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.

Rosema

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.

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