How a SciFi Author Was Recruited To Keep a President
From a War Crimes Indictment
One hot and glorious summer night in New York City, at a backyard Bar-B-Q, I approach a former adult film actress.
"I'll miss New York," I say. "Tomorrow I fly to Bosnia. Bullets, bombs, war criminals
Don't know if I'll come back."
I have been waiting all my life for a pick-up line like that — and it worked.
In 1997 I was a recently divorced, penniless Sci Fi writer. So, when a job came around that looked too good to be true — I took it.
The job was to write the "official" biography of the President of Croatia, who at the time was the controversial and authoritarian Franjo Tudjman. I am not an historian, and I have only one published book to my name, "The Official Alien Abductee's Handbook," a humorous self-help look at alien abductions. So why me?
That's the question I pose to the man offering me the job. Jakov Sedlar is Croatia's most famous film director, Tudjman's personal videographer, and the man known as "The Leni Riefenstahl of Croatia," but without the German woman's talent. Jakov informs me that this biography is to tell Tudjman's story to America, and that my lack of historical understanding of the Balkans is, in fact, a plus. "You tell from American viewpoint," he excitedly encourages me, "to tell how great a man Tudjman is!"
"I don't know, Jakov. I don't know anything about Tudjman or Croatia. Can I get back to you?"
I quickly research the man, the war, and the war atrocities. With each atrocity a blister appears in my mouth, followed by another, and another, until they crowd each other for space. After a while I begin naming them after Balkan cities plagued by war crimes: Gospic, Ahmici, Stupni Do, Krajina ... I know then that I'll turn down the assignment. My body is rejecting it, even though my landlord would have lobbied for it.
"I can't write this book, Jakov."
"No, but Joe, you must. Only you must write book."
"I can't write a glowing book about Tudjman. And even if I could, I wouldn't. I'd have no credibility."
"No, Joe, you just write what you have to."
"But I can only do that if I have creative control over what's written."
"Yeah, of course. We give you."
"Are you sure you know what you're saying? It won't be uncritical."
"I know, but you can make great job, Joe. And we pay you forty-thousand dollars up front."
"When do I go?"
The long legs stretch way into first class. Jadranka was named for the Adriatic, but her attitude is anything but serene. On the flight to Zagreb I keep thinking, "Boy, they grow 'em tall here."
"I don't care much for politics," she says in near-perfect English. "I know that there is a much greater difference now between rich and poor. There is no more middle class in Croatia."
Jadranka is one of many urban Croats who have seen their economic power shift all the way up to the top. She thinks more reform is happening, but only for private companies. And many of them have ties to Tudjman.
But she is also critical of her country's workers. "In America, the people are always striving for things. Here, they do not like work. They are stuck in the Communist thinking."
Then, remembering I hold an American passport, she leans over and smiles. "Hey, Joe, whatcha gonna do?"
"That's good American slang, Jadranka.
"I learned it from my ex-American boyfriend. He is shit."
"Well, I'm sorry."
"It is true. So ... whatcha gonna do?"
"How about dinner later?"
Word travels fast in the Balkans. On my arrival in Zagreb, I call a potential interviewee. "Oh, yes," they respond, "we heard you were here. We were wondering when you'd call."
"But I didn't tell you I was here."
"Yes. We know. Welcome to Croatia!"
In the Balkans, everyone says: "We can't talk on the phone. Meet me in the Square at 12 o'clock."
So here I stand in the center of Josip Jelacic Square, a French beret on my head, wondering if I look too much like a target.
During the day, Jakov parades me before government officials, one after another after another. Never have I been lied to by so many people in such a short period of time. And they all want to explain, very politely, about the true cause of ethnic rivalries that started only recently -- if you call the eleventh century recent.
"Why are we going to your hotel room? I have to go home."
"We had a lovely dinner, a nice walk. I thought you'd like a drink from my wet bar. Jakov is paying for all of it." I smile my most charming smile, but Jadranka isn't easily conned. She's suspicious that I would just blow into town and then blow out again, which of course I was doing.
She quizzes me about her country.
"What are Ustasha?"
"They were the Nazi-puppet regime in Croatia under the Ante Pavelic."
She nods, not totally impressed. "And what are Chetniks?"
"They were the Serbian guerilla force under Draza Mihailovic, who eventually collaborated with the Italians and the German controlled, Serb-run government in Serbia."
"And what caused war today?"
"Well, when Milosevic took control of the JNA and incited Serb militants there was a massive imbalance in firepower when Serbia first attacked-- "
"Okay," she admits, "you will write a good book."
Then we enter my hotel room.
"Oh, I see." She practically shouts as she enters the room. "Mr. Double-Bed! Why do you need a double bed, Mr. Double-Bed?"
"It's just what they gave me. I didn't ask for it. I use it to spread out my books, and-- "
"I think you have some other plan in mind, Mr. Double-Bed."
"No, look. Let's just have a drink, and then you can go home."
"I think I go home now."
"Don't go. I'm lonely here."
"Is that the only reason you want me to stay, because you are lonely?"
"No, of course not. I like you."
"Well ... I can't make love to you. What if I fall in love?"
I don't have an answer for that. It wasn't in my phrase book.
Later, I realize I should have responded, "Well, what if I fall in love with you?" But that would be giving too much away. A bad and often lethal habit in the Balkans.
Surreptitiously I meet with opposition leaders, harassed dissident journalists and human rights activists in an attempt to uncover the story of Tudjman's reign. In Sarajevo I encounter a high-ranking official in the Bosnian-Croat government who claims to possess documents linking Tudjman with the Croat death camps in Bosnia.
Though I never secure the alleged documents, it becomes clear how many resources the Croatian government was deploying into keeping Tudjman from the International War Crimes Tribunal at The Hague. The day before I interview Tudjman, October 6, 1997, a deal is announced where 10 Bosnian Croat war crimes suspects "voluntarily" surrender to The Hague. This announcement is followed by the release of a $40 million credit to Croatia by the International Monetary Fund, an amount much more than my literary advance.
I can't convince Jadranka to fly with me to Sarajevo, let alone make love. So, once in Bosnia, I hire a female interpreter and invite her to dinner.
During yet another political interview I find myself staring at Aida's perfectly shaped Bosnian lips, then into her sad scared eyes. With each bout of translation, the pol's presence recedes into the posh room; his boring litany of ancient disputes becomes an instant memory. I am interviewing a wind-up toy, but sitting next to a living doll.
"So, you American writer, you come to Sarajevo with thought we are all fundamentalists," Aida scolds me.
"Not at all. You're all very urbane, very cool."
Aida tells me how during the war she would defiantly put on make-up, blue eye shadow and red lipstick, and proudly walk down the streets of Sarajevo. "I wanted to taunt the snipers," she explains," to say to them: 'I am wearing Lancôme, and you can just wear your leaves and mud.'" Her mother was hit by a piece of mortar in her home that had ricocheted off a building, wounding her in the leg. "You didn't know whether to go out or stay inside; either could mean the end of your life."
Now, with the trams running and electricity working most of the time, Sarajevans are back on the streets, proving once again that they would not choose between living on their knees or dying on their feet -- they would rather be drinking in the cafes.
"You wasted 13 years of your life," Aida says. "Excuse me, I'm sorry, but you did."
"Well, I don't exactly see it that way." I had told Aida of my recent divorce from a childless marriage.
"Look at Ali here."
We turn and watch her little three-year-old throw sugar across the Holiday Inn lobby. He screams in joy, then trots over and rubs his cute, sticky face into mine.
"He likes you." She glances at me with mischievous hope. "He needs a visa."
Many of the Serbs, Croats and Muslims I meet express outrage over the crimes committed against their own ethnic group, but few would ever name any of their own as guilty. Tudjman personally tells me that his own soldiers cannot be blamed for any alleged crimes they committed; that after suffering at the hands of the Serbs, they "could not control their feelings of revenge, their wishes to retaliate."
"Hello, Joe. Watcha gonna do?"
The phone connection is scratchy, but I distinctly recognize the sweet-and-sour voice. "Hi, Jadranka."
"You are enjoying Sarajevo?"
"I miss you. When are you coming back to Zagreb?"
"I thought you didn't think of me that way."
"Well, I didn't think so either, until you left. Now, my darling, I miss you, and-- when will you come to see me?"
"I don't know. I'm flying straight out of Sarajevo to Vienna, then to New York."
"Then, my darling, I will come to New York
"Yes, I'm still here."
"You won't change your address on me, will you?"
In the Balkans, they're always one step ahead.
At the café, she uses a scattershot, double-barreled technique. Hence, her chances are good she'll hit one of my buttons.
"So why are you scared of me?"
"I'm not scared of you."
"I think you need to have family."
"I have a family, back home."
"You told me you didn't have kids. You are lying?"
"No, I'm not. I don't have kids, I-- "
"You need kids. Everyone needs a family. Buy me another double scotch."
We close the café, and head back to the Holiday Inn via Sniper Alley, where, just three years ago, Aida was shot in the shoulder by a Bosnian Serb sniper when she was five months pregnant with Ali.
The cab drops her and little Ali in front of their home, nestled behind the hotel. Her mother would be sleeping now. For two years, since the American-engineered Dayton Peace Accord, the city has been able to sleep. No mortar fragments will fly in through the window and wound her mother again -- as long as NATO remains on the ground.
"It's because of you that I am leaving." I was feeling playful now, teasing her with my feeble jokes.
I take her by the shoulders and pushed her gently against the bed, daring to nuzzle her neck. This is the closest thing to sex in my entire trip. Even so, in strict Muslim terms, we should now be married.
"No, I can't." She is annoyed, slightly alarmed, and confused. I hadn't planned to do this. All morning I made promises to myself not to come on to her.
I pull back. "I'm sorry. My behavior is not professional." I stand up, walk to my suitcase, and continue packing. "Please forgive me."
"No, it's okay ..." Again those sad eyes. "But you are leaving today." She is pulling every string.
"Yes, you know that."
"And you will ask Ambassador in Vienna to get me visa."
"I'll do what I can," I lie; then, like a true American cad, offer to massage her shoulders.
"No, I can't. I am Muslim. I took confession."
but you drink."
She just shrugs, smiles, and frets. My plane leaves in an hour. After one month of travel and interviews, I am leaving with more questions than answers.
Back in NYC, I complete a 400-page manuscript titled "In Tito's Shadow." Jakov quickly asks me to make "small minor changes."
"Please not to mention anything from old communist time."
"Well, that would make it substantially shorter."
"And please not to mention war crimes."
I refuse to make the changes, and the book remains unpublished.
Jakov had hoped to co-opt an authentic American voice, to lend the biography more credibility. Instead, the author bit the hand that fed him. In December of '99 Tudjman dies, escaping The Hague unlike his fellow Balkan leader Slobodan Milosevic, who wrote his own biography on the stand before he too died.
One night in New York I meet Indira, a tiny young woman from tiny Montenegro, a country squeezed between Serbia, Bosnia, and Albania. Indira used to work in the government offices of Milosevic, where she would drive a girl friend to an ambassador's house for daily assignations, doing her nails in the car as she waited.
"There is a name for people who do that," she explains when I tell her of my misadventures with the women of the former Yugoslavia. "They are the foreigners who visit battle-worn countries looking for cheap thrills, whichever way the wind blows they go. They are called 'windfuckers.'"
I once thought of returning to Zagreb, with its petite bourgeois shops, first-run American movies, and Jadranka's sweet uncertain smile; and to Sarajevo, with its rows of trinket stores, endless café nights, and Aida's hopeful eyes. But I remain in New York, with questions:
What is a writer's obligation to history? Whose history? If history is written by the victors, who speaks for the vanquished -- and in whose voice?
Shortly after Tudjman's death, I send my notes and copies of my interviews to The Hague. I can no longer in good conscience hide the identity of certain anonymous sources. At this point, I feel it is time for me to come out from the cold.
© Joe Tripician
Joe Tripician is an award-winning producer/writer/director and playwright. His work has been broadcast on Network and Cable television across America, Europe, and Japan, and has shown at the Cannes Film Festival. He received his first EMMY award for the documentary "Metaphoria," broadcast in the US on PBS in 1991.
Joe's humor book, "The Official Alien Abductee's Handbook," was published by Andrews and McMeel in 1997. Author and Futurist Robert Anton Wilson called it: "The funniest book I've read since the Warren Report." Famed scientist John C. Lilly said: "Joe Tripician has achieved the impossible: a truly funny book on alien abductions."
In 1996 Joe wrote, recorded, and performed an alien song ("Ozark Melody") with the legendary Jeff Buckley along with musical partner Frederick Reed.
In May of 2002, Joe performed in his one-man play, "Balkanized at Sunrise," based on his 1997 trip to the Balkans. His Balkan journey began when the Croatian government hired him to write an official biography of their president. Much hilarity ensured.
Joe spends his time between New York and Brazil with his wife and two daughters, who do most of the translating for him.
Buy the book • More Info • JoeTripician.com