Acting on Behalf of Laws for Women


Rada Borić
We were often called witches, traitors or enemies because we publicly protested war and the politics of division and we didn't adopt hate speech, but instead advocated non-violence and the right to diversity. The media, politicians and even members of other women's groups accused the Center for Women War Victims of working with “non-Croatian women,” whereas we supported women and children victims of war/rior violence regardless of nationality, ethnicity or any other identifying factor.
Although the feminist views and anti-war sentiment present at the Center (and a few other similar organizations) made it a kind of detached oasis, difference empowered us and we felt affirmed by believing in the legitimacy of our often subversive women's politics. Sometimes we even had to break laws, laws that allowed abusers and killers to escape punishment—we witnessed nightly disappearances of fellow citizens, hate speech in the Parliament and the media—because discrimination against the Other, who is different, is common and acceptable.
Here, I tell two women’s stories. It is not too late to acknowledge and place importance on their experiences or others like theirs.
When you regard the most recently stated “missions” of various women's groups, many of them claim they work with women “regardless of ethnicity, education, age, or sexual orientation;” this, however, was the Center's unequivocal reality. Activists of all nationalities worked there, women refugees came there, young and old women, women from urban areas and villages we never even knew existed. Each came with her own story, her own loss. Each needed shelter, concrete help or support. In refugee camps, women from Bosnia and Herzegovina and women from Zagreb worked together in pairs. In one temporary camp, Croatian Ivanka from Sarajevo, Muslim Suada from Jajce, and Serbian Nataša from Banja Luka worked together.
To be a refugee from Bosnia and Herzegovina was never a singly defined position. If you were a Muslim refugee you had a different status than a Croatian refugee. Status meant the possibility of permanent support from the state, housing, job opportunities, education for your children, health care, a valid passport, the chance to immigrate, and more. We didn't want to uphold these differences.
Our connection with women's groups in Germany helped us to accommodate many Muslim women refugees in safe women's houses at times when neighboring countries were already closing their borders (they were at full capacity!) and when conflicts between Croats and Muslims in Bosnia and Herzegovina were at their peak. These conflicts exacerbated the already stirred emotions of politicians and made refugees' lives less stable. For example, Deputy Head of Parliament Vladimir Šeks said publicly, “While we are feeding their wives and children, they are killing our brothers!” Women reported the Croatian Army illegally entering refugee camps. The soldiers would take the Muslim women and their young sons and bring them to Tomislavgrad, a Croatian town in Bosnia, to exchange them for Croatian prisoners of war! 
In one of the self-help groups I led (we organized meetings in a rented house in the Trešnjevka neighborhood of Zagreb) there was Alija, a young mother of two whose husband had been declared missing for two years. Alija had come to Zagreb on a bus full of refugees. For the first few days she slept on cardboard boxes near the bus terminal, but, as she said in one of our group sessions, she “had to live.” In Zagreb, Alija saw trams for the first time. One of the women brought her to the Center and after two months, she was skillful in navigating with a city map. In the beginning she was cautious and shy but she soon developed trust in other women and in group leaders. She requested and shared information, supported other women, and argued for her rights in offices for refugees. Alija used to say that when she visited foreign humanitarian organizations to obtain help, mostly from Arab countries, she would say “to this Hussein-like person:” “I will put my head scarf on for 100 deutschmarks, but I am going to take it off as soon as I leave your office.” “I have to survive,” she used to say.  Women understood her. They knew many people gave humanitarian aid so they could make peace with guilty consciences or sell their politics and convictions. Alija would often bring a new woman to the group, one who she had found on the bus terminal with some luggage. She brought the seven-month pregnant Suada, from Visoko, for whom we found housing. We celebrated the first child born to a woman at our center, and today Suada and Ivica live in San Diego. Alija feared that she would never be able to return to Zvornik. It reminded her too much of her losses. She also suspected that her husband was dead, that the label “missing” only meant a delay of the grieving phase. She knew she wanted a different life for herself and her children. Refugees in Croatia were losing the few rights they had and she didn't expect to stay in Croatia. Alija had distant cousins in Sweden who had escaped the year before her. They found a man who had himself survived a war camp and who offered her his home and to start a new life with her. But, the Swedish government banned the entrance of new Bosnian refugees. 
ne day Alija came to a session holding a Croatian passport in which, apart from unknown names, there were pictures of her and her children. She had purchased a passport. Now she was a "Croat" from Zelina. I asked her whether she knew she had done something illegal and if she was aware of what would happen if they caught her with a fake passport. She said she didn't believe anyone would dare to send a mother with two small children to prison and, after all she had been through, she was willing to take any risk. She left for Sweden several days later. After two days, she called me from a Caritas center in Germany. They had taken her off the bus (she couldn't afford a plane ticket) at the third border because they uncovered her fake passport. Several days after that, however, she managed to get to Sweden—she walked out of the Caritas center and her friend drove her across the border. 
I am not concerned with whether or not Alija entered Sweden legally. Who was in a position to sell Croatian passports without getting caught? Who was in a position to charge 2000 deutschmarks for a new Croatian passport? Who could ban entrance to a refugee from Bosnia, a single mother, simply because the country couldn't accommodate any more refugees? Or, who is responsible for the fact that Alija's nationality was not as acceptable as that of the other women in her self-help group, rendering her unable to receive a certificate of citizenship and stay in Croatia.
Alija's daughter and son go to school today. They speak Swedish and they don't remember those nights in the Zagreb bus terminal.
The surge in breaking news about the rape occurring in Bosnia and Herzegovina strengthened our decision to combat the mistreatment of women and their traumatic experiences. Politicians and the media competed to appropriate the raped women in order to further their own agendas.
In our work with women survivors of sexual violence, we tried to provide them with a safe place and professional help and support so that they could recover. We knew the process would be long; women's experiences had shown that recovery takes years. We cooperated closely with experts as well as with colleagues from Medica Zenica, who regularly worked with traumatized women who had survived rape. We didn't want the women to be placed in additional potentially traumatic situations; journalists wanted sensation and claimed their aim was to inform the general public. We still keep the telegram (and it has appeared in published work previous to this) in which we were asked to bring a raped woman in for a phone interview with an Australian radio station, with a note saying they would “prefer if she knew English!” It was only recently that a journalist from a Japanese television station called me and said they wanted to talk to women born as a result of rape. I have to admit I was quite rude and turned down the offer.
We didn't, however, turn down collaboration with lawyers from the newly established International War Tribunal at the Hague, who were attempting to collect documentation on rape in order to initiate court proceedings against perpetrators. The lawyers were themselves aware of all the problems related to witness testimony. Together we discussed and worked on the conditions for the adequate protection of women who testified. In addition to the usual protection measures and the presence of psychologists or other support, we requested that the women be granted the right to reside in a foreign country after they testified, since we had a number of unpleasant experiences.
There was a girl at the Rosa house run by the Center, Z., who had survived gang rape. While she was still in Bosnia, she told investigators what happened and named her rapists (some of whom she knew personally). She was supposed to be one of the witnesses at their Hague trial (the court operates on the principle of gathering detailed information from a number of sources before initiating the procedure). Z. was selected as a reliable witness but the investigators of her case didn't ensure that she could stay abroad. Instead, she was supposed to return to Bosnia. Since she had worked on self-empowerment with psychologists and had begun to design and make attractive hats and caps at the Rosa house (I still wear her black velvet cap), she decided to testify.
Meanwhile, her mother, who was a refugee in Germany, had to return to their village in Bosnia because her refugee status was no longer valid.  She told Z. that one of her rapists was living in a neighboring village. Z. had a sister who was a refugee in England so she requested asylum there, but it wasn't granted. Refugee status on the basis of “family reunion” can be granted only to first-line relatives; it can be given to mothers or daughters, but not sisters. Z. was a desirable witness, but she couldn’t exercise the right to asylum for a protected witness (in contrast, we all know how well criminals are treated when they are protected witnesses!)
We spoke again with the lawyer from England who had become our friend and had visited the Center. She warned Z. of what awaited her: she would not be treated as a protected witness, she would not be given permission to stay in another country, there would be no substantial benefits like those others had promised her “if she testifies.” We knew every testimony would be important and that to us, as women, it was important that war rape be recognized and punished as a war crime, but the decision was up to Z. Finally she decided not to testify, taking into account the fact that one of her rapists was still on the loose and that her mother might be harmed if she testified. Her statement, however, enabled the proceedings of the well-known Žepa case, named after the Bosnian town, that led to the classification of rape as a war crime.
We were disappointed by asylum laws (Canadian laws discriminate against single mothers by giving preference to families) and angry because Z. could not be given a chance to start a new life far away from this region, which would forever remind her of the violence she survived. That is why, in cooperation with the lawyers from England, we succeeded in transferring Z. to England illegally. She got a visa as an activist for the Center for Women War Victims on the premise that she was invited to a conference on women's human rights.  At the border crossing, our friends, the lawyers, waited for her... This was our conference on women's human rights. Z. currently lives with her sister in London.
I think we always felt good breaking the law in such a way.



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