Bosnia and Kosovo: Lady Hannah Lowy Mitchell’s Visit

Srenbrenica, Bosnia

“Do not think of the people who died in the name of God that they are dead. They are alive, but you cannot see them or feel them”

So says the inscription at the Memorial at Srebrenica, where 8,732 men and boys are commemorated. You can feel the dead everywhere—in the icy cold of the pouring rain, which falls like tears all day long, as unremitting as the freezing wind which penetrates the very depths of our bones. In the icy rain, but even in the warmth of the welcoming houses of the women we visit, the dead speak to us from behind the glass picture frames where they reside, ever young, ever smiling, and never forgotten. It is the sorrow and the suffering felt by the survivors of this horrible war which destroyed their lives, then and now, which was brought home to us by the realization that, still fifteen years on, these women still have not been able to find peace.

Abida and Fazila—two of the women in WfWI’s program—are only now, this coming July 11, going to be able to bury their dead husbands and sons, and even then, only when they have been through the agonizing process of formally identifying and registering their remains. These remains will mostly be 50 percent of the bodies of their husbands and sons, as the bodies were moved from primary to secondary graves in order to confuse those who sought justice for the genocide and massacres perpetrated during those terrible years.

Imagine for a moment how it must feel to formally register half your son’s beloved body. Without that, you cannot even give him a proper burial. Without that, he will forever remain a pile of bones, maybe with only a shred of a garment or a cigarette box or a ring to identify him. He, who was once young and full of vigor and hope; he, who was forced to say goodbye to you, his mother, with tears pouring down his cheeks as he waved farewell; he, whose life ended in those sad hills, shot by those who hated him for his religion. And even now you only have part of his body, and will forever wonder where the rest is, or, indeed, which part of his body they have identified.

The women left behind try very hard. They are the most deprived and the poorest, the ones whose lives were shattered again and again—by starvation, by death, by rape and by humiliation. These are the women that Women for Women International make it their business to help. These are the women who drag themselves out of their sorrow to learn new skills through our training programs, to find new strength and new purpose in life, to support their remaining children, often girls who themselves have had to watch as their mothers were raped or beaten or cruelly hurt by the Serbian soldiers.

That Women for Women International is able to help, and that the Bosnian women are able to find new meaning and new avenues in their lives is truly remarkable. It is a miracle to me how these women find the strength to carry on, even after all these years, to rebuild and even to forgive. It is a miracle made possible by donations such as yours—and believe me, your letters count for just as much. Bosnia seems to have been forgotten, the world has moved on, to other tragedies, to other massacres, to other deaths.

On the wall of Abida’s simple home hang three pictures. In the center, a framed, crumpled photograph or her two handsome sons, ages eighteen and nineteen, sitting in the summer sun chatting to two young Canadian U.N. soldiers in their pale blue helmets. On either side hang two WfWI graduation certificates awarded to Abida and her daughter; the only diplomas they ever won.

Those two young sons died in July 1995, murdered as they fled Srebrenica, the so-called U.N. safe haven. Those boys will never come home, and Abida cannot bring herself to go and register their remains, because then she will have to finally admit they have died. But she will never have peace before they are buried, so she is caught in that no-man’s land of grief and sorrow. And the only thing she has to make her smile is her diploma from Women for Women International, the printed proof that she is a worthwhile human being, that she still has something to live for, that she is able to support her family, however poor they may be.

And I will always remember those smiling boys and her broken face as she tells me her story. And I am ashamed that all this happened just a few hundred kilometers from the sun-kissed beaches of our European summer holidays. And I wonder how it all happened. And I am proud that Women for Women International can make such a difference to such devastated lives. It takes so little. So very little. And the icy rain still falls.

Women’s Opportunity Center, Bosnia

The rain poured down again today, all day, but this time it seemed a gentler rain, one which is responsible for the immensely fertile nature of the gloriously verdant countryside in this part of the world. Today it rained on the fruit and vegetables being grown for market by women who are micro-loan clients of Women for Women International of Bosnia, and it rained on the flowers in the gardens and the wild herbs in the forests which our women pick to make tinctures and creams and elixirs for sale in Sarajevo.

Today we visited the Women’s Center, which houses the administrative heart of the organization in Bosnia. Bosnian women are renowned for their skills at knitting and embroidery and the WfWI training programs capitalize on their skills. We spent time in the workshops where women come to weave carpets, embroider beautiful linens and knit trendy scarves, gloves and bags for kate spade in New York. The quality of the work is excellent and the attention to details outstanding. We could do with several business partnerships like the one with kate spade. There is no doubt the workforce is here and the women are hard-working and talented. All they need are opportunities.

Then we went back to the WfWI school with a group of women of all ages and religious backgrounds–Muslims, Serbs and Croats–as they started on their  first day of their exciting journey to independence. They began by making a list of all the unpaid jobs they do at home and in their communities. Then they agreed with one voice that no one ever thanks them for the work they do. I thought to myself how little things change in the world. But then I also thought that by the end of this year, the twenty-odd women in this room will leave as different people. They will learn just how valuable their many varied skills actually are, and how they will be able to turn those very jobs they now do to their own advantage. They will be the market-gardeners and the fruit-growers of tomorrow, they too will take micro-finance loans and grow mushrooms and strawberries and flowers to sell to the local shops. They will sew and weave and embroider and knit. They will be able to feed their children and care for their families. They will be able to decorate their houses and fill in the bullet holes and repair the shell damage.

And they will, in their turn, be ambassadors for Women for Women International and show other women the way. Hopefully their husbands and sons will see and take note and slowly, things will change.

None of this would be possible without Zainab’s vision and the quite remarkable dedication and devotion of the staff here in Sarajevo. What an extraordinary group. Zainab’s name is always mentioned with great pride and love. The team itself is made up of the most fantastic people–a few men; but overwhelmingly women. Their passion for the cause is movingly clear in every single thing they do and say. They obviously live for their work and love talking about what they do and how they do it. You cannot imagine a more focused and energetic team, everything we saw bore this out–from their obvious knowledge of every woman on the program, to the beautifully organized archive which has recorded every woman’s participation from the very beginning.

And it was here it all began, all those years ago, when Zainab chose to come to Bosnia.  It goes on to bring out the best in women who have been through so much, it would make your heart squeeze with sorrow. But instead of leaving in tears at their misery, we leave with joy in our hearts, for we know that being part of Women for Women International will change their lives, with their own very hard work, with passionate dedication, with knowledge, and not least, with the love of their fellow students and with the love and support of this extraordinary organization.

Day One: Sarajevo to Prishtina

It is a long journey and we are tired–on the plane from Vienna we are surrounded by soldiers and U.N. staff, a stark reminder that  in Kosova the threat of civil unrest is still present. Maja and Shrepsa are here to meet us at the airport and guide us through the myriad of cigarette sellers and likely lads in the airport car park. We have screwed up our hotel booking and the first hours offer an intriguing insight into the hotels of Prishtina! There is a particular brand of Balkan interior design, which seems to consist mainly of yellow nylon and strip lighting. We feel ashamed to be fussing about where we sleep. But it is all very clean and we eventually settle down in Hamide’s favourite hotel. “Listen to the natives!” she laughs at us.

We visit the deputy head of Mission at the British Embassy to tell her about the work of Women for Women International, and leave her buzzing with enthusiasm. She invites the Women for Women International leaders to join the Embassy for tea on the Queen’s birthday in June.

Maja takes us for dinner with four young members of the Kosova team, and we debate endlessly, hearing about corruption, farming policy, prostitution, HIV aids, infant mortality and women dying in childbirth (the highest in Europe), illiteracy (between 20-40% in general, with places in which the rate goes up to 80% among women), hygiene and human rights, land laws and inheritance policies (women do not inherit, though they are of course legally allowed to), the contrast between what the law stipulates and what actually happens.

Prishtina, Kosovo

When a Kosovan father gives his daughter away in marriage he says to his son-in-law, “I give you my daughter, who is my blood, and your slave.”

We meet the Women for Women International-Kosovo staff in our offices; all 35 of them. We introduce ourselves and each member of staff tells us what they do and what Women for Women International means to them. They are welcoming and full of the same incredible energy and intensity we saw in Sarajevo.

But there is no time for chatting; Hamide and Maja take us straight to see the new Women’s Opportunity Centre which sits strategically opposite USAID and a huge and very newly built shopping center, very close to the site of the new American Embassy. It all looks a mess now, but what a brilliant location? The building itself, which has been sponsored by the Private Equity Foundation in the UK, is nearly complete, and will have its grand opening around September 7, 2010. It is stunning, large and airy, with huge windows, plenty of classrooms, a shop to sell farm produce and products made by our women, a cafeteria, where Hamide expects to feed local office workers and shoppers, for legal aid, for health visitors, for I.T., for literacy programs, and not least, for expansion. Quite a contrast to the crowded and shabby offices Women for Women International-Kosovo live in now! The new WOC will enable the women of Kosova to move to an entirely new level.

After lunch in a traditional Kosovan restaurant (goodness me, is the food good in this part of the world?) we drive out of the city. Everywhere we see vast numbers of unfinished buildings, the construction trade is certainly flourishing here, though most buildings are put up hastily with no regard for safety or planning permission. We drive through several small towns absolutely buzzing with hundreds of cheerful young people just walking around together, playing football, chatting, sitting on walls passing the time of day, doing nothing. There is no work: Officially, unemployment stands around 45%; 70% for women. Where young men used to travel abroad to find work, these options are now much restricted. The young must be desperate for something to do. Meanwhile, the fields go untended. 

In a tiny village close by, things are very different. Seventeen Women for Women International-Kosovo graduates have established their own wood business where they make pine beehives and sell them to women beekeepers (participants and graduates of Women for Women International-Kosov programs) and to other, external buyers. The two small facilities where women work are the property of a family business and women can use one of them free of charge up to 2013. 

Once inside, a delicious smell of freshly sawn wood fills the air. The women are hard at it. They stop to chat. They are so happy to have this work, and are keen to grow the business. Ajete is the team leader on production–her husband is one of the 1,800 men whose bodies have never been found after the war in 1999. The Serbs still refuse to say where the mass graves are to be found. So Ajete supports her five children and her parents and her parents-in-law, there is no one else. The beehives are a lifeline for her and for her family.

A few kilometers away, in a garden full of wild flowers, we meet Menduhije–a beautiful dark-haired girl with fire in her eyes. She graduated from our program three years ago and she is now a mentor and an inspiration for other young women who come to her to learn beekeeping. Menduhije started with three beehives, and she now has forty-three. She sells her wild-flower honey in local markets and fairs and is famous throughout the community. Today she is teaching the intricate and delicate art of beekeeping to four other young women, each prettier and sparkier than the next. She invites us into her house and makes us tea, and we get to taste her delicious honey. She only has a little left as she sells as much as she can produce.

The girls talk of their lives. They are between 18 and 23 years old. They were allowed to go to school (I say allowed, as this is unusual in rural communities; the girls usually have to work at home while the boys travel abroad to work-the families are too poor and too traditional to allow them to go to college). The girls are desperate to start their own beekeeping enterprises–this way they can stay at home and work, which satisfies the community but allows them to earn money.

I love these girls and my heart goes out to them. One of them was head-girl at her school and would have liked to study and become a teacher. But she is stuck in a remote village where the mind-set is truly medieval. She will have an arranged marriage. But she is one of the lucky ones. She has Women for Women International to train and support her. She has Menduhije as her mentor. And Menduhije in turn has Hamide as her inspiration and mentor. Parry and I have fallen in love with the whole group. It is hard to leave!

And everywhere we go, Hamide and Maja show us gravestones by the side of the road–gravestones with carved portraits of people, young and old. “Look! That is where 27 people were slaughtered by the Serbs–and here they buried a young girl, shot by the Serbs on her way home from school.” “Look, this is where the Serbs killed a while family of innocent civilians, and tore the unborn child from the body of a pregnant woman, and shot her and the baby to death.”

On to a Roma community, which sits alongside a small Serbian enclave between two main roads. The Serbian part of the village is relatively prosperous, very neat with immaculate vegetable gardens and tidy cattle. A few dusty streets on, the Roma live in appalling filth and squalor. But even here Women for Women International has, after many years of careful nurturing, persuaded the community to allow their women to attend literacy and training classes run by the devoted team in Prishtina.

We speak to a Roma young female representative. Her tale is a sorry one. Roma women are still sold into marriage, often as young as 14 years old. They speak Roma or Serbo-Croat, which keeps them isolated from the rest of the majority, the Albanian community. The children consequently find it hard to manage in school, so they have after-school classes in the Albanian language. Worst of all, the Roma are still considered collaborators (some of them joined the Serb death squads) and this is the reason they find it difficult, if not impossible, to return to their communities. Hamide is talking to a tiny old lady with broken teeth outside a squalid hut, it reminds me of the slums of India. But she is smiling, telling us how her life improved after her training with Women for Women International. She now is making sure her children learn Albanian, she has a few sheep (which she got through the Women for Women International program) and she can make some money, selling sheep’s milk for cheese. Afterwards I ask Hamide how old she is “I’d say 40″ says Hamide. She looked 80.

That evening, we dine with Nezafete Sejdiu, Kosova’s First Lady-a remarkable woman who was a teacher before her husband became Kosova’s President-she has volunteered with Women for Women International since the very first day and she has translated many letters between sponsor and trainee. We talk about rape and murder and how Women for Women International translators find out about so many horror stories from the touching way the women confided in their sponsors across the oceans who they will never meet. We discuss the future and hope and their passionate belief that their women will slowly change their beloved country.

Prishtina, Kosovo

“Bread, heart and salt,” a traditional Kosovan saying: I might have nothing to offer my friends but I will always offer them bread, heart and salt.

 As in Bosnia, so in Kosova. We go straight from one sorrow to another. We drive to visit Enver Duriqi, the sole survivor of the massacre of Obranc. He is a tall man with a limp and a hearing aid, both the result of multiple beatings by Serb militia. He greets us and immediately starts telling us his story.
We walk up a small hill through beautiful fields of wild flowers as the words pour out. We stand in front of a marble memorial with the carved portraits of seven people, all with the name, Duriqi. They are his parents, aged around 70, his wife, a young woman of 35, and their four children, aged between three and 14. They are Enver’s family. As he speaks, two small children join our group and listen with solemn faces. The little boy slips his hand into Nezafete’s.

As Enver tells his story, we slowly crumple. The First Lady and Hamide have heard these stories many times before and his tale is the same as thousands of others, but still the tears pour down their cheeks. Enver’s eyes redden and he too, weeps. On March 24,1999 the Serbs murdered Enver’s whole family in cold blood. On the same sunny afternoon, they murdered 24 others from the same village. Nezafete and I ask, “How did you ever get on with your life after that?” Enver smiles through his tears. After the war his father-in-law said to him, “You are a good man and you married my eldest daughter and she is sadly dead. Now, marry her sister, my youngest daughter, and look to the future.” So he married her and he now has four young children, and these two little ones are his, the others are at school. I wonder how much of Enver’s pain is passed down to his sons and daughters?

Not far away, a women’s farming association (the word “collective” is seldom used; too reminiscent of the Communists) welcomes us for a huge delicious lunch. The fields here are cultivated full of cabbages and onions and tomatoes and peppers and the story is the same–people come from far and wide to buy their produce–they cannot grow enough. We talk about land prices and pickled peppers and the women burn with pride and pleasure, they are so happy to see us and the First Lady and everyone has their photographs taken.

Final Thoughts on Bosnia and Kosovo

Heart-warming and heart-rending; those two words sum up our feelings on the way home. Unashamedly corrupt governments, selfish politicians constantly feathering their own pockets, ignorant, ill-educated men, down-trodden, illiterate women, lack of investment in local infrastructure and most of all, lack of investment in small businesses and agriculture. Lack of investment anywhere the politicians and local officials cannot make their cut.

Women for Women International prides itself justifiably on never taking or making bribes, on showing there is an honest way to survive. And their success is proof that they are right.

The work Women for Women International does is truly magnificent and is quite obviously flourishing. But we need more investment in businesses just like the kate spade new york partnership. We need to find other companies who can use our women’s skills in knitting, weaving and embroidery. We need to give them designs that will sell in New York, Los Angeles, Sydney, Paris, Rome and London. We need to harness their hard-working talents and get products on the road that will bring them income and investment.

And more even that that, we need to help with land. There is a huge market there and the women are desperate for work. They can sell everything they produce and more. Lettuce, tomatoes, radishes, cabbage, peppers, potatoes, cucumbers, plums, strawberries, apples, eggs, and honey, I could go on and on. 

Both Bosnia and Kosova import more than 75% of cheap food from Turkey, Greece, Macedonia and China. This is ludicrous. Both countries are tremendously fertile, there is plenty rain and they could easily make a huge success of farming, after all, they did before the recent wars. (Can you believe Bosnia imports garlic from as far away as China?). The demand is there. Our women only need the land and the greenhouses (€1,400 each) and beehives (€30-40 each) and tools and seeds and fruit trees and irrigation systems and they will be away. We need to move fast before land prices increase too much.

Women for Women International has the infrastructure, the women-power, the controls and the training capacity. Women for Women International needs to invest in its future, and for its future to be sustainable, Women for Women International needs land to run its own co-operatives and needs to plough profits back into more training and more trees and beehives and more land.

In countries where women are prevented by tradition from inheriting the property or land, which is by law theirs.  What could be more satisfying than for Women for Women International to own the very land which will create investment and income opportunities for the women, for the organization and for the future? This would guarantee the survival of Women for Women International far beyond the limits of charitable donations.

We need some serious business investment here. As Hamide said, “We don’t want mercy, we want jobs.”

Leadership Circles in the US and the UK, it is up to us to make that happen.

Lady Hannah Lowy Mitchell traveled throughout Bosnia and Kosovo during May 2010; she is a co-chair of the Women’s Leadership Circles in the United Kingdom.



Filed under bosnia, Kosovo

2 responses to “Bosnia and Kosovo: Lady Hannah Lowy Mitchell’s Visit

  1. Mikki Clark

    It is both shocking and heartwarming to read all these stories. My first question is – is the farming that Women for Women supports using both sustainable and organic methods? Are there donations of chemical fertilizers and herbicides?

  2. Drenica

    These are all such inspiring and strong women. I’m so proud to be living in this age where women are doing something to help the women in need. I am Albanian, but from Albania, and I lived in Tropoje, which is borderline of Kosovo. And I remember as a kid the refugees who came to our house to stay during the war. I have relatives in Kosovo, and we housed them until the war was over. All these war-stories are so atrocious and sad, but they also mark a new beginning, a chance to change, a second chance especially for women to become empowered. We just need to spread the word, so more people become aware of these good things this organization is doing. Keep up the good work.

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