Volunteering in Bosnia September 2011, Part 4

By Sheri Rosenfeld, LICSW, LCSW-C

Day 6: Srebrenica

Of all the days in this journey, this 12-hour period of time on the last day was the most memorable, disturbing, life changing, and eye opening.  Our day began with a 3-hour treacherous drive through the beautiful mountain sides of Bosnia.  Our goal was to reach Srebrenica in order to pay homage and bear witness to one of the world’s greatest post World War II tragedies.  Although many tragedies in Rwanda, South Sudan, the World Trade Center, Afghanistan are horrendous, I know of nothing in contemporary world culture as diabolical as the atrocity on July 11-13, 1995 in Srebrenica, a small village 10 kilometers from the Serbian border.

Typical treats with coffee when you visit a home
The memorial at Srebrenica
The grave markers at Srebrenica. 7532 have been laid to rest. The others have not beeen found.

The background, brief story, is that the Serbian leader wanted to seek revenge on the Bosnian Muslim people for invasion by the Turks in the 1400s.  But most, if not all, Bosnian Muslim people do not see identify themselves as Turks: They are Slavic people.  Even though they may have ethnicity in common with the people of the Turkish Empire, many do not identify them, and have not been able to comprehend the logic of the revenge motive that led the Serbs to want to annihilate them.  The Serbs surrounded the city of Sarajevo, by shutting off all access to food and water and electricity for 48 months.  The war, however lasted 5 years in the villages, Mostar, Zenica, Serbenica.  The great world powers did not come to their aid until the Dutch sent in a UN Security team, but only to keep peace, not to fight.  The Dutch intervention proved to be the catalyst for the massacre of 8,000 men and boys and the desecration of the women by torture and rape since their orders were to protect without firing.  That proved to be worthless.

On the command of the Serbian leader, a whole population of innocent people was exterminated in a matter of a few days, and the country was left traumatized and beaten.  Twenty-five thousand people fled to a small village, Srebrenica, a protected UN Military safe zone, where they were supposed to be safe.  What happened then was remarkable, horrific, and difficult to digest.  One woman told a story of how her baby was crying in her arms because they hadn’t eaten for days as they walked to this village.  A Serbian soldier told her that he knew how to quiet the child, and slashed his throat in the mother’s arms.  Thousands of young boys 12 and up were separated from their mothers and collected with their fathers to be executed.  The mothers and daughters were taken on a bus and transported to other buildings having no idea what would become of their sons and husbands.  In that day, 8,000 men and boys were executed and buried in mass graves which were later moved so as not to be found.  All the while, the people in Sarajevo could not help because they had no idea that this was happening. Much of the guilt, I am told, stems from the fact that they could not help their neighbors and fellow Bosnians.

After we visited the burial grounds (see below) and the museum and listened to a documentary about this ethnic cleansing, we visited a woman’s home.  Jasenka, had a beautiful greenhouse, a wonderfully clean home, many pastries and Turkish coffee to share with us.  She then told her story of how she was separated from her son and husband as she was fleeing to the old factory where everyone believed that the Dutch soldiers would protect them.  25,000 people came to that factory.  Women and children were separated from their sons over 12 years of age and all the men.  But her story, even though very sad, is also a story about hope and determination and pride.  It’s also a story about the possibilities in life when you connect with others to gain strength.

The boys who tried to flee but never returned home from Srebrenica
In the museum at Srebrenica
A picture of a man who was a victim of Srebrenica

Jasenka lives alone now.  But she has a daughter who witnessed the atrocities along with her on that day.  Her daughter was determined to not let her life story or the loss of her family derail her.  She went on to get her Masters degree and PhD and now lives in London with her husband and 2 children.  Jasenka created a beautiful garden.  She grows all the food she needs to survive and also has a cutting flower garden.  She now has a small souvenir store that sells flowers across from the memorial park where her son and husband are buried.  Not only is she doing well in business but she feels she is healing just by being near her family.  She belongs to the association where the women support each other in their various businesses, all of them learning through Women for Women that they can use their talents in commerce.

What is most remarkable about these women is that they used to follow their husband’s lead.  They had no idea of what their rights were or how to make an income, and they did not even believe they had a voice.  Many of these women do not have an education past elementary school, cannot read or write.  But through WFW they have an organization that believes in them and gives them a future.

Bosnia has very few opportunities and the world still seems to have forgotten that these people are hurting terribly.  I was grateful to be a witness to their history, their struggle, and their resilience.  I hold them in my mind and in my heart, and I hope to return one day and bring others with me.

Volunteering in Bosnia, September 2011, Part 3

by Sheri Rosenfeld, LICSW, LCSW-C

Day 3: Zenica

I want to start with this picture:

The woman at Zenica who made these wool slippers
The woman at Zenica who made these wool slippers

In the morning we were driven to the WFW headquarters where we learned more about the war and what led to it, what it was like for the Bosnian Muslim population, and which tools of terror were used against the people of Sarajevo and beyond.  Women have always been used as a way to exhaust and ruin a society.  If you rape a woman over and over, she feels torn inside and out, and cannot keep her family alive and hopeful.  So the Serbs, in this case, went into a part of town Grabvci and raped 95% of the women, old and young, repeatedly.  These women live with the scars of that violence in addition to the loss of their husbands and sons.

I met this woman, Edina, when I purchased some of her knitting:

The tunnel from Sarajevo to the airport carrying supplies

She is the only person in her family who works.  Ninety percent of all the women who come to WFW are illiterate.  But the translator explained to her that I would buy her crafts so that I could give presents to my family, and asked her if she would tell me her story.  When she hugged me, she felt no different to me than my own grandmother.  These people were targeted because the Serbian politicians wanted the Muslims out of Bosnia even though the Muslims are in the majority.  It is unfathomable.  The people now live with psychological disorders, malaise, depression, economic depression, and hopelessness.  They appear dazed.  I think that it contributes to the lethargy in the work place.  The reason everyone is out enjoying their smoking (everywhere) and their Turkish coffee is because no one has a job!

The picture below is the beginning of our entry into the underground tunnel:

The market place where a mortar was shot and massacred 80 innocent women, children and men

(Pic 9).  The people of Sarajevo were cut off from medicine, electricity and water.  They were prisoners in their own city.  When they tried to flee and get to the airport they came under sniper fire, even while the UN Peace Keepers were here.  You can see on their faces, as they describe this horrible experience, how betrayed they feel by the Dutch Peace keepers who didn’t stop the Serbs from killing them.  So they built a 700 meter tunnel in order to escape and to bring supplies into town from the airport.

This is the famous market place that is about 4 blocks from my hotel in Sarajevo:

‘Rosebuds’ to mark on the street where people died

A grenade hit this marketplace in the middle of a busy day and killed over 80 innocent people.  The city has markers on the ground to demark where people were killed.  The government made a commitment to paint these markers red but they have not done it.  But people can see them anyway.


So far what I am beginning to take away from this experience, something I have always known, but now feel acutely, is how wasteful ignorance and prejudice are, and how terribly destructive they can be.  These people are not different from us.  They have the same dreams, love their children, enjoy a good coffee, and want to have fun.

Day 5: Zenica

Yesterday we were taken to the home of a couple near a rural area called Zenica:

Rosemary and her husband in their greenhouse

We were told that the woman, Rosena, is a graduate of the Women for Women program — which essentially means that she spent a year going to class on women’s rights, independence, financial independence, learning a trade, or running a business.  Many women can open a business when they have learned to pick medicinal herbs, knit, crochet, make jewelry and crafts, cook, farm, and sell their wares. They are taught how to be an entrepreneur and what it takes to be a leader.  They are taught the importance of unifying other women to support them and create networks.  These women, not fighting in the front lines as did their husbands and sons, managed to keep their families alive.  They made grass soup when the entrance to the city was under siege, under constant barrage from grenades and shelling and sniper attacks, and there was no water or food or medicine.  When their families were dislocated and removed from their surroundings, they had to leave their prized possessions behind and find shelter somewhere else, never to return to their homes now occupied by Serbs or other families.  One girl fled so many times that all she was left with 5 years later was one suitcase of her possessions.  Everything else was gone and never found again.  All semblance of life as they knew it was over.

Nonetheless, Rosema, the woman in the picture  had written in her graduation speech, from the year long WFW program, that it was at the point at which she felt she had nothing left to live for, she found WFW.  Her husband had gone to fight at the front lines and she had had no idea if she would see him again.  He was everything to her, as were her 3 sons.  She was at a loss.  But when she found support at WFW she gained belief in herself and her future.

We entered Rasema’s very modest house, a beautifully clean and lovely home.  The table was filled with homemade treats that she prepared — Turkish pies, fruit, a homemade beet and carrot juice, desserts, Turkish coffee, cheese, tomatoes, and fruit.  I knew that this woman had great pride in herself and her family.  She looked at each one of us very warmly but carefully.  And then she began to tell her story.  Midway through her description of life during the war, she broke down saying, “Never again”.  And we were silent.  I looked at her and cried.  She came over to me, kissed me, and said, “You are my sunshine!”  I was amazed.  Here I was coming to comfort her, and she was comforting me!  And then her husband walked in.  He listened to the story she was telling about how hungry they had been, how she would look at a bag of plaster and fantasize that it was flour.  And then he cried.  Her husband could not find work because the factories closed and there are no jobs, or to get one he might have to bribe an official.  It had been 16 years, and they were still distressed by their story.

But Rasema had become resourceful.  She began to farm.  She now has a greenhouse for growing vegetables.  With her earnings she is buying another greenhouse and is now selling her vegetables to the markets.  She will acquire another greenhouse because she realizes roses will sell for even more.  Her husband still cannot find work but he provides tremendous support as do her boys, and now he works for her.  She feels blessed and in control and has her own business.  She is a strong woman now.

What I have realized is that when people are in crisis they must move into action.  Action is motivating, gives the mind a purpose and the reassurance of doing something to combat the problem.  It’s the aftermath, the lethargy, the hopelessness, the fear that life won’t get better even though you are working, the inaction — that’s what kills.  That’s where support, education, inspiration, and of course, resilience come in.

I didn’t want to leave Rasema that day.  I knew I may not see her again.  I also knew that she represents something I so admire in people: resilience, strength, and a warm heart.  She has all three, and I was honored to be in her presence.

Volunteering in Bosnia, September 2011, Part 2

by Sheri Rosenfeld, LICSW, LCSW-C

Day 2: Sarajevo, evening

Tonight our whole group finally came together with the six Bosnian heads of the WFW organization.  My preconceived notion of the Muslim Bosnian women was immediately challenged as I sat next to women who appear to be Muslim by affiliation but who are secular, blond and blue eyed We began the evening watching a film about a Bosnian mother and daughter.  That was difficult to watch but nothing compared to what was coming.  Saieda, the head of the Bosnian WFW, told her story of how her family survived and how she and her sister lived in an apartment on the front lines and had to dodge the snipers’ bullets as she walked down her stairs.  I saw the sadness and tears in the Serbian women’s eyes as they sat with the Bosnian Muslin women.  My understanding, from the others I spoke to, was that the guilt that the innocent Serbian people feel is overwhelming.  Many fled Bosnia just to protect their sons from mandatory army recruitment.  Many feel that their hands were tied as they watched their neighbors, women, children, and men, all die senselessly.  This film was a painful reminder.

As the evening progressed, women shared their stories in a more tempered way, I was that their stories will unfold as we move on.  What I was left feeling at the end of our evening was a concern for the staff members of WFW.  Listening on a daily basis to hundreds of survivor stories of rape and execution has the potential to create secondary trauma.  But the women with WFW have their own nightmares of hunger, loss, death, massacres, and brutality.  I wondered, how might they protect themselves from continuous emotional injury.

Day 3: Sarajevo, dinner

There are many times when I have been privileged to bear witness to someone’s life-story.  I feel honored to be entrusted with something so delicate and so personal.  But tonight I hear stories I will never forget.  The phrase “Never Forget” is familiar to me as a Jewish person, and it echoes in the Bosnian Muslim population.  The Bosnians will never forget as much as they wish they could.  Nonetheless, keeping their story ongoing and fresh is critical so that, perhaps, history will not repeat itself.  That’s hard to believe but it’s a strong wish.

Tonight I sat next to two Bosnian women who work at WFW.  The first woman, Ajla (EYE-LA), is a 25 year-old with long, light brown hair and beautiful doe eyes.  She is bright and full of a calm energy.  By her name she seems to be Muslim but her father was an Atheist and her mother an Agnostic.  She is fully educated, speaks 5 languages, and works as an interpreter for WFW.  The second woman, I call Farida, has been a substantial participant in WFW.  In 15 years at the front lines with all the women, she has endured and contained the horror and tragedy of their stories.  Farida says that whenever she felt tired and in doubt she just thought of the women who needed her, and she was energized.

Ajla tells her story from the eyes of a child.  She was 5 1/2 years old when the war broke out.  Her parents did everything they could to protect her from the war and the hardship, but they lived on the front lines and heard bombing all the time.  Sometimes Ajla would walk outside and see the flames burning from the buildings.  She said that her father, than 40 years old, went to fight.  He chose to do that rather than flee. She said that even though he saw so many people destroyed and felt that there was no use to the war, and suffered a debilitating injury, he would choose to do it again rather than flee.  He said that he felt someone had to fight for his children and grandchildren.

Ajla describes to me the horror of the day that her father took her to the main library, which had already had been destroyed by fire once in a war fought many, many years ago.  He loved books and was a well read man.  Although he never said a bad word about the Serbs, she says, he wanted her to know that what they were doing was not just destroying people’s lives but their history, culture, education, and knowledge.  That he felt was a true tragedy.  She remembers the flames and the ashes of paper filtering down in front of her face.  She remembers sleeping in her little boots and coat, always expecting that they would have to run out of the house quickly.  She feels she cannot help but feel bitterness and sorrow.  Mostly, she says, she can’t understand why anyone would want her dead.

Farida was in her late 40’s early 50’s — beautifully dressed, magnificent face, but with sad and watery eyes.  She spoke only Bosnian, and so I heard her story through an interpreter.  I could tell that she was a passionate woman.  When I asked her what her experience of the war was like she said, “If I could forget I would, but I can’t. No one should have to go through that.”  Farida has no children, and so her husband is everything to her.  He is her whole life.  When he went off to fight, she felt that her whole world would collapse.  She remembers burning her shoes in the fireplace for warmth.  She tells of how she had to become creative with recipes, making grass soup, or cabbage rolls from plants that looked like cabbage leaves.  She remembers standing outside her front door, and suddenly a sniper shot a little girl while she was running with her friends.  Then she said, “That is why I listen to the women’s stories. Someone has to.”

Volunteering in Bosnia, September 2011, Part 1

by Sheri Rosenfeld, LICSW, LCSW-C

Day 1: Sarajevo

Sarajevo 2011

After a long day and night and day of travel, I have finally reached Sarajevo as part of a group of volunteers with Women for Women (WFW), an international organization that helps women survivors of war rebuild their lives.  I had no idea what to expect of Bosnia, although I had seen pictures, but it is more beautiful than the pictures.  The mountains are covered in lush forests and the homes have terra-cotta roofs. The colors are spectacular.  I’m not sure what I expected, but at first glance the city seems to be “old meets new” — young, hip people mixed with men and women in their later years, people who walk with limps or canes and have a worn look on their faces.  Liam, our guide, tells me that everyone here has a story to tell, a loss to share, or a burden to live with directly related to the war.  Up on the hill overlooking the hotel I can see where the snipers took their positions.  I was told that the Olympic sharp shooters were the best snipers.  How difficult to imagine.

The market has a Middle East feel reminiscent of Istanbul except that it also has a European feel with a mixture of Germanic, Slavic, and even Spanish and Italian cultures represented also in the food and in the appearance of the shoppers.  My first taste of the food was this fabulous large circular pastry bread filled with spinach and cheese.  They also come with just cheese or plain.  I gobbled that up like I hadn’t eaten in days.  It was delicious.

Bosnian meat sandwich

Day 2: Sarajevo

I spent the next day getting acclimated while the rest of our participants arrived. As I walked around the outdoor market I came across something I wanted to buy.  After much thought, I decided to purchase it.  The shopkeeper told me that they only take cash.  I noticed that even the restaurants only take cash.  Credit cards are rarely accepted, even for large items.  I think that is when I realized one lasting effect of the war may be that trust and delayed gratification are not in their best interest.

Outdoor market

I asked Liam, our guide, about the overall sense of trust here in Bosnia Hercegovina.  He said that in the war neighbors fought against neighbors in what was once a melting pot of Muslims, Catholics, Christians, Jews, and Orthodox, all residing together.  Now the tension is palpable,  I thought a great deal about what it would be like to have lived next to a Serbian neighbor or intermarried into a Serbian family and then have them take siege on you and your family.  What would the lasting effect be on relationships.  I was told that for the most part people are trying to rebuild trust, but for those who lost so many or watched horrific tragedies at the hands of the Serbians, it is quite hard to forgive.  I learned the difference between the massacres in Rawanda and Bosnia is that the Rawanda government made tremendous strides and effort to reunite the people so that there would be less bitterness. .  I did feel the bitterness in Bosnia.  The tension runs high and in some ways contributes to a very unstable environment.  You have a sense that the earth is rumbling here.

Nonetheless, the town center is bustling and people are here enjoying the summer days and drinking.  There is a lot of drinking and not enough working, I am told.  The work ethic is very laid back which contributes to Bosnia’s lack of productivity.  While on a guided tour of the city, we noticed how filled the markets and the cafes were.  Our guide told us that since the war, 16 years ago now, the factories have shut down, the job rate is so low and there are no jobs to be had.  The young, especially, appear to have a lethargic response to work and spend their days drinking coffee at the cafes.

I took this photo of the building’s facade:

Austro-Hungarian architecture with sniper's bullets

because I was struck by the juxtaposition of beautiful Austro-Hungarian architecture to buildings and stone walks riddled with bullet holes.

Another facade with bullet holes