Daring to dance
Even at the darkest hour there is light. Nikki van der Gaag travels to Croatia to meet women peace activists from some of the world's most bitter and intractable conflicts.
I am on my way to a conference in Zagreb, Croatia, entitled 'Women and the Politics of Peace'. The plane glides smoothly in a bright clear sky. Below us stretch the Alps, jagged and imposing; their snow-covered tips clearly outlined against the darkness of the valleys below. Next to me sits Maja (pronounced Maya), a dark-haired young doctor from Split, now in Croatia. She is working in London as an au pair while she undertakes further studies.
'There are no jobs now at home,' she says simply. I ask her how she has been affected by the war and what she hopes for the future. 'Well... like most people, I just want a nice peaceful little life.'
Most of the 150 women attending the conference are not leading peaceful lives. They come not just from the countries of former Yugoslavia, but from Israel, Russia, Northern Ireland places where conflict has torn countries, communities and families apart. They have all been working to mitigate the effects of those conflicts; to counsel, to support and to build bridges over the rivers of fear and hate that are the inevitable consequence of conflict especially civil war. Their work goes unsung and unreported, but it is they who make it possible for life to go on under such conditions.
These women have come to share their experiences, to learn from each other, and to forge an international solidarity that goes beyond national conflict.
The women from Bosnia, though they live closer than I do, have taken much longer than me to get here. In better times, it would have been a short four hours for them on the road from Sarajevo to Zagreb. Now they have to go via Hungary, which takes ten. It is a journey that would have been impossible during the war, when the only form of communication was e-mail:
'A few months ago I could only dream of a trip like this,' says Duka Ruzicic-Andric, a vibrant woman with short, shiny hair. 'I had to travel a long way round to get here. I feel very excited that I can be with women I have not seen for years, women I love. My arms are not big enough or I would embrace you all but my heart is.'
Duška (pronounced Dushka) works with Medica, an organization based in Zenica, in central Bosnia, which provides medical services and psychological support to women in the area. It was set up after the rape of thousands of women during the war.
'In the beginning,' says Duška, 'we had only our anger. It took us a year to realize what was going on; to try and remedy what was happening. We didn't cherish lofty ideals we just felt that the best person to help a woman was another woman. In the beginning there were just 15 of us psychologists, doctors, psychiatrists, even a theologian. Today there are 70.'
Medica has dispensed free prescriptions for over 16,000 women and has conducted over 22,000 gynaecological examinations. They also work with young women who have been affected by the war, providing housing, education and training young women like Adila, who was expelled from Srebrenica last year as part of the Serbs' 'ethnic-cleansing' programme. She spends her evenings like any other teenager, doing her homework, watching TV and chatting to her friends. But Adila still doesn't know if her father is in prison or lying in a mass grave in Srebrenica.
From where we are sitting on the roof of the conference centre I can see a park. Its tall autumnal trees and cold bright sunshine reveal women everywhere, in pairs or in groups, deep in conversation. Excitement and energy, hope and fear, pour out of the building and envelop the surrounding area. Emotions are often raw, stories personal and harrowing.
'When somebody says the word "rape" it feels as though she is calling my name,' says one woman who came to Medica for support. 'Rape is not just a physical attack. It is also psychological. It is an experience of facing death.'
The extraordinary thing, explains Marijana, who works with Duška, is how the women cope afterwards. 'During the war, many women suffered rape because of threats to their children. So these rape survivors know that they have saved their own and their children's lives. This gives them a great desire for life and strength. And, amazingly, they are still able to distinguish between the rapists and other people from the same group. They give us the possibility to build bridges...'
Women who have suffered rape and torture are not just victims. Instead they can sometimes, as part of their own healing process, show others a way through hatred and enmity.
This hatred also exists in the Middle East, between Israelis and Palestinians. Israeli Daphna Golan, who works for the women’s peace group Bat Shalom, tells a story that illustrates the divide.
'Last week a Palestinian friend asked me to come and visit two Palestinian boys who had been wounded and were being kept at Hadassah Hospital, one of the best hospitals in Israel. My friend was not allowed in, and felt that I, as an Israeli, would have a better chance. On the seventh floor a soldier was sitting by one of the beds. He told us that we were not allowed in. But I opened the curtains and saw two boys (one of 14 and one of 17). They were clearly badly wounded but they were handcuffed and chained by their feet to the beds. The soldier threatened us; he said he would remove us by force if we didn’t go away. I knew that because I was an Israeli he would never dare to do so. I told him I would ring his mother – he was also quite young and tell her that he was guarding wounded boys who were chained to their beds. He shrugged and said he was "just carrying out orders".'
That night the Palestinian boys were released. They had been in the hospital, chained to their beds, for five days. They had not been allowed to contact their parents or their relatives. The younger boy, Muataz Jaredat, had had his bladder and rectum destroyed. The Director of the Hospital said later that it had all been a mistake.
'A story like Muataz's a person with a name, a face, a mother has more effect than statistics’' says Daphna. 'We try to work against the demonization of the enemy, and demonizing is much easier if the enemy has no name. But talking about it is only the first step. The second is to say: "State crimes are my business". They are everyone's business. So as Israeli women in Bat Shalom, we work together with Palestinian women in the Jerusalem Link. We hold press conferences jointly and separately we promote education; we talk to young people and women in poor neighbourhoods (who would normally support the right wing) from our own communities. We tell them: "There is much that you, as a woman, can do about peace. You can work for peace in your own community. You can educate your children about these things. Peace is important for Israelis and Palestinians alike, because Israel will never be a democracy as long as there is a 14-year-old boy handcuffed to a bed next door".'
Daphna's story has added potency because her Palestinian colleague, Jihad Abu Zneid, has been prevented from coming to the conference by the Israeli authorities precisely because as a Palestinian she has lower status than Daphna does as an Israeli.
'Peace means building bridges,' agrees Marie Mulholland from the Women's Support Network in Belfast. 'And sometimes those bridges need to be built in unexpected ways between unexpected people. Just because you are from Northern Ireland, or just because you are Catholic or Protestant or a woman doesn't mean that you have automatic connections with other people with the same labels. There are a thousand ways of being a Serb or a Cypriot or an English person. There are many different ways of being a woman. And no woman should have to cut off any piece of herself in order to stay around the table. We do not believe in submerging our differences. We believe in accepting those differences and agreeing some common principles. We can be everything that we are but we want to be more than that.
We realize that though we come from opposing sides and don’t agree on everything, we do agree that we are against any form of discrimination. And that true justice and true equality is when you give the same rights to your enemy that you want for yourself.’
Working at this level takes time; it is long and often gruelling. It often has little support and sometimes open hostility from those in power; those who started the wars in the first place. Many of the women from former Yugoslavia know that when they go home peace will, ironically, make their work even more difficult. At the very point where it is most needed, the money for reconciliation work is drying up because the war has ended.
Duška, Marijana, Marie, Daphna and the other women activists somehow, amazingly, find new strength to continue. Often, says Marie Mulholland, 'women working for peace find themselves between a rock and a hard place. What we forget is that you can find diamonds in the space between rocks and hard places.' When she finishes speaking, I find I have tears in my eyes.
BRITAIN: Women's Aid to Former Yugoslavia (WATFY), 20 Tennyson Road, Portswood, Southampton, Hants. Tel: (0)1703 551094. Fax: (0)1703 554434. E-mail: email@example.com
AUSTRALIA: Bosnian Resource and Advisory Centre. Tel: (02) 9821 1207.
This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7