Healing with words: A survivor of war shares her experiences
Mezetovic regrets that she didn’t take the threat of war seriously enough until it came to her front door. “When war broke out inCroatia,” she recalled, “I watched the news on TV as if it were far way. It’s as if war broke out in New Hampshire, it was that close. It didn’t occur to me that it could happen to us. I wish I had done something.”
By Alexis Lathem | Special to Vermont Guardian
Posted April 8, 2005
Survivors of unspeakable atrocities are often conflicted about discussing their experiences. But Aftaba Mezetovic, a 35-year-old Bosnian refugee living in Burlington, is more than willing to talk about her wartime life. In fact, talking about it has become a mission.
The first time we met, the torrent of words was unexpected. I had come to talk about her book of poems, Refugee: The Ugliest Word. We met in her small, cramped office at the Community Health Center in Burlington, where she works as a medical interpreter. Within minutes, I was transported to a war zone, where women are raped and thrown away onto piles of corpses.
I wondered what is it like to carry that burden inside you. “You can’t imagine what we went through,” she said repeatedly. And yet she talked, proving in the process that you do imagine it.
“People need to know what war is,” she said, “because this must never ever happen again.” With this as a goal, Mezetovic has been telling her story on college campuses and at other venues. Hearing from a flesh-and-blood person who lived through such terror makes it real, she believes.
“This didn’t happen a hundred years ago,” she noted. “It’s not something out of a history book. It happened to me. And it could happen to you.”
Mezetovic regrets that she didn’t take the threat of war seriously enough until it came to her front door. “When war broke out in Croatia,” she recalled, “I watched the news on TV as if it were far way. It’s as if war broke out in New Hampshire, it was that close. It didn’t occur to me that it could happen to us. I wish I had done something.”
She tells her story so that others won’t later have the same regrets. And that story is both heart wrenching and, yes, unimaginable. Her three brothers were all killed; her father died of grief after having to identify the body of his youngest and last surviving son.
She credits her grandmother with saving her life in the concentration camp: “She used to crawl out on her hands and knees to see what the soldiers were doing. She shaved our heads. She told us to rock back and forth so we’d be ugly, because the women were being raped and thrown away — thrown into piles of burning cars.”
Laurie Brands Gagne, a St. Michaels College professor who invited Mezetovic to address her Peace and Justice class last year, said Mezetovic made a big impression on the students. “They found her talk fascinating,” Gagne recalled. “She has a way of making you feel what she has experienced. Some of her stories left the students in tears.” At the end of the year, the class chose Mezetovic as the speaker who most influenced them.
Mezetovic herself feels that students have been highly receptive to her message. “They listen so attentively, they aren’t breathing,” she said. She feels close to college students because she was their age when she lived through the events she recounts. “I had my 23rd birthday in a concentration camp. It should have been the best time of my life — I had just gotten married; I just gave birth to my first child.”
Later, Mezetovic found her way to a refugee camp where she became camp manager — her first job after graduating college. There, she gave birth to a son, just one month before her visa came through to enter the United States. She arrived with her husband and two children in New York City on Halloween, 1995. (No one explained why people were dressed so strangely.) The family then moved to Burlington, where Mezetovic studied English at St. Michael’s College and Community College of Vermont. She became U.S. citizen in 2001.
Mezetovic now works 13 hours a day — at CCH and as an English language Learning instructor at Winooski Elementary School. She also gives cultural sensitivity training for medical students and health workers. Her salaries support not only her own family, but also her mother, the orphaned children of her brothers, and those of a sister who was disabled by the war. She sends the earnings from her second job to an orphanage for children who lost their families in the war. Her book Refugee is also a fundraiser for the orphanage.
Now that she receives so many requests to speak at colleges, she almost has a fourth job. And this may be the most satisfying work of all. Only a year ago, when we first talked, she spoke bitterly about people not wanting to hear about her experiences.
“9/11 was one day. I lived it for four years. But no one wanted to hear about it,” she said. When she applied for a small grant to publish her book of poems, she was turned down.
But that has changed. “The word got out, I guess, that I can be effective as a speaker, that I’m an important resource,” she said. She also is no longer angry that she had to self-publish her book. “I’m glad I did it,” she said. Every day, she gets a phone call or e-mail from someone thanking her. “My biggest success is when I hear that people got my message,” she said.
But she may be holding a finger in the dyke. It’s hard for her to understand the “cheering,” as she puts it, for the war in Iraq. “People don’t understand — war is killing. There are no winners. No heroes. War is rivers of dead bodies. I hated the decision to go to war. I can’t express how upset and angry it makes me. There has to be another way — anything but war.”
“I was a human shield,” she added. “Thousands of people were shot all around me — but their lives weren’t valued. They didn’t count.”
Mezetovic isn’t willing to judge the worth of the U.S. mission in Iraq, but whatever the goal, she believes that war is not the way.
On the other hand, her gratitude and respect for U.S. troops has not diminished. “I can’t tell you what the flag means to me — the flag I saw on the sleeves of the troops who came to help us.” She suspects that many of them are unhappy about being sent to Iraq, and suggested that military recruits be sent to a real war zone before they commit to service, similar to the way business students get experience in a real workplace. They should “see what it’s all about. It’s a different thing than on paper. Reality changes people’s minds.”
Reality also has away of haunting people and leaving lifelong wounds. Mezetovic has found her own way of living with her wounds — by writing and talking about her experience.
The poems collected in Refugee: The Ugliest Word were written in the middle of the night, when she would wake up with a scream swelling in her throat. At these moments, she would run into her basement to cry out loud, hoping her children couldn’t hear her. “The rage just boils up,” she said. “It’s enough just to stay sane.”
The striking thing about these poems is that they don’t call attention to her own suffering, but instead have a universal quality. Many of them empathetically adopt the voice of another.
“Butterflies” assumes the voice of a father who has lost three sons, and then died himself “of an exploded heart” after having to identify a body:
“On a full moon evening of 1993, / I was saying goodbye / To my youngest butterfly
Who lost his leg / To an exploded grenade / And the next day / He passed away / ...
On a rainy Monday of 1994 / I was saying goodbye / To my middle butterfly / Whose head was shot / By a bullet flying in the air …”
It is obviously the voice of Mezetovic’s father, but the poem doesn’t tell us. Neither does the poem say Bosnia. This could be a father in the Sudan, the Congo, Afghanistan, or Iraq. The place is never named, but we are given the date, probably because she wants us to know that this didn’t happen in some distant past.
In another poem, “We are Children,” the poet takes the point of view of a child: “Our school is burned / And teachers are gone / Our playground is tilled / By exploded grenades / As well as our kickball field …” The landscape isn’t unique to the Balkans, and the poem reminds us that the first victims of modern warfare are too often children.
This same ability to transcend partisan or ethnic hatred — to speak to an essential humanity — is what makes Mezetovic’s message so compelling and universal. She empathizes with all refugees, and all children whose parents have been lost and whose schools have been destroyed. About the refugees she works with, many of whom come from the Sudan or Rwanda or Bosnia, Mezetovic says, “We have all worn the same shoes.”
Stripped of their historical particulars, the poems swell with the loneliness of the refugee — who will always be set apart from the rest of humankind. “I always wonder / Is there anyone?” one poem begins.
At times, she seems to be describing modern archetypes of evil and disorder. Her account of being taken from her home in the middle of the night by soldiers, the men separated from the women and marched off to a concentration camp, provides a kind of mythic inversion of the biblical story of Noah, in which the earth’s creatures are given refuge, male and female, from a world overrun by evil:
“Being awakened / In the middle of the night, / Holding tightly, / Hand in hand, / Marching forward, / But didn’t know where. / To death or a life? / Nobody could tell. / After separation, / Female from male.”
Is she still writing poetry? Yes, answered Mezetovic. “I’m trying to find peace,” he explained. “My experience in the camps is in my veins. It’s a part of me. I will never stop doing this. I will never stop talking about it.”
Refugee: the Ugliest Word is available at the Peace and Justice Store in Burlington, or write to firstname.lastname@example.org .