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Rape as War Strategy
A Drama from Croatia
I met Lydia Scheuermann Hodak several years ago while I was working as theatre adviser for the Ministry of Culture where I was also in charge of the play contest the Ministry organizes every year. She had sent in a play with a funny title (I Must Rush, My Masseuse Is Coming) that happened to be a very good war comedy. The Awards committee said that although it is very good play, she is too unknown to be given an award. So, I did something unusual: I phoned her to relate that the committee had good things to say about her play and that I personally liked it. She sent me another one, Maria's Pictures.
It was 1995, war still in our country. I was surprised—an unknown playwright, translator and computer expert has written such a powerful play. Where was she hiding, why is she not staged all over Croatia? I started to offer this play around to people as a revelation but the doors were shut tight, for reasons which I will explain later. The play is based on a true story. Hodak lives in Osijek, capital of Slavonia, one of the most destroyed parts of Croatia during the war. Although it was shelled itself (some parts of the city were completely destroyed and even the Croatian National Theatre was targeted by two bombs), Osijek was big enough to function properly so everybody came there—to the hospital, as the first refugee station, and in spite of bombing, because it was a safer place than many other smaller towns nearby that were taken by Yugoslav Army or Chetniks, the Serbian paramilitary forces.1
The story of two women who come to Osijek from an occupied town after being chased through mine fields—two raped women, a mother who eventually miscarries and a daughter who gives birth to a child and then dies—was told to Hodak by an old woman who escaped with them. But not just the main story, every story, every experience, in the play is true. The old diabetic woman in the play, living on scraps in the occupied small town, was really a midwife who had delivered the boys now chasing her through mine fields; one of them told the women where to walk to avoid them. The character of the Psychologist who left her home and lost her life's research papers actually went through the experiences dramatized. Not only her story but her energy and strength are in the play. When her cancer was diagnosed she was given six months to live. She is still alive. She is a friend of the playwright who changed her name in the play. [End Page 110]
The idea of a "true story" is interesting for theatre historians but not important for the quality of the play. These kinds of stories were occurring all the time in this or slightly different forms. Men who were cruel soldiers now threatening their former teachers (that was the playwright's own experience), neighbors who were yesterday's friends now paramilitary forces, atrocities that happened to innocent people because of their nationality or place of birth, the death of friends and family, bombing of civilian targets, churches, theatres (Osijek), hospitals (Vukovar), death and concentration camps. We grew accustomed to the fact that Serbian media and paramilitary forces called every Croat "Ustache," the fascist term for military forces in World War II, and considered everyone of us as enemy, regardless of age or political orientation.
There are refugee stories about those who left "for a few days" and than never returned home, leaving everything behind—documents, clothes, photos, books, lives. There were more than two million refugees from Croatia and Bosnia at that time. We could recognize refugees in Zagreb for a long time afterwards because other people's clothes on them were so obvious. Individual tragedies, collective tragedies (people from whole small towns chased...