong nationality’ – even though they had nothing to do with the war. I’ve heard that this self-conscious, potential  superhero is now a doctor in Belgrade. So he is still saving lives. I returned the anonymous, forgotten letter to the box, with the others that I’m not going to throw away: I’ll leave it for my kids to one day consign them to the recycling.

On the internet I read a report on the site Are You Syrious?. It is aimed at volunteers trying to help migrants, by raising awareness of what is happening, by informing the public. The text says that in Korenica, a small town in the region of Lika, police officers had beaten Syrian migrants before taking away their food and clothes, and smashing their mobile phones. This happened in a garage, the news says, behind a blue door. The colour of that door attracts my attention: why was it important for anyone writing down such a story to note the colour of the door? The blue door of the garage make this horrible story even more horrible – behind the blue door the horror creeps closer to us. Nevertheless, I find nothing more about this incident on the other (rare) independent media sites.

I talk about the report to the first person I meet: a neighbour with whom I sometimes walk the dog. She claims that people are not able to understand anything that they do not feel on their own skin. She gives me examples from real life.

I mention empathy, but I’m no longer convinced of what I’m talking about. Most people are not really empathetic, not capable of standing back even a metre from their own experience.

Some of the volunteers who have worked for years with vulnerable groups of people have told me that in practice empathy is sometimes a disorder; people with too much empathy are easily broken and mostly useless in crisis situations.

On the other hand, the masses are blind, which is why we have these closed borders, these populist leaders all over the world, and the countries of the former Yugoslavia, the country where I was born, can be a stand-out example of this sorry situation. We have politicians who are guilty of stealing, beating, even murdering, of causing mass emigration from their homeland and leading their country to the brink of disaster, and yet many people still love them. Fearful people love those who have caused them misfortune, the mighty, from whom they might one day draw some benefit. This will always result in a hatred of the weak. Such people feel secure in hatred, a desirable hatred, at first quite weak, but then ever stronger, as the desire of the mighty grows. Have we not seen it before? Even great men were blind. Eugene Ionesco, the author of the play Rhinoceros, described precisely the process from which a little hatred and fear grows into terrible fascism that consumes humanity until it has swallowed up the last man. Yet even he was blind to the suffering of his Jewish friend and colleague, Mikhail Sebastian.

I see the blindness around me growing again, I notice how women’s rights are being taken away from them, how Ustasha and Chetnik crimes from WWII are being relativized, how history is distorted in the name of religion and patriotism, so that people in Split and Zagreb, it has been said, have more empathy towards uprooted trees than towards those migrants behind the blue garage door.

Sometimes I feel a sense of panic and the need to do something. I feel like shouting. But where and to whom? Even if I had a place to voice my thoughts, I think people would simply turn away from me.

In the book of selected poems by the Chinese poet Jidi Majia that I am currently reading, there is a poem titled I Will Always Love the Small and the Weak which reads: ‘But when we have to deal with the cries and screams of the innocent / We cannot manage to save them from hell on earth.’ And really, what use is our empathy for ‘the small and the weak’, what can it do outside the text, in real life?

We cannot fix things; just as that boy who sent me the anonymous letter couldn’t take care of himself, let alone me. We are at best chroniclers of the absurd, those who write of suffering and pain in the hope that they will not happen again. Maybe we are those who will continue to celebrate freedom and the joy of living and the right to freedom of choice, for as long as there are readers, an audience, spectators, who will feel encouraged or even think for a moment about another’s misfortune. The world is self-satisfied, turns its head, sees with one eye closed and the other half-open. But when we close that half-open eye, too, it will be the end, the beginning of darkness. Every day you have to wake up and see the colours: the red shirt, the blue door. We can always choose whether to see or not.

Olja Savičević is a prize-winning Croatian author who works across many different genres, including fiction, theatre, poetry and children’s books. Her books have been translated into multiple languagues. Her best-selling novel, Farewell, Cowboy (translated by Celia Hakesworth), achieved great success in the region and was adapted into a stage play. Her latest novel translated into English, Singer in the Night, received a PEN Translates award.

Translated by Susan Curtis.