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Zainab Salbi

Zainab Salbi

Posted: August 18, 2009 02:03 PM

Never Again: Rembering the Balkans

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I spent my twenty-fourth birthday in the refugee camps in Split, Croatia. The camps were filled with Bosnian refugees from a war that lasted four years, killed a minimum of 250,000 people and led to the rape of between 20-50,000 women. I had recently founded my organization, Women for Women International, to help these women and communities broken by war to rebuild. Sixteen years later and on the eve of my fortieth birthday, I find myself back in Bosnia and Herzegovina, sitting in the old part of Sarajevo, observing the mountains that were once full of snipers who got paid by the age and gender of their victim (a young man was the highest price). The physical marks of war have faded, but everyone still feels fragile.

I took this trip to Bosnia and Herzegovina wondering what can be done for a country the world forgot after its war ended some 15 years ago. Bosnia and Herzegovina, to say it more bluntly, is no longer sexy; it is no longer interesting to the news media, to donors, or to itself -- there is not much popular interest in its future. I wonder how we have allowed ourselves to forget Bosnia and Herzegovina when it is still as fragile as an eggshell. Even in beautiful Sarajevo, with the funky cafes and nicely dressed people, the fragility and the pain of the country are self-evident.

For me, Bosnia and Herzegovina is a beautiful, painted Easter egg. The beauty of the decorations does not change the fragility of the egg and how easy it is to break it. The landscape is breathtaking, the cities are old, quaint and full of history, and the people are always dressed with the latest European fashion, especially in the cities.

Despite the beauty, the pain of the war is still very raw in people's hearts. You see, the enemy who took your father to a concentration camp was your neighbor, the rapist of your wife, daughter or mother was your colleague, and the sniper who killed your child was a relative. That's difficult to overcome; difficult to forget.

The haunting memory of war surfaces constantly, as those who were victimized by the war are still feeling the emotional and financial aftershocks.

Take the story of Senata and her husband. They told me how they had saved everything to build their dream home in their village. Six months after moving into their new house, the war erupted, destroying their home and leaving them to be displaced people within their own home village. Senata and her husband have struggled ever since to get their lives back in order. From a forest scattered with landmines, they collect herbs, which they sell to pharmaceutical factories or make homemade herbal treatments for sale in their village. The house they now live in they inherited after taking care of its disabled owner prior to his death. In exchange for their services and financial support, he left it to them.

Like her country, Senata is both beautiful and fragile. Her memories are of war, destruction, her husband risking his life on the front lines trying to defend their home town, the loss of a home, the loss of jobs, safety, and security. But despite all these challenges, Senata has her dreams, dreams of creating her own small business in the cultivation and processing of medicinal herbs, enabling her to finally earn a better income and achieve stability in her life and the life of her family.

Mansoura is another woman who must practically perform miracles to keep her daughter in school and fulfill her dreams of going to university. Her husband is handicapped after surviving for two years in a concentration camp. She and her husband lost their jobs and have no cash income whatsoever. Like Senata and her husband, they also survive by collecting herbs from a land-mined forest, knowing that they are taking a risk every time they go yet have no other options. Mansoura makes dresses occasionally and sells cakes to those who can afford birthday parties and weddings for their children. Despite all odds, she still managed to make a purple dress for her daughter's high school graduation. She is determined to see her daughter through college.

Or take the story of Mirza, a physical therapist and Bosniak. "My wife and I never thought that our colleagues and neighbors could ever hurt us until the war took place and the Serbs took over our part of Sarajevo. With the help of one of my Serb clients, I managed to escape to the Bosniak-controlled part of Sarajevo." There are three constituent groups in Bosnia and Herzegovina: Bosniaks, who are Muslim; Croats, who are Catholic; and Serbs, who are Orthodox. One cannot elect or register as a "Bosnian" and people of mixed ethnicities find it difficult to choose one identity.

These national identities fueled much of the conflict of the 1990s in Bosnia and Herzegovina. He continued, "But we had no home and my wife insisted on getting back to our apartment. Those five days that we returned were the most miserable part of my life. We didn't believe we could stay alive until we made it to the other side of the bridge with soldiers on both sides, pointing their guns at each other until a few families with kids in our hands crossed the bridge safely. When I arrived to the Bosniak side, I was asked to join the army. And though I was very much against what the Serbs were doing to us, I simply could not carry I gun. I am a physiotherapist, I kept on saying. I am not a fighter. I am a healer. They finally let me volunteer, clean, care for soldiers, do anything but carry or use a gun. I cried throughout the war. I still cry. How could this happen? How could human beings cause so much harm to each other? My mother was a Serb, my father, who died when I was a child, was a Bosniak, and my step father was a Croat. I had witnessed all their deaths and the different ceremonies for their deaths and now I was told to kill. How could I do that?"

Mirza told me the story of the death of a Bosniak girl and her Serb boyfriend as they tried to meet on a bridge to run away from the war together. Snipers killed them as they were approaching each other and their bodies lay on the bridge for five days, during the hottest August heat. "We started smelling their bodies, but couldn't go out, because snipers were shooting anybody who approached. After five days we were allowed to go and bury them".

After spending a few days with villagers, sharing their memories, stories and pain, I went out on Friday night to unwind over a drink with my colleagues. We were approached by a group of men, who started a conversation with us. What started as a simple Friday night flirtation quickly turned into a philosophical discussion of identity. The men asked my colleague where she was during the war. "I was 18 at the time and I was fighting in that mountain," he points. She answers, "I was 23 at the time and I was a volunteer for a humanitarian organization." It was almost like witnessing a right of passage between a man and a woman before they go any further in their conversation. Though neither one of them said it verbally, I felt their introduction to each other was, "Do you know my pain? Do you know what I have witnessed? Because if you don't, then this can't go anywhere."

Bosnia and Herzegovina is a beautiful country, with beautiful mountains, rivers, art, history, beauty, and deep, deep pains that no one has been able to process yet. The painful memories of concentration camps, rape camps and international ambivalence intermix with present-day pains surrounding poverty, lingering instability and political uncertainty with no clear roadmap for a brighter future.

Sixteen years ago, when I would visit Bosnia and Herzegovina during the war, I always left with a sense of determination from its people to survive. That determination continues to inspire me in all my work around the world to this day. Yet the world has forgotten what it learned from this country, this region, sixteen years ago. Today, I leave Bosnia and Herzegovina with the pain of seeing the fatigue of the people there. I am tired by the accounts of death and destruction and poverty, which wear on them everyday. The world is tired of talking about Bosnia and Herzegovina. The people here, forgotten by the rest of the world, are collectively tired, as individuals, as a country and as an economy.

Yet as they have for generations after every conflict around the world, the women carry on, making do. When asked what she does for a living, one woman told me all women are "creative economists." She said, "I am an economist and what else do you expect from someone who lives on an impossible income?" At Women for Women International, we are still working with these women, these creative economists, providing them training and resources that they can use to leverage themselves and their families out of poverty. We have not forgotten the women of Bosnia and Herzegovina. May the world never again forget.