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NWSA Journal 18.3 (2006) 219-221

Reviewed by
Debra Hoover
This Was Not Our War: Bosnian Women Reclaiming the Peace by Swanee Hunt. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004, 307 pp., $19.97 hardcover.

Swanee Hunt, founder and chair of Women Waging Peace, director of the Women in Public Policy Program at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, and president of the Hunt Alternatives Fund, has collected narratives of the lives of 26 Bosnian women during the war from 1991 to 1994. Each story is simultaneously unique and universal—discussing unrelenting fear, fierce protectiveness of family, and the strength and ingenuity of women in extraordinary circumstances. Hunt gives order to the chaotic memories of a chaotic time by providing a thematic structure.

Drawing from the methodology of Robert Coles, Hunt held unstructured conversations with 26 Bosnian women who survived the war and are now actively involved in reconciliation. The stories are grouped in two sections: "Madness" and "To Heal History." The friendships Hunt formed in Bosnia as the U.S. ambassador to Austria eventually gave shape to the many experiences she collected for her book. She relies on her extensive knowledge of the political milieu to provide brief "who's who" maps that assist in understanding the political divisions and labels that are referred to. She also provides other background information, which enhances readability of the text.

Besides developing an approachable text for those unfamiliar with Bosnia, she offers a framework for the participants to reflect on their experiences. After Hunt organized the manuscript, the women she had interviewed read, edited, deleted, and made clarifications before the book was published. She offers Jelka's response to reading the manuscript as a typical one: "You've taken my experience and put it in a framework. I couldn't make sense of all this, but you have. What a gift" (258).

Media representations in the Balkans (and abroad) during the war allowed viewers to perceive the war as a religious conflict, but Hunt shows that it had to do with political control. In Bosnia, the prewar population was roughly evenly divided among Muslims, Serbs, and Croats with no one group a clear majority. But under Milosevic's rule all non-Serbs were in danger, so former neighbors and friends were suddenly at war against each other. Terms such as "Bosniak" (Muslim) or "Bosnian Serb" became commonplace, even if misleading. The labels leave no room for "the large number of people with mixed parentage. Using those labels also implies that people thought of themselves and others in those terms. I have been told scores of stories that indicate an obliviousness to ethnicity before the war" (5). A similar phenomenon is referred to in the Academy Award-winning [End Page 219] film Hotel Rwanda, when the journalists are told that the distinction between Hutus and Tutsis was not clearly delineated until the conflict surged and everyone had to identify as one or the other. As in Rwanda, families and neighborhoods in Bosnia were split apart when emphasis was placed on the labels.

Hunt has purposely presented stories from all ethnic groups, various levels of education, income, and age (from 15–68). She collected not only narratives but sought out perspectives on what the women had lived through. She asked for their views on the role of women and their outlook for the future. The women appear devoid of anger toward their persecutors. Their anger, if any, is aimed toward the leadership and not individuals or groups of soldiers.

Two elements set This Was Not Our War apart from other books on the Bosnian War. First, by focusing on individuals, their narratives, and their activism, it leaves the reader with a sense of the women's strength and their ability and desire for reconciliation. Second, she does not dwell on the statistics, horrifying as they are (150,000 dead, more than 2 million refugees), or the tactics of politicians. She shows, instead, the harsh effects of the war on the lives of those...


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pp. 219-221
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