Goražde is home to the women’s peace project “Kuća SEKA“, a charity working with women and children traumatised by war. “Kuća SEKA“ also works in close cooperation with the war veteran organisation “Svijetlost Drine“, also from Goražde, which serves as a contact point for traumatised war veterans. Both organisations focus on psychosocial, therapeutic and sociopolitical aspects in their work, and in addition are active in the field of peace initiatives.
Official Website of the “Kuća SEKA“ project: http://www.seka-hh.de/english/start_e.htm
Prior to the excursion, in particular in preparation for our visit to SEKA, I dealt with the topic of trauma and methods to come to terms with it. Thereby, I came across a Norwegian survey which especially aroused my interest.
As part of this survey, Bosnian refugees, who had fled to Norway between 1993 and 94 were interviewed1. About three years after their flight, it was attempted to get in touch with them once again. By this time two groups had established themselves: a group of refugees that had not returned to their homeland – in many cases due to severe traumatisation – and another group that had already returned to Bosnia and Herzegovina within the three years.
What I found especially interesting was that different people were facing the same challenges on their return. These challenges are to be briefly outlined here.
Many returnees stated that one of their reasons for returning home, was their wish to contribute to the reconstruction of the country, and because they felt responsible for their relatives living there. When they arrived in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the behaviour towards them, of many people, and old acquaintances, was reserved. They were accused of having abandoned their homeland, and therefore were not seen to have the same collection of memories any more as those who had stayed behind. Thus, the returnee is denied his Bosnian identity which he himself, though, still identifies with. In one interview excerpt one finds a vivid example of a woman being deprived of her livelihood because in her “neighbourhood one does not buy from someone who was not there during the war“.
Refugees and those who had remained behind alike were confronted with severe material privation after the war. In many cases, it was impossible for them to return to their houses as they had been destroyed or occupied by other refugees. Moreover, the country as a whole had changed, since in some places the war had caused a drastic change in their ethnic composition.
Many of the refugees had had to leave – mainly – sick relatives behind in exile which constituted an additional burden. Moreover, psychological treatments, begun abroad, could for the most part not be continued.
These challenges result in returnees feeling left alone and helpless. They perceive their environment as something unpredictable, in the same way that they experienced the war. Thus, the returnees run the risk of becoming traumatised once again after their return to Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Following our journey I began to see the data and facts presented in this study in a different light. The statistics and charts did only do limited justice to the reality that we encountered every day during our trip. Both the experience of the refugees as well as of those who had to witness the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina still remains unfathomable to me in its full extent. However, that is why I am so glad that so many different people were ready to speak to us and answer absolutely every question which was sometimes just raised in a general manner by us outsiders.
Source: Lie, Birgit: The Psychological and Social Situation of Repatriated and Exiled Refugees: a Longitudinal, Comparative Study. In: Scandinavian Journal of Public Health. 32(2004), p. 179-187.
1 The interviewees were above 16 years of age and were interviewed between May 1994 and December 1995.
Relatively towards the end of our journey through Bosnia and Herzegovina, and already tired out thanks to the air conditioning on the bus, we met members of the women’s peace project SEKA1 in Goražde. A warm welcome was lying in store for us there.
Right from the start the five ladies quickly won us over by conducting the meeting and discussion round in a very open and straightforward way. More than once we were surprised when we had to realise that some of our questions were so obviously out of touch with reality and thus the day-to-day work of SEKA.
Among other things we were interested in the cooperation between the staff and local doctors, because we expected that in order to deal with severe trauma a medicinal treatment would also be necessary. However, in reality it is exactly the other way around: A successful therapy can only be rendered possible through a withdrawal of medication. Unfortunately, also our question regarding chances for therapies in ethnically mixed groups turned out to be rather unrealistic. For Gabriele Müller, the project manager of SEKA, the term reconciliation seems too superficial and already too worn out. She remains optimistic as to the results of her work, but just as much realistic. Instead, the women tell us of the support of many men who encourage their wives to take part in the therapy.
The SEKA staff told us of their day-to-day work and the projects that they carry out regularly. For one thing, this encompasses their work with children, and for another the work with women in individual and group sessions. In addition, they offer further training within the premises of the charity for volunteers and colleagues coming from other organisations.
We were impressed by the vigour and pleasure displayed by the staff while telling us about their work. In particular, a project called “Days of Happiness” has stayed in my mind. This project, existing since 1997, offers a stay at the seaside to a group of mothers and children for recreation and therapy purposes every year. This positive experience thus offers an opportunity for mothers and their children to come to terms with the horrors of war.
Even years after the war the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina are still affected by trauma caused by the war. Women and children constitute a group which is heavily affected; rape, or simply the fact that their children had to spend their first few years in a war have caused severe injuries. Therefore, especially in such a poor region as eastern Bosnia, charities such as Kuća SEKA are important in order to give the people there a place to go to.
However, Gabriele Müller also told us of the difficulties with which she is consistently confronted during her work. Next to lacking support from the state, she also mentioned among other things the poor cooperation with and between the different victims’ associations, which are more interested in keeping control of their members than anything else. Not least because of that, the SEKA staff defines public relations and raising awareness with respect to "Trauma" as a central aspect of their mission.
Further information on the history of this charity and ways to support it can be found online at http://www.seka-hh.de/english/start_e.htm.
1 The name ‘SEKA’ derives from the Serbo-Croatian word ‘seka’ (= beloved sister) and stands for the solidarity among women out of which this project originated.
“Of course we have cases of rape, I can show you the women, but they don’t talk about it. They isolate themselves; they don’t say much, they sit in a corner and cry. If you ask them what happened to them, if they want to return to their homes, they say ‘Oh no, not on any account.’ But they don’t say why. They do not talk to us [...].“ 2
Systematic mass rape of Muslim women by Serbs occurred during the Bosnian War from 1992-1995. This was a feature of the ethnic cleansings and was deliberately used – not only in this war - as a tactics of war. That way women were being stigmatised, attacked above all mentally, and thus it constituted not only an attack on them, but also on their men and families. The charity Women as Victims of War carried out a research project funded by the EU. The result: 20,000 cases of rape; however, the estimated number of unreported cases is expected to be somewhere around 50,000 victims. Shame is what has kept and still keeps many of those concerned silent.
The Foča-Trial in The Hague in 2000 caused international attention as it dealt exclusively with cases of rape during the Bosnian War.3 The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia charged three Serbian men (at the time of trial aged 35, 38 and 39) with 50 offenses.
The men were accused of having imprisoned and repeatedly raped women in Foča in the summer of 1992. Generally it is known that from April 1992 until October 1992 Serbian soldiers systematically searched the villages around Foča, rounding up, driving away and killing Bosnian men, and detaining women and children in a school building. There they were regularly picked up by soldiers, taken to flats and hotels where they were raped, and then returned to the school.
One of the accused in the trial had imprisoned a number of Muslim girls in a flat for months; one of the girls was only 12 years old at the time. He sold three of the girls to soldiers in Montenegro. One girl is still missing to this day.
The three accused were sentenced to 12, 20 and 28 years in prison. What was special about this trial was that the accused Serbs were not indicted for war crimes but for crimes against humanity for which a longer sentence has to be served, even life imprisonment. Following this trial, the rape of women in war is internationally punished as a crime against humanity and can thus be punished more severely than war crimes.
Nevertheless: Only in recent years have those who became victims of rape during the war become acknowledged as victims of war in Bosnia, which to those concerned at least means they can now claim a humble compensation.
1 Nach dem gleichnamigen Buch von Alexandra Stiglmyer (Hg.), Freiburg 1993.
2 Zitat einer Krankenschwester in Zenica (Stadt in Föderation Bosnien-Herzegowina), November 1992, abgedruckt in Stiglmayer, S. 16.
3 Vgl. http://www.spiegel.de/politik/ausland/0,1518,69669,00.html, 20.03.2000.
Having arrived in Goražde we only have a couple of minutes to take our things into our rooms before we are picked up by Gabriele Müller. She is from Germany, originally from Hamburg. She is a psychologist and has been living here for several years to help the women. She guides us through the small town towards the Seka – House. The bombed houses are overgrown with roses and constitute an incredible contrast between suffering and life.
I look at Gabrielle Müller, and the way she walks through this town towards the house. I find it difficult to place her. But I also do not really know what I have been expecting really. In the run-up to this trip I read a lot about her work and had a very particular image in my head. Admiration was definitely part of the picture right from the beginning. It is strange. I do not really know what it is. She is incredibly nice, but somehow she seems reserved. A little insecure. But what have I been expecting? She does not even know us. Reading all those reports about all the good she has done, I created a picture in my head of a naive and happy woman, cheerfully helping to carry the burdens of war and its aftermath. I become aware of my own naivety.
However, in the house of Seka my perception begins to change at once. Everything here is friendly, sincere and warm. There are not enough chairs for all of us but we are straight away supplied with soft blankets so we can all gather on the floor around Gabrielle Müller and her colleagues. She looks at us. Directly into our eyes and also her expectations seem to be changing. She senses in our looks that we have understood very well what this is all about. During our at first slightly hesitant conversation she also realises that we know quite a bit about this country and that we have already understood some things. She senses that we have also developed a keen sense for these places.
At Kuća Seka it is assumed that something like a collective trauma exists. For a long time traumatisation was not a topic to be discussed in Bosnia and Herzegovina, not even among the public health authorities. One took the easy way out. It was simply normal to be traumatised, after all everyone was affected by it.
To begin with, Ms Müller introduces her colleagues to us. Including Ms Müller, there are five women working here. Each of them gives a short insight into their functions, talks a little about their work, about their life here. We become aware of how well Ms Müller speaks the language, something that is by no means to be taken for granted. Many foreigners have been living in this country for years and are unable to speak the language. Kuća Seka takes care of women and children who have experienced the war and continue to suffer from it. Veterans are also being treated, however this happens rarely since there are only few who were both actively involved and want to or are able to talk about the events.
Ms Müller is a psychologist, her four colleagues are pedagogues and social pedagogues. Only Esma does not have therapeutic training. Why she works here all the same is explained by her background. She studied military science, while Yugoslavia still existed, joined the YNA, the Yugoslav People’s Army, and was actively involved in the war of the 1990s in the defense of Goražde. For three and a half years against the encirclement of the town by the Serbs, who were operating from the surrounding hills. After the war she had therapy and then decided to also help other people suffering from traumata caused by the war. We feel deeply moved. Esma is sitting before us, speaking in such an incredibly open way of her experience. I think about our journey and once again I feel grateful towards the wonderful people who we have met so far. It is so important that we heard all of their views. And thanks to Esma we have now learned of yet another perspective.
The conversation is becoming more and more open and intimate. Our group asks their questions in a very sympathetic way. We speak about the daily routine of the therapies, which are mostly split into individual appointments. Group sessions would put too much strain on many. The most important aspect is that the women can sense a feeling of trust, can gain confidence. That is why the therapists see their mission mainly in encouraging the women and in making them more confident, so they can gain trust in their future and in the people. So no one can take this feeling away from them again that easily.
Often it is very difficult for the women to come here. Their society is a patriarchal society. Many times their husbands do not want their wives to look for help here. Another difficulty is that Goražde is a small place and one will definitely be seen coming to the SEKA-house. Nevertheless, we are also told of positive experience. Some men even encourage their wives. Encourage them to go looking for help. Realise that it helps their wives and their relationship.
The therapists mention the stories of some of the women who come here. Until we feel the question being thrust upon us of how they can actually deal with all of this. Every woman then speaks about her own method of drawing the line. Ms Müller talks about her garden, which gives her refuge and space, and about how she ceased a long time ago to imagine the fate of these women in the form of images. The way they all deal with their work, how they live, sounds very deliberate and healthy.
Much worse, they say, are the limitations they are placed under again and again from the outside.
The political situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina does not make their work any easier. The state is not recognised by many as such, people live in poverty and have lost their faith in politics. Moreover, senior warmongers are still to be found in leading positions. All of this paralyses the people here. It forces them to become just as static from within as the political situation in this country has become. Also, traumatisation is still not a topic acknowledged in the political landscape. When Kuća Seka came to Goražde, the charity was indeed welcomed, but it is not supported in any way. Not even financially – neither by the state nor by the municipality. All of us are truly surprised at how this project can survive in spite of it all and realise how much dedication has to be brought in by these women in addition to their therapeutic work in order to keep the project alive.
We ask about the different ethnicities. Are Bosniaks and Serbs treated here? The answer is: only Bosniaks. But the answer is not that simple. The charity does try to moderate, dialogue is a key theme to them. For example, they organise an event every Christmas where all three festivities are celebrated. However, they say one also has to be aware of what happened in this town during the war. Would it not be more difficult for Bosniaks to attend the therapy if Serbs are also treated there? In the first place, this is after all about people seeking help here so they can once again lead a normal life.
Needless to say that in the long run the therapy is also about changing perceptions, about opening them up – but often it is the first priority for the people to regain their footing in life and to be able to imagine a future for themselves. Kuća Seka’s vision is directed ahead, towards the future, hoping for peace with all their might. The women hope to provide a foundation here.
I think about the previous days and see a glimmer of hope. At last someone is speaking of the future AND peace.
We take a break. One of the women takes us downstairs to the children’s playroom. We have to take off our shoes because this is where the children are supposed to be crawling about and to feel at home. One has to take off ones shoes so as not to destroy their room. On the walls one can see children’s drawings. I recognise the drawings, they are like those found at psychologists’ and in hospitals. Often the doctors have to read a lot into these pictures so they can detect the trauma. Here it is easier. On these drawings the people have blood on their hands which is dripping to the floor. The people have bloody hearts beating in their chests. On first sight it becomes apparent that these people are suffering even to the eyes of an ordinary person. We go back upstairs. Onto the balcony. Smoke. Speak about it.
We then have the opportunity to speak to the staff individually. Unfortunately, our question as to whether at least many trainees or volunteers are interested in this project is answered in the negative. The biggest problem is simply that internships and voluntary work cannot be paid which of course makes it even less attractive to become involved.
We sign the guest book. Describe how our visit here has impressed us. Wish them all the very best for the future so they can continue for a long time with their good work. Touched we already think about how we ourselves could contribute a little, so this project can continue.
In total our conversation lasted for three hours. It is hot, stuffy and we feel exhausted. Again so much to come to terms with. Again so little time. E., who grew up in Bosnia and is now here with us on this journey as a student from Regensburg continues to talk to Ms Müller for some time, they hug, cry. Now at the latest I realise what I had been feeling when Ms Müller was talking to us at the beginning. Scepticism. Feeling doubtful as to us understanding, because many do not understand, because many do not want to understand, simply want to be shocked.
We return to the hotel. We stop for a short while on the bridge that leads across the Drina and ask ourselves silently what happens and has happened here. The blue Drina. A beautiful river. Bombed houses. The river rushes by at unusual speed. Life in this town had to go on at an unsusual speed. Get back to normal. How normal has it become? We look at the movement of the river and ask ourselves when are we to deal with all of this and how will we do it. What will happen once we have returned home? The only sure thing is that we will not forget. We will take a lot with us.
In the evening we all sit together in the light-coloured restaurant of the hotel, having a delicious meal. The sleepy head of our group (who did not manage to get out of bed in time in the morning for the second time this week) invites all of us to a round of rakija and we spend the rest of the warm and beautiful evening at the river. We play cards, talk to each other and have a laugh. Then E. begins to tell us about the past. About 1992. He talks about the escape and about how this beautiful river was red from blood back then. And now. The river is glistening in the night. This place seems peaceful. The voice of the muezzin turns the small town into a romantic nest.