Category Archives: bosnia

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

Diary from Bosnia – By Brita Schmidt

Day 1 – 3 May 2009

I arrived this afternoon in Sarajevo to see – for the first time- the actual work of Women for Women International on the ground with my own eyes. On the way from the airport, we passed many buildings with numerous bullet holes large and small, an immediate and very visible legacy of a war that has been one of the worst in recent European history. Later walking through the old part of Sarajevo, I was trying to imagine what it must have been like to have lived through the years of war in Sarajevo (only 15 years ago) – caged in by beautiful mountains which meant you could not get out and I wondered what other legacy this terrible war has left.

In the evening we met a few of the Women for Women staff and Seida, the country director. All together we watched ‘Grbavica’ (Esma’s secret: Grbavica) (Grbavica is an area of Sarajevo where the initial war started and where everyone who was not Serb was killed or raped) and all together we cried. The film, produced in 2006 and winner of the Berlin International Film Festival gave me the answer to my question about the legacy of the Bosnian war. It is a story about a young girl who asks her mother who her father was, whilst initially pretending he was a war hero, at the end the mother tells her daughter that a soldier raped her. The pain and suffering of the mother, all the lost opportunities, the destruction, the denial and the impossibility of actually coming to terms with one of the worst war crimes – rape –  and its legacy is painfully depicted in this amazing film.

Later speaking to one of the staff, Razija, who has been with Women for Women since 1998, she said to me that even though she has seen the film many times, it continues to make her grief to think of all what women have had to go through. Her translator, Edina, a woman who also translates the letters that sponsors and sponsor sisters write to each other, was also visibly shaken by the film and together they told me about the women that Women for Women International works with and helps. One woman she told me about had lost her parents, husband and her two children in Srebrenica. After graduating from our programme she decided to go back to Srebrenica ‘to walk where her children’s feet touched the ground’.

Right now I cannot believe the pain and suffering that this nation has gone through, it seeps through everything, and yet there is the amazing strength of women who survive and become active citizens, speaking out about the most horrendous atrocities of this war to make sure that it will never happen again. More than ever before am I convinced that one of the most important things we can all do is say no to war and violence.

Day 2 – 4 May 2009

This morning we left early and drove through Sarajevo to get to the other side, to visit Women for Women’s offices. On our way there, I saw the Memorial for the dead children of Sarajevo in the centre of Sarajevo. Our driver told us it was to commemorate the huge number of children who died in Sarajevo during the war. At the offices we learned a little bit more about Bosnia’s recent history. 200,000 people were killed in the war. It is estimated that 20,000 women were raped during the war (1992-1995) but only very recently has the government actually began to allow rape to be a criteria for war compensation. But actually the process for qualifying for such compensation is such that it re-victimises the woman all over again. Therefore, unsurprisingly not many women will go and register and give testimony as it involves speaking out in front of 3 male commissioners….. In fact so far there are ‘only’ 3,000 women officially registered.  The shame associated with rape is huge when the men in the family and community elders don’t accept the women back. Seida told us about one woman who was raped and told her husband. He wanted her to put the hand on the Koran and swear it had not happened, she was not able to do this and he left her.

The Dayton agreement ended the war but it also has reinforced the divide between the Federation and the Republica Serbska. Some people who lived in the territory of what is now the Republica Serbska, who are not Serb, have decided to sell their property and not go back. I can see now that the divisions which gave rise to the war and were intensified by it are still there and not enough is being done to address them. I could sense real fear that history could repeat itself.

In addition to the political situation, I also heard that at the moment official figures state a 45.6% unemployment rate. 35,000 people alone lost their job at the beginning of 2009 due to the economic recession.

I am beginning to really see why Bosnia was the country where Zainab started the organisation in 1994. Zainab could not believe that women were being mass raped, everyone knew about it and yet no one was doing anything. So she first went to Croatia in 1993, because at the time it was very difficult to get into Sarajevo. In 1994 she managed to get into Sarajevo, by travelling as a journalist which meant she could get on a UN flight – the only way to get into Sarajevo at the time. She met there with Farida, who I am going to meet tomorrow, and started the sponsorship programme where women and men sponsored a woman in Bosnia every month and wrote letters of support, which at the time had to be smuggled through a tunnel to reach besieged Sarajevo. When the Dayton Agreement was signed Women for Women International had 600 women sponsored. In 1997 the organisation started to make microcredit loans available to women to help them stand on their own feet and in 1998 Women for Women started our core programme in Bosnia, which consists of rights awareness, leadership education and vocational and technical skills training. At the moment there are 3,400 women in our core programme in Bosnia. Women also get job skills and if they are interested they receive comprehensive business services designed to help them start and manage their own microenterprises. The microcredit programme then gives women access to capital. I was so interested to learn that the microcredit programme is based on the solidarity model of the Grameen Bank, which incidentally was the first donor for this programme.

The way this model works is that solidarity groups provide a guarantee for each other, they live in the same neighbourhood etc. WfWI provides them with training and assists them to fill in the application form, we then do regular field visits house to house, to accompany the women.  So once the women in a group have gone through a few cycles, and an individual woman does well, then she can also ask for an individual loan, which we also provide.

Seida said that the micro credit is worrying her right now, with the global financial crisis. In Bosnia WfWI micro credit institution is small in comparison to others in Bosnia and for the first time we are seeing that women are not repaying their loans – only 10% at the moment, which is still very low, but it is a completely new phenomenon. For me it is a clear sign of how the global financial crisis is affecting women in the countries where we work.

Having heard so much about the work, we spend the afternoon visiting a few of the women who have been able to set up their small businesses with the help of the microcredit loans. One woman was proudly standing behind her beautiful counter selling eggs. Her business employs her and her husband.

britas image

We also saw a few women who are part of the same solidarity group and have managed to all have their stands together in a small market. They have ensured that each one covers a different market need to make sure that they are not competing with each other.

Brita 2

This woman sells children’s clothes.

The day ends with attending a graduation ceremony of 70 women who have completed the year long course. We hear from one woman who specialised in herbs. When she started the programme she was unemployed. During the programme she became interested in collecting herbs for medical use. So she collected herbs, dried them and started to use them. She now has a successful small business that employs her and her husband. It was so moving to hear her speak and see her husband standing amongst the hundreds of people who had come from the neighbouring villages to support and celebrate the success of the women graduates. I could see the pride with which he was looking at his wife. Later on, after we had tasted the wonderful food that everyone had brought for the celebration and I had danced with the women a traditional Bosnian dance, I visited the small bazaar that the women had put up exhibiting their products and I tried some of her different teas. The energy in the room was so positive and encouraging, everyone had a smile on their lips. When a journalist from one of the national newspapers and radio channels, who wanted to cover the event, asked me whether I thought that there was hope for the women of Bosnia and whether I really thought that programmes such as these make a difference, I knew exactly what I wanted to say. For me there is no doubt that the situation in Bosnia is enormously challenging, because of the legacy of the war and because of the economic situation. But it is clear to me, having seen our women today, that they have hope and skills and the will to make their lives and as a consequence the lives of their families and their community better, for the sake of their children and in hope for a better future. Our work in Bosnia is changing women’s lives, one woman at a time and I feel so privileged to witness this myself.

Day 3 – 5 May 2009

We left very early this morning because today we are going to Srebrenica, which is only about 160km from Sarajevo, but because of the roads, it takes about 3 hours. I was in the car with Farida, the first Women for Women director in Bosnia, who helped Zainab to set everything up. She told us a lot about what it was like to live in Sarajevo during the years of the siege. Whilst I listen to her I look out of the window and admire the beauty of this country. Everything is green. We drive for what seems forever up and down mountains, there are large stretches with no houses at all. Then suddenly we pull in and I see a huge abandoned factory building, the windows are partly shattered, it looks completely deserted and I wonder what we are doing here. Then I realise this is Potocari, the old battery factory where the Dutch peace keeping force was stationed and where the genocide of July 1995 began to unfold, which has now been turned into a museum. I simply cannot describe the atmosphere of that place. You can feel the desolation, the death and despair. For the next few hours a young woman working at the museum told us exactly what happened in Srebrenica. I had no idea that of the ca 8,000 people who were killed here in the space of five days only about 2,000 have so far been buried. The museum guide herself shared her story with us, her brother and father and grandfather were killed. For years they did not find the remains of any of them until a year ago she got a call to inform her that they had now been able to literally ‘piece’ her father together (from three different sites) and that they were 95% confident it was her father. She said that that day she felt not ready and for a moment I didn’t know what she was saying but then I realised that it was only at the point of actually having a body and knowing for sure that it was him and that he had died and knowing how he had died because of the marks on the skull etc that it became real and she could start the proper grieving process. Later when we walked together to look at the war memorial, I talked to the guide about how important it is to have this memorial. She told me about how dedicated and committed she is to the museum and speaking out about the atrocities that happened here. But she also talked about her young baby and how she does not want her to grow up in Srebrenica, surrounded by this grief and this horrible past. For me that was echoing a question I was carrying around with me, which is how can we start to recover if the legacy of mass rape and the fact that entire families have not been able to bury their dead is staring us in the face every day no matter that the war ended 15 years ago. Here in Srebrenica it feels raw and present.

And then in the afternoon we visited some of the women who have been through our programme in Srebrenica and have also received microcredit loans. And that was when I met Safia and actually realised that she was the woman that Razija had told me about on the first evening after watching the film, the woman who decided to go back to her house to ‘walk where her sons had walked’. And she showed me the tree in her front yard where she had seen her two sons, then 16 and 22, for the last time before they ran off with their father into the woods to escape from the Serb soldiers.  She also has not yet been able to bury her sons. She told me her whole story and I began to wonder how she was able to survive with what she had been through. But then she told me about the Women for Women programme and what it had meant to her. She told me that receiving letters was an incredible feeling, to know that there is someone who cares and is interested. She also told me about the skills she learned. She was trained in chicken rearing and received help to build a proper enclosure for them. With the micro credit loan she was able to rebuild her house. But most importantly perhaps, she met three other women through the programme who she still stays in touch with. In fact they were there when we visited. They all said that thanks to Women for Women they have been able to speak about all the horrible things that have happened to them and they take comfort in the knowledge that they understand each other. I think to myself that this must be the most important thing anyone can ever do – to provide a lifeline, something that will help women to live through the worst atrocities and move from victim to survivor to active citizen.

When I started my journey all I thought was that Bosnia was probably relatively advanced in how it has come to terms with the war in comparison to the other countries where Women for Women works, but actually, I am leaving absolutely determined to raise awareness of the horrendous and terrible legacy of this brutal war and to do my bit to ensure that women in Bosnia get the help and support they so desperately need. And in Safia’s words: I hope this will never happen again to anyone…


Filed under bosnia