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  • Marcia Jacobs

16 | Mothers & Daughters |September 1993

Arriving back in Zagreb, Croatia, following the critical incident de-briefing in Bosnia, I receive a request from an international aid organization. The US government’s Refugee Resettlement Program has made a number of places available, for rape victims who have fled Bosnia, to immigrate to the United States. I’ve been asked to go to a refugee center in Croatia to interview a family which has been identified as a possible candidate for this program. Time is of the essence for these refugees, as allocated places are filling quickly. Entering the counseling room at the refugee center, I meet Habiba. At 44 years old she looks at least a decade older. By now I have seen that war does that. With her are her daughters, ages 13 and 15, Emina and Alma. Alma, composed and somber for her 15 years, and the only English speaker, does the interpreting between mama and me. This is their story. “My husband and I, our daughters and many of our relatives, lived in a city in eastern Bosnia. He was a warehouse manager, and I worked in a factory. We worked hard, but we had what we needed; a good life surrounded by relatives and friends. We knew that war had broken out in Croatia, and we were fearful. But never, never did we think it could happen here.”

Bosnia, with sizeable populations of Muslims, Serbs, and Croats, was a multiethnic society. Then, the unthinkable happened. The Serbian military began its "ethnic cleansing" campaign, the genocidal eradication that targeted primarily Muslims, but extended to all those of less than “pure" Serbian blood.
“It was a nightmare that we continue to live. Men in military uniforms were breaking down our doors with their rifle butts. ‘Out, quickly now, Muslim swine!’ I made a move to grab my dentures from the bedside table, but before I could reach them, I was hit on the knee with the side of a rifle. Look for yourself. Even now that knee is swollen twice the size of the other.
Along with thousands of others, my family was herded through the streets of our city to a detention camp on the outskirts.
I dragged an elderly neighbor, an injured man, with me. He became heavier and heavier, and after a few miles, I realized I was carrying a dead man.
I had no choice but to leave his body at the side of the road.

I heard that a Serb family, former friends and neighbors, occupied our house immediately. As far as I know, they still live there. Our family, along with the others, was taken to a detention camp. The first night there my husband was taken away. The Red Cross helped us exchange some letters afterwards, but we have not seen or spoken to him for nearly one year.” When she speaks of him, Habiba rings her hands, her body trembles. It takes her some time to regain her composure. It would be another year until they are reunited with their husband and father, all as refugees in the United States. That they are all alive and together makes them some of the lucky ones.

“The next day, in the camp, soldiers took my girls from me. I fought them, but I was beaten, and they threatened to kill all of us. I didn’t see the girls for 3 days, when they were returned to the camp. I was sure they were dead; they thought the same of me. I learned that they had been held in a house used by the paramilitaries. They were raped over and over by too many men to count. The owner of the house was a local policeman. We knew him. My family and his were neighbors. He oversaw the detention and rape of many girls. When they were not being violated, they cooked and cleaned for the men, like slaves.

Right after my daughters were returned to me, we were released in a prisoner exchange. The three of us, along with my sister and her 2 young children, were sent into Croatia as refugees. We lived in a village, in little more than a hut, and then in this camp for almost a year now, with no money, and no help except what some relatives and kind strangers could give. I am so worried about my girls. They were so young when this happened. They act brave, but they cry every night. They can’t tell me any details about what happened to them in those 3 days. I know it is too horrible to tell. As raped girls there is no room for them in our society. Even if it was possible to return to our home, if it even still exists, we could not. They feel so ashamed. Please tell me how they can go on in life here?” I complete their application for refugee resettlement. Marianne and Irene, and their Sufi community in the Bay Area, have requested to sponsor them. We wait for the authorization to come through. Meanwhile, all six of them have been placed in an apartment in Zagreb. It’s crowded, but they are safe and together. Habiba loves to cook, to nurture, to give, and I have gratefully accepted her invitation to dinner tonight. She and the girls greet me at the door. "Marcia, you don't look well, so pale, so sad. Are you sick?" She reaches out and touches my cheek, concern in her eyes. "Come, sit down dear. Let us talk before our dinner. Now tell me, what is wrong?" "Habiba, I don't know. I’m quite alone in Zagreb. I've been feeling so sad lately. I sit at my desk trying to write my thoughts, tears streaming down my face. It isn't like me to cry. I feel lonely, out of place, unseen. Yesterday, I went to a travel agent to book a flight. She smiled at me, treated me with interest and kindness, and I could hardly bring myself to leave her office. I hate feeling this desperate. I'm longing for friends, family, home. I guess that's what it is; home sickness."

She inhales deeply, and her eyes glaze over. I realize with a start to whom I have just spoken these words. “Ah yes, believe me, I know home sickness. My husband and I built our home with our own hands. When the children were babies, we both went to Germany to work for two years, leaving the girls in my parents' care. There we could earn enough money in factories to buy, on our return to Bosnia, a small piece of land and the necessary building materials. It was a hardship being away from home and family, but we were building our security, our children's future. We couldn't wait to return to Bosnia and establish our home on that beloved land, near where our ancestors have lived for many centuries. Not just our home, but our hearts as well, are in those green river valleys. Our house was modern; satellite dish, television, washing machine. But it was also filled with traditional things, wooden furniture, and hand embroidery, made by my ancestors, passed down for generations. And most important, in the 10 years of living in our house, we have been surrounded by neighbors of all nationalities, living together in peace. My husband's employer was a Serb, and he and his wife were like uncle and aunt to our daughters. Many of our friends, neighbors, even relatives were Croats, Serbs.

Now they come and kill us, rape our daughters, rape our daughters, rape our innocent daughters......
They steal our homes, all our belongings. My husband, brother, brother-in-law; we fear that still the Serbs hold them in camps. What will happen to them? I will never go back to my home, it is gone. I don't believe my country will ever exist as a place we can live again. Now I am a refugee in another country. I am a Bosnian living in Croatia, a country which is at war with my homeland. Yes, this home sickness, I know well this home sickness."

Our eyes meet, and I let myself come into the presence of this woman sitting across from me, with tears streaming down her face, while my eyes are brimming. We smile. Alma, who has had the formidable job of translating all this, lets out a sigh of relief, looking from one to the other of us. Emina, the younger sister, holds out a handkerchief to her mother.

Mothers, and daughters, and the hell worlds of rape, murder, destruction. Blood running with our tears.

"Come, Marcia, come. You are with us now. Let me feed you a real Bosnian dinner."

17 | The Call | Summer 1992

The ringing of the phone on my bedside table is insistent, demanding. It’s not even 6am, too early to be getting a call. Then I...


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