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The Suitcase

Categorized in these topics: Women in Collaboration

Response Paper
September 29, 2002

How can one relate to the tragedies of war? In Julie Mertus' The Suitcase: Refugee Voices from Bosnia and Croatia, the reader is bombarded with refugee first person accounts of ethnic cleansing, a colorful euphemism for genocide. The stories are brutal, insidious and heartbreaking. However, it is possible for the reader to understand because we share a common bond with the refugees: the desire for home, family, friends. A refugee is someone who has been robbed of their home, their family, their friends, and quite possibly, seen these things destroyed before their very eyes. It is through this shared longing that the reader may comprehend such loss.

In the introduction, the term "refugee" is discussed. A distinction is made between self-labeled refugees and refugees that are named by the state. As many people are displaced within their own country or refuse to name themselves out of fear discrimination (conditions that do not qualify a person for refugee status), the book takes the stand that anyone who left their community and relates to refugee status may tell their story. Because the front line took place in civilian territory, a large portion of the civilian population became refugees.

Reading this book introduced me to the psychology of a refugee: many speak of feeling ashamed, lonely, dehumanized and hated, not to mention traumatized from their war experiences. Because I will soon be visiting Bosnia to interview women, I was intrigued by the author's respect in her approach to the refugees. An effort was made to avoid the "Privileged Self" versus "Other" dichotomy by viewing the refugees subjectively, not objectively. The interviewers learned to take notes only when a specific question was answered and to put their pencils down when a refugee spoke on their own accord. They recognize the importance of honoring such stories as well as those who choose to remain silent. These are ethics I contemplated and adopted for my own research.

As the book reveals, no one is excluded from the horrors of war: women, children, men, Serbs, Croats, Bosnians, and Muslims have all been terrorized. The sorrow of life shattered by war resonates throughout the book. For example, an elderly woman speaks about the day she walked away from her home and beloved cat, knowing she will never see them again, a mother tells how she constructs a "puppet father" for her two young children so they won't forget what their dad looks like, and a woman mentions that she's afraid to tell her husband about the brutal rape that happened because it might shame him. All of these stories demonstrate the attempted destruction of the human spirit as well as the perseverance of the human spirit.

According to Mertus, "As they gather the threads of their past lives and wait to begin again, refugees all come to the same, often unspoken, realization: All people are kin even if they kill each other, and especially if they kill each other since they all lie in the same graves…. there are no religious, ethnic, or political differences as great as the gap between pain and joy, war and peace, life and death" (2). One can only hope that this insight will be another shared bond so that war and all of its horrors can be retired to memory.


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