New Internationalist

The Oasis

Issue 270

The Oasis
Amid the desert of the war in former Yugoslavia, Rada Boríc finds a new identity.

I’m from Zagreb. Croatia.’

‘Croatia?’

‘One of the countries of former Yugoslavia.’

‘Oh. Well, what has really happened there?’

‘I can’t tell you. I can tell you only of the things written on women’s bodies and souls...’

Often, meeting foreigners, I could see in their eyes a blink of astonishment, sympathy or a wish to help. To ease their worried minds I used to tell them that we hardly know all the ‘hows and whys’ but that every day we are more and more aware of the ‘whats’ of our war.

War. It doesn’t only destroy houses and property and kill beloved ones. It wipes out entire landscapes of personal histories. Families are separated, friends have gone missing or are cast all over the world.

We are all born with the assumption that no-one will do us any harm on purpose. At least not our neighbours.

Was it a mere nightmare? What is this war about? ‘Ethnic cleansing’? Who needs burnt-down villages? They fight for what? To devastate and then possess? To possess a house where some other life has been led? To have good dreams there?

When the first refugees came from Bosnia some were placed in carriages in an old railway station from which trains no longer leave. A young girl, still a child, was washing train windows while two younger sisters cried in their grandmother’s lap. Both parents had been killed. She was making a home for them.

Lost identity. White plastic bags with all belongings. Old yellowish document, a few photographs...

I work in the Center for Women War Victims. Or rather ‘War Survivors’. War has changed my life as it has changed many.

Now we talk about times ‘before the war’. ‘Before the war’ I was a professor of Croatian Language and Literature at the University of Helsinki in Finland. I was a visiting lecturer at Indiana University in the US. Only then it was Serbo-Croatian and Yugoslav Literature. I had started work on a Croat/Finnish dictionary. It made no sense once the war had started. Work in the Center enabled me to see the world through the eyes of refugee women.

I’m Mirsada from Sarajevo holding my husband’s cut head in my lap during the shelling of the town. I’m Ruza from Derventa. I buried all my valuables under the plum tree in my garden, hoping to go back but now I’m waiting for a refugee visa from Canada. I’m Mara, taken from hospital to a Serbian camp. I’m Alija from Prijedor with my forged passport going to Sweden illegally with my two little children. Their father, my husband, is missing. I want to start a new life. I’m Badem, hushing my daughter in the tram, hushing her so that the other passengers won’t recognize that we are Bosnians.

I’m all of these women. I remember my friend Eve Ensler, a playwright from New York, saying that everyone should, if nothing else, be a refugee for a day. To feel the loss. To understand. To share. In a refugee camp you can still feel part of a community. Outside, you are lost in a society which does not care.

My work in the Center is my runaway from the New Reality. I am facilitating self-help groups for refugee women, trying to help them regain control over their lives. What about my life? Did I not need to regain control, to find identity – women’s identity?

These women fled from Bosnia or occupied Croatian territory with their children and parents, hoping that once they reached Croatia they would be safe. And now, after all the atrocities they have witnessed, after all the traumas and all the resettlements, they face new problems.

Women and children make up 80 per cent of refugees. Jobless, their identity card entitles them to primary health care and primary schooling. Only the primaries. There are too few places in the refugee camps, no money to pay for decent shelter. But they struggle. This is why I need to identify with them. They know how to survive.

Take my friend and colleague Biba, 52 years old, a successful lawyer from Sarajevo who came to Zagreb with her daughter Dunja. There is no legal work for refugee women so Biba must try to find any work to feed herself and her daughter. She is Muslim by birth. Her husband, a Serbian, stayed behind working for the Bosnian Government. The family had never cared for nationality issues. But others did, and imposed their beliefs on the rest. To enable Dunja to go to secondary school Biba had to have her baptised a Catholic. To be Catholic means to be Croatian. The rest are ‘foreigners’. Before the war Biba used to come to Zagreb often. It was painful suddenly to be a foreigner, a refugee, in a town you considered your own.

So Biba will move to Canada. There is no future for mixed marriages in Bosnia. No possibility of becoming a Croatian citizen. Biba works with other refugee women in the barracks. She sings. She encourages them. She is cheerful. To start a new life when you are 52 is to be a survivor.

I live in an oasis of caring refugee women – a place which is focused on helping them to be who they were or are. And I learn life’s wisdom from them as we prove every day that women do not share hatred for each other. But outside in Croatia a parallel society runs on.

Ordinary women struggle for everyday life. To make ends meet on low salaries. To keep families together. There is no time for political engagement. While we are struggling to improve our everyday lives, strong patriarchal structures are deciding our fates for us. War proved to be a good excuse for sending women back into the home. Today, only a few women are in our Parliament. And even these often find themselves without a voice.

While statistics show that the majority of university students are women, everywhere else is disaster. We do not participate in decision-making, or in the peace negotiations... though we would know how to negotiate.

Croatia is balanced between war and peace, between nationalism and democracy. It is a young country suffering from a child’s disease. Here, national is more important than civil. Women are fit for motherhood only. There is a new family law which seems to give some benefits but is in fact a trap for working women. Lots of pro-life and Catholic organizations are working to change reproductive rights and make abortion illegal. The Church has more influence than ever, preaching a new moralism while the State profits from the war.

They say it is the same in all the countries ‘in transition’. Women are being transported backwards. We are losing the rights we took for granted under socialism. Then we had political egalitarianism. Sometimes this was a formality but there was legal and economic equality; there was equal status in marriage and the right to abortion; there was almost full employment. True, the public sphere was sexist and there were hidden violences against women at work and in the family. But the new democratic state based on national sovereignty has brought more catastrophic effects.

It has meant a return to traditional patriarchal images of women as mothers and wives. The ‘homeland mother’ is a role created by the new Demographic Movement in order to increase the national birth rate. It threatens women. Reproductive rights are no longer women’s rights but national rights.

Women have disappeared from public and political life. They form a majority of the unemployed. So-called ‘liberalization’ has brought with it open pornography, semi-legal massage parlours and illegal prostitution. When the soldiers come marching home, domestic violence increases – as does alcoholism.

No-one wants to talk of these things. Only women know what they mean. But when they speak of them they are attacked as a ‘national threat’ or denigrated in Parliament.

Many new women’s projects have been created in Croatia since the war began. And women from the countries of former Yugoslavia have stayed in contact with each other. No military tactic or manufacture of hatred could eliminate this decision to remain in solidarity with women on the ‘other’ sides. Women’s groups from Croatia are in touch with similar groups from Bosnia, Serbia and Slovenia, re-building bridges destroyed by politicians. Women are proving themselves to be promoters of peace and builders of civil society.

As women we are organizing because this is the only way to make our issues visible. We want to be activists, not passive victims. In all this nationalistic euphoria it is easy for me to choose my nationality: Woman. It is not enough to ‘look at the world through women’s eyes’ (as the Beijing Women’s Conference says). We must make the world a reflection of women’s minds and women’s efforts.

Rada Boríc works at the Center for Women War Victims in Zagreb, Croatia. The Center has been awarded two prizes for peace activism and for working with women regardless of nationality.

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