The Writers for Peace Committee was created during the time when writers found it very hard to collaborate and meet across borders; separated by the invisible yet omnipresent Iron Curtain which divided Europe and the entire World into two blocks that seemed incompatible. Even though PEN members speak a multitude of languages, come from different places and backgrounds, they are very much compatible in their beliefs, their mission and their activism. The Iron Curtain that made the collaboration across the East-West divide of the Cold War difficult, was just another political obstacle to overcome. Communist Yugoslavia, a founding member of the Non-Aligned Movement, represented a grey area between both blocs and was therefore able to host writers from East and West. The 33rd International Congress of PEN International was held in 1965 in the Yugoslavian, now Slovenian, lakeside village of Bled. Writers from the Soviet Union attended the event for the first time. They attended as observers only, yet their presence was a clear sign of the improving inter-bloc relations between writers of both sides. This Congress became the first one in the long tradition of meetings in Bled, hosted by Slovenian PEN.
During the 1984 International Congress in Tokyo, Slovenian PEN president Miloš Mikeln suggested the creation of a Writers for Peace Committee. He invited the committee members to meet in Bled, starting the yearly Writers for Peace Bled general assembly meetings. In 2019 the committee decided to host supplementary meetings in other places as well.
Boris A Novak was chair of the Writers for Peace committee of PEN International from 1991 and 2000. While the Yugoslav People’s Army withdrew from Slovenia after the Ten-Day War, other countries of former Yugoslavia did not share this fate. In October 1991, Boris A Novak and the then president of Slovenian PEN established a humanitarian campaign for poets and writers seeking refuge in Slovenia from the other ex-Yugoslav states. Among the first to receive the support were the Dubrovnik poet Luko Paljetak and his wife Anuška, a translator; the Montenegin poet Javrem Brković and the journalist form Belgrade and founder of the Roma PEN Centre, Rajko Đurić. The humanitarian aid consisted of financial support, help searching for temporary work and shelter for their families, and the removal of legal and bureaucratic obstacles.
In November 1992, the humanitarian aid was focused on besieged Sarajevo and was offered to all writers in need, including Serbs (as long as they had not taken any part in attacks on Sarajevo). The money was smuggled across the borders into the war zones by trustworthy couriers and on one occasion by Boris A Novak, Drago Jančar, Niko Grafenauer, and Josip Osti in person. Once the money arrived in Sarajevo, it was distributed under dangerous circumstances by the poetess Ferida Duraković and poet Goran Simić, a Serb who stayed in Sarajevo with his fellow citizens of different ethnicities.
The financial burden was too heavy for Slovenian PEN alone, therefore many PEN Centers and other organizations from different parts of the world provided additional funding. With their support, the help was sent to 445 intellectuals, writers and other artists caught in the conflict.
In 1993, Croatian PEN and the Writers for Peace Committee invited PEN Centers from around the world to the old city of Dubrovnik, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In the autumn of 1992, Milošević’s Serb armies had invaded Croatia and Dubrovnik was under siege. The International Congress took place there between 19th and 25th of April 1993 with 200 members from around the world attending. Since the country was at war, the delegates met in Venice and sailed over the Adriatic Sea to the island of Hvar and Dubrovnik.
PEN was divided into two camps because several PEN Centers choose not to participate in the conflict and to remain neutral. Due to internal tensions, the Writers in Prison Committee decided it would not meet during the Congress. Other PEN Centers and the Writers for Peace Committee disagreed and wanted to challenge Dobrica Ćosić, president of Serbian PEN, an intellectual who supported President Milošević. The decision was made that, given the controversy, the Congress would not have a political programme and would be a literary event only.
At the following Congresses, PEN decided to enhance its governance and to deal with similar future situations with a united voice, which led to a change of regulation and the creation of the PEN International Board. During and immediately after the Dubrovnik Congress, many PEN Centers decided to join the Writers for Peace Committee.
Six months before the PEN International Congress was scheduled to be held in Moscow, Vladimir Putin started the Second Chechen War during which many journalists were killed and free speech was under severe threat. Russian PEN Centre fervently protested against his actions and the PEN International Board decided to go ahead with the meeting, on the condition that no funding would be accepted from the Moscow city government or the Russian Ministry of Culture and no government official would be allowed to be present at the Congress. Statements denouncing the crimes of Putin’s regime were presented by the members of Russian PEN. Günter Grass, who received the Nobel Peace Prize for Literature the year before, gave the opening speech, Nie wieder Schweigen! (Silent no more!), determined to end the silence about the Russian army’s crimes in Chechnya. The international media coverage of his speech helped raise awareness of Vladimir Putin’s crimes.
Source: Avalle G., Clement J., McDonald P., Potter R., Torner C., Zecchini L. PEN: An Illustrated History, Interlink publishing, 2021