Our Guide: Radovan Karadjic – Susan Gayle – Yugoslavia 1984

I began my Fulbright in Belgrade, partnered with Diane Wakoski for the first half of my time in Yugoslavia, then with Al Young. 

The most “interesting” in retrospect was the period in Sarajevo, where the now infamous Radovan Karadzic was assigned to Al Young and me as our guide and interpreter. At the time, we assumed only that his role as our guide had been determined by his stature as a poet and by his fluent English. His poems had not been translated but we assumed that he was a significant poet in his country. We since learned that he wrote primarily for children. His real role, with regard to us, is clear now, was to see that what we saw and experienced didn’t touch on politics and that we not be introduced to anyone who might hint at the war that was undoubtedly being planned. He was debonair and gracious and seemed to be esteemed among other writers, as we observed when he took us to a meeting of the writers’ union in Sarajevo. The writers’ interest in us felt touched with amusement, which we commented on to each other. My guess now is that Karadjic’s role as a leader in the soon-to-come war against the Croats might have been the reason.


I have a long poem about that time, written after the war, that includes our observations of his apparent kindness to people he was soon to attempt to obliterate.  We saw him save or try to save the life of a musician who appeared to have had a heart attack or stroke in the middle of a performance. Karadjic, now infamous, is imprisoned in The Hague for life for crimes against humanity. 

Earlier, Diane Wakowski and her husband and I traveled together and became friends— they were generous in taking me on road trips between events, as they had rented a car, and we kept in touch for quite a long time. Al Young and I also became  friends and corresponded until he had a major stroke several years ago, at which point, sadly he was unable to write.  


I kept up a correspondence for a number of years with a young Serbian woman poet I met in Belgrade, and have warm memories of people there, some of whom I’ve written about, and at various writers’ meetings in the country. Dubrovnik was a highlight, as every Yugoslavian person I met told me it would be. But the entire experience was eye-opening, and I believe the interactions we had with writers were as valuable to them as they were to me, and I’m sure to Diane and Al as well.


Susan Gayle – Fulbright to Yugoslavia 1984

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2 Responses

  1. Elmedina Brkic

    Side story: My great-grandmother predicted six months before the start of war that great bloodshed will spread all over the land. She looked up at the clear blue sky and saw it turn deep red. She warned her family but nobody believed her at the time. She must’ve had a premonition.

  2. Pedro Callol

    Terrible, terrible history of what nationalism and intolerance can lead to. Be it at least a lesson to us all

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