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Women Helping Women

11 February 2003 SARAJEVO, Bosnia and Herzegovina (BETA)-- On the 11th day of every month, Hajra Catic, from Srebrenica, joins peaceful demonstrations organized by Mothers from Srebrenica and Zepa in Tuzla and Sarajevo, demanding the truth about family members who disappeared during the Bosnian Serb campaign against their two native towns.

“My son Nihad ‘Nino’ Catic was a reporter from Srebrenica. The last time I spoke with him was on 10 July 1995. I will never forget his last words, and every night before I fall asleep I hear them over and over again: ‘If you won’t help us, then this is my last call. There will be nobody left to call you from Srebrenica’,” she says.

Numerous post-war studies have shown that the women of Bosnia and Herzegovina were greatly traumatized during the 1992-1995 war by constant exposure to violence. Only after the war ended did their traumas become obvious, and many of them are getting in touch with women's associations in both Bosnian entities for assistance in overcoming their problems. In a number of such associations formed after 1995, women are helping women.

“Not much can be done in concrete terms because of the very grave state of affairs in the country. But the women who call on us need to share their problems with someone. They feel better after talking about something that is bothering them; it's better than just keeping it bottled up inside,” says Jadranka Milicevic, a member of the Women to Women association.

Hajra is but one among thousands of Bosnian women who, eight years after the war, are still searching for their sons, husbands and other relatives. According to the government in Sarajevo, about 9,000 residents of Srebrenica are still listed as missing. Bosnian Serb forces captured the town in the summer of 1995, and the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia has indicted their political and military leaders for war crimes. Hajra says she is in touch with her pre-war Serbian colleagues, but not “very much.”

She was born in Srebrenica, where she lived and worked with her family. When war broke out in Bosnia, they stayed in the town believing that nobody would attack them. “I never did any wrong to anybody. I had Serbian friends and I thought they would protect us. How wrong I was!” Hajra recalls.

“My son Nino told me on 11 July, when I last saw him, that my husband and I should leave for Potocari where a Dutch battalion was stationed, and that he would try to break through Serbian lines with other men toward the liberated territory around Tuzla. I gave him something to eat. He took a morsel of something, but could not swallow it, so he spat it out. He was very pale. I gave him some food and clothes to take with him. We said goodbye, and never saw each other again,” she recounts.

About 25,000 people came to Potocari hoping that the U.N. Dutch battalion would protect them. “I spent two nights in an abandoned bus. During the night the men were taken away, and they never returned. They were found later with their throats slit. Women were also taken and raped,” says Hajra.

She adds that Serbian soldiers wore U.N. uniforms so nobody knew who the real U.N. troops were. “My husband was taken to a building located across from the U.N. base that used to belong to an electrical power company. This happened before the very eyes of U.N. soldiers, who did nothing to stop it or to ask where these men--10-year-old boys and 80-year-old men-were being taken,” says Hajra.

Seven and a half years after the tragedy Hajra is aware that her husband and son were killed. The only thing she has left is to fight for justice.

Jadranka Milicevic claims that women from across Bosnia come to the association to seek comfort and help. It is believed that during the war Bosnian women paid little attention to themselves or their everyday problems, but spent painful hours awaiting the news from the front lines, where their loved ones were.

Mejra Sijercic, 48, who used to live near Srebrenica, confirms this. “I didn't care about my looks, or whether I would have anything to eat tomorrow. I only thought about whether my son, who was fighting with the Bosnian army, would return. I always say that my husband was lucky to have died two years before the war began. I stayed in Srebrenica with my son and my daughter. When the Serbian soldiers forced us, women and children, into trucks, my daughter and I never saw Ahmed again.”

Mejra says she does not hate women belonging to other ethnic groups or their husbands, but would like to know who murdered Ahmed, 17, who did not even know how to fire a gun.

“We can’t have only Muslims living in the Federation [the Muslim-Croat entity in Bosnia]. It is also impossible to have only Serbs in Republika Srpska. For hundreds of years, in Srebrenica for example, we lived together. I will not abandon my land, I will return as soon as my house is rebuilt. I believe the Serbs will do the same. Not too many people will decide not to return to where they lived for centuries. I won't forget that I lost my son, but I won’t seek vengeance. Maybe some new generations that will read about the war in Bosnia in the history books will reconcile all the nations in Bosnia. What we need is time,” says Mejra.

“So far women have been the ones to take the first steps in reconciliation and cooperation. As early as 1995, contacts between women from various organizations in both entities [Republika Srpska and the Muslim-Croat federation] and they did a great deal together,” says Milicevic. She stresses that women from every ethnic group, religion, age, social group and level of education are getting in touch with them.

Members of the Tuzla-based Vive Zene non-government organization, financed by donors from Switzerland, Holland, Sweden, Germany and Great Britain, agree that during the war women did not talk much about their problems, and that they neglected this because they were worried about what was happening with their men.

One of them, Mima Dahic, says the role of women in the war and afterwards, changed drastically. From housewives and mothers protected by marriage they became widows, genocide and rape victims and victims of other forms of violence. They faced unexpected poverty, uncertainty, loss, and were forced to act as the head of the family. After the war, the effects of stress began manifesting themselves as a loss of self-confidence, poor concentration, disturbed sleep, nightmares and the reliving of traumatic experience. Many are suffering from depression, withdrawal and have contemplated suicide.

“Immediately after the war they were still awaiting the return of their loved ones, who they had no information about. We call this the waiting period. They waited for their next of kin, for something to change. All this resulted in delayed mourning. They were in a phase in which they refused to accept that the people they were waiting for to return are dead. In 2000, for instance, we had a case in which one of our clients, even after recognizing the remnants of her husband's clothes dug out from a mass grave, denied that it was actually him,” Dahic explains.

Hajra and Mejra sometimes admit they are aware that their children will never return, but they still plan to fight for the truth in a “womanly and civilized manner.” By participating in monthly peaceful protests they will not allow for the Srebrenica tragedy to be forgotten. They add that coexistence of all the peoples of Bosnia is possible and desirable, but still need more time before they resume communicating with their Serbian neighbors as they used to before the war.

by Merima Spahich
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