Bagryana Popov

How would it be to live in a city under siege? To suddenly fear for your life? For four years.

Sarajevo Suite brings the experiences of women survivors of war to Australian audiences. We heard about the war in Bosnia on the news, distantly, briefly. The media attention ends, but the trauma remains for the people who lived through the war. Sarajevo Suite tells part of that story. Paul Andrew speaks to Director Bagryana Popov.

Bagryana PopovWriter Helen Lucas has worked closely with refugees and has traveled extensively; tell me a little about the writer Bagryana, what inspires you about her art?
I love Helen's openness, compassion and the simplicity and clarity of her writing in this piece.

What do you love about her voice, her poetry?
Helen distils the idea and keeps a beautiful rhythm. In Sarajevo Suite she has kept the voices of the women she interviewed, but found a certain specific rhythm in their text. There is a lovely balance between expressiveness, rhythm and sparseness. Nothing feels superfluous.

Briefly, tell me about this story, its geography, its temporal setting?
Sarajevo Suite is a collection of stories about experiences during a terrible moment in history. These stories emerge in a form of conversation. Three women share their experiences and from this a picture of the war emerges. The women have been through it, survived it and are telling us what happened. In that sense the play gives us a picture of the past but also a sense of the present. One of the women is in Australia, where she came as a refugee. So the geographic settings are the Balkans and Australia, but in the end, the setting is the room we are in together, in which they tell us their stories.

And indeed, the narrative angle, a city and its people under siege?
It gives us the minute detail of their lives; one woman says 'I had nothing of what you need for life, actually'. There is a combination of the most terrible suffering and a kind of endless every day, as they struggle to survive and keep some sense of normality within the madness of the situation.

Her text, what do you understand about why Helen decided to write this particular story with this particular angle?
The story comes out of personal contact. Helen was in Sarajevo a few years back, and while there she realized how little she knew of what people had gone through. She began to ask, and that led to these three women being interviewed.

So this play is an act of listening and sharing. It comes out of a very personal contact with three women, in conversation which is at times very intimate, and at times comes to an abrupt limit.

What enchants you the most about this play?
The voices of the women are so alive and honest. There is a beautiful sense of the real human being speaking – speaking of terrible situations, but still, speaking openly. I love the unpredictability of rhythm within the stories, which can only come from lived experience and speech. There is no sentimentality in the way the women speak. At the same time there is so much love – for their children, for friends, for people around who are suffering from this terrible war.

Without any grand statements from any of the women, what becomes clear is that war is senseless and dreadful, but also that people fleeing conflict or war, who become refugees, are normal people. That it can happen to anyone, overnight, whenever conflict erupts.

Two Bosnian women and one Serbian woman, tell me briefly about their similarities and differences. It’s a play not about borders, but people I imagine?
Absolutely. Two of the women lived through the whole siege in Sarajevo; one escaped and became a refugee. The lives of all three women were changed irrevocably by the war.

All three women speak with dismay about the conflict, and they all come out of the experiences looking for ways to stay strong, to continue to be positive and to still find joy in life.

How do you feel a play like this matters, as war crimes accountability trials and repercussions are unfolding and felt by so many, now as wounds are re-opened – for many now a feeling of so little by way of consolation?
This play is a small space in which to tell stories which remind us of the long term effects of war. So many people suffered in the war in Bosnia, and it seems to have been a war with no rules. Perhaps some of that suffering can be eased with the sense that there is some just punishment for those who perpetrated terrible acts of violence in the period of the war.

At the moment it's being called 'The refugee question' a misnomer if ever there was one, a term that seems to ignore the truth that the people inhabiting these lands, this island continent are all constituents of migration – indeed threat – at some point in time. What does this play provide us with now by way in terms of paying attention, being mindful in these lands we call home?
This play, like so many other works of theatre in recent years, turns to the human story and gives a human face to the notion 'refugee'. Australia as a signatory of the 1951 UN Convention for Refugees has obligations to treat refugees humanely and offer protection, yet our recent governments on both sides of politics fall short of these obligations. The politics of fear against refugees seeks to leave them as anonymous masses. This play enters into the human story and the refugee is no longer a frightening anonymous intruder, but a normal person. The three women in this play are all intelligent, grounded women, the one who becomes a refugee, Milinka, does so to save herself and her son. and comes to Australia. Hearing her story makes the 'refugee question' not a question but a something normal, desirable and just.

For me, it begs a related question, men are being held accountable now for war crimes like the Kyhmer Rouge regime in some spheres and not others. Osama Bin Laden, not so, he and his entire family were massacred, conveniently, expeditiously and not brought to a war trial commission of inquiry and accountability. A paradox given the US is a country founded on democratic principles with the humanitarian justice principles of 'please explain' set aside – this area of war crimes accountability is clearly one in flux, your thoughts, and your observations? What are we missing in stories about war crime accountability Bagryana – the blind spot?
I think that it is a deeply fraught and difficult issue, the issue of partial justice. If justice is partial is it injustice? That is, if one war criminal is tried and sentenced and another isn't, does that destroy our trust in the concept of law, trial and the execution of justice? Or is partial justice better than none? Is it better that someone is tried, even if not all are tried?

I don't have an answer to that, but I think that the great powers operate with deep cynicism, as some military leaders are brought to trial and not others. Recently I heard an excellent program on ABC Radio National discussing the International Tribunal for War Crimes during the war in former Yugoslavia, in which the question was raised whether NATO representatives would also be tried for their part in the conflict. It is very unlikely that powerful countries would allow that to happen. This leads to an erosion in the concept of justice, as it enacts a principle of 'might is right'. If you are strong, you are not tried or punished. If you lose, you are.

There is something primitive and disturbing about this. Yet while I write this, I also think that to bring war criminals to trial is right, because at least there is a precedent, and hopefully that sends a message that there is no impunity for such crimes. That there can be consequences, repercussions, punishments for those who are powerful today and use their power to perpetrate terrible violence. Trials of war criminals will hopefully lead them to have a thought in their mind for what happens tomorrow, if they lose.

Tell me about the funniest thing that has happened for you and/or the cast in rehearsals so far?
Well, the three actresses are wonderful; they come from various parts of Europe and have great senses of humour. It has been a source of delight for us to compare accents and stories, copy each other's accents, and to learn to swear in Bosnian!

Sarajevo Suite by Helen Lucas, directed by Bagryana Popov, is now playing at La Mama Theatre until 10 July, 2011. Further details»

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