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.”

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