Conflict Twists

Ellen Elias-Bursac, who lived in Yugoslavia in the 1970 and ’80s, examines three moments that capture the slipperiness of the feelings aroused by conflict.

IN THE MID-1980s, after I’d been living in Yugoslavia for over 10 years, a friend came to visit us in Zagreb. When introducing her to our friends, I explained that one of them disagreed with my then husband on both sports and politics. She asked what there was left for them to talk about. Why, sports and politics, I laughed. By the late 1980s, our Zagreb circle of friends had begun fragmenting. What had been a group who differed amicably over questions of sports and politics was moving toward entrenched, inimical positions.

In 1990, my family and I moved to the States, to the Boston area where I’m from. The war began in 1991. When we came back to Zagreb each summer after that during the war years, we found we were the ones who were carrying news of births and deaths to the others in our old circle of friends. Many of them were no longer on speaking terms. At that point, I made a decision. Even if I fiercely disagreed with the choices some of my dear friends had made and the allegiances they’d formed, I would not raise this with them. They knew my politics. My children’s futures were not faced by the same uncertainty facing the children of many of my Zagreb friends. I was privileged to live far away from the war.

I did not, however, feel the same restraint when speaking about the politics of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Montenegro, Slovenia, Serbia, Macedonia with my fellow scholars, the colleagues from the region who lived in the United States and taught at US universities or worked here in other capacities. They enjoyed the same privilege as I did, far from the front lines.

In 1994, I started teaching language in the Harvard University Slavic Department and attended the annual Slavic conference in Philadelphia that fall. A group of scholars either from Croatia or researching Croatian subjects organized a roundtable: “The Closing of the Croatian Mind: Resignation and Resistance.” One by one, those of us who attended voiced our concerns about the role Croatia was playing in the war. The feeling of that moment was one of intense relief at being able speak of what had been deeply troubling us.

The point of the roundtable, at least as I experienced it, was both to defy the pressure for blind allegiance to the politics of Croatia while it was at war, but also the need to sweep in front of our own front door. If Croatian academics could speak frankly of what was happening in Croatia, we were implicitly throwing down the gauntlet to our Serbian colleagues: we’ve dared to do it, can you follow suit? I said what I’d come to say — that while in Croatia that summer I’d heard how Croats displaced by the war had deliberately been housed in inadequate accommodations because the government was afraid that if these displaced people were treated properly they might be unwilling to return — once Croatia reclaimed the area — to the war-torn towns they’d fled. Their return was politically key for holding those contested regions.

After saying my piece, I was so overwhelmed by emotion that I left the room to call a friend from a payphone in the corridor (no cell phones, this was 1994). Another colleague also stepped out of the room to make a call at the phone next to mine. While I was dialing my number I overheard him calling in his report to Voice of America on what we’d just been discussing. His summary (he was reporting to the Serbian service of the VOA): The Croats have finally admitted everything! I found his willful selective listening deeply shocking. I waited for him to finish, came over and said: “You completely misunderstood what we’re doing here.” His response: “But that’s what you said.”

Fast forward to 2020. This December I was packing for a two-month stay in Zagreb, babysitting for a grandson who was braving first grade at a local Croatian school. I also looked forward to spending time with old and new friends and participating in public discussions on literary translation.

The present I settled on to bring my friends was a sticker. Years ago, my daughter brought me the sticker “You say tomato, I say ‘Fuck You’” from Newbury Comics in Harvard Square. Even my teenage daughter was aware of the testy attitudes toward language, particularly between Croats and Serbs, and how large this had figured in my work as a language preceptor at Harvard.

Newbury Comics no longer carried the stickers when I went there this December, but I ordered them online. And even as I packed them in my suitcase I began to think about how this pithy message can be read. I had a special attachment to it because language disputes of who should use which word for what have threaded through my professional life.

When I lived in Zagreb and worked as a community translator, especially during the late 1970s and early 1980s, some of the authors whose texts I translated avoided the language name of Serbo-Croatian or Croato-Serbian, finding it offensive, and instead used the evasive phrase “our language” in their texts. I had to sit down with them and explain that they’d need to choose a real name and I’d be glad to accept whichever name they chose. Some of them were clearly afraid of opting for the name “Croatian” out of fear of possible repercussions. By the time we moved to the States in 1990, however, “Croatian” was the only language name anyone I worked with used.

While I was teaching at Harvard, I co-authored a language textbook with my colleague, Ronelle Alexander, in which we offered Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian versions of every sentence. Our goal was for students to acquire mastery of one and familiarity with the other two. The graduate students in my course were going to be working in the field on their dissertation research, and we knew that if they were to establish a bond of trust with the people they were speaking to and interviewing, they needed to know both the differences and overlap among Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian. After spending so many years negotiating the tensions of the language issues as both translator and language teacher, I appreciated the sticker because I read it as poking playful fun at the over-sensitivity to language differences that had so tyrannized intellectual discourse in that part of the world for decades. But willful selective listening could easily read it without irony, as scorn for the other ways people speak in the region.

May 31 was the grim 28th anniversary of a massacre in the town of Prijedor in Bosnia and Herzegovina. On May 31, 1992, less than two months into the war in Bosnia, the Serbian administration of Prijedor issued an order requiring the non-Serb population to wear white armbands whenever they left their houses. This was followed soon after by systematic persecution, abuse, and murder in the camps that became infamous for atrocities: Keraterm, Omarska, Trnopolje, and Manjača. Perhaps there is at least some consolation to be had in the fact that the perpetrators of these atrocities have answered for them before the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague.

Today, people wishing to remember those who were murdered in Prijedor wear white armbands on the 31st.


The image above was posted by a friend on Facebook a few days ago as part of his commemoration this year, showing us the gloved hand of one of the forensic experts who has been exhuming the mass grave at the Tomašica site, discovered in 2013, where hundreds and hundreds of the victims of the Prijedor massacre were buried. The gloved hand is meeting the nail-polished fingertips of a woman, emerging from the dirt. While I’m eternally grateful to the brave forensics experts who have been exhuming mass graves ever since the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina ended in 1995 with the Dayton Peace Accords — allowing families, at last, to honor and bury their loved ones — for me the image also evokes the responsibility we in the international community bear, the shame we must feel and for responding too little, too late to the tragic plight that this woman and so many others suffered 28 years ago. We waited for hundreds and thousands of people to die before we went about exhuming them.

Even now, as I write about these three moments which capture for me the slippery nature of the highly charged emotional reactions that arise in wars and other situations of extreme conflict, and the willfully selective listening and seeing that goes hand in hand with these moments, I am bracing myself for the reactions to this piece from friends and acquaintances. Whether they voice their feelings to me or keep them to themselves in silence, I already feel them.


Ellen Elias-Bursac has been translating novels and non-fiction by Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian writers since the 1980s. In 2006, she received ALTA’s National Translation Award for her translation of David Albahari’s novel Götz and Meyer in 2006. Her book Translating Evidence and Interpreting Testimony at a War Crimes Tribunal: Working in a Tug-of-War was given the Mary Zirin Prize in 2015. She is president of the American Literary Translators Association.


Banner image: "Ban Jelačić Square, Zagreb" by Klovovi is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

LARB Contributor

Ellen Elias-Bursac has been translating novels and nonfiction by Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian writers since the 1980s. In 2006, she received ALTA’s National Translation Award for her translation of David Albahari’s novel Götz and Meyer in 2006. Her book Translating Evidence and Interpreting Testimony at a War Crimes Tribunal: Working in a Tug-of-War was given the Mary Zirin Prize in 2015. She is president of the American Literary Translators Association.


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