Four writers in New York discuss their first-hand experience of war
NEW YORK (AFP) May 03, 2003
In times when television images are beamed directly from battlefields into living rooms, four writers from Bosnia, Rwanda, Northern Ireland and Vietnam looked at their own war experiences.

Cristopher Agee, 47, from Belfast, experienced first hand the conflict between Protestants and Catholics back home. He witnessed the 1992-1995 war in the former Yugoslavia where he still spends his summers.

"I find it difficult to give a definition" of horror, said Agee, who edits the literary review "Irish pages: A journal of contemporary writing," at Thursday's presentation by the four authors at New York's Mercantile Library.

"I can describe its consequences, which is that it changes the basic positive way that you look at life. Grief, it damages life permanently," said Agee.

The writers met Thursday at the Mercantile Library of New York to read portions of their work and to chat with spectators.

A poet and novelist, Agee will set forth in his next work "First Light" his experience in the Balkans and in Ulster where, he says, rather than a war, a terrorist campaign was fought.

Whatever the case, though, in such extreme situations, "You have to develop strategies which make your response authentic to yourself.

"And I suppose that's the role of a writer or a poet. One voice: not the mass, not the mob, not the party, not anything but you, whatever it is," he said.

He suggests also that, "If you are a political poet or you want to write about politics, make sure the anger is yours. A lot of people have anger which is like a coat; they just put it on."

Adisa Basic grew up with war as the backdrop to her life. When she was 12, the conflict in her home city Sarajevo exploded. Now, aged 23, her writing is included in the latest anthology of Bosnian poetry, and speaks of lessons learned in war.

"When you are seeing people dying every day, then you realize that it is not such a big deal," Basic said at the reading.

"It's hard to respect people after you see so much humiliation," she said, with reference to her math professor whom she saw standing in line for food and carrying water during the conflict. "No one can be scary to you" after that, she said.

"It doesn't matter how prestigious somebody seems to be, he's also just a man, if he's a human being," Basic added.

"On the other hand, war is good because you can see who's a man."

Jean-Marie Kayishema, 56, a professor at Rwanda's national university was in Canada when the 1994 genocide took place, witnessing from there the shocking images of the mass slayings.

"I returned to Rwanda and realized the devastation caused by the genocide," he told AFP.

"Devastation, not just at a physical level, but also psychological," Kayishema said. "It's terrible. It's not always visible. You have to go in at a very deep level, and when you do, you find a society that is broken."

The war in Iraq and the state of US society was also mentioned by the three authors. Their colleague in the presentation was the Vietnamese writer Nguyen Quang Thieu.

Basic, the author of "To Survive Hitch-Hiking," added: "What I'm trying is not to forget that human beings are human beings whatever they do in your life."

And Agee warned: "For the first time in my life I hear a hysterical note. American nationalism has this hysterical note. I call it the new American shrillness. It's a new tone.

"It's a dangerous note, and it's a note that I recognize from extreme nationalism in Ireland and especially the Balkans," he said, noting that nationalism has links with issues of ethnicity and cultural insecurity.