“I see, I hear, I feel you”
Feminist work with women survivors of the war from the territory of the former Yugoslavia (1991-1999)
Women’s solidarity is a value cherished by feminists all around the world. During wartime, the need for solidarity is even more urgent. Some feminist activists working with women coming from warzones in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Serbia knew this very well. We made a conscientious decision to collaborate with each other during wartime and afterwards. At the same time, a constant flow of self-organized solidarity was arriving from women in Europe towards the women activists in and near the war zones. This precious experience of women’s solidarity during wartime is the theme of this article. Solidarity is precious at all times, but in wartime, it represents ground on which you can sow the seeds of hope.
Before going deeper into this topic, here are some general data on the war from the territory of the former Yugoslavia, a country of approximately 23 million inhabitants(1) that was dissolved in 1991. The war lasted from 1991 to 1999. Altogether, there were circa 120,000 casualties, 2, 5 million displaced persons and many thousands of women were sexually abused on the territories of Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo .(2)
In Serbia, where the war started, feminist activists founded Women in Black against War in 1991 – a feminist, anti-fascist, anti-militarist group having the main aim to oppose the criminal Serbian regime. They held weekly vigils dressed in black and in silence. During the nineties Women in Black became an international network.
At the same time, feminist counselors and psychologists founded the first three women’s centers to work with women survivors of war: Medica Zenica – Women’s Therapy Center, in Bosnia and Herzegovina; Center for Women War Victims – in Zagreb, Croatia; and the Autonomous Women’s Center against Sexual Violence in Belgrade, where I worked. Many individual women as well as women’s organizations supported these centers and some others, emotionally as well as financially, with women coming to share their knowledge with us, to volunteer and create many other inventive activities. Without solidarity, we would not have been able to support thousands of women war survivors.
I wish to emphasize that this solidarity was an aspect of our work as well as our daily lives, that made us feel that we belonged to the world when we found ourselves isolated, giving us hope that someone out there cared about us, often with carefully chosen little gifts like coffee and chocolates.
Here I wish to summarize some of the knowledge that we as feminist activists working with women survivors of war have gained from experiences regarding women’s solidarity during wartime.
SOLIDARITY 1: VALIDATION OF PAIN “I hear you”
We learned that the heart of solidarity lies in listening and validating the pain and joy of the other, so that survivors can feel they are neither alone, nor abandoned. Just by asking hello, how are you? in difficult times is of crucial value. This decision to hear the other the way the other hears herself with her own interpretations and values – this is what lies at the heart of solidarity: to listen with trust and tenderness; to be a witness of pain and life stories from the warzone; to send a letter via unknown activists that takes two months to arrive; to sneak in a pack of cigarettes via humanitarian aid. The great Russian poet Anna Akhmatova once wrote to her beloved friend, another poet ̶ Marina Tszvetaeva, when they were both living in hard times of war: „I see, I hear, I feel you near my friend.“(3)
SOLIDARITY 2: EQUALITY : Relating with women in war zones from a place of comradeship
We learned that solidarity manifests itself when women ̶ who come from non-conflict countries to the warzone – come with goodwill and in sisterhood, to communicate from the place of camaraderie and friendship to create a dialogue. This kind of encounters can heal the broken dignity of women survivors of war. We need solidarity from women in welfare regions as well as other regions to share their life stories and mingle with women from warzones. Not from the places of guilt, nor by patronizing the other, not from the status of victims nor victors. Caring for each other needs awareness of power differences. Caring for the other is a feminist issue. If we care, we also constantly question the power we possess as persons coming from non- conflict zones, in order to distribute it fairly and not misuse it.
When the first peace activists from Italy arrived in Belgrade, in September 1991, none of us knew why they had come and who had invited them. They had heard the first news of the War in Yugoslavia, and felt they must find some women’s groups and come to see us. In that moment, we were not aware that the war is our future. Activists came with Italian coffee and soaps and just sat with us, most of them did not even speak English. We were so moved, that we hardly knew what to talk about, but we looked at each other in awe.
Later on, we have also seen activists coming to see us getting off from buses, trucks… devising different kinds of plans to reach the warzone. It is an amazing fact that out of feelings of pure feminist responsibility some women got up and decided to support women and people in times of war, and do something in life they never thought they would.
Proactiveness ̶ Fall of 2015 ̶ women, children and men escaping war and fleeing from post-conflict countries from Asia and Africa are walking around Europe: what have we done?
By October 2015, there are already thousands and thousands of people in need arriving in Belgrade and sleeping on the ground in the park near the bus station. Some of us, as feminists and Women in Black activists, are going there constantly, to talk to women, play with children, and sit down with refugees in front of the closed borders…. It is not nearly enough what governments are doing to support them. Almost half a million people have passed in the last year only through Belgrade with the hope of ‘finding some kind of life’ in Europe, as one woman had said: There is no life in Syria, no life, nothing. There is a feminist question here: what is to be done in order to show solidarity? Advocating for their rights, fighting racism, supporting women, supporting children, opening spaces in ourselves for others different from us. Still, most Europeans believe that Europe must be ‘white’ even if this is not true already for decennia. Europe is changing faster than we think. Women arriving from post conflict countries such as the Ukraine, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Somalia need us.
At the same time, we have witnessed many actions of solidarity coming from citizens from almost every country in Europe. Many people have been taking care of refugees over these past few months. However, this is not enough. We, as WAVE activists, need to create a pool of information about women refugees and the sexual violence some of them have been subjected to, in order to arrive in Europe. This must be done with tender care and our feminist hearts and minds.
By Lepa Mladjenovic
Lepa Mladjenovic, feminist counselor for women survivors of male violence, war, and lesbians. Feminist lesbian activist, anti-war and anti-fascist activist member of Women in Black Against War, Belgrade.
(2) Tabeau, Ewa (2009), Conflict in Numbers: Casualties of the 1990s War in the former Yugoslavia (1991-1999), eds., Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia: Belgrade
(3) Akhmatova, Anna (1935-40), Requiem, Epilogue, available at: http://www.goodreads.com/topic/show/1660787-159-epilogue-from-requiem-1935-1940—anna-akhmatovahttp://www.goodreads.com/topic/show/1660787-159-epilogue-from-requiem-1935-1940—anna-akhmatova