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Women's Work: take back the Balkans

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Humanitarian aid to war-torn countries usually consists of blankets and beans, but the Balkan Womens Empowerment Project has taken a different approach to the war in the former Yugoslavia. Instead of bandages, BWEP has sent hundreds of books on feminism, rape, domestic violence, and war. Instead of funding a hospital, it is helping Croatian feminists start a women's center in Zagreb, where 65,000 refugees from Bosnia-Herzegovina, mostly women and children, now live.

BWEP cofounder Aimee Wielechowski admits that, like many Americans who tried to follow the war, she had a hard time figuring out what was going on. "But when I started hearing about the rapes I could be sure that even though I didnt understand the historical reasons for this war I knew that women weren't the ones who decided to start it. And I knew that women didn't have any power to end it, so I felt very affiliated with them. Women and children are the ones that are suffering the most."

The reports of mass rape began surfacing last January: 20,000 Muslim women raped by Bosnian Serb forces as part of the "ethnic cleansing" campaign to rid Bosnia-Herzegovina of non-Serbs. Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic called the reports a media invention.

Outraged by the reports, Wielechowski attended a meeting of the Chicago Women's Action Coalition with a plan to form a committee to address Balkan womens issues. There she met Susan Soric, who had come to the meeting with the same agenda.

Soric, a graduate student in feminist theology who's of Croatian descent, had gone to Zagreb in 1984, staying two years, and had visited relatives in the country just before the war. The reports of the rapes "scared me and shocked me," she says. "I feared for some of my cousins who were living in Bosnia. It became a very personal issue for me."

Soric and Wielechowski formed a committee of two, which soon became BWEP, and started a letter-writing campaign, demanding that world leaders declare rape a war crime. Soric also contacted women in Zagreb to find out what they needed most. The answer was information, so BWEP's first big initiative was a book drive. It began in July at Women & Children First, where Wielechowski works, and spread to 15 other bookstores across the country. About 1,200 books about war, rape, breastfeeding, and other topics were eventually donated. Two of the women Soric contacted--Natasa Jovicic, a Croatian art historian and feminist, and Darda Miklauzic, a poet and essayist who writes children's stories for radio--also came up with the idea of opening a women's resource center in Zagreb, where the books would be available.

In September Soric and Wielechowski took 200 of the donated books (most of the rest were later shipped) to Zagreb. They met with Jovicic and Miklauzic, and attended an international women's conference outside Zagreb, where they met representatives of the World Council of Churches Women's Solidarity Fund and the International Rescue Committee; the two organizations later donated $29,000 for the resource center.

Soric and Wielechowski also visited refugee camps around Zagreb. The worst was 30 miles outside the city: "Out of sight, off the beaten path, and pretty much forgotten," says Soric. There was no wood for the coming winter, and the sewage pipes were backed up. "They get their meals and pretty much nothing else. Children can go to school, but the women have nothing to do."

The resource center opened on December 15. Run by Jovicic and Miklauzic, it's called "NONA," which means grandmother and suggests safety or nurturance. It's not intended to be an overnight shelter for victims of abuse and rape, Soric explains, but a place where women can come during the day or evening to get information and share their experiences. "I dont want to characterize it only as a drop-in center, because it's really going to be a cultural and community center where women will come for exhibitions, workshops, and discussions. Our center will be focused on ways in which to bring a certain amount of reality and normalcy back into the lives of women who've lost their homes, their dignity, their families." Job opportunities in the area and abroad will be listed, and the space will be available to women's groups.

Yet NONA will also become an archive, documenting womens experiences during the war. Soric calls the mass rapes genocidal rape. "It's not just a man raping a woman. It is a Serbian man instructed to rape a non-Serbian woman for the sake of humiliating her, destroying her, possibly and often impregnating her so she could carry a Serbian child. All of these objectives are genocidal, carried out through rape." Wielechowski adds that soldiers deliberately carry out the rapes publicly. "All of these women are going to see their friends, their sisters, their daughters, their mothers being raped, and then they're going to tell their friends, their sisters. And they're not going to want to come back, even if the UN manages somehow to broker some peace in the region and a resettlement plan. It's a very efficient way to terrorize a population--to get them to leave and never come back."

Wielechowski says she was disappointed by the response of many leading American feminists to the rape reports. "Most feminists who are the opinion makers out there responded to the rapes as if they were inevitable, and hoped to rectify the problem not by stopping the war but by sending humanitarian aid. Even though these feminists were at the forefront of the left, they were not protesting the war itself. In my opinion, we can't stop the rapes until we get to the real reason why this war is happening."

She believes those reasons have been badly distorted. "I think the idea that this is a medieval conflict rooted in history is a myth propagated by the very strong Serbian media propaganda machine here. If you ask anyone there, it's not a civil war--it's a war of aggression by Serbia against Bosnia, against Croatia. If you ask feminists over there, they'll tell you it's not so much an ethnic [conflict]--this is what happens when there is such a huge power imbalance. You can take that right down to the domestic relationship between husbands and wives."

There are now reports that rapes and other atrocities are happening on all sides in the conflict. Wielechowski says she believes that's the result of the West's lack of response, which signaled all other ethnic groups that to get what they wanted they had to do as the Serbs did.

Yet despite the seemingly endless bad news from the Balkans, Wielechowski remembers an incident from her visit to the refugee camps that gives her hope. "There was a little girl, seven or eight years old, happy as a clam, dancing around wearing her mother's high heels and carrying a broken umbrella stick, and saying, 'Aren't I a lady? Aren't I a lady?.' That translated to me an incredible ability to adapt and endure and find some hope and some way to deal with this incredible trauma." Developing that inner strength, she says, is part of what NONA is about.

BWEP is now a three-woman operation; Mary Ann Rukavina, who's also of Croatian descent, joined in October. The three are looking for funds to help keep NONA alive--for rent and office equipment--as well as to buy things like toys and sewing machines. They also need money to run BWEP and hope to fund another trip to Zagreb this spring. They're selling T-shirts for $15 at Women & Children First, 5233 N. Clark, 769-9299; they're also trying to find local women's, church, and college groups who would want to raise funds for specific NONA projects: write to BWEP, 4516 N. Ashland, suite 2W, Chicago 60640, or call 907-9576.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yael Routtenberg.

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