I’m just a small stone in the mosaic of Bosnian women.—EMSUDA
Descriptions of the twenty-six main characters follow.1 Despite the richness of these women’s stories, it was difficult to determine the criteria by which to select protagonists, reflecting a wide range of life circumstances and backgrounds. The most obvious differentiating category was ethnic background—until one woman after another insisted that identifying Bosnians by ethnicity was either a fabrication of war or a concept imposed by the outside. Thus there was a great irony in my seeking out “three more Croats” or “two more Serbs.” Even in my attempts at balance, I was buying into a politicized cultural myth.
The task of finding my subjects was aided tremendously by Sunita Samarah, a well-connected Bosnian activist who introduced me to women with a wide range of characteristics.2 These women were not chosen randomly or because they were somehow “typical” of all Bosnian women; for the most part they were actively engaged in rebuilding their country, with creative ideas and the spirit to implement them. In many cases, they were identified leaders in their communities, known among their neighbors to have a vision they could persuasively articulate. But that is where the similarities ended; the women did not share political views, life experiences, family situations, or religious traditions.
I was guided by many questions. What was it like to experience the war from outside the country? How was the perspective of an adolescent different from that of a grown woman? How did wealth make a difference? Clearly, I could have interviewed 26,000 women and still not constructed a complete picture. No one woman speaks for the women of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Nor do twenty-six. But there are generalities at least to be pondered, if not accepted, as these individuals create a collective voice. Those women who survived the war have emerged not only with profiles that are riveting but with personalities powerful in the breadth of their perceptiveness and depth of their inner strength.
It’s not easy to hate. It takes too much energy.
ALENKA SAVIC is a no-nonsense woman in her early forties. Her husband died in a car accident in 1989, but she says single motherhood isn’t so difficult, given her training as a civil engineer. She was born in Slovenia (her mother’s homeland), and her father was a Serb from northeastern Bosnia. She speaks often about the value of “staying normal,” which included not leaving Tuzla when it was shelled by Serbs. Though laid off from a construction company when the war started, Alenka recounts the school achievements of her son and daughter as evidence that there was no prejudice against her family, despite their last name. Friends urged her to join her sister in Slovenia; but she refused, saying first, she didn’t want to abandon her parents; second, she felt there’d be no real danger in Tuzla; and, third, I wasn’t about to pick up a plastic bag and become another “displaced person.” In 1994, she went to Llubljana for a few days’ respite but returned to live out the war in Tuzla. When everyone’s in the same trouble, you feel like a member of a group. You’ve shared experiences, good or bad, and you’re part of the team. For four years, she and her children often felt imprisoned in their house, with sporadic electricity and water. Despite the hardships, the war provided an opportunity to prove herself: I could survive, overcome, and remain a human being, not an animal. Alenka offered herself as “an engineer who speaks terrible English” to the NGO Mercy Corps, where she worked with shelters. She manages the northeast quadrant of the Bosnian Women’s Initiative, helping women start businesses. Working with Muslim women returning to Srebrenica and their former Serb neighbors, she says: Given the slaughter, this is almost unbelievable. It’s easy for women to work on reconciliation. We’re not afraid to go to the other side—maybe because everyone knows we weren’t carrying guns; we weren’t in the death squads.
Men feared being killed . . .
We women were afraid of being caught alive.
ALMA KECO, twenty-five, found herself trapped as she traveled home from a holiday with her parents in Sarajevo. An athlete, she joined the fighting on Mount Igman as a paramedic for Bosniak troops trying to lift the siege of the capital, where she was born. She received the “Golden Lily” medal. An engineer in Mostar, she’s straightforward: She doesn’t smile much, and when saying something difficult, she bites her lip, blows air out, lifts her eyebrows, and scans the ceiling, searching for words. Battling post-traumatic stress disorder, Alma seems older than she is; after she was wounded a third time, gangrene led to the loss of several teeth. One brother was killed in Mostar, another permanently disabled; her father was heavily injured, and her mother became very ill. Alma has head, stomach, and hand injuries for which she still receives regular treatment. After years in the trenches, surrounded by death, Alma organized women throughout her area in a veterans group. She insists that society give back to those who made such a sacrifice: Women had afar more difficult time during the war—in part because we feel more, and we’re more sensitive. In the army, I saw how a woman gives much more weight than a man does to the decision to kill. Maybe that’s nature. You know, every woman is a potential mother, and mothers are the core not only of our families, but the whole society—whether we want to admit it or not. That vision inspires Alma, for whom strength is intertwined with the capacity to suffer, while remaining connected with humanity. When my brother was killed, my mother told me, “Every mother sheds the same tears.” Croat, Serb, and Muslim mothers feel the same pain. But only women have that feeling. We’re more moderate. If it had been up to women, this war wouldn’t have broken out at all.
Now they say, “Oh, I wasn’t in the army; I wasn’t so terrible.”
But no gun shoots without a person. No shell explodes on its own.
AMNA POPOVAC was born in Mostar in 1970. A staunch, energetic idealist, in the early days of the negotiated peace she traveled through checkpoints to Republika Srpska, seeking out Serbs willing to return to their Mostar homes then coordinating with aid agencies to help ensure their safe return. She started a radio station with other youth to provide unbiased reporting. At the university in Split, she studied electrical engineering, specializing in computers. Amna and her family were frequently on the move because of the war: She fled the university to escape Serb aggression in Croatia; and twice—when Serbs shelled Mostar and when Bosnian Croats attacked the predominantly Muslim part of town—her family fled to Croatia. When Muslims were expelled from university housing, friends took Amna in so she could complete her schooling. Overall, she appears to be a well-put-together young woman, dressing with sophisticated professionalism, lipstick, and manicured nails to match her clothes. Her voice is low, her English is fluent, and her eyes crinkle in the corners when she smiles—which is often. Amna admires her father’s stoicism: When the fighting started, he gathered us around the table where we always sat if there was a family talk. We knew he wanted to say something important. “This is a war,” he said. We all four sat there, in silence. I was thinking, “But it’ll last only a few days.” He said, “Some of us will survive, and some won’t.” Wisely (but sadly), Amna’s father’s words didn’t anticipate outside intervention. He advised his family to hunker down: “Stay here, and just try to survive.” That blunt message is emblazoned in Amna’s memory. She, in turn, was resolute in sticking out the war years, in part because she found the reasons given for the conflict to be ludicrous. I kept speaking the same language; of course I don’t know if it’s Croatian, Bosnian, or Serbian!
If you’d met me when I was younger, I’d have said I love men more than women.
[She throws her head back, laughing; then grows somber.]
Now I just want to be left alone.
I just want the shooting to be over.
An ethnic Croat in her early sixties, ANA PRANIC is one of eight children. She was raised in Visoko, a Muslim-majority merchant town. Her playmates were mostly Muslim, but also from other backgrounds. Her low, husky voice is punctuated with waving hands as she explains how the Catholic Church is important to her, but all religions must be respected. Ana’s sister and brother married Muslims. When Ana married, she moved to nearby Podlugovi, a village with a Serb majority. Her husband worked in a steel factory until it was destroyed during the war. Ana first worked as a seamstress and with leather goods, although she left her job to raise her daughters, Vesna and Valentina. I didn’t mind their mini-skirts, as long as they were good students and didn’t smoke. When the girls were older, Ana worked ten years in a bakery. With the war, she was afraid to leave her home of thirty-six years. She has no idea who fired a shell that damaged not only her home but three others where, she notes wryly, people from all ethnic groups live. Ana survived off humanitarian aid; her husband worked in a bakery as part of his war service. She’s now raising her niece after her widowed sister was killed by a shell on her way to work. Her divorced daughter and nephew live with her as well. After the war, her husband suffered a stroke. He can walk but has only a very small pension. In 1998 Ana received a ten-month loan from the Bosnian Women’s Initiative. She bought sheep, from which she generated enough to repay her loan. With a second loan she bought a cow, which she slaughtered to sell dried meat. The project, while a success, does not make Ana financially secure.
We Jews haven’t been able to convince the world.
It just keeps happening, again and again: greedy people using religion as their excuse for war.
From Colorado Springs, BILJANA CHENGICH FEINSTEIN returned each summer with her children to the former Yugoslavia. In 1994 she went to be with her dying mother in Croatia, not knowing when the shooting and shelling might start around her. Despite her Serb surname, she grew up Muslim in Sarajevo, the youngest of four, and a descendant of royalty on her mother’s side. Although her father died before she was born, she describes a happy childhood, with ballet lessons and children’s choir. I had it even better than my own children, and they were very, very privileged. At nineteen, she sought greener pastures in Sweden and then went on to the United States, where she fell in love with “the open, welcoming American personality.” She married and converted to Judaism, making a new life with her husband, a talented architect in Colorado Springs. There she opened a store as a cosmetician, creating her own makeup line. During the war, which she followed primarily through the media, she contacted the Red Cross but felt powerless to help and disconnected from her people, watching from a distance as her country was torn apart. Everything about Biljana is bold—from her raucous laugh, to the pizzazz of her art, to the political views she tosses into conversations at the drop of a hat: With communism, women became more independent thinkers, more open, better able to express themselves. Yugoslav women had strong opinions, and everyone in the neighborhood heard them; still, they weren’t allowed by the communists to exercise leadership. . . . Tito was a control freak, but he didn’t plan his succession; that’s why Yugoslavia as a country failed. Biljana, with her thick Slavic accent, explains to anyone who’ll listen that the war Americans observed from their living rooms was not about deep, ancient hatreds.
Men have had power not because they shoved women to the back, but because we didn’t fight for our positions.
We have ourselves to blame.
When DANICA PETRIC fled Serb paramilitaries, she left behind not only her home but also her flower shop, which provided coffins crafted for different religious traditions. Danica is dignified but nurturing. She smiles easily, cries frequently, and clouds over when concentrating. Danica knows the cruelties of World War II: Her father’s health broke in a concentration camp, and she has flashbacks of Nazi and Partisan battles, with death all around. Danica’s father was a Bosnian Croat policeman, a quiet, unhappy man; her mother grew up in Slovenia. The family moved to a Bosnian village, bringing new vegetables and fruits and seeds—two or three wagons full. We were like a freak show. When our thermometer was loaned from house to house, it was a tossup whose temperature they were going to take—the pig’s or the kid’s. Danica raised two daughters. In 1992 her family barely escaped across the river into Croatia, where various family members reunited as refugees, although one daughter preferred to find menial jobs in Austria. Danica isn’t shy in her formula for a better world: Women should change the rules so men take on more home responsibility. They’d have less time for violence, and women would have time to create peace initiatives. Given her traditional view of the role of mothers, her insistence on gender equality may be because her life has been so hard. I’ve lost my smile over the years. However, subsequent to our final book interview, Danica was ecstatic, back home in what is now Republika Srpska. People ask when I’ll reopen my shop. I say, “I’m a grandmother, not a businesswoman!” Regardless of how our houses look, our faces are happy.
Some people, even if they lived three hundred years, might not have as many experiences as I’ve had.
EMSUDA MUJAGIC lived near Prijedor, where fertile fields and thick woods are now dotted with dozens of mass graves. The population was evenly Muslim and Serb, with a smattering of Croats. In April 1992, Belgrade-backed “reliable Serbs” took over the important posts, ousting Muslims and Croats, who were unarmed and unable to form a resistance.3 Before the war, Emsuda convinced her husband to devote their life savings to training five hundred women from half a dozen towns to knit high-fashion clothes, so they could afford to educate themselves and their children. In the war, the business was destroyed, and some of those children were targeted. Emsuda’s house was blown up. She and her son were separated from her husband and daughter but found them three days later in the Trepoljna concentration camp, where rape, torture, and mutilation were common. Her husband is psychologically scarred. Given her reputation as a leader, Emsuda was fingered as a potential troublemaker and slated for the Omarska death camp. A Serb soldier helped her escape to Zagreb, where she started an NGO. Post-Dayton, she returned to Sanski Most, opposite Prijedor, which was now in Republika Srpska. The 60,000 in Sanski Most are mostly Bosniaks expelled from other towns. Industry is functioning at about 20 percent capacity, and the return of displaced people to their homes is moving at a snail’s pace. Emsuda has started another NGO serving women and schoolchildren and building bridges across ideological divides. Her husband teases callers that he’s her secretary. When Emsuda hears bellicose talk from others, she asserts, If there’s going to be more war, I’ll go—not my son and daughter. She’s impatient with women who don’t push through obstacles: Women withdraw and leave decisions to men, so we have to teach them to be independent and self-reliant. We can’t just blame the men.
I still consider all the republics as my country.
Whenever I cross a border of the former Yugoslavia, my heart starts pounding.
I’m coming home.
A dermatologist trained at Chicago’s Cook County Hospital, FAHRIJA GANIC and her husband Ejup, a gregarious political figure, both come from Sandzak, a 95 percent Muslim region of about 700,000 in western Serbia. After eleven years in the United States, where Ejup taught engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, they moved back to Sarajevo. As war became imminent, Fahrija gathered the family jewels and fled to Turkey with her two young children. She made her way to Buffalo, New York, where, in lonely political asylum, she tried to convince American acquaintances that the conflict wasn’t about neighbors who couldn’t live together. Fahrija organized humanitarian aid to send back to Bosnia and a letter-writing campaign to President Clinton. She finished the war years sheltering her children in Vienna, with her husband in Sarajevo as one of the seven-member Bosnian presidency. After peace was secure, she opened a skin clinic in Sarajevo despite the war-ravaged economy. Fahrija’s great-grandfather was Albania’s King George Kastrioti; her grandmother Queen Dorothea Bashira. Although her grandfather was a wealthy merchant, her father was thrown out on the street by Partisans. Her mother, who had given birth that same night, went to Belgrade and took off her veil, interceding with Tito to win her husband’s release from prison. Fahrija lives in a spacious Sarajevo home, her walls hung with art by Bosnia’s most renowned painters. Her children speak English as their mother tongue: Emina, her sophisticated daughter, is a graduate of Oxford University; Emir, her son, is part of the set crowding Sarajevo cafes. I taught my children: The friends they made, languages they’ve learned, and cultures they’ve come to understand are all costly gifts they received from the war.
Despite our organizing, for a long time the government didn’t let us register as an NGO. They said, “Who cares what these women are doing? We’re at war!”
GALINA MARJANOVIC is an ethnic Serb from Banja Luka, the capital of Republika Srpska. Despite problems she tackles everyday, she smiles often when she speaks, drawing circles in the air when making a point. She describes her childhood in Banja Luka as living in a mini-Europe: her Muslim, Czech, and Austrian playmates were constantly in each other’s homes, with families trading the foods of their respective traditions. Galina studied special education and worked for almost twenty-five years with deaf children. We weren’t members of the Communist Party, so we could preserve our open-mindedness. Wartime economic sanctions cut into her husband’s business—a small factory producing orthopedic appliances. When the tides of war shifted against the Serbs, the same compassion and patience she extended to disabled children moved Galina to action as she watched a stream of refugees pouring down her street, hungry, cold, weak, sick, and missing family members. Galina and her husband opened their large house as a shelter. After giving groceries from her cupboard, she pulled together women friends to create “Duga” (Rainbow), caring, among many others, for severely traumatized women. Nearly eighty co-workers (essentially volunteers) work with Galina to help these women and their children slowly piece their lives back together. In media interviews, she appeals for help for the suffering without naming an ethnic group. In fact, after the war, she was one of the first Bosnian Serb women to meet with other women’s organizations outside the Serb region, including the Vital Voices conference in Vienna. She says mistakes were made and crimes committed by all sides. But often people couldn’t see the mistakes of their side, focusing on the mistakes of others. That’s changing now. Galina is Orthodox, and she lives by the Golden Rule: Religions are like cultures, shaped by people. If we didn t do things we wouldn’t want done to us, life would be perfect, despite religious differences.
I survived Auschwitz, and I stayed in Sarajevo.
Maybe my spirit is inherited, or innate.
I don’t know. I never was different.
GRETA FERUSIC-WEINFELD was born in 1924, in Novi Sad, in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, now part of Serbia. Her hometown had citizens from many national origins, including many Germans who sympathized with Hitler. A Jew deported in April 1944 and shipped by rail to Auschwitz, she was a slave laborer until the camp was liberated by Soviets. Back in Belgrade she pursued her education in construction design. There was no money, but it was more positive than today, where everyone is an individual with money. We’re no longer united. As for gender equity: Women play a very, very, very diminished role in our society now; the situation was much more balanced before—never equal,4 but women and men were equally paid. Greta’s career included a professorship in architecture and service as a government minister (1976–82), dealing with environmental concerns. She bridges cultures with fluent Hungarian, German, French, Italian, and English. Since her retirement in 1983, she’s worked with La Benevolencija, a Jewish humanitarian and cultural association. She tells how, when Sarajevo Jews saw history beginning to repeat itself, they organized bus convoys out of the capital. She and her husband insisted they were too old to live out of a suitcase as refugees, only to return to a stripped apartment. Instead, she popped sedatives to endure nights of shelling and defiantly refused to go to shelters. I slept in my own bed, in my pajamas. The next day, everybody’d say, “Did you hear such and such last night?” I’d say, “No, I was asleep.” She’s a woman of enormous optimism. I don’t see the black. If I can’t think of good things, I don’t think. As for her future: If it’s the end, it’s the end.
None of us chose war; none of us girls wanted to fight.
IRMA SAJE could be a teen model. Her smile conveys a charming forthrightness. But like so many young people raised in war, Irma seems like a wise old woman in the body of a child. Her father describes her as very independent, and he takes some credit for not forcing her to follow any particular path. Although her mother is Muslim and her father Catholic, ethnicity was not an issue in her family. Typical of most Sarajevan teenagers, Irma’s English is excellent. She revels in American pop culture but is clearly proud of her Bosnian identity. Before the war, Irma’s parents were architects and worked in Iraq from time to time. From age six to ten, she spent half of each year in Baghdad and the other half living with her grandmother in Bosnia. Her adolescence was surviving the war in Sarajevo. She shakes her head over small details of war life she’s almost forgotten. After three years of shelling and siege, she escaped to distant relatives in Austria, but a year and a half later returned to pick up the pieces of her life. Like Anne Frank, another girl coming of age in the exigency of war, Irma’s reflections on the devastation of her external world are laced with personal accounts of the nuanced inner workings of her family: the strength of her mother, the protective anxiety of her father, and her sense of herself changing from girl into woman. She weeps describing the injury and death of friends. There’s a philosophical bent in her reflections on the intimacy among those who endured the terrors of war together, and the regrettable return to normal emotional distance that accompanied the peace. She’s clear about her views of the gender differences that became apparent under the stress of the conflict and asserts, boldly, Women won the war in Bosnia.
Three of us four children married a person from a different ethnic group.
I’d say we were raised in the spirit of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
JELKA KEBO’s life is about bridges. A historic stone bridge, built in 1556, connected the two sides of Mostar across the Neretva River. The community is half ethnic Croat (and Catholic, like Jelka) and half Bosniak (Muslim). There were no divisions; we all swam in the same river and walked down the same alleys. Jelka’s husband is a painter. They had a gallery and traveled to exhibitions. She worked with developmentally disabled children for twenty-five years. During the war, her husband, older son, and brother fought in the army; her younger son had military training. The war in Mostar had two phases. First, Serbs attacked from the surrounding hills and were driven back. Then Croat nationalists, attempting to make Mostar their capital in a divided Bosnia, expelled Bosniaks to the older side of the city and relentlessly shelled it. My parents were thrown out of their apartment on the west side because their grandson fought on the east side. Jelka’s older son died in a car accident, right after the fighting stopped. In a setting in which distrust runs rampant, Jelka has transformed her grief into action, creating connections between the two sides of town. She’s won national recognition for her Center for Culture and Youth, which brings young people together and reminds all citizens of the social richness of prewar Mostar. Her eyes turn fiery when she talks about harnessing the strength of women in her country. Before the war, my highest achievement was when my kids did well in school, when I saw an interesting exhibit with my husband or we went on a vacation abroad. I did some handcrafts, and I was proud when dinner guests admired my table. All women thought that way; it seemed natural. But now, only now in my mid-forties, I realize I was a victim. Jelka has started traveling without her husband—a big step, she says. I’ve rebelled!
After the evil we endured, the world must develop enough of a conscience so that this never, ever happens again.
KADA HOTIC’S life in Srebrenica was typical of rural Bosnia: We had a comfortable flat. We weren’t rich like people in Western countries. I went for a summer holiday. I had nice clothes. We’d fish, go boating, swim, and have picnics and parties, drinking and singing. Kada worked in a textile factory. Her husband had a degree in sociology and held white-collar jobs. The town, swelled with refugees, was surrounded by Serbs and shelled. Kada risked her life traversing woods and fields, searching for food. The three-year siege ended with a massacre in which an estimated 8,000 unarmed Muslim boys and men were executed, including Kada’s son, husband, two brothers, and brother-in-law. It gets more difficult with every passing day. Nights are harder too. I had more hope in the beginning. I believed in people. I thought they’d tell us the truth. Now my strength is gone. I’ve lost faith. Kada and her daughter Lejla were separated by the war but have reunited in Sarajevo. A pharmaceutical assistant, Lejla married a construction engineer. They have a young son—Kada’s “only joy”—but currently are unemployed. The family of four is living on government pensions—about $237 a month. Kada distinguishes between simple people and those who created the war for their own ends. In spite of her isolating trauma, she feels connected to the larger world as she tells and retells what happened. She hopes those who listen will repeat her story to others. Evil can happen everywhere . . . and to anyone. Asked if women see things differently then men, she’s noncommittal: I don’t know. Where I live, we’re mostly women—mothers . . . sisters . . . wives. I don’t speak much to men. [Kada pauses.] You know. . . there aren’t any men left.
You’ve got to understand people.
There were so many mothers who lost sons and husbands.
If my son had died, I wouldn’t find as much understanding within myself as they did.
When KAROLINA ATAGIC’S eighteen-year-old took up arms, her husband couldn’t bear the prospect of harm to his son. Tormented by his worry, he died of a heart attack. Karolina, a Catholic who married into a Muslim family, lives in the historically Muslim section of Sarajevo. She was born May 9, 1943, in the German concentration camp Reutligen, to a Polish Catholic mother and Croat Catholic father. When Karolina was six months old, her mother had to leave the women’s barracks to work as slave labor in the fields. Next to the women’s barracks were American prisoners of war, who became her first caretakers, giving her food through the barbed wire that separated them. At two she was speaking English, which her mother couldn’t understand. After the liberation of the camp, she returned with her mother to Sarajevo, where she remained. Her parents divorced after the war; both had suffered enormous trauma. Her father lost his teeth and hair and died soon after. Karolina is a university graduate in business and economics. She works in the finance department of a large trading company. During the Bosnian war, she brought into her home two orphaned friends of her children. To calm her own fears and frustrations, she took up painting a few hours a week. Art had always been an interest, and for those hours at her canvas, the war would disappear. Together with other women, Karolina formed a painting club. In 1994, in the middle of the war, the group presented an exhibition of their work for International Women’s Day; it was an island of normalcy in a sea of chaos. She is a founding member of a women’s collective that produces ceramics and souvenirs. Proceeds fund the women’s art initiatives, as well as care for mentally disabled children.
If you surveyed all the people, regardless of religion, and ask how much they won or lost, and if they wanted this war in the first place, you’d get exactly the same answers.
KRISTINA KOVAC is an ethnic Serb from Sipovo, a small town in Republika Srpska. She has the vivacious personality of a primary school teacher, her profession before the war and after. When violence broke out, the Muslim families in Sipovo asked to be transported to an area controlled by Bosniaks (about 17 percent of the population). Her husband, a forty-eight-year-old physical education teacher, like the majority of men, was mobilized by the Serb army. Kristina speaks fondly of him as a wonderful father and husband and a good friend. He’s a bit grayer since the war. Kristina’s two daughters were fifteen and twenty-two when the war started. During the conflict, she struggled to find clothing or food, much less schoolbooks, for her daughters. In September 1995, the eve of the Dayton Peace Agreement, Croat forces took the territory where Kristina lived; in a panicked exodus the Bosnian Serb population fled. After taking refuge in Banja Luka, Kristina returned to find 50 percent of the town rendered uninhabitable and 80 percent of rural housing destroyed. After the war, Kristina and her husband could no longer afford their older daughter’s university studies. Despite these setbacks, Kristina maintains a can-do attitude. She’s returned to Sipovo, where she and her husband are again teaching. She’s recruited help from humanitarian agencies and international troops to refurnish the school and to set up a summer camp for children who lost parents during the war. We can’t live in isolation. There’s always someone who needs someone else, she explains, describing her work organizing the care of handicapped and vulnerable people. Those who’ve had someone killed will need a lot of time for their wounds to heal. Still, Kristina believes concern for children may reunify her society. Women are mothers first—no matter the ethnic group. Why war? There’s nothing holier than her child.
Nationalism is junk, and things that aren’t good quality can’t last long.
Born in 1942, MAJA JERKOVIC has risen to positions of significant leadership since training as an orthodontic surgeon: She managed the Mostar regional hospital with over 3,500 employees. She was an official of the Communist Party but when the war was brewing didn’t join the new nationalist Croat party, and thus lost her administrative position. Maja is committed to preserving the diversity she enjoyed in her family and workplace. In the hospital we had Croats, Serbs, and Muslims working. Throughout the conflict we remained friends. We were just doctors. Working in the hospital in the ear, nose, and throat department, I was never interested in names and surnames, only disease and how to help. My happiest moments were when I could shake hands with healthy patients and wish them well. It was devastating, watching her city be torn apart, but she persevered. During the whole war I never missed one single day—or hour—of work. The hospital was almost on the front line. So was my home. Surely a physician could have found a way out of the bedlam. I stayed because I love my town and my profession. Mother of two adolescent boys, during the war she protected her sons by sending them out of the country. I lived to see my children saved. That was what drove me; and I wouldn’t give up that drive for anything. Her older son went to Cyprus and married an African; the couple has a boy. Maja’s husband is an electrical engineer. Today she does what she can to reunite her community at a person-to-person level. Looking back on the emotional strain she endured as she calmed paramilitary thugs on a rampage, she’s steady and strong. No matter what happens, I remain the same as I’ve always been. Wartime is behind me.
I had no right to disregard my natural gifts;
I was obligated to humanity.
Maybe it sounds pretentious, but I felt I owed it to the world around me.
MEDIHA FILIPOVIC was the only female member of parliament in the first Bosnian national assembly. Born in December 1944, she describes her heritage of sociopolitical shifts as a metaphor for Bosnian history: Her great-grandfather, an Ottoman nobleman, was in his later years a citizen of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Her grandfather, born during those Hapsburg years, lived as an adult within the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. Her father’s life began in the kingdom years, but he grew into manhood under communism. I was born during communism, but now I must adjust to a new system. I wonder in what political structure my son’s children will be raised. In spite of the repression of communism, Mediha remembers her childhood as happy. Education was highly valued, as was sacrifice. Today, noblesse oblige is her theme: I decided to have a child and a career, because I’m ambitious . . . a hard worker . . . and I was a good student. I object to people who are talented and capable wasting those gifts and taking them to their graves. Mediha’s mother inspired her to study medicine, and she trained as an orthodontist, including a year in Kentucky, then developed a low-cost alternative to braces. From Sarajevo, she moved with her husband to Belgrade, but her marriage dissolved when their son was one year old. Back in Sarajevo, she worked hard to maintain her son’s relationship with his father, who was later killed in a car accident. When the war started, her husband’s Belgrade relatives offered to take in her son. Bojan decided to stay with me in Sarajevo. Of course, we didn’t have any idea what was awaiting us. She has been a voice for political moderation, insisting on a multiethnic society even as nationalist parties flex their muscles. She currently serves as ambassador to Sweden.
Politicians who’ve known me for years just ignore me.
They never pick up the phone.
But I don’t mind, because I know what I’m doing—and I know what they’re doing.
An accounting professor may be apt at keeping track of people who want to return to their homes, but MIRHUNISA ZUCIC (Komarica when these interviews began) doesn’t talk easily about her own journey. She’s watched life from different perspectives, having fled with her family from an affluent suburban Sarajevo apartment complex to a one-room existence. Although she believes she’s never been taken seriously by the men in power, she has an air of confidence when she speaks of her accomplishments as co-owner of a successful ski equipment business and professor at the School of Economics for more than twenty years. (She revised her textbook by candlelight during the war.) Her teenage boy and girl survived the war, but her nineteen-year-old marriage didn’t survive the peace. In a digression from her academic life, Mirhunisa began working with hundreds of rape victims, helping find shelter when they arrived as refugees in Sarajevo. She talks almost matter-of-factly, but with compassion, about the hundreds of atrocities she heard described as she interviewed victims. Her stories are relentlessly painful and poignant. Since the war, her work with refugees has demanded her focus and attention; she sleeps less than five hours a night. When I spend time with women from the massacre of Srebrenica, I feel stronger. The loss of my marriage was my doing; but these women, their loved ones were taken from them. Still, they keep going. In her work, she’s acted with courage—some might say recklessness: During the war, she gathered fellow-organizers in the streets, in defiance of snipers. I was sure nothing would happen to them—or to me. That spirit has led Mirhunisa into invigorated work others would find impossible, as she helps people of all ethnic traditions return home.
Some sick minds caused this war.
Not my patients. Not my colleagues.
NADA RAKOVIC grew up fifty kilometers from Sarajevo. She describes her family’s religious practice as like that of everyone else in the neighborhood: holidays, but little more. Hers was a working-class family. Her mother did domestic work, her father was alcoholic; they divorced. Her brother was deaf and mute from birth. As a girl, Nada was a straight-A student and fulfilled her mother’s dream by breaking out of the cycle of hardship. In 1990 she returned to her hometown as a pediatrician, so she could live with her mother, to whom she says she’s “joined at the hip.” Late in the war, Nada was caught between fighting Bosniaks and Croats. She escaped with her family but had to abandon her home and belongings. In 1998 she joined five other Bosnian women from different political parties to plan a highly successful conference in Sarajevo, encouraging women to run for office. Nada herself served briefly in the parliament of Republika Srpska in the party led by Biljana Plavsic, who was later convicted as a war criminal. She lives now in northern Bosnia, near the Croatian border. I drove several hours to visit her home five years after the war. The road leading into her town looked like a movie scene: lined with stubs of trees between houses with roofs blown off, their red bricks pouring out like confetti spilling from giant boxes. Long, bare chimneys stretched awkwardly up from the foundations; on the remaining walls was scrawled in blue paint, “We keep our word,” and, “Brought to you by . . .” Nada backs off discussion about gender disparity. What do I know? I’ve never had a sense of less worth because I’m a woman. Maybe uneducated women in villages had less rights, but I was always independent. I don’t think we’re different from American or European women.
When we saw barricades, it was clear something was happening; and from the Serb media, we knew something was brewing.
But I still could not imagine—not in my wildest dreams—anything like this war.
Perhaps because of her long career as a journalist and editor, NURDZIHANA DZOZIC speaks—in her low, flat voice—with remarkable candor about her personal and professional life. Smiles are few; more often her mouth is grimly set, but she doesn’t completely hide tender feelings. Born in Bratunac, a few miles from Srebrenica, and educated in Tuzla, Sarajevo, then Belgrade, she worked for a newspaper for young people. Moving to Sarajevo, she missed the lively arts and culture of Belgrade, but she was innovative in her journalistic work, interweaving her interests in psychology, sociology, and social needs. She’s an organizer as much as journalist, putting together walk-in clinics and hot lines for people in dire straits. During the war, she managed to publish the magazine Zena 21, addressing concerns of Bosnian women (“zena”) in the twenty-first century. Family is extremely important to her. Although she has no children, Nurdzihana is devoted to several siblings and eleven nieces and nephews. As Serb forces terrorized her neighborhood, she lived for months with her elderly mother in the cellar of her apartment building. She reflects on the war: Some things about it I’ll never understand. I’ve thought a lot about this war, written about it, tried to explain it, but it’s a great puzzle to me. I interviewed 2,000 people in my neighborhood, Dobrinja. What moved me most was the readiness of people to help each other, risking their own lives to save the injured. People who didn’t know each other before would share the last thing they had. . . . On the other hand, I’ve seen the flats in which snipers hid, and I’ve found bombs made from jars for canning fruit. It was horrible . . . unbelievable.
I’m a Serb, so I can say this: only when we’re able to face the fact that the aggression was intentional—and condemn it—will we be able to wash all Serbs of the crime.
RADA SESAR’s hands hardly stop moving as she speaks—fists to describe her convictions, fingers playing with her necklace as she talks abstractly, hands flitting about to lay out a neighborhood scene. Ironically, with such expressive gestures, she’s spent twenty-five years in the radio business. She links her sensitivity for human-interest stories with her upbringing in a village near Pale (just outside Sarajevo), one of four siblings. Her father was a railway man, her mother a housewife. Rada’s eyes light up as she describes her village: It was full of meadows, waterfalls. . . . I learned freedom there. All my life [she makes fists with both hands], I’ve carried my home village with me. I draw strength from it. But I wouldn’t live there. People have romantic pictures of life in the country, but it’s hard. Rada didn’t have the physical stamina for country life. My dream was to be a professional. She went to school in Sarajevo, graduating at the top of her class in Yugoslav literature. Jobs in academia were difficult to find, and by chance she fell into a position at Radio Sarajevo, quickly establishing herself in the world of journalism. She married a Bosnian Croat and had a son and daughter. When the war began, the Yugoslav National Army started shooting out the windows of their apartment complex in the suburbs, until Rada and her neighbors’ apartments were completely destroyed. She and her husband and two children fled to his sister’s in the center of town. Focusing on terrified and traumatized people pouring into Sarajevo from other parts of Bosnia, she broadcast intimate testimonies of their experience.
This war was imported to my country.
Women didn’t start it, but they’re the ones who suffer from it.
Raised in Gorazde, where she managed the radio station, SABIHA HADZIMORATOVIC moved with her husband to work in Iraq as a journalist in 1984. She witnessed the devastation of the Iran-Iraq war but never envisioned a similar situation in her own country. Sabiha was in Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War as a radio and television correspondent and watched, astounded, as conflict grew in her homeland. Bosnia had a great education system. Our villages had schools; we had culture, clubs; big, nice houses; everyone had a car and TV. My heart ached when people compared Bosnia and Somalia. ok, we had a war, and there was war in Africa, and we’re all people. But four religions meet in Sarajevo. They were destroying mosques, destroying churches, synagogues. . . . Civilization! Gorazde was particularly hard hit, with supplies and power cut off; but the people ate roots from the forest and generated electricity from the river. Sabiha wonders how her Serb and Croat media colleagues could have abandoned their community, leaving it an enclave of Bosniaks who streamed in for refuge. From abroad, Sabiha arranged for relief. In Oman, children came to me with their two dollars for the children of Bosnia so they wouldn’t be hungry. In Moscow, she organized similar humanitarian efforts while working as a correspondent. Trained in psychology, Sabiha imagines an integrated Bosnia, with women educating the next generation. She has organized her own news agency, produced dolls representing diverse Bosnian ethnic traditions, and participated in a women’s business coalition across Balkan states. Her vision is wider still: We’re citizens of the world. I’ve been privileged to learn about different cultures, but I’ve no right to hate the differences.
The truth is, we lost the war, because we lost our country—and we lost it at Dayton.
Journalist SUZANA ANDJELIC’S last name is pronounced like “angelic.” It fits. She’s remarkably winsome when she speaks, her eyes locking on her listener. Suzana was born in 1968 in Teslic, a town now in Republika Srpska. Both parents were atheists and her father a member of the Communist Party. An excellent student, Suzana joined the party at sixteen; she grew up without celebrating any specifically Serb traditions or embracing the nationalism that later swept across the area. Her studies in journalism took her to nearby Sarajevo. Upon graduation, she and several other young journalists started the progressive Slobodna Bosna (“Free Bosnia”), which—unlike most other magazines—took a strong position against the war and argued against its inevitability. Although former neighbors from Teslic criticized her work at what they considered a “Muslim” publication, her parents supported her fully. As a Serb, Suzana had better access to the Yugoslav National Army and covered their activities before the war, using an assumed name. During the siege of Sarajevo, the magazine ran out of money. Suzana visited Teslic to get some food from her parents; but her father asked her to leave for her own safety. In Novi Sad, Serbia, she met and married an artist from a Croat/Serb marriage, though she kept in touch with her colleagues from Slobodna Bosna. In 1995, when the magazine resumed, she rejoined as a correspondent from Serbia. In 1996 Suzana and her husband moved to Sarajevo. As a non-Muslim, he was unable to find work in his field. He went to England for two years, which created a strain on the marriage. They divorced. Suzana is currently working as a freelance journalist and writing a book with a Bosniak colleague about key players in the war.
Never did the presidency, of which I was a member, approve the decision to divide Bosnia.
A “loyal Serb,” TANJA LJUJIC-MIJATOVIC grew up in Sarajevo. Her father, a high-ranking commander in Tito’s military, was a well-known figure in the Second World War. She attended elementary school, high school, and university in Sarajevo. She divorced when her daughters were ten and fourteen. Tanja’s family name is widely recognized, which may be one reason she could leave her position as professor of landscape architecture to become a member of parliament before the war. There, and subsequently as a member of the seven-member presidency, Tanja watched political squabbles grow into deep rifts. But even as the conflict escalated, she could not imagine a war. Like others in Sarajevo, her life soon disintegrated into turmoil. When we were shot at, we were more protective of our plastic water jugs than our own bodies, because water was so hard to get. Tanja gave an interview with Vienna television about life under siege. She spoke so movingly that the Austrian foreign minister requested that she be named to the diplomatic corps. In 1993 she became the Bosnian ambassador to the UN in Vienna, allowing her to promote the cause of her people. She’s tough and determined, although urbane. Tanja adamantly and consistently opposed the de facto division of Bosnia that occurred over the negotiating tables at Dayton. After the war, she continued her affiliation with the Social Democratic Party and was slotted to serve as vice-mayor of Sarajevo. She has an in-depth perspective on the challenges women face in politics—In my own life, I’ve seen how tough it is for women to move ahead—and insists that changes must be made legislatively to bring lasting and equitable peace. She has engaged in dozens of initiatives to bridge divides and proposed international support for the one-year commemoration of the massacre at Srebrenica, even though the perpetrators were Serbs, like herself.
The people who were waging the war . . . we didn’t know those people.
We only knew we were scared.
There’s a tiredness in VALENTINA PRANIC’s eyes, typical of mothers of energetic toddler sons. She was born in 1974 and raised with her older sister near Sarajevo. Pudlugovi is a bit larger than a village. Pop culture was her passion, and she still has an Abba T-shirt. Valentina is an ethnic Croat married to a Bosnian Serb, a long-time family friend. She says their difference in backgrounds doesn’t create difficulties. As far as gender goes: Today, women aren’t given the same chances as men, but at some point in the future we’ll be treated as equal. After all, men or women can practice law or have some other kind of education. [She smiles.] We’re all smart. Still, Valentina’s spoken paragraphs often begin with “What to say?”—after which she launches into important reflections on what caused the war or on her hopes for reconciliation. As the conflict encroached on her village, she escaped with her sister to Serbia, where she was kindly treated. She’s grateful to the Serbian doctor who took care to see that she and her developing baby were healthy. Since the war, Valentina has lived with her husband, their child, and in-laws. Even as her mother, Ana, left the shoe factory while she raised two preschool daughters, Valentina tends her little son at home while her husband works as a driver. These are difficult times in terms of money, but we love life. Loans from the Bosnian Women’s Initiative (through the ngo Women for Women) have helped her start a pig business, to provide her family with additional food and income. The war dominated most of her early life, she says ruefully; she hopes for better for her little Nadan. All women are alike, no matter their ethnic tradition. In this war, we went through the same things: We suffered in the same way, and we were brave in the same way.
Ethnic backgrounds aren’t important to us in our work.
We understand each other very well. Why wouldn’t we?
We’re all women.
VESNA KISIC was born in 1956 in “the most beautiful part of the former Yugoslavia, the flats of Slavonia,” in eastern Croatia. She was brought up by a loving grandmother until she moved to Bosnia for primary school, followed by vocational school in economics. It was a good move; she describes Bosnian people as being “so warm and so nice.” She found a job as an accountant immediately after graduation. Her expression is friendly and her voice soothing, even when she discusses distressing matters. Vesna’s husband, a Bosnian Serb, was a sports journalist. They both lost their jobs as a result of their ethnicity. Their flat was on the front line. Vesna struggled with what to say to her adolescent daughter about her mixed parentage, and how that related to the reasons given for the violence raging around them. Her husband was beaten and expelled to Serbia; he missed five years of their daughter’s life and was unable to protect her and his wife from privation and harm. Her father-in-law lost half his leg to a land mine. Vesna has sought solace in Catholicism. Before the war, she considered herself an atheist; but as the chaos increased, she renewed her faith. She runs “Antonia,” an organization named after her hometown church, the biggest in Bosnia. The women of that organization donate their time to caring for the elderly, educating other women, and meeting community health needs. They’ve set up a tailoring enterprise to generate funds for their many projects. In addition, Vesna is a key player in the postwar League of Women Voters of Bosnia and Herzegovina, encouraging women’s active participation in the political process.