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Robert Elsie

Flora Brovina. Call me by my name
Poetry from Kosova in a bilingual Albanian-English edition
Edited, introduced and translated from the Albanian by Robert Elsie

ISBN 1-891654-08-X
Gjonlekaj Publ., New York 2001
165 pp.


    Poet, pediatrician, women's rights activist? Who is Flora Brovina? It was on 30 September 1949 that Flora Brovina was born in the town of Skënderaj (Serb. Srbica) in the Drenica valley of Kosova (Kosovo), the now well-known Albanian region of what was once Yugoslavia. She was raised in Prishtina where she went to school and began studying medicine. After finishing her university studies in Zagreb, where she specialized in pediatrics, she returned to Kosova and worked for a time as a journalist for the Albanian-language daily newspaper Rilindja. Soon thereafter, she returned to her true profession and calling of health care and worked for many years in the Pediatrics Ward of the Prishtina General Hospital. These few words suffice to describe what would normally be regarded as an average life, a tranquil existence. But in fact, the life of Flora Brovina is that of an extraordinary woman confronted by unusual circumstances, not least by the struggle of her people for freedom.
    In March and April 1981, a year to which several poems in this collection have been devoted, demonstrations were held in Prishtina and throughout Kosova. After years of silence and simmering frustration, the Kosova-Albanians, who had been openly discriminated against in many periods in former Yugoslavia, finally took to the streets in peaceful protest, led by the students of Prishtina, and demanded republic status and equality with the other peoples of the Yugoslav federation. Their demands were categorically refused by the Yugoslav government. Not only this, they were met by Belgrade with tanks and troops which poured into the province to stifle and quell any further unrest. A state of siege was imposed in Kosova from the start, and special units of the Serb police were given free rein to do whatever they wanted with the majority Albanian population, unobserved as they were at the time by the international media for whom Kosova did not yet exist. There was much bloodshed and appalling human rights violations.
    Hospital workers like Flora Brovina were among the ones to bear the brunt. They had the moral and professional duty of caring for the wounded demonstrators but, at the same time, they were under extreme political pressure not to treat what were regarded by the authorities as 'enemies of the State.' The atmosphere which reigned in Prishtina at the time and the situation for medical staff in particular have been masterfully described in a short novel by noted Albanian writer Ismail Kadare (b. 1936), The Wedding Procession Turned to Ice (Alb. Krushqit Janë të Ngrirë). In this work, Kadare follows two days in the life of the fictive Teuta Shkreli, surgeon at a Prishtina hospital during the bloody events who finds herself caught up in a web of intrigue and incrimination. Who was responsible for the extra beds being set up in the ward the night before the uprising? Who removed the list of patients' names from the hospital files, and who was providing medical care to enemies of the State? The protagonist of this novel, aware of impending repression, senses that her allegiance to her people and to her profession by far outweighs her duties towards the State.
    Despite the tense situation which reigned in Kosova throughout the eighties, Flora Brovina was able to continue her work as a pediatrician at the hospital, that is until about 1990. In 1989-1990, the state of affairs in the province got dramatically worse. The autonomy of Kosova, that modicum of official self-determination the province still had within the Yugoslav federation, was simply abolished by the Belgrade parliament, and the inhabitants of the province were plunged into an even more sombre night of oppression, a nightmare which was to last almost a decade. Kosova had been deprived of its rights and had been incorporated into Serbia against the will of over ninety per cent of its inhabitants. Virtually hundreds of thousands of Albanians, from professors, doctors and nurses to industrial workers and manual labourers, were fired from their jobs from that year on for the grave sin of being 'Albanian.' They were replaced by local and immigrant Serbs, who in many cases had no qualifications for the jobs in question, but who were at least loyal to the regime. By the early nineties, co-existence with the Belgrade regime had become impossible and the willingness on the part of most Albanians and Serbs in Kosova to co-exist, i.e. to live together in one country had vanished.
    Never one to give up easily, Flora Brovina remained active in the medical and humanitarian fields to the extent she was able. In 1992, she founded the Albanian Women's League (Lidhja e Gruas Shqiptare) which organized peaceful demonstrations in Prishtina and elsewhere not only in support of women's rights, but also, and indeed primarily, to promote basic human rights and national rights for the beleaguered Albanian population.
    On 1 and 2 March 1998 she organized demonstrations in front of the United States Information Centre and the Red Cross in which thousands of women took part. In a country rapidly descending into war, they held up blank sheets of paper to indicate, as she later explained, that nothing had been signed, all options were still open, and that time was running out for a peaceful solution. And indeed, time had run out.
    As the situation deteriorated and fighting inevitably broke out, Brovina ran a health clinic in Prishtina in which she distributed health care information on matters as diverse as snake bites, dressing wounds and delivering babies. She also used the centre to shelter an increasing number of orphaned children, many of whom had lost their parents during the fighting and expulsions. She and her fellow workers were taking care of up to twenty-five children at any given time.
    In the early spring of 1999, during the most critical phase of the war between the Kosova Albanians and the international community on the one side and the Belgrade regime on the other, the Serb authorities embarked upon a brutal campaign of mass expulsions reminiscent of the transport of Jews from Nazi Germany. Village after village in the countryside had been burnt down. Now whole suburbs of the capital Prishtina were surrounded by Serb paramilitaries and their inhabitants rounded up, given only minutes to leave their homes and possessions and to join the long columns of Albanians marching through the main streets towards the train station where they were expelled by force to Macedonia and Albania. Brovina resolved to stay in Prishtina as long as she could, believing that her medical skills would be needed at a time of crisis. She went into hiding, living at a neighbour's house, and kept a diary of the terrifying events of the spring of that year. The last entry in this diary, written on 26 March 1999, read: "I came here at 11:25. Nobody in the streets. People are waiting for bread. Long lines. Telephones disconnected, even here. Now I don't have contact with anyone anymore."
    On 20 April 1999, Flora Brovina was abducted by eight masked Serb paramilitaries from the home she was staying in and was driven off by car to an initially unknown destination. She was thus in captivity as NATO forces approached the capital and as Serb troops began their withdrawal from the country and, as a result, was taken to Serbia as a hostage, along with several thousand other Kosova Albanians. The first news of her abduction broke on 24 April 1999 when her son managed to contact the international writers' association, PEN, with an urgent appeal that the news of her abduction be made known as widely as possible.
    Brovina was transferred to a Serb prison in Pozharevac and, in her first month of detention, was subjected to over 200 hours of interrogation in 18 separate sessions lasting typically from 7 A.M. to 5 P.M. On 9 December 1999, in a show trial worthy of a dictatorship, she was accused of 'terrorist activities' under Article 136 of the Yugoslav Penal Code. It was alleged that she had been the Minister of Health in the exile government of Bujar Bukoshi and that she had founded the Albanian Women's League simply in order to promote hostile, separatist demonstrations. Even the sweaters which the women at her health centre had knit were said to have been made for the fighters of the Kosova Liberation Army, UÇK. Although no accusations were made about weapons, ammunition or armed resistance, her fate as a human rights' activist was now sealed. During her trial, she stated that the truth had been so distorted, it reminded her of the metaphor of an 'elephant' who admitted to being a 'giraffe.' Here is an extract from her declaration during proceedings:

    "I have dedicated my whole life to children, and children do not choose their ethnic origins, children do not know what ethnic group they belong to if their parents do not tell them. As to my patients, I have never divided them according to their ethnic origins, according to religion or to the ideological affiliations of their parents. I feel proud of this and, even if I were not an Albanian, I would have done as I have done. I am one of the persons most involved in humanitarian work in Kosova. I have sacrificed my health in order to help women and children. If I were free now, I would still have much work to do. I would be helping those who are currently suffering most. It is not the Albanians who are suffering the most in Kosova at the moment, it is the others, the Serbs and Roma, and I would work with all my might in order to help them. My objective has been to dedicate myself as a doctor, as a poet and as a women to the emancipation of Albanian women, to their awareness and to human rights for women in general. I want to help them fight for their freedom, to help them understand that they cannot prevail without economic independence. Nor can freedom. In the Albanian Women's League, I have endeavoured to create bridges of friendship in the country and in the whole world. We have worked together with Serbian women, who have given me the strongest support. Perhaps they understood our problems best, and they have been the best at presenting our problems. The Albanian women of Kosova should never forget this. I am very saddened that the court underestimates the role of women in the world. It is very important that women enjoy equality with men. I will never give up fighting for the rights of women. The court has accused me of having fought for the secession of Kosova and for its annexation to Albania. Let me repeat: my country is where my friends are and where my poems are read."

    On 12 December 1999, the military court in Nish pronounced Flora Brovina guilty of "collaboration for hostile activities in connection with terrorism under a state of martial law" and sentenced her to twelve years in prison. Although, after much international protest, this heavy sentence was rescinded by the Serbian Supreme Court in Belgrade on 6 June 2000, Flora Brovina remains in prison. Optimistic and unbroken, though suffering from poor health, she is among the foremost political prisoners currently being held by the Serb regime.
    As a writer, Flora Brovina is the author of three volumes of lyric verse. The first collection, Verma emrin tim (Call me by my name), was published in Prishtina in 1973 when she was a mere twenty-four years old. It contains forty-two poems and gives proof of distinct lyric expression. Six years later, in 1979, the collection Bimë e zë (Plant and voice) followed which evinces a more mature style and a steadier hand. It is in this collection that some of the main themes of Brovina's poetry crystallize. Conspicuous among them is the fate of women in society, and in particular the role of women as mothers, as life-givers and nurturers. It is here typically that births, umbilical cords, amniotic fluid and suckling breasts begin to make their appearance. But plants, too, grow and unfold their leaves in her poems. These are perhaps the most ubiquitous symbols of her verse production. Now recognized as one of the leading female poets of Kosova, she was able in 1988 to present her works to readers in Albania itself with the appearance of a 100-page selection of her verse published in Tirana under the title Luleborë (Hydrangea). Her third and last collection of original verse, entitled Mat e çmat (With the tape it measures), was published in Prishtina in 1995. It is the most compelling and impressive of her volumes. Mat e çmat appeared at a time when Kosova was obviously and perhaps inevitably gravitating towards war. Though this third collection cannot be interpreted as political verse to any great extent - too personal, maternal and feminist is the world of Flora Brovina -, there are many poems in the volume which reflect her preoccupation not only with the problems and aspirations of individuals, but also with the fate of her people, with freedom and self-determination. The very survival of the verdant plants budding in the poet's hands had been called into question.
    In 1999, Flora Brovina was recipient of the annual Tucholsky Award of the Swedish PEN Club, a prize which has been awarded to other writers of note such as Salman Rushdie, Adam Zagajevski, Nuruddin Farah, Taslima Nasrin, Shirali Nurmuadov and Vincent Magombe. She was also given the Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award by the American PEN centre and has received support since her abduction from prestigious authors such as Seamus Heaney, Derek Walcott and Charles Simic. Even the Serbian PEN Club protested at the outrageous sentence.
    Despite this international recognition, it is curious to note that, as a poet, Flora Brovina has never been part of the literary establishment of Kosova, nor has her verse found its way into the mainstream of contemporary Albanian literature. Despite her peripheral position, her poetic voice is appreciated by many Albanian readers, both from Kosova and from Albania itself. It is now high time, at any rate, that she be made known to a wider, international public.
    It is to be hoped, in this connection, that readers will be merciful with the efforts of the translator. However much one struggles to do justice to the original poems, the result of literary translation can be little more than the pale reflection of a sparkling jewel on a cavern wall. The Hebrew poet Chaim Nachmann Bialik (1873-1934) once remarked that reading poetry in translation was like kissing the bride through a veil. To stave off too much frustration, the original Albanian-language texts have been reproduced in this volume together with the English translations for readers who want to get at the real thing. Enjoy.

    Robert Elsie
    Eifel mountains, Germany, autumn 2000


  • Introduction
  • From the volume Verma emrin tim (Prishtina 1973)
    Call me by my name
    Night of calamity
    When I write
    Morning in my town
    On the platform
    The doll
    When it rains
    The shadows
    I you and the glance
    When I become autumn
    I called him Lorca
  • From the volume Bimë e zë (Prishtina 1979)
    Hop into my verse
    All the girls
    To a woman
    The black downy feathers
    My friend Mesti, a doctor in Africa
    In the waterfall
    You would call me a butterfly
    You keep me like a flower
    Take my dew
    In the room
    Yet another day
    Portrait of an old woman
    Child with balloons
    Our colours
    At the tree stump
    At my table
    The dawning of the day
  • From the volume Mat e çmat (Prishtina 1995)
    Cry and Kosova
    When they amputate me
    I carry you with me
    The year 1981
    The first lesson
    Bloodstained springtime
    The demonstrations
    Rilindja newspaper stand
    Lost childhood
    Prayer to verse
    Death of the captain
    My skin
    River stone
    When I resolve to give birth to you
    Our growth
    The dog rose
    You don't know my house
    Freedom in doses
    The snake
    The curfew
    Gu gu gu
    Status habitus
    The red cat
    The fly
    The mosquito
    The ant
  • Bibliography

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