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PROJECT SEKA (KUCA SEKA)


Final Report
Recreational stay and psychological-pedagogic support for traumatized Women and Children in Project SEKA, Splitska, Brac, Summer 2001

In the following, I will describe the different groups and our experience of working with them.

Group 1

The first group of summer 2001 (June 25- July 8) came via the organization "prijateljice Tuszla/Srebenica". It consisted in 7 women and 14 children, among them four Serbian women with altogether 10 children, and three Moslem-Bosnian women with altogether 4 children. With the exception of one woman, a Serbian refugee from the Croatian Krajina, all of them used to live in or around Srebenica before the war. They almost all knew each other at least slightly, some had gone to school together. During the siege of Srebenica by Serbian-Bosnian militia and the Serbian army that lasted for years, the three Serbian women had fled to Serbia with their children. One woman's Moslem husband was murdered by Serbian militia. Another woman's Serbian husband hid in Serbia, because he did not want to "be forced to participate in this dirty war." The third Serbian woman's husband participated in the siege of Srebenica.
The Moslem women survived the siege, the extreme famine and finally the storm of Srebenica. They fled to Tuzla with their children. Two women's husbands fell victims to the massacre on Moslem men committed by Bosnian-Serbian militia in Srebenica. One of the Moslem woman and her daughter survived two Serbian camps.
After the conquest of Srebenica, the Serbian women gradually returned to town with their children.
Still today, the situation is very desolate. Only with great difficulties they were able to make their houses habitable. The economic situation is very difficult, economy and infrastructure are mainly destroyed, the unemployment rate is extremely high. On one hand, life in Srebenica is characterized by resignation and depression, on the other hand there is a lot of aggression.
The Moslem women in Tuzla are economically better off, as they all work for "prijateljice" and are being paid a little. But they still think of themselves as refugees in Tuzla and have the wish to return to their hometown, even if this wish is accompanied by fear.
In 1998, the desire to return made some refugee women contact some women in Srebenica, first by writing letters, later by mutual visits. Those visits only lasted a couple of hours each, because even though they all desired to re- approach each other, those meetings and the trip to the "other entity" were very scary to the women. The meetings' subjects were kept superficial.
After a couple of meetings, the women decided to meet regularly on a monthly basis to talk about the Moslem women's possibilities of returning home. The Serbian women were ready to offer help to the returnees (e.g. with the authorities, with the reconstruction of houses, with regaining their former apartments etc.)
From then, the women called their little group "contact group". After several meetings that were still dominated by fears and cautiousness, the women desired to to spend more time with each other. Therefore, "Prijateljice" organized three seminars. One took place in the "Republika Srpska" (the Serbian dominated part of Bosnia), one in the Federation (Croatian-Moslem dominated part of Bosnia), and one in Osijek (Croatia). The seminars were monitored by peace workers, for example from the "centre for peace Osijek". The seminars' main topics were: nonviolent communication; change of views; abilities and needs; identity; handling of stress and burn out; self- support; safeguarding of livelihood... . During the seminars it became clear how severely traumatized the women were due to their experience of war, oppression, humiliation, violence, and flight.
They expressed the desire to be supported in the assimilation of the traumatic experience. But at the same time it turned out how hard it was on the women to touch subjects related to the experienced traumata in this group. Very quickly, it could come to hurting, mistrust, blame, and aggression.
Nevertheless, the group decided to apply for a recreational stay in kuca SEKA. They wanted to be able to spend a longer period of time together, in a relaxed supporting atmosphere, with the possibility of receiving psychological help.
Seven women with altogether 14 children got finally selected to participate in the recreational stay. Women with smaller children or school children received preferential treatment in the selection process.
This recreational stay has been made possible by the financial support of the department of work, health and social issues (BAGS) of the federal state of Hamburg, Germany.

Work with the women:

From the beginning, the Women were enthusiastic about the island's beauty, about the sea (some were at the seaside for the first time), about Seka House's beauty and cosiness. They enjoyed the daily trips, the relief they felt because we worked with their children, the food and the rest.

Nevertheless, there was a lot of tension among the group members that was very obvious especially on the first evenings, but was noticeable on the planning of the daily program as well: Most women except for the two "group speakers" hardly answered when asked about their wishes and generally held back their opinion when we offered several daytrip possibilities to choose from. At the same time, we felt that they did not agree with our offers either. At the beach, the women always divided in their national subgroups. On the first two evenings, part of the group started to play card games as if to avoid talking about uneasy topics. Other women rather chose private talks with us to tell us about their war experience and their current situation. Fear and mistrust towards the "others" were very present, but never got mentioned openly.
The Serbian women seemed to subliminally fear that their suffering would "not count". Feelings of guilt concerning the horrible things that had happened, and the fear to be blamed were other subliminal topics. As reverse of these fears, they seemed to feel latent aggression.
Beside the traumatic experience they talked about openly, the Moslem women seemed to fear that they would be asked to "forget and go back to normal". At the same time, they feared new waves of aggression. "We are the real victims" was their general point of view.
They all seemed to be afraid that conflicts might break out. At the beginning of their stay, the women said resolutely that they were here to recreate and did not want to work in the therapy room for the time being.

As this group was very different from every group we had worked with so far, it became extremely necessary to regularly meet and intensively talk about the group among us colleagues (Dubravka Tokic, Blanka Rezek, both psychologists, Vahida Mustafic, educator, and myself, Gabriele Muller). We finally decided to repeatedly ensure the women that they were free to decide on their own how their time in SEKA should be organized and that we would not press for anything to be done, but just be making offers. We explained as well that we needed a clearer communication.
At the same time, we let them know that we admired and highly regarded their courage to participate in this experiment for 14 days. This led to a change in the group atmosphere. Among the women, but between them and us as well, open ways to communicate became possible.

On the third evening, we introduced the concept and principles of SEKA and talked about our personal reasons to do this work. We emphasized again how important it is to us that every woman coming into SEKA is welcome, that we regard everyone with the same loving attention and take everyone's experience and suffering equally important, because pain is not measurable.
The fact that we shared personal issues noticeably changed the atmosphere. The women began to talk about their work in Tuzla or respectively in Srebenica, about their "contact group" and what was important to them. After this evening, the atmosphere became less formal. The women accepted my offer to "do something on strengthening and relaxation" in the therapy room the next evening.

All seven of them participated. First, we did a flashlight on how they all felt. They all answered that they were fine and had enjoyed the day. After that we worked a little with symbols expressing the women's wishes concerning the group and their stay in SEKA. Every woman chose some stones as symbols for their wishes. I proposed to share the wishes with the others, but at that stage no one wanted to, and I accepted that. Every woman then elected a "safe place in the therapy room to store her wishes" until the last group session.
After that I proposed an imagination exercise1 called "tree", that -especially in the work with traumatized people- has a calming, supporting, strengthening effect and can be later on carried out by the participants on their own. At the end of the exercise, all participants can paint "their tree" and keep the picture as a memory.
All women participated in the exercise and felt strengthened and relaxed afterwards. They were all able to share this experience with the others. Except for one woman, all painted their tree. The atmosphere during this exercise was astonishingly relaxed and open. I was surprised how much of themselves the women had let show. We closed the session again with a flashlight. All women said they felt fine and relaxed.

Afterwards as we were sitting on the terrace talking, for no apparent reason conflicts broke out, but between women of the same entity. All of a sudden, everybody was arguing. It seemed to be an outbreak of aggression that served to bring the sudden nearness back to a bearable distance.
This remained the only outburst of this kind. In the following days, there were still some psychosomatic reactions to tension, but relations among the group members got more and more relaxed. The group became one group, giving up the subdividing in entities. At the beach, on walks or during the evenings, Moslem and Serbian women mixed. The three birthday parties we celebrated - two children's birthdays and our colleague's Blanka's- certainly made a contribution to this process.

With some women I had intensive private talks. I further did individual work with one woman who had great difficulties to stand up for herself and repeatedly took the victim's role. At the end of her stay in SEKA I referred her to a colleague in Tuzla.
We went on with the group work for three more evenings. The women could let themselves in for motion games, several forms of massage, painting and the "letting go and getting rid of things"-ritual. Main topics were contact, self-awareness, "letting go past hurt"; for some women "forgiving" was an issue as well.

In the last group session we worked again with the stones the women had chosen as symbols for their wishes regarding their stay in SEKA and regarding the group members. Now most women could share those wishes with the others, and it turned out that most wishes had been fulfilled- or "even more than fulfilled".
In this evaluation it became clear how many fears the women had had regarding this long period of being together, that they had been afraid of hurt and of being pushed to "open up more than I am ready to."
"It was wonderful that we could really decide which offers we want to take", they said. Some women felt relaxed, "like at no time in my life, because you did so many things with our children." They were happy because they had seen their children easy and carefree "after all they have been through". Most pointed out that now they felt as if the group had really grown together and that they felt now able to open up more and more. All emphasized the importance of being away from their daily surroundings and to meet at a place like kuca SEKA, where they felt more able to deal with the "others". They found it hard to leave the therapy room on our last evening: "Now we have a real basis! It would be great if we could go on working here and now."
Finally they expressed the wish to get together the complete "contact group" here in SEKA for a seminar to further strengthen the confidence among the group members.

I really would like to offer the contact group one or several dates for further work, because I got the impression that there really is a basis now and that confidence has grown between us (the group and me as therapist). The really painful topics have only been slightly touched so far.
As we said good-bye on the last day, especially the Serbian women shed many tears. They had been more afraid of this trip to Croatia than they had noticed themselves, especially the woman who had fled with her children from the Krajina. The loving welcome and the atmosphere in SEKA had moved them deeply.

Work with the children

The 14 children of this group, eight girls and six boys, were between four and 17 years old. There were four Moslem and eight Serbian children, and two children from a half-caste Serbian-Moslem marriage. Except for the two youngest (four and six years old), all children had experienced war and flight. The two Serbian boys from the Krajina had spent months hidden in their house with their mother, always afraid of violent attacks by militant Croats. Finally, they succeeded in the adventurous flight to Bosnia/Republika Srpska.
One Moslem child survived as a baby two Serbian torture camps together with her mother. Four children's fathers had been murdered by Bosnian-Serbian militia. The older children had been submitted to Serbian nationalist propaganda in school and through the mass media. For the two girls whose fathers had been murdered, it was a very difficult situation. They were torn between the loyalty to their fathers and the desire to "belong to the rest".
Some children still showed severe psychic stress symptoms such as fears, heavy nightmares, nightly incontinence, fear to be alone, high dependence on their mother.
Two mothers found it hard at the beginning to let their children go of. Two girls had a strong need for care and attention. Their mother rather reacted with aggression and hardness to strokes of fate, as well towards her children "to make them harder for their own protection."

Although Serbian and Moslem children had only known those belonging to their national community until the bus trip to Kuca SEKA, on which both subgroups met, the entire group of children grew together very quickly. All mothers supported the children's common activities from the beginning, in spite of their own problems and tensions, which may have contributed a lot to the group formation process.

The children were thrilled by everything we offered them: By the SEKA House with its cosy rooms in that we had placed toys corresponding to the children's age, by the beautiful island, the sea, the trips and especially by "their kucica" (the therapy house especially designed for children) with all the beautiful toys in it, where they played in the evenings with "teta"2 Dubravka, Blanka and Vahida.

On the first evening, we held a meeting with the children. We told them a bit about SEKA and about why this house exists, explained the most important house rules (no violence; everybody is welcome and equally important; there are always ways to discuss problems and conflicts...) and asked them about their wishes and needs. Additionally, we let them know that there would be three "big surprises" for them during their stay. The children were excited and enthusiastic about everything. After the meeting they were given time to try out all games and toys in the "kucica".

For these children, the trips to the beach were the most important activity. As always, we showed them several beaches, so they could choose every day which one to go to. This group chose as "favourite beach" the one in Supetar, the island's biggest and most touristy town with a lot of cafes, little shops, promenades and souvenir stands. Last but not least, Supetar offers two swimming pools.

Only two children had been at the seaside before. Therefore, they were fascinated from the sea, but at the same time a bit scared of it. Some children felt safer in the swimming pool due to its plain ground and demarcation.
At the beginning, the children were quite afraid of water and needed a lot of support, especially body contact, to feel safe. As always, relaxation exercises, ball games and Frisbee games helped to build up confidence and let the children to trust more in their own abilities and to feel safe inside the water. The children had a lot of fun with a little inflatable boat as well and more and more outgrew their fears. Every day they became a bit more relaxed, and at the end of their stay they had changed so much they were hardly to recognize: Without any fear they played around, jumped into the pool, dived, and almost all of them had learned to swim properly. As we had received a few waterproof cameras as merchandise, the children even had the chance to take pictures when diving.

On a rather chilly, windy day we went on a trip with the group of children to visit the island's oldest village named "Skrip" which is situated in the mountains. There we visited the museum of Brac and climbed up to a lookout from where you have a beautiful view on parts of the island, the sea and the mainland. The older children were especially interested in the traditional houses made out of stone and in the museum where you could learn about the arduous way of life on the island in earlier days.
The children were very eager for all kind of information about the island. They obviously enjoyed the loving attention they received from us very much.
Beside the trips, the children especially loved the time they spent in "their kucica". Every evening, at least two of our colleagues worked with them in there. On the first two evenings, they let them try out all the toys and games. Later on they made special offers, depending on the age and needs of every particular child. They mainly used techniques and methods such as painting, playing with dolls, role games, especially ones in which the children could experience their own behaviour from a different point of view, inventing stories and poems. The work's main aims were: strengthening and encouraging the children; supporting their self-perception; building up self-confidence; helping them to express themselves and letting them experience that their feelings and thoughts are taken seriously; promoting mutual communication.
Especially the older children showed a strong need to talk about war experiences, flight, the murder of a father, but as well about current fears and problems, such as family trouble, quarrels with siblings or friends, problems at school.

Sometimes arguments between the children led to aggressive behaviour. On these occasions we first talked in private with the arguers and afterwards discussed with the whole group about ways of treating each other. We pointed out ways of solving conflicts by talking to each other and spoke about feelings such as anger, grief, and jealousy, but as well about everyone's need of appreciation, respect and mutual support.
Due to our frank ways and through own experience, the children quickly realized the following: In SEKA, every child is equally important and appreciated the same; if necessary, every child receives protection and support; we do not allow anyone to be pushed in the scapegoat position, and we insist on non-violence as a general rule. A few days after the argument, the arguers were ready to deal with each other in a relaxed and friendly way. It was very obvious to us that those children had overtaken conflict patterns they were used to (Dividing a group into "the good" and "the bad", isolating someone as the general scapegoat and projecting own aggressions on him or her, refusing to communicate with the other party, "concentrating the troops", etc.) The conflict had actually been based on jealousy, the fear to be devaluated, a dislike of special treatment for others, and the urgent need of appreciation. Past years' experience and hurt were easy to recognize in these patterns.
"Our behaviour towards environment and nature" was another topic we talked about in a group discussion. We put up the issue because the children had left their ice cream papers on the beach, so the SEKA workers had to clean after them. Besides, some children had killed ants and other little animals "just for fun".
Therefore, we discussed about which world we would like better: One in which people disregard nature and other beings, or a world in which we all take care of each other and of our environment and accept other beings' right to live. (This topic corresponds very much with the fact that the children have grown up in violent surroundings, experiencing that "the others" are not granted the right to exist.)
It was very important to us to make sure that the children practically experienced here in SEKA that a peaceful world is possible, but its becoming real depends on all of us. The feedback given at the end of their stay shows that they really understood that.

The surprises we promised were the "photo-project" and the "T-shirt painting activity", and as third surprise, "aunty" Mirjana invited the women and children in small groups onto her little motorboat for a ride.

This year we've been carrying out the photo project for the third time: Every child gets a camera. First we explain to them how the camera works, afterwards we go on a little evening excursion so they can try out what they just learned- this time without a film. On the next day, every child gets one roll of film to take pictures of the things that are most important to him or her in the next four days. After that period, we let the rolls be developed and prepare an exhibition of the best pictures. This exhibition always takes place on the last evening of the group's stay and includes drawings and other pieces of art the children produced.
The photo project has several effects: On the one hand, the children learn to perceive more consciously due to the search for motifs, their ability to perceive increases. They experience themselves during the project as creative and competent, and as they decide on their own what to take pictures of and how, they see themselves as independent subjects. By taking pictures, they can record what is most important to them about their stay in SEKA and later on use the pictures as encouragement and support. The final exhibition and the acknowledgement every child then receives for his or her work, improves their self-esteem. Last but not least, they learn how to handle a camera!
Naturally, the children get to take home all the pictures they have taken, and we hand out the negatives as well.

It was the second time we carried out the T-Shirt painting activity (made possible by the donation of 300 white T-shirts by a French humanitarian organisation). The children enthusiastically started working. The results were as different as creative and unique. Some children then had the idea to let all women, children and SEKA-staff sign on the back of the shirts. The signatures, some in Cyrillic, some in Roman letters, gave another proof of how easily the children were dealing with children from another entity now and naturally accepted the differences between them, because they had seen that they had actually much more things in common than differences separating them.
We would like the children to remember that life can be beautiful and that there can be a peaceful world without violence where everybody finds his place- we just have to create this world together, starting to work on it in our own surroundings. The photos and T-Shirts are supposed to help them remember that when they are back home.

Finally, there were three birthdays to be celebrated during this group's stay. We prepared the birthday parties together with the children and had poems, songs, presents, flowers and homemade birthday cakes3 for the celebration. We danced and partied until late at night. Most children had never experienced such a birthday party.

Besides the work with the children, we had many conversations about the children with their mothers. The more they trusted us, the more they could let their children of- this is especially true for two women who had had great difficulties in the beginning to let their children be separated from them. That allowed the children to become more independent and to reduce exaggerated fears.
It was hard to say good-bye on the children, too. Many of them cried, and we had to promise to visit them in Srebenica respect. Tuzla.

1 An exercise that combines body awareness and visualization

2 Teta = aunt, aunty, is a common term to address older women in order to pay them respect. Therefore, children and sometimes even the women constantly call us SEKA workers aunty.

3 prepared by SEKA housekeeper Fani Misetic

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