08 | Women for Women | February 1993 | Zagreb
From the moment of saying “yes” to Marianne and Irene, our trip to the war zone is set in motion. I hadn't envisioned a career path that would include international work, but the decision I make that day is life changing. Certainly I wouldn’t have guessed that, as a result of this “yes,” I would be spending the next decade living and working in the former Yugoslavia. And never could I have imagined to be blessed with the people I am to meet there.
Five of us begin making plans for the journey. Marianne and Irene, decades long friends and colleagues, are joined by Tom, a psychologist with experience working for an international aid organization. And last, but not by any stretch of the imagination least, is Tosun Bayrak, Sheikh of the Jerrahi Order in America, with whom my friends are studying Sufism, a mystical form of Islam. Tosun is in his mid 60’s, a statuesque man of Turkish descent, with olive skin and snow-white hair and mustache. His presence inspires confidence. Over the weeks in Zagreb, I come to know his wonderful huge heart and calm decisive mind. He has some friends who make us welcome in Zagreb. He has seen to it that we are all settled into a simple hotel near the city center and supports us unequivocally in our work there. In 1990 the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, for numerous and complex reasons which are beyond my understanding, split into the independent republics of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro, Macedonia, and Slovenia. This division was to lead, in its tragic aftermath, to large-scale protracted wars in the region, with hundreds of thousands losing their lives or becoming refugees and displaced persons.
People of all ethnicities are suffering, and perhaps none so gravely as the Bosnian Muslims, against whom a large scale massacre is being carried out. This war within Bosnia, beginning in Sarajevo in April 1992, killing many thousands and trapping the citizens of Sarajevo under siege for 43 months, would later be designated a genocide against the Muslim citizens.
Tens of thousands of people, mostly women and children, are fleeing the genocide and crossing the border into Croatia. Those who have relatives or friends locally shelter with these “host families.” Others are crammed into makeshift and often illegal refugee camps and collective centers. In addition to the horror of having family members wounded, abducted and killed, many have been raped. The Warburton Commission, established by the European Commission in 1993 to investigate rapes in the former Yugoslavia, reported the numbers of raped women between 20,000 and 50,000. They described the rape of the Muslim women as “systematic….. perpetrated on a wide scale and in such a way as to be part of a clearly recognizable pattern, sufficient to form an important element of war strategy.” For a full report go to: http://www.womenaid.org/press/info/humanrights/warburtonfull.htm#Scale%20of%20the%20problem ). Indeed, the rapes in this war in the former Yugoslavia led, on June 28, 1996, to the UN defining rape as a weapon of war under the category of “crimes against humanity.” We have been invited to Croatia by the Center for Women War Victims, founded in 1992 by feminist and anti-war activists. It is a non-governmental and independent organization whose objective is to offer refugee women of all ethnic origins psychological, social, legal and humanitarian aid. Special attention is given to rape victims. Staff at the Center have reached out to the international community for support and training in working with these highly traumatized war victims in the counselling centers they run. The day after we arrive, we meet with the Center’s staff of eight in an apartment that serves as their office. The women activists are from all walks of life and professions, including journalists, lawyers, and writers. They are coordinating 30 volunteers, Croatian and Bosnian, who staff their projects located in the refugee centers in or near Zagreb. Some of these volunteers are themselves refugees.
To gain a deeper understanding of the work they are doing, we are taken to visit a counselling group in an old army barracks, now serving refugees. We open the group by asking the women participants to “tell us how you got here?” All of the stories are heartbreaking. Villages shelled, homes burned, sons killed in the army, and long standing friends and neighbors looting apartments and then occupying them while forcing the owners out under threat of death.
Finally, near the end of the session, we come to Serifa. The youngest in the group, at 24, she is one of the “lucky” ones to have a place living in her aunt’s apartment. A slight dark-haired woman, her voice is hushed yet full of emotion. “My story is so terrible. I thank you all for letting me tell it. It has taken a long time to speak these words. I was living with my husband and small children in our town in central Bosnia. My husband, though young, was a well-respected school teacher. That is probably one reason why the Chetniks invaded our home and took him away early in the war. They wanted to eliminate anyone of influence in the community so they could do what they wanted with us. To this day I have had no word from him, and don’t know if I will ever see him again. Other men disappeared from our village with him the night he was taken.
I was forced, with my children, 2 and 4 years old, into a car and taken to the police station.
There I recognized a local policeman and thought he might help me, but he acted as though I was invisible.
The other officers were in Serb military uniforms, and I didn’t recognize them. But now, I will never forget their faces. I was taken into a room with 3 women and their children, all older than mine. The guards informed us we would be taken out one by one and questioned. We should leave our children in the room, and they would be safe. I was the first to be taken. My children clung to me and screamed, but the guards pulled them away and dragged me down the hall. They forced me into a room with only a filthy mattress on the floor, threw me down on it, and told me to be quiet if I didn’t want my children to be harmed. Four soldiers entered. Each raped and beat me while the others held me down. But there was no need. I didn’t fight. All I could think of was my little ones, and I was determined to live through it all for them. I was held there for 2 days. Not knowing if my children were alive or dead was the hardest part. When they took me back to my children, we couldn’t let go of each other. One by one the soldiers removed the other women, and returned them after a day or two. We didn't speak among our selves, but we knew we had all shared the same fate.
On the fifth day they released us onto a makeshift convoy of wagons and people on foot, making our way to Croatia. There were a few old trucks in the convoy, and we tried to get the old people who could barely walk onto the vehicles. One old woman was alone and blind, and I took her with us and comforted her as much as I could. We all had our minds on one thing; getting across the border. At the border we joined a huge camp of women, old men and children, where we were held until we were processed and able to cross. I was among the “lucky” ones. My aunt is a Croatian citizen and arrived with a letter of support to give to the authorities. This allowed us to go home with her. I don’t know what happened to the others. Croatia, after admitting thousands of refugees, later closed its borders except to those with passports or sponsors. But we had fled with only our lives. Passports were a luxury we didn’t have access to. Our newly created Republic of Bosnia and Hercegovina was not yet issuing passports, and our old Yugoslav passports were for a country that no longer existed. And so, my life as a refugee in Zagreb began. I was here in body and mind, but my spirit was crushed. I lost my husband, my home, my country, and carried on solely for the children. But I was empty. One day a neighbor told me about a place she thought would help. It was a counselling center, and I could take the children to play, and at the same time help them adjust to all the things they had been through. My neighbor was clever; if she said it was to help me, I wouldn’t have come. But I was worried about the children, especially the older one, the girl, who often asks questions about all the horrible things that have happened, and especially about where her “tata” is, and when he is coming back to us. My neighbor accompanied us here a few days later, and that day that changed my life. Yes, it was important for my children. My daughter was able to speak about her “tata” and how much she missed him. She drew pictures of him playing with her and her brother. But soon I saw that I was the one who needed the help. I was having terrible nightmares, and some of them were visions while I was awake during the day. I couldn’t stop seeing them taking my husband away.
I saw that room where I was held and heard the policeman I knew standing outside the door laughing. I smelled the men and the mattress. It was so real to me, like it was happening now, over and over again. I had never spoken about what happened to me there, not even to my family in Croatia. Deep inside I had lost hope, given up. Now, in talking with people at the center I realize something very important - that I am not alone.
Others had endured even worse. Some of those who had gone through the worst had become counsellors and volunteers and were helping others. Many of their stories were so horrible. I asked one woman how she was able to survive it. She told me, ‘One thing keeps me going. Here, there is always someone with a story even more horrible than mine. And I can reach out to her. I can be the strong shoulder for her to cry on. She sees me and she knows there is hope, hope for all of us.’ So that is why I am here in this group today. There is always someone who is worse off, who I can give a hand to. We are together. Right now, I live for that.”