Bearing Witness

updated 04/05/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/05/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

SUDDENLY THE BOEING 737 TAKES A SHARP lunge, and Elizabeth Hubbard—better known to millions of daytime drama fans as wicked, wily Lucinda Walsh on CBS's As the World Turns—makes a fast grab for the cup of mineral water about to spill on her lap. Three days earlier, Hubbard had stepped out of a stretch limousine to attend the Feb. 26 Soap Opera Digest Awards in Beverly Hills. The blue-silk Giorgio Armani dress she wore to the event has been ditched in her Manhattan apartment. Now, Hubbard is on Croatian Airlines flight 380 bound for Split, Croatia—and, frankly, a silk parachute might be more appropriate. Shelling from Serbian guerrillas, who are fighting for control of parts of Croatia and the central republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina, has made the overland route dangerous between Zagreb and Hubbard's ultimate destination of Mostar, 50 miles southwest of Sarajevo. To avoid fire the pilot flies along the Adriatic Sea, his plane lurching wildly in the strong coastal winds. Hubbard, however, betrays no nerves. "What's the point?" she asks with a shrug.

It is a question one might well put to Hubbard herself: What is a soap-opera star doing in the middle of war-torn Bosnia? For Hubbard, the answer is obvious: a simple but strong "humanitarian impulse." Last year, deeply disturbed by the stories of cruelty and suffering in what was once Yugoslavia, Hubbard joined the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children, whose mission is to gather firsthand information about the living conditions of refugees. When staff director Mary Anne Schwalbe proposed a trip to Bosnia, Hubbard didn't think twice. She bought herself a $900 round-trip ticket from New York and arranged to travel to Mostar, a city with a large Muslim refugee community. What could an American actress do in Bosnia? Hubbard wasn't sure, except to do her small part to publicize the plight of women and children. And to learn what kind of help was needed from the U.S. "After looking at photos of the suffering in Bosnia, I just had to go there," she says. "To do anything I could. Just to talk. To listen. God knows, I can listen."

The 100-mile road between Split and Mostar, carved into sleep mountains. yields breathtaking vistas. But this trip, in a rented blue van, is slowed by convoys of trucks delivering relief supplies to the besieged towns inland and lakes more than three hours. Rather than travel after dark, Hubbard and her companions—including a commission member, a guide and an interpreter—stop for the night at the Annamaria hotel in Medugorje, a village blessed, locals say, by visits from the Virgin Mary. Once a bustling tourist stop, the hotel is now nearly empty. The owner, whose family fled to the safety of the coast, joins Hubbard for dinner. "Hitler was a song in comparison to what the Serbians are doing here," he says.

The next morning, Hubbard meets a 7-year-old boy in the streets of Mostar. "My name is Nenad," he says, kicking at rifle shells that litter the ground. Not even a year has passed since the Serbs, trying to gain control of the strategic city, were beaten back by the Bosnian and Croatian armies. Today, from a stronghold on top of nearby Mount Velez, Serbian guerrillas continue to lob artillery shells into the town. So far 1,700 people have been killed, and one third of its 120,000 residents have fled. Going outside, Nenad knows, is dangerous. Still, with no school there is little for him to do but wander the narrow cobblestone streets.

"Where are you from?" asks Hubbard. The boy's family, says Hubbard's translator, is Serbian. Although "ethnic cleansing" is directed mostly against Muslims, more than a half million Serbs have been killed, imprisoned or forced to flee their homes by fellow Serbs for various acts of disloyalty—from refusing to join Serbian forces to sheltering Muslim neighbors. Nenad's parents came to Mostar from Eastern Herzegovina to stay with an aunt. Because he is a Serb, he has few friends, he says, but beyond that he wishes to remain silent. "I am just a child," he says.

Later, Hubbard visits a boarding school that has become an emergency home to 500 women, children and old men. Outside, a young Bosnian soldier approaches her, eager to make contact with the American visitor. "I like Michael Jackson," he says in halting English. "Really," says Hubbard, smiling, "that's interesting. And I like opera." She waves goodbye, then goes inside. Though there has been no heat in the building for two midwinter weeks, relief agencies have provided enough bottled gas for cooking. In the kitchen, kept spotless by residents, ravioli boils in steel vats. Upstairs, two brothers, Harris, 5, and Mustafa, 3, draw with crayons in the small, cold room that has been home to their family since their father, a Muslim from a nearby town, left to fight with the Bosnians. After a while the boys put down their pictures, borrow loaded guns from soldiers wandering the hallways and play war. Their mother and their several aunts look on, restless.

A revelation for Hubbard is that some refugees actually have too much of at least two things: time and clothing. With a seemingly endless supply of donated sweatshirts, pants and underwear at their disposal, the people simply throw their dirty garments away. "At first you think, 'My God, get out the washing powder and get to it,' " says Hubbard. "But then you realize, they are completely demoralized. How many times can anyone clean clothes or wash the door?"

In one refugee camp Hubbard visits, the boredom is more palpable than the fear. One girl has papered her wall with photos of Michael J. Fox, though she has no idea who he is. "The posters came in with the relief supplies," she says. Other girls, says British social worker Ruby Belchamber, paint their faces with makeup and wander the streets. They dirt with the soldiers, she explains, offering sexual favors just to stave off the boredom. International Rescue Committee worker Patricia Gruenberg notes that, besides the usual medical supplies, "we need antidepressants."

Night is falling. Hubbard and Dr. Saric Sehad, 34, a gynecologist from Gacko, a Serbian-controlled city 50 miles south of Sarajevo, are driving quickly through Mostar to get eight women home before curfew. Several months ago, the women, 20 to 40 years old, were imprisoned by Serbs in a school outside Gacko while their husbands fought for the Bosnian cause. Each night at 11 p.m., the women say, they were marshaled into squalid bathrooms where soldiers forced them to have sex. Sometimes their children were in the next room, screaming. A number of the imprisoned women became pregnant; Dr. Sehad performed abortions for those who asked. At the Mostar office of the International Rescue Committee, Sehad leads a newly formed self-help group for rape victims. "It's very hard to talk to the girls who were virgins," he says. Indeed, for the Muslim women, whose faith teaches that modesty and chastity are measures of their human value, sexual abuse is an almost impossibly difficult topic. "We have lost ourselves," one of the women tells Hubbard. "We have no identity." Together, she and the others chain-smoke cigarettes with trembling hands, taking comfort and strength from each other's presence. "Silence is the greatest healer," says Hubbard. "They'll get to talking later. Right now they just have to survive."

Sitting quietly off to the side during Dr. Sehad's meeting, Zeema Greljo, a refugee in her early 40s, teeters on the brink of despair. "Nobody can help us," she says, weeping. Released in August from a detention camp in Banja Luka in exchange for imprisoned Serbian women, Greljo says her most pressing concern is her 17-year-old daughter, Armella. Like many other young girls, Armella was not freed with her mother. Though no one has confirmed her suspicion, Zeema fears that Armella, and the girl's 13-year-old cousin Jasmina, are in the besieged town of Foca, kept behind to serve the sexual whims of their Serbian captors. "I cannot heal until she comes home," Greljo says, wiping tears from her eyes. "Please," she begs, "help me find my daughter."

In the New York City studio of As the World Turns, a week after she departed, Hubbard is back in character as Lucinda, plotting her next misdeed. In real life, however, the actress is remembering the words of Dr. Sehad: "Many people are touched by the people they see here, but no one has helped them." Hubbard is working every angle she can think of, exhorting anyone who will listen to send relief. In just a few days she's gotten seeds from gardening clubs, and she is working to facilitate the distribution of shampoo, soap and toothpaste" from her show's sponsor, Proctor & Gamble. Meanwhile she and the other members of the Women's Commission are putting the final touches on a report about what they saw in Bosnia—and what they believe can be done to help there—to be delivered shortly to the United Nations and members of Congress. "I don't want to be another useless actress who comes home and just says, 'They need safety pins,' " says Hubbard. "I intend to make something happen."

KAREN S. SCHNEIDER
SUE CARSWELL in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia

From Our Partners