- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 9, 2006

BELGRADE, Serbia-Montenegro

Over seven months, the women met and told their stories: heart-rending tales of hugging husbands and sons for the last time, witnessing atrocities, struggling to survive and fighting for their children after the bloodletting ended in the Balkans.

A program to bring together Serbian, Croatian and Slavic Muslim women on opposing sides of the 1990s conflicts that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia sought to promote mutual understanding and build bridges, something at which their political leaders often have failed.

The stories were collected in an 80-page book titled “Women, Victims of War,” published this year. The pain and fear from the wars remain deep, however, and many of the women wouldn’t allow their names to be used with their printed stories.

A Croatian woman of 90, who used only her initials, M.L., said she was raising three grandchildren by herself when armed men burst into her village one winter afternoon and shot everyone.

“The men came in and first shot Luka in bed, then the two younger ones. I was last. They shot me in the mouth, but the bullet went out through the cheek. I fell to the ground and came to in the hospital. All my three grandchildren … were dead,” she wrote.

The project, organized by the Serbian women’s group Civis and sponsored by the British Embassy in Belgrade, involved 187 women from Muslim and Serbian towns on both sides of the Drina River separating Serbia and Bosnia — bitter foes in the 1992-95 Bosnian war.

Meeting face to face

The women’s group organized face-to-face meetings at different venues in the two countries, and the women would “simply meet one another and tell their stories,” said Marija Mlinaric, the project’s manager.

“These were dramatic, shaky meetings. Each had her own pain, fear. But slowly, you could see them relax and take steps toward each other,” Mrs. Mlinaric said.

The meetings were the idea of Nada Muzdeka, a Serbian refugee from the once Serbian-populated enclave of Banija in Croatia. She fled to Serbia in 1995 after Croatian troops retook land captured by Serbs who had rebelled against Croatia’s secession from the Yugoslav federation.

She settled in Bajina Basta, a town on the Serbian side of the Drina, where 600 other female refugees from Serb enclaves in eastern Bosnia found new homes. Among them, they lost 290 of their men.

Mrs. Muzdeka said her years as a refugee made her want to reach out to women of different nationalities with similar destinies. “It’s different when a woman talks to another woman,” she said.

Organizers had to overcome deep layers of enmity. It took 20 attempts before Muslim women from Srebrenica — where 8,000 Muslim men and boys were massacred by Bosnian Serb troops in Europe’s worst carnage since World War II — agreed to meet with Serbian women.

“There was deep mistrust … but finally they realized we only wanted their voice, the truth, to be heard in Serbia, too,” Mrs. Muzdeka said. “The wars were not the fault of women. We had to stay home while our husbands went to fight.”

Dzemila Delalic, 70, a Bosnian Muslim mother of five daughters and three sons, told of losing 32 men from her extended family during the war, including her sons at Srebrenica.

“The last three years of the war, we lived in Srebrenica. My sons went into the woods. … Later, I found my eldest in a mass grave near Bratunac. I buried him. The youngest I found in a mass grave in Glogovac. I don’t know anything of my middle son. How strong should a mother’s heart be to endure all this?” she wrote.

“I was searching for my daughter in Potocari, when I came across a young woman in labor, screaming. I tried to help her. She gave birth to a baby boy, big and strong. Then armed men came and ordered her to lay the baby down on the hot asphalt. A soldier crushed the baby to death with his boots.”

Hajra Catic, a Bosnian Muslim who leads the Women of Srebrenica group, said the project “contributed to better understanding” among the women who participated. “It was genocide that happened in Srebrenica, and this truth must be told in Serbia.”

“By coming here to Belgrade, we have established a lasting bridge of cooperation between women on both sides of the border,” she added. “What still needs to be done is to lobby for the arrests of all war criminals who walk free in Serbia.”

Efforts to bring truth

The book’s editor, Dejan Vojvodic, said the women’s accounts outweigh by far “often insincere efforts by [Serbian] politicians, to reveal the full truth of Srebrenica and build multi-ethnic understanding.”

With 500 copies printed, the book was published in English and Serbo-Croatian and is being given to libraries and nongovernmental groups across the Balkans for free.

Nura Alispahic, another member of Women of Srebrenica, recounts in the book how she recognized her 16-year-old son Azmir among six Bosnian Muslim youths executed by Serbian militiamen near Srebrenica in 1995 — in footage of the massacre broadcast in June.

“I saw the video in my home on television, at 11 p.m.,” she wrote. “My heart was racing, I knew it would be about Srebrenica — Then I saw the truck, tied up and exhausted young boys being dragged off by uniformed men. There was my son. They killed the first four. Then, my son and another were forced to carry those killed. Then they tied up the two of them, too … all the time [the killers] chewing gum. Then the two of them were also shot.”

Jasna Jankovic, a spokeswoman for the Serbian war crimes prosecutor’s office, supported the book project, often meeting with the women to tell them of cases of other war victims — such as that of a 12-year-old Muslim girl known in court records only as A.B.

The girl was taken from a group of captive Muslim women, then tortured and repeatedly raped by Bosnian Serb troops at a sports hall in the eastern Bosnian town of Foca in 1992. The soldiers later sold her into sex slavery, and she hasn’t been seen again, the prosecutor said.

“We see many women victims in the courtrooms today. These mothers, daughters, sisters are our witnesses, survivors who testify to the wartime atrocities,” Mrs. Jankovic said. “Sadly, many more stories remain to be told. We must not forget them.”

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