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Creating in the midst of chaos

Playwright Ivica Boban is still writing in her war-torn Zagreb home, reports Reva Klein.

Imagine this. Your city and your country have been bombed, destroying lives, homes, places of cultural and historical importance. To date, 400,000 of your compatriots have been forcibly expelled from their villages and towns and are living as refugees. Thousands of them, including children, have been raped and are emotionally disturbed. Last spring, a bomb blew the roof off your workplace, killing one of your students, maiming your teaching colleagues and injuring scores of patients at the nearby children's hospital.

For Ivica Boban, that nightmare is her life. She is a 53-year-old Croatian professor of theatre at the University of Zagreb, a playwright, choreographer, theatre director and mother of a 14-year-old son and grown-up daughter. She, like many ordinary Croats, Bosnians and Serbs, is opposed to the war that has ripped apart her country and made her, her children and her students, fear for their futures. She is struggling, as so many former Yugoslavs are, to come to terms with a world that has stood by and watched the mass murders, the systematised rapes and the expulsions take place.

On a brief visit to London she took part in a panel discussion with David Edgar about The Royal Shakespeare Company's current production of his play Pentecost, which looks at the connections between nationalism, culture and art in a changing Europe. But her current concern is the war and atrocities happening now, which she says the play does not address.

When the war first started Ivica was in Dubrovnik. She was directing, with a company of students, Euripides' Hecuba the story of Polyxena, who is sacrificed to the men of Argos who have sacked her town. "All of eastern Slavonia was in flames. It was during the first air attacks on the city and it was then that I understood the meaning of catharsis for the first time. The young people would be crying onstage and the audience would be crying with them - mothers of young conscripts who were being used as human shields by the invading Serbs."

That same year, the term "ethnic cleansing" was coined by the Serbs when they forcibly expelled, murdered and raped people from the Croatian town of Vukovar.

The world recoiled in horror. While the UN met and talked and the rest of us numbly watched, Ivica Boban and thousands of women of all nationalities in the former Yugoslavia came together to form Mothers for Peace, in protest against the atrocities. They planned a march to Belgrade. They collected signatures on petitions and took them to the UN Court of Human Rights in Strasburg and to politicians all over the western world.

"We were naive then, in the beginning of this war. We thought that people in Europe didn't know what was going on," she says quietly, with a look of tired resignation in her eyes. "I felt sometimes like Cassandra. I would go to European institutions, including the Foreign Office in London, and nobody wanted to listen or to believe."

At first, she continued directing theatre, even putting on productions during air attacks. When the sirens blew, the actors would have to break to go down to the shelters with the audience, then come up again when the all-clear was sounded and pick up where they left off. But soon, "it seemed a waste of time. To play tragedy and comedy at a time when there was so much real tragedy going on around us and so much to do helping people, made me stop my theatre work."

For the next three years, she worked methodically at taking testimonies from civilians who had suffered atrocities, for submission to the UN Court of Human Rights. The work ultimately made her ill and she was forced to stop. She knew things were bad when her son Peter said to her, "Mum, you're saving the whole world. But what about me?" Her students needed attention, too. "A lot of children have been growing up faster than in normal circumstances. We have an enormous responsibility to educate them to have open minds and understanding.

"But it's hard. Some days you have the energy to assume a normal life, put on a nice dress, wash your hair, go to a cafe, be full of hope. And the next day you fall deep into depression, especially when you think of the future. "

Unsurprisingly, her students are afraid of what the future holds for them. "They are using a great amount of energy not to think." She says that they avoid talk of politics now, while a few years ago they were fired by it. Inevitably, they have no trust in or respect for politicians - anywhere. "Now," says Ivica Boban, "there's nothing more to discuss."

But there is a lot to say through the medium of the theatre, to which she has returned with a burst of sustained creativity after her break. Her latest play was written for and performed by her drama students at the Academy of Performing Arts, part of the University of Zagreb. Things as they stand now is a piece about "the students' feelings about the war and what they dream about".

It has been an important and, once again, cathartic project to work on for Ivica Boban and for the students. "When you're very close to the dead, when you lose connection with yourself, with friends, with people around you and when you're in danger, you start to ask yourself who you are. Our experience in the past four years has been asking ourselves every day about our identity as individuals and about who we are as a nation."

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