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Out of a Nightmare, I Saw How to Build Joy -- and Love -- Rada Boric

02/13/2015 02:32 pm ET | Updated Apr 15, 2015

Perhaps the hardest lesson we have to learn in life is -- nothing is ever safe. Think about the things you take most for granted. The streets where you live. The job you have. The possibility of a future. All these things -- they can be revealed as illusions in a heartbeat. I grew up in a safe and stable country in Europe, where I hardly heard people talk about ethnicity, and I didn't think the term even applied to me.

My country was Yugoslavia. I saw it die. I saw people who had lived peacefully as neighbors turn on each just because they were different. I saw ethnicity become an obsession and rape become a weapon of war. I ended up supporting women fleeing from war-thorn countries in refugee camps and was smuggled across borders and sleeping on floors with traumatized rape victims.

And I saw how women can build hope out of  war's nightmare. I saw how -- through feminist activism -- as One Billion Rising -- they could struggle for justice and peace.

I am 63, and my father was Yugoslav partisan. I grew up in a small town on the border with Hungary. My mother only had an elementary school education, but my sister and I were encouraged to learn and graduate from the university, as education was free. Yugoslavia had an authoritarian regime that did not tolerate dissent, but in other respects, life, for me, was good.

There had been a strong feminist movement in Yugoslavia -- women played a key role in resisting the fascists and winning the Second World war. In 1978 in Belgrade there was a famous feminist conference where women asked: "Comrades, who is washing your socks?" But it was only in the United States that I began to think of myself properly as a feminist. I got a Fulbright grant to Indiana University, and I was thrilled to discover there was a department of Women's Studies -- we had nothing like it back home. But I was also startled when I discovered open sexism -- like a university department head who said women didn't have the same "verbal abilities" as men, so they weren't suited to being professors and should stick to being lecturers and teachers. For me it was a real shock.

I ended up teaching in Finland, at the University of Helsinki, later in that decade -- but in the 1990s, when wast population of Yugoslavia was fleeing due to the conflicts and war(s), I returned home. After all my learning in Finland, my initial plan had been to write the first ever Croatian-Finnish dictionary -- but when I saw what was happening -- politics of divide, Croatia attacked, towns bombed, hate speech in trams and on the TV, people disappearing over night...

In the railway station in Zagreb, I watched as huge numbers of women and children began to stream in from Bosnia. The majority had been driven out because they were Muslim, and they were immediately treated as second class citizens. From outside a train window, I looked in, and I saw a little girl washing in the compartment, trying to make it into a little home. I thought then -- this is absurd. I can't just sit and write a dictionary. I have to do something.

I joined Centre for Women War Victims and started to go to the refugee camps that were scattered across Zagreb. They were not conventional refugee camps -- they were wooden barracks that had been constructed for the Bosnian men who would build our apartment blocks in peacetime. When refugees started to stream in, families moved into these wooden barracks. We wanted to offer support and help to the women stranded there. So they could regain control over their lives lost due to the war.

What I found was that the humanitarian aid that was being handed out was often senseless. People were given rice, although they had no cookers. But more importantly -- the parcels with "essentials" contained no sanitary pads, even though the vast majority of refugees were women and children. Clothes were provided, but they were clearly the cast-offs nobody wanted - the camp looked like the trash-dump of Europe.

Eventually, solidarity movements of women started to come with an aid that respected women's needs. Refugee women learned not only how to make rice-cakes but learned how to survive new circumstances.

I believed the most essential support -- once these basics were met -- was for the psychological health of these women. Nobody was talking to them. They had been expelled from their own houses, their husbands were missing, and they didn't know where they were. There was no news, and the phone lines were cut. We didn't have the resources to provide these women with the one  support they needed -- so we decided to set up self-support groups where the women could support and help each other. We would gather 15 or 20 women who wanted to talk and share their experience, and we would have a session for two hours on a different topic -- from grief to getting information to getting papers to get to a safe country.

Afterwards, when women would feel confident, they would approach us because they wanted to talk about something they regarded as shameful -- they had been raped. It was soon becoming clear that there had been an extraordinary amount of sexual violence used as part of the war - but it was covered with a thick blanket of silence. To deal with this, you can't enter a camp shouting "who of you have been raped?" You have to gain trust and confidence. You have to listen and show empathy.

Once you had bonded with the women, they often wanted to tell their story -- although it could be very traumatic. I remember one raped woman who had been a doctor in Bosnia. We spoke for five hours before she felt able to reach that part of her story -- but I could see the release and relief once she had. Once I and my colleague withdrew from the group, it already had a life of its own and it would continue without us, providing support and community.

For me, this was a move from feminist theory to feminist practice -- I was seeing how women can support and love each other even in the most terrible of circumstances. Very quickly there was a development of community and solidarity -- when we brought little presents, like good soap or small earrings, the women would immediately share what they had. "You take it, you deserve it," they would say to each other.

I kept thinking -- this could have happened to me. It could happen to anyone. Because none of these women thought it would happen to them. All over the world people say -- it won't happen to me. It is how we protect ourselves. But it can. It might.

Working with women was never especially popular. The "easiest sell", internationally, was working with children. But I would explain that you can only support children by supporting their mothers. I would often see children asking their mothers for help or to play -- and the mothers were too traumatized to do anything. How can you support that child without dealing with her/his mother's trauma?

I would also see how women were the fiercest survivors. One woman I knew talked about how her husband, who had been a senior manager before the war, had sunk into total despair and couldn't do anything. I asked her -- what did you do before the war? It turned out she had been a senior lawyer. "But you are not sitting around in despair," I said. "No," she replied, "I have become a cleaner. I can't afford to get depressed. I have children. We must survive."

But amid these encouraging developments, there was horror. What most shocked me in the stories I heard was how quickly normal life had broken down across my country. People who had been neighbors just before would turn on each other. Some 30 percent of marriages in Bosnia and Herzegovina had been mixed between different groups -- there was not a single family in Bosnia that didn't have immediate family didn't have somebody of the other ethnicity -- yet so many people snapped into raw ethnic hatred so quickly. It became normal for them to move into somebody else's apartment the minute they were gone. I would see some women themselves, politically active, spreading ethnic hatred, blaming the entire ethnic group that they believed had driven them out, and dreaming of revenge.

I started to travel throughout my former country, being smuggled with forged documents across the new borders, and everywhere I went, I found carnage, and women inspiring me with their resilience. We always kept contact with feminist movements across the divide -- it was one of the forms of solidarity that could save us. With my friend Eve Ensler, we stayed in Medica Zenica shelter where raped women were living with no electricity and no water. They had to wash themselves with the water kept in a big bottles of Coca-Cola. Women learned to do that.  Eve and I did the same. I saw how women have 10,000 ways of survival. And how they were able, together with activists, to build new community of women.

Now the war is over. The men who became disabled in the war have rightly received compensation. But the women who were raped have received nothing -- no support, no compensation.

That is what we decided to make the focus of One Billion Rising for Justice here. This movement -- to organize all the women across the world who have been beaten or raped to rise as one -- has had an inspiring success in Croatia. We wanted our first One Billion Rising to very much include men and we gathered in our central park in Zagreb and even though it was extremely cold, we danced together  for four hours - and we made our political demands for compensation. We could see in the video screen a life-feed of women dancing at the same time all over the world. Some of the most prominent men in our country attended -- including Croatian president Ivo Josipović, ministers and actors, Croatian singer called Massimo talked about growing up with violence in his family; two of our most famous hockey players talked about why they were rising against violence.

Now, I am proud to say, that -- in response to this activism -- the law to get compensation for the victims of sexual violence during the war is getting its second reading in our parliament and I hope women victims of sexual violence will get deserved support and compensation.

Rising works. Fighting back -- in a spirit of joy -- works.

We are organizing an alternative Women's court in Sarajevo in May 2015, where women will be able to testify publicly about crimes committed during the conflicts and war in former Yugoslavia, and to address demands to achieve justice.

Nothing is ever secure. My friend Eve Ensler taught me that we have to "live more in insecurity" -- knowing everything is impermanent. We all thought Yugoslavia was safe, and we thought we were good neighbors to each other -- then overnight it all changed, and for worse. One Billion Rising is an attempt to change it for the better. It is an attempt to use that insecurity to build strength. It has begun to succeed -- but we have much more work to do. I hope you will join us.

As told to the One Billion Rising team.

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One in three women across the planet will be beaten or raped during her lifetime. That's 1 billion women and girls. Every February, we rise -- in hundreds of countries across the world -- to show our local communities and the world what 1 billion looks like and shine a light on the rampant injustice that survivors most often face. We rise through dance to express joy and community and celebrate the fact that we have not been defeated by this violence. We rise to show we are determined to create a new kind of consciousness -- one where violence will be resisted until it is unthinkable.

This year we are rising for "Revolution." We are initiating a new series, "Building to One Billion Rising Revolution," where we will be sharing stories of extraordinary activists who embody the creative radical shift in consciousness required to bring about change.

We are grassroots activists who fight for justice and liberation with passion and joy.