The poet, activist, pediatrician, convicted terrorist, prisoner, and ethnic-Albanian Kosovar Flora Brovina was my first case for the Freedom to Write Committee of the PEN American Center. The mission of PEN is "to protect the freedom of the written word wherever it is imperiled." It defends writers and journalists from all over the world who are imprisoned, threatened, persecuted, or attacked in the course of carrying out their profession.
I had been working in Serbia and this seemed a good fit. My job, as PEN describes it, was to ‘mind' her, to be her advocate. I thought that no one who could write the lines If you have heard my poetry you know how I sing/If you know how I sing do not interrupt me sounded as if she needed minding! But I was wrong.
While Milošević was cracking down on ethnic Albanians and NATO bombs were falling, Flora was delivering babies in Prishtinë, Kosovo. But on April 20, 1999, just a couple of hours after she brought a baby into such a world, eight masked plainclothes Serbian policemen snatched her from her apartment. Four days later, her son contacted the International PEN and asked that her abduction be made as widely known as possible.
The evidence of her having "betrayed" her nation was woolen yarn and bandages found in her handbag from when she helped set up field hospitals to treat the wounded . . . and a loud, clear voice protesting the injustice of the Yugoslav government's charges. In the first month of her imprisonment she was subjected to more than two hundred hours of interrogation in eighteen separate sessions. These sessions typically lasted from 7:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. She was tortured; she was threatened with mock executions. "I did not think I would live," she said. "I survived by not thinking about it."
Flora was not charged for eight months. Finally, in front of a kangaroo court, a Draconian sentence was passed; she was found guilty of terrorist activities under Article 136 of the Yugoslav Penal Code and sentenced to twelve years in prison.
So what can a woman writer who lives in comfort in America do for a woman writer who is in a prison cell without pencil or paper, in a country at war? Contact human rights groups. Keep the networking moving. Be in touch with her family. Essentially, adding moral support by letting Flora know through her husband, Ajri Begu, that PEN was advocating for her freedom.
While Flora Brovina was unable to sleep and pacing in her cell in the notorious Pozorevać Prison in Niš, Serbia, her eighteen-year-old son Ylli was in New York, trying to fit into my husband's ancient tuxedo. Ylli is tall and handsome, and my husband is tall and handsome, if a bit larger around the middle. Although we had the basic tuxedo, we were missing a white shirt, suspenders, cummerbund, and black shoes. Nevertheless, with my husband's black turtleneck shirt, Ylli's black running shoes, safety pins, black basting thread, and a lot of humor, we readied Ylli. He was in New York to represent his mother at the PEN American Center's gala at Lincoln Center where she was receiving the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom-to-Write Award.
As we headed out the door to get him a cab, he grabbed the tattered blue folder off the kitchen table that was stuffed with newspaper articles, photographs, letters of acknowledgement, and legal documents. We tried to convince him to leave it at home.
"No," he said politely, but emphatically. "This goes with me. I have to convince the press to keep up the pressure on the Serbian authorities to release my mother. I haven't seen her for a year and am scared that I'll never see her again." Ylli was a student, sent to study in Texas to get him away from Kosovo, to save him from having to fight. To pay his way, he worked as a dishwasher in an Italian restaurant owned by Albanians.
"My mother," he reminded us, looking too grim and sad for an eighteen-year-old, "is very ill with angina and is being refused medical treatment. My father's allowed to visit her for half an hour, every two weeks. He's forced to keep thirty feet away from her and to speak only Serbo-Croatian, not our native Albanian."
Finally, it all paid off. Milošević was out. The bombing ceased. And Flora, after eighteen months, was released on the afternoon of October 31, 2000, by presidential order. She returned a hero and began immediately to establish centers for orphans of the war. Astonishingly, within a year Flora Brovina was campaigning to be the president of Kosovo. Although she lost to Ibrahim Rugova, she is now a representative of the Democratic Party of Kosovo in the Assembly.
In 1991, Flora wrote, The river of exile / Keeps flowing and flowing, / Status habitus / In the labyrinths / It seeks the road of return. In 2008, Flora Brovina is finally home.
Causes Michele Zackheim Supports
PEN American Center