AWIU DELEGATION TO THE BALKANS Text Only
See Drop Down Menu under Delegations for Parts 1 through 6 for Text with Pictures
Both segments were written by Gayle Morin, Delegation Leader June 2012
The idea for an AWIU Delegation to the Balkans was triggered when we met The Honorable Agnes Osztolykan at a U.S. State Department celebration to honor her as an International Women of Courage. Agnes was the first Roma woman in history to be elected as a Member of Parliament in Hungary, and as such, has been a source of inspiration and a role model for Roma Women throughout Eastern Europe. “Ms. Osztolykan speaks out for Roma in the face of open hostility, fearlessly advocating for the equal rights and inclusion of Roma in Hungarian society.”
As we began our year long study of the Balkans, we quickly came to realize that the Yugoslav wars of the 90s had and continue to have an inescapable impact on the entire area. We studied the history of these countries beginning with the Illyrians who were conquered by the Romans in 9 A.D.; the immigration of the Southern Slavs in the 6th century, the long rule of the Ottoman Empire, the first and second world wars, and the communist period under Tito. We were briefed on current political and economic events by the Department of State in Washington D.C. and were gifted by advice and presentations from three of our members: one who grew up in Bosnia and offered advice on organizations to meet with; one who had been posted as an USAID officer in Bosnia; and one who lived as a teenager through the siege of Gorazde, Bosnia. See Picture of Bojana Blagojevich with excerpt from her book, Story of One Heart.
“I lived in a multi-ethnic, beauftiful small town where people had respected each other, intermarried, and lived in peace. Gorazde is situated in the valley of river Drina where, as children, we used to sunbathe and swim. When the war started, it was the river where people were taken to be killed and where corpses were seen floating when peole fetched water. It was hard to believe that NEIGHBORS, who lived together, partied together, went to school together would turn against each other in such violence.”
For a time, it seemed that the more we knew, the less we knew. How could countries whose citizens had lived and worked together as neighbors be persuaded by their governments to massacre one another. The term ethnic cleansing, often used, is a misnomer when, with the exception of the Albanians in Bosnia, most of the citizens in every country are of Southern Slav heritage.
The religious differences are more distinct -- coterminous with nationalities and may be majority or minority in each country. Serbs, primarily Serbian Orthodox, slaughtered Bosnian Muslims and Roman Catholic Croats attacked Serbian Orthodox in Croatia. Prior to the dissolution of Yugoslavia, Tito managed to keep the conflicts among nationalities in check, but with his death, came the struggle for power, independence, and territory by each of these countries.
Because the majority of the organizations we met with were in Bosnia, we heard more about the Serb inflicted atrocities, but battles with the Croats were equally violent. In 1995 Croatia drove out more than 250,000 Serbs who lost their property and their homes. In Bosnia, the Serbs massacred more than 10,000 and left untold thousands homeless in an attempt to rid Bosnia of all non-Serbs.
The devastation is still evident. We saw buildings in Sarajevo and Mostar that were still pockmarked from the shelling that rained down on ordinary people trying to survive. Throughout Bosnia there were well-built homes that had been abandoned as people were forced to flee for their lives. These abandoned homes are often next door to other occupied and thriving homes -- evidence that neighbors once lived together in the same communities.
BATTLES RESULTING IN THE DISSOLUTION OF YUGOSLAVIA
We studied the Vance agreement that didn’t work, and the Dayton agreement that is still problematic, but we still can’t understand “why.” Why did this happen and how could it have happened in our life time? As we planned the specifics of our Delegation to the Balkans, we determined that we may never understand how leaders hungry for power and territory can convince ordinary men to kill and rape those who were once their teachers or their dentists or their friends. We decided that rather than focus on the “why,” we would focus on what is being done to rebuild -- how citizens whose sons and husbands were slaughtered and who witnessed vicious rape, lost their homes and their livelihood --how these people can once again trust their neighbors enough to start over in either their own or their new communities.
To do this we focused our Delegation on the former Yugoslavia countries of Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina while including short side trips to Montenegro, Croatia, and Slovenia. Our last two days would be spent in Budapest.
We found beauty in the mountains, farmland, rivers, lakes and seas. We saw grandiose buildings that survived untouched and others that were destroyed. But most heartening, we met people who had dedicated their lives to help victims of war and to ensure that nothing like this could happen again.
On June 6, 2012 twelve professional AWIU women arrived in Belgrade, Serbia. Many had never met, except by teleconference, but we came to appreciate the knowledge, talent, and perspective that each brought to the Delegation.
To focus on how citizens of these former Yugoslav countries, especially women, coped with the aftermath of the wars, I describe three organizations that were formed to address what they could do to heal the wounds, provide shelter for the displaced, and build a future without war. They told us their stories based on personal experience and what they did to overcome.
MOTHERS OF SREBRENICA in SARAJEVO
We saw it even before we met with the Mothers of Srebrenica --the partially destroyed and abandoned homes; the memorial with thousands of white obelisks, each marking the grave of a father, husband or son who had been killed in the Massacre at Srebrenica.
We saw the museum with heart wrenching pictures of caskets, bits of clothes, bones, and other remains used to identify the more than 8,000 whose names are now listed on the white marble monument. Some are still missing – have never been found – leaving children, mothers and wives still hoping for closure.
The founder and current president of the Mothers of Srebrenica, Munira Subasic, told us they had organized originally to find out what happened to those who were killed in 1996 – 10,701 men including 570 women and 1,042 children – and to bring the perpetrators to justice. More than 5500 children were left as orphans and thousands more had only one parent. She said, “We are traditionally a patriarchal society, but the more than 8,000 women members of this organization have managed to raise our children to be successful, without bitterness, nurture, love, not hate.”
“We now join with women in other post-conflict countries. Every mother is a mother – no matter her religion, country, or race. We want to make sure this never happens again. The government wants everyone to forget what happened. But we will not forget. Some mothers are still looking for their sons. We have to tell our grandchildren the real truth – the hardest thing is not to hate.”
Munira also explained that from World War II they were a very diverse population. They were all Bosnians. Now, because of what happened, they have to be segregated. There are only 5–10 % Muslim in some areas. Now three Presidents serve at the same time and rotate chairmanship every eight months. Munira says the Presidents can’t agree. When asked privately, the people we met in both Serbia and Bosnia/Herzegovina are unified in their belief that their governments don’t work.
In relating her own memories of this meeting, our AWIU president wrote: “As the discussion ended, one of our Delegates, Diana Kruse of Serbian heritage, stood up, tears streaming down her face. She addressed the group and in a spirit of reconciliation and deep sorrow expressed her heartrending apology for the devastation and pain her ‘people’ had inflicted…” The emotions felt by both of our organizations were palpable and the hug received from their President was, “the most powerful token of affection I have ever experienced from a stranger. We were strangers no longer.”
BOSFAM (Udruzenje Bosanska Familija) in TUZLA and SREBRENICA
The AWIU Delegation met with Beba and the women working at their center in Tuzla and also in Srebrenica. BOSFAM (short for Bosnian Family) was founded by Beba Hadzic, a former teacher, who came to Tuzla as a refugee when she and her family were forced to flee from their homes leaving everything they owned -- their property, their schools, their doctors, and their friends and relatives – even their shoes. Beba told of encountering a former student who was in the military and asking him, “Why?” His only response was, “All non-Serbs must be removed from the Drina River area.”
When she arrived in Tuzla in 1994, Beba worked to establish BOSFAM as a refuge for displaced women made homeless by the war. Thousands of women, poured into the town of Tuzla after the Srebrenica massacre. Having lost their families, homes and possessions, these women had no place to go and no means of making a living. BOSFAM’s mission was to help these Bosnian women gain economic stability.
They began with knitting projects and now, having acquired looms, have expanded to making beautiful rugs, quilts and other handicrafts. From the beginning they emphasized the requirement to accept all women regardless of religion, ethnic background, or education. The women had only to agree to work together. Over time, many Bosnian Serbs risked intimidation when they agreed to help Bosnian Muslims acquire the needed documentation to reclaim their personal property.
In addition to hearing the stories of how BOSFAM has helped thousands of Bosnian women survive, be productive, and return to their homes, the Delegation enjoyed their hospitality and was able to meet the next generation of beautiful young women who helped us try on knitted garments and select from hundreds of unique handmade rugs that were offered for sale to support the organization.
OKC ABRASVEVIC IN MOSTAR
In Mostar, the AWIU Delegation met with a youth cultural center called OKC Abrasevic. It is the only youth center in the city without a national/ethnic prefix -- meaning it is open to all religions and all nations. Because the city has been divided since the war, they now have segregated education, parallel utility companies, cultural centers, sports clubs, and post offices. Organized by a few young people who saw a need to bring youth together, OKC Abrasevic is intentionally located on the line between the Croat and the Bosnian sections of the city with the goal of providing a facility where young people of both nationalities can meet.
Astonishingly, more than half of the young people of Mostar do not know anyone of another nationality even though the city wasn’t divided until after the wars of the early 90s. Abrasevic provides an opportunity for youth to work together on projects. They have an in-house media center which encourages creative productions. They encourage roundtable discussions, cross-cultural performances, and workshops. One of their projects was, “Art in Public Places” which focused on art by all nationalities represented in Croatia. They have also conducted and recorded several hundred interviews with those who stayed and those who left during the war.
OKC Abrasevic lives by their founding ethical principles: never support racism, sexism, gender bias, religious intolerance, or prejudice of any kind. Kristina Coric, the Program Coordinator, is an impressive young woman who has managed to convert an admirable goal into a reality that will make a difference.
INTERNATIONAL TRUST FUND (ITF) FOR ENHANCING HUMAN SECURITY IN LLUBJANA
A land mine does not care if it gets the foot of a soldier or a child. It remains dormant until someone “wakes it up” usually by an innocent citizen stepping on it. Land mines and other unexploded ordinance remain in the ground long after the conflict is ended and, as a result, become totally non-discriminatory in their devastation.
The International Trust Fund for Enhancing Human Security (ITF), one of the most impressive organizations we met with has had a major positive impact on dealing with the aftermath of the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina. ITF was founded in 1998 to assist BiH implement the Dayton Agreement concerning the removal of land mines and other unexploded ordinance (UXO) left behind after the war.
Under the direction of Dorijan Marsic, ITF has worked on 2746 mine action programs in 28 countries, beginning with 6 former Yugoslav countries and Albania. In BiH alone, they have cleared 16,814 mines, 15,334 UXOs and 30,000 square meters.
We learned how ITF is working to help victims of explosives; how they are working internationally toward agreements with countries not to use land mines; and about International Mine Action Day, April 4, which is set aside to raise awareness of mine problems. On this day, participants roll up their pant leg to symbolize support, and we will do the same to honor these victims next April 4.
ROMA WOMEN AND CHILDREN IN BELGRADE
During the Kosovo conflict, Romas were viewed by Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian majority as allies of the former Serbian regime. After the Serbian authorities withdrew, many Roma fled and still fear reprisals if they return. Tens of thousands sought refuge in Belgrade and continue to live in dismal conditions. Some lived in metal containers, often with only cardboard roofs that don’t keep out the rain or cold. Others have been moved to “collective refugee centers” in other parts of Serbia where there is no infrastructure or adequate housing. Faced with discrimination, segregation, poverty and lack of health or social support, the Romas are no doubt one of the most vulnerable groups in Serbia.
At the invitation of Lepa Mladjenovic, Founder of Autonomous Women’s Center in Belgrade, we met with a consortium of six Roma women who worked in various occupations and organizations dedicated to improving the plight of Romas. Several were pedagogical assistants who worked with the schools and Roma families to keep children in school – a process that is made more difficult by the lack stable addresses and documentation such as birth certificates needed to attend school or to receive medical care. Also, many Romas don’t value education, can’t find work, or are in prison. One Roma woman who met with us had founded an organization called “Daje for Women and Children,” which provided a hot line and shelter for Roma women experiencing violence; another founded a children’s center called, “Mali Princ,” to encourage children to be proud of being Roma. She is actively working with Roma mothers and with the schools to counter discrimination children face at school.
ROMA WOMEN’S ASSOCIATION FOR A BETTER FUTURE IN TUZLA
In Tuzla, we were inspired by women who were succeeding in their work to help Roma women and children. The first was Larisa Kovacevic, assistant to Indiria Bajramovic who is Director of the Roma Women’s Association for a Better Future (RWA). RWA sponsors two shelters for domestic abuse and trafficking victims and Larisa introduced us to several Roma women who were helped by RWA after suffering domestic abuse.
Unemployment is high for all Bosnians, even for university graduates, especially women. Undereducated Roma women find it almost impossible to find jobs. Larisa told us, “We educate Roma about the dangers of going to other countries to seek employment in response to advertisements for big salaries. Usually these promises are disguises for human trafficking. Early marriage, where a young bride is sold, is another problem. We work with another organization to educate Romas on these dangers.”
Originally RWA’s financial support came from the publication, “I’m a Roma Woman,” which includes stories and describes the lives and hopes of Roma women in Bosnia. In addition to helping women find jobs and providing networking opportunities; RWA has developed a Five Year Action Plan that is being presented by the Director to the Parliament for funding support.
Another impressive attendee at our meeting was Nizama Hamzic, an elementary school principal, who told us of her success in implementing school programs to help Roma and other poor children. Although not Roma, Nizama had learned during the war how hard it is to be a refugee and support a baby daughter. She is committed to fighting for the rights of women against discrimination in any form, especially against the poor. Ten percent of her students are Roma children and the biggest problem is ensuring that they attend every day. Most face discrimination from the other children; many have to beg at traffic lights to get enough money just to eat since their parents are unemployed. As principal she has instituted innovative ways to keep these children in school and help them succeed. Her school is recognized as a model school.
WOMEN HELPING WOMEN
Throughout the Delegation, we met other outstanding women (and a few men) who had dedicated their lives to organizations and projects that improve the lives of women in their countries. In two countries we met Members of Parliament; in three countries we met women (and one man) who are our Ambassadors; we met women who were helping women in small villages find ways to support themselves with training and small loans; we met women who were helping other women who had been raped or sexually assaulted; we met women who were focusing on projects to use the arts to help women overcome; and we met women whose focus has been on bringing an end to war in ways that will prevent all future wars. Limited space precludes detailed discussion of the achievements of these women, but included below are their photos and a brief caption naming the organization they lead.
Pictures not included here See Part1 through Part 6 Menus for text with Pictures.
Our Delegation’s story begins and ends with The Honorable Agnes Ostolykan, Roma Member of the Hungarian Parliament. When we arrived in Budapest for our final two days, we had the opportunity to compare notes with Agnes. We related some of what we had learned about Roma issues and she told us of her personal experiences and the frustrations of a political leader who sees the need for change, but is confined by the political system.
Agnes introduced us to Katalin Barsony, a very impressive, well educated and competent young Roma woman who is making a difference. Katalin is the Executive Director of Romedia Foundation, an organization that empowers Romani women through citizen journalism projects. She goes out into the community to teach Roma women how to document their experiences using videos to make films. Their films have been successfully produced and marketed, but she says the biggest value is the impact on the Romas who gain insights and confidence as they learn the professional techniques necessary to produce good films.
Another Roma whom Agnes wanted us to meet is the woman who designed the attire Agnes wore to the International Woman of Courage banquet in D.C. We were more than happy to spend a few hours looking at the apparel she had designed using traditional Roma design and watching her students learn to make their designs that would be transferred to patterns. Many of us even succumbed to temptation and are now sporting original designs on clothing we purchased there.
Finally, a Delegation wouldn’t be a Delegation without seeing sights we had never seen before; eating food we had never tried before; hearing about the history of the towns and villages we visited; and simply enjoying the camaraderie of our fellow Delegates. Shown below are a few pictures of the AWIU Delegates having fun as we as we traveled through five Balkan countries and Hungary meeting friendly people and amazing women.
AWIU DELEGATION TO THE BALKANS
June 6–21, 2012
BRIDGES OF UNDERSTANDING
MEET ME ON THE BRIDGE*
Kathleen Hunt…… President AWIU
Gayle Morin…….. Delegation Leader
Barbara Rubio…. Delegation Coordinator
Shirley Dockstader Judith Jakaitis Merry Lee Eilers
Magda Fehema-Sharkasi Sharon Kolby Joan McEachern
Kathleen Huston Diana Kruse Judy Russell
*The clarion call to all women to bring about restoration on International Women’s Day in Bosnia