Nearly twenty years ago, the country I called home, Bosnia and Herzegovina, descended into a brutally violent and destructive war, one that shredded the fabric of our society and forever altered the lives of the survivors. For the women who lived through the Bosnian War, the atrocities and genocide perpetrated against them was also a war against memory, an attempt to destroy a group of people, hide the evidence, and silence the victims through intimidation or death. But the women did not forget, nor did they remain silent.
Earlier this month, the women of Bosnia and Herzegovina reminded the world that their memories have not faded, and that they will bravely continue to pursue justice. I Came to Testify, the first of the five-part PBS series Women, War, and Peace, shared the stories of the women of Foča, who were forced into rape camps by Serbian military forces, and who stood before the International Criminal Tribunal to face their attackers and tell the world what they had done to them. For the 16 women who came to testify, their victory was more than the triumph of the human spirit over adversity -- their trial redefined how we understand rape in the context of war, and made it possible to prosecute those who rape for war crimes.
The bravery of these women, who risked retaliation and worse for speaking the truth about the horrors done to them by their neighbors reminds me of the more than 20,000 women in Bosnia and Herzegovina who will never have their day in court and who live with the physical and emotional scars of what nearly destroyed them. And yet, these women work every day to rebuild their and their family's lives with a courage and determination that is nothing short of inspiring. I am reminded of Safeta, a young mother who participated in Women for Women International's program after the war. One night during the war, Safeta was kidnapped by her neighbors from her home in Busovaca and taken to an abandoned house in her town. There, she was repeatedly raped and tortured by those same neighbors. Before her attackers left, Safeta overheard one of them tell the others not to kill her, because she would kill herself.
Safeta, her husband, and her young son fled their home, only to return to Busovaca years later after the war to rebuild their lives, next to those who had destroyed them the first time. Safeta joined Women for Women International's program in her town, making lasting friendships that have helped her heal and learning vocational skills that enable her to support her family. Because of her experience during the war, Safeta was invited to testify against her attackers at a war crimes tribunal at The Hague. But security in Busovaca was still uneasy. The danger her testimony posed for her family and the inability to find asylum for them prevented her from sharing her story in court.
Since Women for Women International opened its first country office in Bosnia and Herzegovina 17 years ago and began working with women like Safeta, I have met countless women who struggle to piece together a normal, dignified life in spite of the loss of their family members and homes, the vicious attacks perpetrated against them, and the refusal of others to acknowledge what was done to them. For many of these women, their participation in Women for Women's program is their first, and perhaps only, opportunity to talk about their experiences and receive the emotional support they need to find a sense of closure and to know that they are not alone.
Through Women for Women International's program, over 30,000 Muslim, Catholic, and Orthodox Serb women have found a place where they can talk freely and become friends, without fear of being judged. They often come to our program looking for an opportunity to meet and learn from other women and to seek refuge from the loneliness and isolation they feel. Although all the women have different experiences of the war. One woman explained that she came to us because "I wanted to get together with other people, and to hear how they managed to survive, what were their stories." These stories and testimonies have had a powerful effect on the women in our program, many of whom have continued their new friendships and built community associations, political organizations, and business collectives together.
Whether testifying before The Hague or before a circle of friends, it takes immeasurable courage for these women to break their silence, to relive the pain they are trying to move beyond, and to risk losing what they have worked so hard to rebuild. We honor the women who came to testify, to friends or strangers, and who have refused to let their attackers hide in silence as the memories of what they did fade. These women are heroes, and their words stand as a testament to their courage and determination to not let the past be forgotten and to create a better, peaceful future. As Safeta explains, for these women, survival and fortitude are their triumphs:
"Those soldiers, I want them to see that I am still alive, that they did not kill me, not my body, not my soul, and nor will they ever."
For more information about Seida's work, please visit www.womenforwomen.org.