Collecting Women's Memories: the Center for Women War Victims as the Space for Mutual Encounters and a Point of Divergence

Aida Bagić (excerpts)

I. Introduction
The Center for Women War Victims was founded as a course of action, a political of protest against nationalism and the war. At the same time, it was a space of personal transformation for us, the women who worked at and cooperated with the Center, as well as for the women who momentarily passed through the Center. It was a place where we came to address our feelings of helplessness, isolation and disorientation caused by the war. We remember the Center as a “haven,” an “oasis,” “a safe place,” and even as if it was “a guy I fell in love with.” We remember the faces of women with whom and for whom we worked, every place where we encountered them, the objects that have become metaphors for the time during which the Center was created:
I even remember the boxes in the hall in the Đorđićeva street apartment! When I tried to go back in my mind to those days, they popped out as the clearest memories, though they weren’t significant to me at the time.  When I try to figure out why the boxes are so vivid, I think it is because they acquired a metaphorical meaning for displaced persons packing a few personal valuables until the war is over, along with the temporary quality of war (which we all hoped would end). (Jasenka Pregrad, Outside Associate)
For those of us who related to war dispersion and displacement, the Center was a meeting place used for meetings with ourselves, other women associates and women in need of help. Our recorded memories illustrate a special aspect of these encounters. They document primarily self-encounters, while telling stories of our own memories implies a willingness to meet other women who bring memories that don't necessarily correspond to ours. Although the Center was mainly a place for women's encounters, there were also arguments and disagreements. Most of the women who answered the questionnaire discuss these openly. Only a few overlook the divisions or do not value their significance from a removed perspective, while some still do not feel ready to share their own stories.
The “We” used in this text is done so loosely; it is unstable and comes from a changing perspective. The “We” that refers to the Center as a “guy I fell in love with” is not the same as the “We” that left the Center “under strange circumstances” and still has “bitter memories.” The decision not to relay individual women’s memories either in the first person singular or in the neutral voice of an observer, but to speak as "We" and to simultaneously represent all the women who answered the questionnaire and their memories of life in the Center, and also in some ways those who didn't answer, was a kind of textual and political experiment. The textual experiment means that the "We" who is speaking is meant to include all the disparate voices that were at some point of their lives a part of one collective women's action. The political experiment means that we will try to express the difficulties inherent in all collective action in the form of a book.  The process of memory reconstruction should itself be understood as political action, since what we decided to preserve in our memories—intentionally or not—shapes the society in which we live today. 
The perspectives from which we remember our involvement with the inception of the Center for Women War Victims are marked by spatial and temporal dispersion: our memories are recorded during vacations on the island of Šolta; from temporary or permanent relocations to Canada; in a renovated Sarajevo apartment; from a current office, which incidentally is located near to the Center; from the premises of organizations we started with the knowledge and experience we acquired at the Center.
Katarina Popovac gave a long answer about her life in Sarajevo shortly after she returned:
When I returned my apartment was completely destroyed, along with thousands of flats in Sarajevo and in every part of Bosnia and Herzegovina. My struggle for a new life lasted two years and included my addressing humanitarian organizations and asking for help to modestly furnish my apartment. I often stumbled on the way, tired from everything, the war, being a refugee, fresh emotional wounds from my biggest tragedy, losing my only child—my son.  During the war I said and I believed that I would return to my home city.  Many people looked at me in disbelief and thought that I was crazy. My strongest desire was more powerful than the petty obstacles I encountered every day. During that period, from 1996 to 1998, I was constantly traveling on the Zagreb-Sarajevo route. In Zagreb I was a refugee in a rented apartment and in Sarajevo I stayed at different addresses, in homes of my good friends. Even though they were all impoverished from the war, they gave me a warm and kind welcome. Every time I came to Sarajevo, I did some renovation work on my apartment with a lot of help from my friends. October 20, 1998 is an important date for me, a new birthday, it is when I finally entered my renovated home, completely empty, but MINE. Apart from the key to the front door, which I wore like a child on a red ribbon around my neck for luck, I had two bags with basic necessities. I had to look for a job. I needed basic things for living, which seemed like it had only just started, but I was tired already, like it was ending.  I can say today that I received that life shot here in Zagreb, at the Center for Women War Victims. Working in the Center, I learned a lot about how to design your own life and help support others during the most difficult periods of life. Eventually, I found a job as a promoter for the firm Tuperkomerc, where I worked for three years because my pension was sometimes not even enough to cover my bills. This job helped me modestly furnish my apartment, basically beginning with a spoon. I am currently a sales representative for Oriflame, a Swedish firm that sells cosmetic products. I would like to do more humanitarian work, but what I do for a living now is necessary to make ends meet. I cannot retire yet; life forces me to be active. I am not afraid to work. I am glad that I am still able to work, and considering that a lot of young people are unemployed, I am not choosy, but work in jobs for which I believed I had no predisposition. (Katarina Popovac, Activist and Refugee)
The first interactions in the Center for Women War Victims between founders, women who came to the Center for Women War Victims later, and others, were marked by contradictions between the helplessness brought on by war and the enthusiasm of starting a new collective women's group. We learned about others and about ourselves in the direct work we did with women survivors, who had found relative safety in refugee camps in Zagreb and its surrounding areas. By way of individual conversations and self-help groups, we encouraged them to tell their own stories as a way of initiating the healing process. Other women’s experiences showed us their and our own strength.
I remember [my time in the Center] primarily as a period in which I wanted to stop feeling helpless because of the war, but also as a period of learning and communication. I remember many women I worked with or helped; they sometimes appear in my dreams and my memories. I wonder, where are they, how do they live, what are they doing? (Gordana Obradović Dragišić, Activist)
I will never forget the woman from Prijedor who was raped. I worked with her in the group and individually for about four months. When I first met her, I suspected that she had been raped though she didn't talk about it. I used everything I had learned during the Center’s training to help her open up to me, so that I could help her to heal her wounds. After a few months, she finally admitted: “Yes, I was raped, in front of my mother, my sister, my husband and several other family members.” This was especially hard for me to hear. I felt so sorry for that tiny human being who was shaking and crying. We cried, talked and went for walks and eventually even laughed together. After four months, she was ready to tell her shocking story in front of the group. She mustered the courage to tell her story again in the Danish Embassy and to ask them to allow her and her family to move to Denmark. She wrote to me that she has started a new life and that she is grateful to all the women in the Center for their help. I consider her healing and return to normal life one of our big successes. (Biba Metikoš, Activist and Refugee)
I work individually with one woman, preparing her for going to the U.S. She is a Croatian who was raped by a Bosnian Army soldier in Tuzla. She has a scar below her knee and during the hot summer in Zagreb, she constantly wore thick tights, and occasionally boots. Apart from being a rape victim, she is “politically unpopular,” because both she and her rapist have "wrong" national identities, and the place is wrong as well. (Martina Belić, Founder)
During the past few years, the Center for Women War Victims has changed the focus of its activities, along with its name. The phrase "War Victims" has been pushed to the background. A collage of excerpts from the answers we received, this text is only one of the possible ways our memories could have been reconstructed. It is certainly not a final report on the way in which we remember the Center and our work, since collecting memories is itself a limiting practice. The responses that were written in answer to our questionnaire cannot replace face-to-face encounters, nor do our elaborate recountings always correspond to every member’s overall activity at the center. The memories collected here are not meant to be a final answer to the question: "How do we remember the Center?" They are meant to stimulate conversation and a thorough examination of the context in which the Center began and in which its founders thought it appropriate to include the phrase "war victims." In this “final round,” a ritual we got used to in our self-help groups and women's dialogues, the women quoted describe one last time the benefits and the dark sides of women's organizing in a time of crisis. Statements on how "those of us who left" see the Center as it is today can guide "those of us who stayed" in our efforts to find ways to empower women in the context of continual organizational turbulence, without being burdened by the "dark sides of women's organizing.”
I met and lived with so many beautiful, strong and unique women from whom I learned more than I would have in any school and who I will remember for the rest of my life. Whenever I feel bad or I have problems, I remember how they survived, I remember that in spite of their troubles, they knew and still know how to laugh and be happy. (Sanda Malbaša, Activist)
The Center’s special value lies in its connections to women and other women's organizations in the region and the world. These connections place importance on the exchange of ideas and experiences and, as far as I’m concerned, on the articulation of feminist ideas, or more precisely, different concepts of what feminism means. We also have to take into account our concrete experiences and the various training sessions we had with experts. All this enabled the members of the Center to develop into true leaders. (Danijela Babić, Activist)
I am very fond of my time at the Center and the shelter; I have great admiration and respect for every woman I have met through the Center and the shelter. What most impressed me and stays with me to this day was the enthusiasm, warmth and energy of the women I worked with. The good thing was that everything we did was quite experimental, but we nevertheless did it with conviction; we were not hindered by doubt or a fear of failure, because it just seemed impossible. (Mishi, International Volunteer)
I am glad that I worked at the Center. To most of the players of that game, the Center brought more advantages than harm. But, I am also glad I left. My life today is richer and more colorful, though harsher. Feminist ideas can lead to prejudice, against men and against women who look like the girls on the pages of Playboy or who work in boutiques. (Vesna Masnić Galić, Activist)
I would like to point out, once again, the advantages of working in an informal environment and the beauty of boundless solidarity as opposed to female malice. What does the Center mean to me? It is enough to say that I don't ever take off the earrings the women gave me as a farewell gift. (Paula, Activist)
I want to emphasize that, after all these years that have been filled by both pleasant and less pleasant moments, the Center still remains the organization and team I love and I will always be emotionally attached to it. I hope it continues to function and that it will be even better and more successful in the years to come, for the sake of all the women who need it and so I can be proud of the organization to which I was so committed, to which I gave so much of myself and from which I gained such useful experience. (Maja Mamula, Activist)
What I learned in Zagreb is that individuals can make a difference, that feminist commitment is contagious, and that small seeds can grow with love even if there is little water. I am trying to be like the many individuals who loved and nourished me and the organising of the CWWV those years of my time in Zagreb. (Rachel Wareham, International Volunteer)
Although I was a kind of observer of the Center’s activity, it was very inspiring and important to me. I was delighted to come to a women's space and feel the collectively created women's energy. I loved some of their working methods, their courage to face conflicts within the group, the energy that they invested in adapting the structure of the organization to the needs of its participants, their work on personal growth, and their emphasis on international contacts…Some of the international friends of the Center have become my personal long-standing friends. Last year, V-day was an extraordinary event in my life. I felt deeply and in a new way that I am part of a silenced, hidden story, a story that reaches far back in the past, a story that tells of various scars on the female body.  I felt that my scars were not just mine, that I shared them with many familiar and unfamiliar women. My heart opened up and I cried while my mother was sitting next to me. We were ashamed to look at each other, even though I felt she was also touched, vulnerable and deeply shaken by the whole atmosphere. Everything was mixed together: pain, anger, pride, the deep and the sacred feeling of unity and sharing the same women's destiny. (Vesna Janković, Founder)



Foreword to the Second Edition

  Women Reconstructing Memories by Vesna Kesić

In Place Of An Introduction

  The Days of December 1992 - The Beginning Biljana Kašić

Goga M.'s Story

  Interview conducted by Dinka Koričić and Vesna Kesić in July 1993

Reaching High

  Dinka Koričić

Rachel’s Bed

Eve Ensler


  To woman's and peace organizations all over the world

Rape as a weapon


Global Tribunal


Laughter, tears and politics

  Dialogue - How Women Do It