Thursday, 14 April 2011

Missing lives

Younger daughter likes the National War Museum. I'm not sure why, but during school breaks and holidays, it's something else to add to the list of things to get us out of the house. This past March break, I was ready when we approached one of the guides to get our hands stamped for entry:
"I'm here to see the Missing Lives exhibit."
"The what?"
"The Missing Lives exhibit about the Balkans; I saw it on the web site..."
Hurriedly, she checked with someone else, then told us to head straight, then turn left. When I got there, I understood her confusion. It was a small row of photos down a side hall. I suppressed my disappointment, then went to have what I'd thought would be a quick look.

Each photo had names beside it, sometimes just one, sometimes several. The people in the pictures were the relatives of those names, just a few of the thousands who disappeared when Yugoslavia disintegrated into a morass of civil war and mass murder in the 1990s. This exhibit, which is only making one Canadian stop, is based on the work of British photographer Nick Danzinger and Canadian writer Rory MacLean. They published a book last year, but the exhibit I saw concentrated on fifteen families caught in the nightmare of not knowing for years, even decades, what really happened to sons, daughters, sisters, brothers, husbands, mothers....

I do remember when the first stories of what went on in the former Yugoslavia first reached the newspapers. What was hard to grasp was, in so many instances, people were being beaten, raped, and murdered by neighbours after years of living side by side. Of the fifteen stories represented at the War Museum, the one that haunts me is that of a girl who was only a toddler at the time. They tied her father to a chair in his living room and shot him, starting with his legs. Then they turned to his wife, a woman they had known for years and said: "You did not expect us to be the ones to kill you. We are happy to surprise you."

Their one surviving child, spared because her aunt had taken her away before the murders, is now a young woman and was photographed by Danzinger during a recent visit to family home where these horrors took place. The neighbours can be seen peering at her from the house next door.

I mentioned a few months back that I had received a couple of books for Christmas that have poems for each day. The poems often have a spooky resonance with what is actually going in my life. This poem came up the week I went to the museum. It's written by Goran Simic who came to Canada with the help of PEN Canada in 1996, becoming a resident writer-in-exile at Massey College at the University of Toronto:

The Sarajevo wind
leafs through the newspapers
that are glued by blood to the street;
I pass with a loaf of bread under my arm.

The river carries the corpse of a woman.
As I run across the bridge
With my canisters of water,
I notice her wristwatch still in place.

Someone lobs a child's shoe
into the furnace. Family photographs spill
from the back of a garbage truck;
They carry inscriptions:

There's no way of describing these things,
not really. Each night I wake
and stand by the window to watch my neighbour
who stands by the window to watch the dark.

(- The Sorrow of Sarajevo, Goran Simic, translated by David Harsent)

You can see some of the photos I saw in this interview with Nick Danzinger. The story to which I referred earlier is about three minutes in:

1 comment:

Rob said...

That sounds a fascinating if harrowing exhibition.