Paula Szewczyk talks to Dr Branka Antić-Štauber, the founder of the Snaga Žene (The Power of Women) organisation which helps women recover from the trauma of the Srebrenica massacre.
Paula Szewczyk: They lost their husbands, sons, and fathers. They were victims of violence themselves. More than a quarter of a century has passed since the Srebrenica massacre – do women still need help coping with their trauma?
Dr Branka Antić-Štauber: Trauma stays for life. For 25 years I have been working with women of three nationalities: Croatian, Serbian, and Bosnian, from each side of the conflict. I’ve seen and heard a lot. One of these women lost 37 loved ones in the massacre. I can safely say that what they went through simply cannot be forgotten, and the tragedy of that war will remain with them until they die.
Because how do you come to terms with the fact that someone grabbed a child from your hands and killed them in front of you? Can you forget how they forcibly dragged you out of your house, drove you, moved you to who knows where, where you slept on a classroom floor, without food, clothes, a shower, a toilet? Can you forget that 15 men raped you in just one night? How do you accept that you had plans that will never come true because you were left alone, because you no longer have a home, a husband, your children? Because all that’s left of them are their remains in a mass grave. Or after all these years, you don’t even know where they’re buried, what happened to them, how they died.
The Srebrenica massacre is considered the largest act of cruelty in Europe since the end of World War II. Did you establish the organisation called Snaga Žene, that is The Power of Women, because these women were left basically alone with their burden?
The conflict lasted a total of four years, there were many victims on each side, but we must remember that Srebrenica was the culmination of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the place with the largest number of victims, men and boys, who were murdered and whose bodies were buried in mass graves. Approximately 8,000 Muslim Bosnians died at that time, many of whom came from Srebrenica.
The women were left alone. Before, these men were heads of families, they ensured survival. Their sudden absence meant complete destabilisation for women. It ruined their world. And, what’s more, the bodies of women mourning their husbands and sons, facing loss and pain, were battlefields themselves. It is estimated that up to 40,000 women were raped in those areas during the conflict and these were planned acts of terror. The harm done to these mothers, wives, sisters and daughters was, in fact, the harm done to their entire community. They were beaten, humiliated, kicked, thrown naked out of their homes. They had no chance of recovering from this themselves.
They had to face further challenges, such as the fact that the environment didn’t accept them, and didn’t want to acknowledge their harm, didn’t they?
It’s like layers of trauma, one overlapping another. It could not have been easy for women who suffered from sexual violence. Besides, some of the men tortured in concentration camps were raped, too.
There is no definite answer to the question of how to continue living after something like this. And it is certainly harder to find the answer when you have to keep silent, because speaking exposes you to stigma and exclusion. Bosnian women were the first to talk about rape, though rarely and reluctantly. Many women still remain silent about this. In families with husbands or other male family members, it’s a secret they don’t share. And some men don’t even suspect that it might have happened to their wives.
Women don’t talk because they don’t want their neighbours to know. Some feel guilty because that’s how their environment sees them. If she was raped, she must have brought it upon herself, she’s responsible. Some of them later gave birth to the children of their oppressors. We founded the Forgotten Children of War association for them, where we are trying to help them. But this silence about sexual violence makes it difficult to count these women and reach them with our support. Also, rape victims suffer when they see that the stories of women who have lost their loved ones are accepted by society and their stories are not.
Snaga Žene provided them with psychological help, but does professional therapy work?
There’s been no progress. For six years since the genocide, we provided them with well?prepared psychologists, group therapies, analyses, individual therapy, creative therapy, help through art, various kinds of workshops – but we did not see the expected results.
Bosnia and Herzegovina is a poor country, people have no jobs, no opportunities, they focus on how to survive. The majority of the affected women come from rural areas, have neither education nor the means to go through the crisis on their own. That’s why we started looking for ways to bring them back to life as they knew it in the past. It turned out that what invigorates them, what is dear to them, is the earth.
This is how we provided them with agricultural therapy: through cultivation. It quickly began to give great results!
What is such therapy about?
We started with growing roses. It was supposed to be not only a pastime, but a financial help, too. The aim was to make the women self-sufficient. They could later sell the flowers they grew. When I called them to see how it was going, they said the roses were growing so beautifully that they were sorry they had to cut them. Some had coffee in the garden for the first time to enjoy the flowers.
They began to enjoy life a little, and over time it enabled a reduction in the level of anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress that they have been struggling with for years.
Weren’t they able to take care of these gardens themselves before?
Before the war, they had gardens full of flowers, they were growing fruit and vegetables. After the war it was all destroyed and they didn’t have the strength to get back to it. Besides, it is a complex problem, because returning to Srebrenica after the massacre was already a big challenge for them. Coming home should be a relief, and for them it was a repeated trauma, because they had to live in a place where their lives had fallen into ruins. And not only did they have almost nothing to go back to, but among their neighbours there were people who had harmed them.
Going to classical therapy in such a case is no solution. A lot of these women just kept waiting, without even knowing what they were waiting for. Time passed, we visited them time and time again, seeing that nothing had changed. They were numb, hoping that the change might happen on its own, but they were unable to do anything by themselves. They returned to the demolished houses and if one room was so furnished that one could live in it, that was enough for them. The rest was ruins.
What happened next?
We organised gardening materials, grains, flowers, plants and vegetables for them. Already after a year we saw that it was working, that everyday activity, routine and the kind of sense of duty that comes with cultivation, were becoming a return to normality.
We also set up a rehabilitation garden, “Diana”, where women can meet with each other, integrate, share experiences, but also ideas for plant care.
Over time, apart from taking care of herbs and flowers, there were further small changes. One fixed her roof, one replaced the windows, and another one painted the walls. The change in reality around them influenced their way of thinking. Of course, I’m not saying that their trauma suddenly disappeared, but we managed to increase their mental resilience, to strengthen them. I’ve known some of these women for over 20 years, I see the journey they’ve made. I see that they’ve become more courageous, more open, that they’ve learned to talk about themselves, to tame the past, to understand that they have a voice. They’re not those victims who waited for something to happen anymore. They are taking matters into their own hands. They have gained respect for themselves, feeling that they have something in their lives that finally depends on them.
Do mothers take their children to the garden too?
Kids onto whom the trauma was passed by the previous generation are not free from aggression and intolerance. They are withdrawn, they show no interest in any life activity, they suffer from depression. This entails falling into addictions, dropping out of school quickly, getting pregnant and married too early and being unemployed. Involving them in the “Diana” programme is a real challenge for us. This is why we invite both the children of women who have survived camps and sexual abuse, as well as those families who have not experienced such trauma to work in the garden. And a lot of people are interested, their presence helps youngsters from homes with war trauma to deal with the past of their parents, but also to reduce the feelings of stigma.
Frankly, I did not expect so many people would get engaged in and enjoy “Diana”, which has become a safe place for women and children to hide, rest and find good energy in.
Are these women still looking for their loved ones?
None of them have forgotten what happened and whom they lost. Even if there’s only as much as one bone, one body part in a mass grave, they know that they’re there, that they have this grave. A year ago, one of the women from Srebrenica found out after 20 years that one of these graves contained the remains of her son, the entire skeleton. She went to see him, though it was very difficult for her to bear. She later told us that she wanted to hug these bones because she had such an impulse, but they were black, which confused her. Still, she was happy to find her son. She buried him by her house. Every day since then, she wakes up and immediately goes to his grave to say hello. Only then does she begin her day. Sometimes she looks that way during the day, she can see the grave from the window.
Do you also provide legal aid to women? Are they still waiting for justice?
Their rights have been violated in a variety of ways. Many of them did not have the right to claim their homes back, others did not have pensions, did not receive social benefits, did not have the possibility to get treatment. But some of them sue the perpetrators, they want to draw the country’s and world’s attention to their harm. After all, in many cases they know full well who abused them, who killed their loved ones, who hid the bodies, and they want them punished for it.
One woman from Srebrenica did not know for years what had happened to her 16-year-old son. It was only in a documentary broadcast on Bosnian television that she recognised him in a group of murdered men. Thanks to this, she knew where to look for his traces, but also who to bring to justice for the murder. We helped her prepare for it. She won the case. But she died six months ago.
Have the women of Srebrenica ever heard a plea for forgiveness?
Never. On the contrary, those who were caught and convicted said that they had nothing to apologise for. And that’s a huge problem, because expressing remorse for what happened to the victims would help them move forward, heal their wounds, and get closer to society. It would be a great thing in the process of rehabilitation. Apologies should also be made at a political level, which would give a sense of reconciliation.
That is why we are also working on making it possible for Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian women to meet, get closer to each other and share experiences, if they are to understand each other better in the future. It is good not only for them, but also for the society, which is still divided in these areas. Such an encounter is key if we do not want to allow the further development of nationalism.
Some still don’t call the Srebrenica massacre genocide.
They say that if women and children weren’t killed, there is no genocide. But that’s not true. Boys, often as young as 12, were also murdered, and women were killed in the surrounding forests. Besides, it’s still no argument.
Anyway, the trauma itself is enough to kill, though maybe not directly and not right away. I’ve heard so many times from women that they couldn’t live any longer, that they simply couldn’t cope. And even if they make it through the day, everything comes back to them at night. Many of them never sleep peacefully again, especially mothers who do not know what happened to their children. One of the women, who lost two sons and a husband, told us that the sky was high and the earth was hard, that she couldn’t go to either of those places, so she lived suspended between the world of the living and that of the dead. In addition, they are consumed by diseases: heart, diabetes, back pain. They die before anyone diagnoses them.
Why do some of them still live in displaced persons camps?
They ended up in temporary houses after the war and stayed there. They live there rejected, extremely poor, with no prospects for the future, and the state is not interested in them. We are trying to do the work that the government should do. The families that live there became strangers in their own country. For them, the end of the war is not the end of their life tragedy.
Education is the only way to change that, but schools need to do more than just talk about what happened during the war and how much harm it has caused. It’s not about listing the wrongs. Talking about atrocities and crimes can only stir up negative emotions. The most important thing is to teach what peace is and how to maintain it, so that the war does not happen again. Instead of digging into the past, we need to talk about what might unite us.
The Kulczyk Foundation supports the Snaga Žene (The Power of Women) organisation in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Foundation finances vocational training for young women as part of the activities of the social cooperative Zelena mreža (Green Network), which produces tea. The Kulczyk Foundation also donates funds for therapy for young people at risk of intergenerational trauma – it is conducted within the scope of functioning of the “Diana” rehabilitation garden. The projects of both organisations are aimed at improving the quality of life of the young generation.
More about these projects on Player.pl as part of the eighth season of “The Domino Effect”.
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