Rachel’s Bed

Eve Ensler

“They took my 60-year-old mother and 68-year-old father outside. These Chetniks, these boy soldiers who grew up with us, who went to primary school with us. They made my father stand in the center of our lawn, and they held guns to his head. Then they began to throw stones at him, pelting him in his head, his neck, his groin as he stood helpless and confused before me, my mother, our relatives. He was bruised and bleeding and exposed, and they wouldn’t stop.”
I am sitting in a metal chair in a circle of women, all of whom are smoking and drinking thick black coffee. We are in a makeshift doctor’s office in a refugee camp outside Zagreb, Croatia, listening to a 30-year-old women “doctress” (as my translator calls her) describe her recent experiences in Bosnia. It is the summer of 1994, and I have come here, and later to Pakistan, for two months to interview Bosnian refugees. Outraged by reports of atrocities committed toward women, I have come as a playwright and screenwriter to write a film script.
“Then they took my mother and poured gasoline around her feet. For three hours they lit matches and held them as close as they could. My mother turned white – it was very cold outside. Then she started screaming. She ripped her skirt open and screamed ‘Go ahead, you Chetniks. Kill me. I am not afraid of you, not afraid to die. Kill me’”
The other Bosnian women seem to have stopped breathing as they listen. I hear myself asking questions, through my translator, in a strange reporter-like voice tat implies I have seen all this before, that it is just another war story. I ask: “How do you explain your neighbors turning against you like that?” and “Did you ever worry about being a Muslim before the war?” I ask these questions from behind my professional persona, as if it were a secret shield, a place of safety.
“After I had finally escaped and gotten here” the doctress continues, “I heard our village was safe again. The United Nation forces raided the concentration camp, and my father was released. I began to get a glimmer of hope. Then the Chetniks invaded my village. They butchered every member of my family with machetes. My mother and father were found, their limbs spread over our lawn.”
I listen to her words and feel something caving in. logic. Safety. Order. Ground. I don’t want to cry. Professionals don’t cry. Playwrights see people as characters. She is a doctor character. She is a strong, resilient, traumatized women character. I bear down on the parts of my body where shakes are escaping.
For my first 10 days in Zagreb, I slept on a couch in the Center for Women War Victims. The center was created three years ago to serve Serbian, Muslim, and Croatian women refugees who had been raped in the war. It now serves over 500 women who not only been raped but have been made homeless by the war. Most of the women who work there are refugees themselves. They run support groups and provide emergency aid – food, toiletries, medication, children’s toys. They help women find employment, access to medical treatment, schools for their children.
In those first days, I spent five to eight hours a day interviewing women in city centers, desolate refugee camps, and local cafés. I met a country of women dressed in black – black silk, black cotton, black Lycra. In all the interviews, I either was filled with an overwhelming desire to rescue the women – which rendered me powerless and sometimes resentful – or tried to maintain my playwright position: I was hearing their stories as potential dramas, measuring their words in terms of beats and momentum. This approach made me feel cold, impervious, superior.
Thousands of journalists had already passed through these women’s lives. The women felt invaded, robbed, ripped off. It was an honor and a privilege that the refugee workers had brought me into these camps, even at times had focused the groups around my being there. I realized I was not honoring my end of the contract. My ways of relationship were hierarchical, one-sided, based on a perception of myself as a healer, a problem solver – which in turn was based on desperate, hidden need to control: control chaos and protect myself from too much loss, cruelty, and insanity. My need to analyze, interpret, even create art out of these war atrocities stemmed from my inability to be with people, to be with their suffering, to listen, to feel, to be lost in the mess.
On the 10th day in Zagreb, a women named Rachel, who worked in the center, offered me her apartment for the weekend. I was terrified. It was the first time I’d been  alone since my arrival in Croatia, the first time I’d been able to process the experience, to find out where I really was. It was nighttime when I got there, and the lights in the hallway kept going off, leaving me in utter panic and darkness. In all my years as an activist – working in homeless women’s shelters, trying myself to fences in protest of nuclear war, sleeping in outdoor peace camps amid rain and rats, camping on the windy Nevada Nuclear Test Site in radiation dust – I had never felt so lonely. I called the States. I paced the apartment. I tried to read but was unable to concentrate. Finally, I lay down on Rachel’s bed, with its splendid red comforter, and listened to a tape of Jane Siberry’s beautiful song “Calling All Angles”.
From my journal that night:
My heart, breaking from the inside like and organism giving birth to itself, to the stories of itself, the cruelty: the lit cigarettes almost put through the soldier’s wife’s eyeballs, the decapitated heads of her old parents, the 15-year-old girl whom her soldier husband and his friends raped in the car, the pistol the soldiers put into her three-month-old baby’s hand as a joke, the food they didn’t serve the Muslim girl’s mother who had decided to give birth to the baby of the Serb who raped her, the Canadian uncle who attempted to molest his 14-year-old niece from Sarajevo who had fled to him for safety, the dirty, stained clothes that arrive in boxes of humanitarian aid that the refugee women are supposed to be grateful for.
It wasn’t the cruelty, the primitive horror, that broke my heart. What hurt was how I defended myself against my love for the refugees. The women who made sweet pastry in what was now her kitchen, bedroom, living room, bathroom all in one – made pastry for me, a stranger. The one who kept smiling with missing teeth, who gave strength to the women next to her who smoked cigarettes, smoothed her skirt, apologized for her messy hair. My heart broke into love. Tears broke out of my eyes like glass cutting flesh, breaking me, making me no one, no longer concrete, broke through my craving for definition, authority, fame, broke all that into tiny pieces that would not hold, becoming liquid, then nothing I could identify, nothing that resembled me or the matter of me. There was just pulp. Masses of beating bloody pulp. There was just melting.
After my night in Rachel’s bed, my journey was transformed. I began to see my interviews as sacred social contracts. I could not simply take stories, events, feelings from my subjects. There had to be an interaction. I had to be present with them. I had to be vulnerable. I had to love. I could not longer protect myself, stand outside the stories I was hearing. War was not natural. I would never be comfortable with atrocity and cruelty. I found myself crying often during the interviews. I felt little, helpless. Old defenses, identities, approaches died away.
At the end of my stay in Croatia, I changed continents and changed clothes. I went from a village on the Adriatic to the hot, dusty landscape of Pakistan, where I was covered in purple cotton from head to toe, the traditional shalwar quamiz.
I was there with Julie Mertus, a lawyer from Human Rights Watch. We essentially lived with the group of Bosnian refugees eight hours a day in dreadful circumstances. This group of Muslim man and women had been living in a refugee hotel in Croatia and where offered the choice of being moved to a dangerous and overcrowded camp close to the Serbian border or to a new life in Pakistan with “bungalows, swimming pools, and jobs”. So about 500 of them had come to Pakistan, where the weather was 120 degrees and up, with monsoons and rainstorms. The living conditions were difficult at first, 13 to a room, and malaria was rampant. The majority of these Bosnians, European in orientation, had never really identified as Muslims, and here they were in an Islamic country. Their Pakistani hosts were offering them more than they offered their own citizens, so the Bosnians felt bad that they weren’t more grateful. They spent their days waiting – waiting for the heat to cool off, waiting to get out of Pakistan (some were waiting for entry into America; they had been waiting the longest), waiting for nwes of their hometowns, waiting for the nightmare to pass, waiting.
Each day Juile and I would gather with the refugees in a sauna-like room and listen to their stories. Everyone was sick in some way, deeply traumatized by the events they had uffered in the war. And yat there was great humor, generosity, and community.
During my last days there, I became ill with some kind of flu. The Bosnians overwhelmed me with kindness, offering homemade remedies and soups. There was a particular bottle of nose drops that had clearly passed through the entire community; when they offered it to me, I felt  I was undergoing a rite of passage. I was infected with Pakistan, with refugee illness, with a tiny bit of their suffering. I felt as if all my protection had been washed away, and that didn’t even matter. I sat on a mattress in my drenched shalwar quamiz while a women with a movie-star face told her story:
“A group of them came into our neighborhood. They took my best friend into the street. There were 15 soldiers, In front of her husband and children and neighbors they raped her, one after the other. They did it to teach us a lesson. They raped many women – 72.000. the women did not lose their dognity, though. What they lost was their monds.”
“Please tell people in America what happened here. We do not understand why they have abandoned us.”
It was the end of two months of stories, and I could no longer contain myself. Something inside me was released. I was unable to stop my eyes from crying, my nose from running, my sweat from pouring out of me. I realized that I was, in fact, melting. Melting away the cold defenses of control, melting into this common, salty bath, melting into love.
I looked around and saw a lot of us crying, and in that moment I loved these Bosnians completely. I loved their stove-made bread and their meat-filled peppers that they cooked for us each day in the heat. I loved that they had survived and that their hearts were intact and that their kindness was so deeply present even now.
I returned to the States on a plane that nearly crashed over the Atlantic. Flight attendants had concussions. Passengers had spiritual experiences they shared with strangers. For a long time after returnig home, I was suspended, filled with a wild sense of grace and gratitude for being alive and a painful guilt that I had so much in America when other people suffered so profoundly only hours away.
Eventually I came back to earth. I am no longer suspended, but I am changed. mainly it is my desire that has changed. It changed that night in Rachel’s bed.
Melt me. Let me dissolve. Let me release my hard identity. Let me be swallowed by the circle. let me not matter. Let me be homeles, homesick. Let me be disappointed so I can break more. Let me be anonymous so I can be invisible. let me be a refugee. Send me out into the forest without anything – no house, no clothes, no memories, no photos. Please break me. Please make me a toothless, laughing women. Not worrying about my turn, my message, my serviong, my creation, my moment. Please made me ready to sit in the circle.
Eve Ensler is a playwriter, screenwriter and activist. The author of “Vagina monologues”, the founder of the “V-day” – global campaign  against violence against women, and a longtern friend of the Center for the Women War Victims.



Foreword to the Second Edition

  Women Reconstructing Memories by Vesna Kesić

In Place Of An Introduction

  The Days of December 1992 - The Beginning Biljana Kašić

Goga M.'s Story

  Interview conducted by Dinka Koričić and Vesna Kesić in July 1993

Reaching High

  Dinka Koričić

Rachel’s Bed

Eve Ensler


  To woman's and peace organizations all over the world

Rape as a weapon


Global Tribunal


Laughter, tears and politics

  Dialogue - How Women Do It