Cheers to Sarajevo. Picture: PHILIP KUHN
Cheers to Sarajevo. Picture: PHILIP KUHN

Write about what you know, the experts say. And that’s exactly what Lidija Marelic did. When she was a little girl in Croatia, she and her family fled the conflicts and ethnic cleansing that ripped apart the Balkans, and came to SA. Twenty-five years later, she has written and directed a play about it: Cheers to Sarajevo.

Currently showing at Sandton’s Auto & General Theatre on the Square until October 8, it’s an intimate, moving and sometimes brutally unsettling tale of forbidden love — a Romeo and Juliet of the post-Cold War era.

We meet Mirela, a headstrong Bosniak woman, and Aleksander, a conservative Serb man. Their illicit affair unfurls against the vast canvas of the 1992 Bosnian war that accompanied the tumultuous break-up of Yugoslavia. Peter, an SA photojournalist, stumbles on their tryst and what ensues is a shattering loss of innocence for this trio of young people — but it is also a love letter to the strength and tenacity of the human spirit.

Speaking from Zagreb in Croatia, where she is visiting relatives, Marelic agrees that her one-act play hits "very close to home" as "it’s what my family and friends went through".

"I was born in SA but spent two years here [in Croatia] as a child, and my uncles and dad fought on the frontline. When the rape camps [a war crime committed mainly by Serbian forces against Bosnian women] started taking place, the females in the family escaped by train to Slovenia and came to Johannesburg."

The horror has stayed with many, who still bear the scars of the "absolutely devastating" genocide, Europe’s worst since World War 2. It’s not something that goes away easily, says Marelic: "It’s still a very, very fresh topic of conversation within the Balkans. It takes generations to heal, and then only if approached in the proper way."

After graduating from Wits University with an honours degree in dramatic arts and subsequently winning an emerging director’s bursary from Cape Town’s Theatre Arts Admin Collective, Marelic was contacted by a former university friend, Aimèe Goldsmith (who takes the lead role in the play, opposite Duane Behrens) to ask if she would be interested in creating a play dramatising the human side of the Balkan war.

"I jumped at it," says Marelic. "It was a story that wanted to be told. I have seen the evil and destruction that people can do to each other. No-one emerges clean from a war — people are hurt on all sides."

She and Goldsmith spoke to war victims and even Serbian snipers now living in SA — "they can’t go back, otherwise they’d be sent to The Hague [war crimes tribunal]".

They also interviewed members of Marelic’s own family, and even women who’d endured the abject horror of the rape camps.

"At times we nearly had a psychotic breakdown while conducting interviews," she confesses.

It’s been a slow-burning work in progress, and the ending has changed a few times. But wherever it’s been performed — including at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown and in Austria — the play has connected with people from the Balkans in particular.

The play has been invited to tour to Israel and Brighton, in the UK, and to return to Austria for a longer run, but this will depend on finances.

But what about Cheers to Sarajevo actually playing in Sarajevo? It’s too dangerous to do so, says Marelic, as the political situation there is still fraught. But she and Goldsmith would love to develop the script, which already sports a distinctively cinematic flavour and format, into a film.

"I never expected it to be a hit. It’s taught me so much, both as a writer and a director — it’s been a terror and a glory at the same time."

In Cheers to Sarajevo, a story of love and suffering set in a specific geopolitical space has been rendered universal — and therein lies its impact.

Says Marelic: "In both the Balkans and SA, there’s a void in which people sit with their wounds ... the trauma manifests in different ways. One of the ways I dealt with my trauma was writing this play."

The play is by no means flawless, but it’s an impressive undertaking by brave and passionate young creatives who clearly aren’t in the business of making "safe" theatre, but rather theatre that is thrilling, fresh and bracing to watch.