Von den Kriegen
From the Wars - Letters to Friends - At first there was only speechlessness.
After spending a month and a half in Albania and Kosovo during the war, I returned to Berlin in the summer of 1999 and did not know what to tell my friends.
How to convey my experiences in words that would not disturb them? How to describe this encounter with death and destruction? How to explain that war and violence inscribe themselves on your soul and continue to live with you?
My friends did not know how to ask, and I did not know how to respond.
In an effort to overcome my speechlessness, I wrote a letter that was sent to a circle of about twenty friends via email.
I did not know then that the longing to tell my friends about war and its victims would become a ritual: after each haunting journey I would write a letter.
And I did not know either that this writing would eventually become a cathartic endeavour, not merely an intellectual one. More and more these letters became a means by which to reflect on my experiences and help me return to life in Berlin.
Not all of the letters describe war itself - some portray the destroyed interior and exterior landscapes that war leaves behind.
Two letters - on Romania and on Nicaragua - do not deal with wars in the narrow sense. They discuss structural violence rather than immediate physical or military violence.
In the letters I tried to express something that is not found in traditional news coverage. The genre of the letter allowed me to combine different forms of narration: personal passages are followed by essayistic reflections; political commentary is interspersed with travelogues. I could not have written for publication in this way.
I wrote for my friends: artists and intellectuals around the globe with different religious and cultural backgrounds, whom I had met over the last 15 years.
At first there were no markers to guide me.
I simply told my friends about my journeys, about what haunted me. I tried to answer their silent questions: what were my reasons for traveling to war zones? How neutral I could remain in such places?
Over the years certain themes and ideas became clearer: the war, its victims and the witness.
The letters give testimony about what I have seen, but also about myself: the witness.
There were reasons not to censor my personal comments for publication. Over and over again friends who had read these letters had responded with outrage and surprise: this they hadn't imagined, they told me. They had no idea, they said. All my friends were well informed - and yet through these letters they all seemed to learn something different about the death and destruction at the fringes of the world.
In her book "Regarding the pain of others," Susan Sontag writes about a phenomenon that I also found among my friends: viewers or readers who are confronted every single day with images of horror from regions of war see those pictures - but they cannot situate them in a meaningful context. They become numb after a while, and in the end they do not believe that these images really correspond to a violent reality.
Letters from a witness whom one can imagine, who becomes visible, who describes how one responds to violence, who wanders between different worlds and tries to translate between them - someone who also mentions what goes wrong, what is embarrassing, what is unbearable - such letters can be credible testimony from the wars and their victims.
New York and Berlin , Spring 2004