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

Group 3

The third group (July 30 to August 12) came from Donji Vakuf, a small town in central Bosnia (federation) via the women's organization "Anima".
Donji Vakuf used to be situated at a main traffic junction that connected northern Bosnia with the Herzegovina, and Dalmatia, Croatia and the Bosnian Krajina (western Bosnia) with Sarajevo and eastern Bosnia. Before the war, Donji Vakuf had a population of 25.000. More than half the population was Moslem, 30 % Serbians, and the rest were either Croats or Yugoslavs (those not wanting to assign to a specific nationality). After the beginning of the war, Donji Vakuf first got occupied by Serbs; during the occupation, the Moslem and Croatian inhabitants were either expelled or murdered.
During the phase of re- conquest in 1995, Donji Vakuf was a front city for a long time and was totally destroyed through the ongoing bitter fights. At that time, all inhabitants except for some elderly had left the city to flee to other parts of Bosnia-Herzegovina or foreign western countries. Since the Dayton treaty, Donji Vakuf belongs to the Bosniac-Croatian federation (the Moslem and Croatian dominated part of Bosnia-Herzegovina).
Gradually, the pre-war population began to return. Until today, only 50% of the original population has come back. The economic situation in Donji Vakuf is extraordinarily difficult. The former industries (wood and textiles) have been destroyed in the war. There are no financial means for reconstruction. Therefore, the unemployment rate is higher than 80 %.
Most inhabitants live at the subsistence level, especially single mothers with small children can hardly find an income. Additionally, the whole population of Donji Vakuf is severely traumatized by war. To find psychological or psychiatric help, people would have to go to the hospital in Travnik (approx. 20 km away). No international humanitarian organization has been helping the people of Donji Vakuf during or after the war.
For that reason, some women who had come back to Donji Vakuf, founded the women organization "Anima" in January 2000 aiming at improving the living conditions in their town for the whole population, but especially for women and children.
As part of their program, "Anima" applied for a recreational stay in SEKA in summer 2001.
In cooperation with the local centre for social work, they elected 12 women and 8 children for the stay. Severely or multiply traumatized women and children as well as those living under the subsistence level or having health problems were given priority in the selection process.

Almost all women of this group were traumatized by war, some severely. They had lived through the occupation of Donji Vakuf and had experienced expulsion and violent attacks. 7 women had lost their husbands, three of which had died in action, one had been murdered in his own house he was trying to protect from pillage. 5 women had lost one or more children during or after the war. One woman had lost her husband and two children and had received psychiatric treatment afterwards. There were 7 women who had children, five of them single mothers, and 4 eldery women without children in the group. Some women had physical diseases, many had psychosomatic symptoms such as depressions, state of anxiety, sleeping disorders and nightmares as consequences of traumatic experiences. All women lived under difficult economic conditions, three women lived in great poverty with their children. Except for two women, all of them came originally from Donji Vakuf or surrounding villages. One woman had fled with her daughter from eastern Bosnia, another refugee woman from around Sarajevo had married in Donji Vakuf after the war.

For some women and all children, this was their first stay at the seaside. They knew each other hardly. Organized by "Anima", only one meeting had taken place before the departure in which the women could get to know each other a bit. Therefore, there was no confidentiality among the group members at the beginning. All women were rather cautious with each other.

Regarding this group, Branka Bilogrevic (therapist) and myself (Gabriele Müller) worked with the women, Marijana Smeric (child psychologist) and Vesna Sobot (educator) worked with the children.
This stay, too, has been made possible with the financial aid of the department of employment, health and social issues (BAGS) of the federal state of Hamburg, Germany.

Work with the women:

Due to the first days we spent together at the beach and the conversations on the terrace in the evenings, we SEKA workers easily linked up with the women. A confidential basis was quickly found. From the first day on, the women had a great need to talk, either in smaller groups or in private conversations. Those conversations were mainly about traumatic experiences, but also about the current severe existential problems. We got the impression that they had longed for somebody to listen to them and share their fate. We felt as if they saw us as possible "witnesses", testifying all the terrible things that had happened to them. They seemed to need a confirmation that their traumatic experiences really had been awful. This shows that many women still were in the first posttraumatic phase: They needed the recognition of what had happened, and they needed to be assured that they were not "crazy" just because they couldn't forget what had happened, even though they tried very hard. We therefore talked about the ways traumatic experience work and about possible consequences of such experience, but talked about self healing powers everyone has as well. We pointed out that there is always more than the survived trauma: These are the own strong parts and own abilities, memories of better times, support from others. We underlined that the other group members could possibly give support as well.

On the third evening, we offered the women to work in the therapy room. Almost all women took the offer.
At first, our main aim was to support the women in getting to know each other better and increase confidentiality. As many women were severely traumatized, and because all mainly wished to just recreate and have a good time in SEKA, we were very careful regarding the offers we made, always taking into account the group's needs and readiness. After focusing on the issue of getting to know each other better, we preferably put up exercises and games that helped to increase the feeling of safety, and supported stabilization and contact. The group met at seven evenings in the therapy room. On the other evenings, the women gathered on the terrace, went for walks, danced or sang songs together.
In the group work, we mainly used the following methods and techniques:

In general, it was to be observed that the women could relax more and more during their stay in SEKA - even those who had been trapped in their grief and sorrow in the beginning. All of them became more able to feel joy and happiness again, and became more open for new encounters.

I recommended getting in touch with the "Therapy Centre for Women Zenica" to one woman whose daughter had died recently. As an in-patient in the Therapy Centre, if possible accompanied by her little son, she would get the chance to assimilate her multiple traumatic experiences.

When saying good-bye, women and children expressed their wish to stay in touch with us. I promised to visit them in Donji Vakuf in October.

Work with the Children:

This group was formed by eight children of very different age. They had just met on the bus trip which meant that they had not achieved communal spirit yet. Most children suffered from severe traumata such as war and flight experience, and family tragedies. Additionally, the mothers' bad psychic condition weighed heavily on some children. Seven children had lived through war and flight. Three children had lost their fathers in war, in three other cases the fathers had left the family after the war. Only two children were living with mother and father. Two children had lost siblings as well. All children lived under difficult economic conditions, four children actually lived in bitter poverty. For those four, it was even special to be able to eat their fill.

At first, some children were very anxious and under pressure to "do everything right." Some older children obviously had always had to take too much responsibility for their age. Four children had a very big need for attention. Two children seemed to be very uncertain and partly articulated this uncertainty as strong aggression.
Other difficulties the children had rather related to their mothers' behaviour: They feared to let their children of, had no straight ways of communicating with them, had difficulties to put up limits, would not believe them capable of anything nor educate them to be independent.

As none of the children except for the two oldest had been at the seaside before, the excursions to the sea were a great attraction and very exciting for the children.
The group chose Postira beach in the neighbour village as favourite one. To our surprise, the children were hardly afraid of the water (the water is rather shallow and calm at Postira beach, though.) Equipped with swimming belts, they happily splashed around and became freer every day. Our colleagues Marijana Smeric (child psychologist) and Vesna Sobot (educator) strengthened the children's confidence in the water by several exercises and games. They encouraged the children aiming at improving their self-esteem. Except for the youngest, all of them learned to swim and dive. At the end, they participated with much enthusiasm in a jumping, swimming and diving competition and proudly received a certificate as acknowledgement.

As always, the children were enthusiastic about the "Kucica". Every evening after dinner, Marijana Smeric and Vesna Sobot worked with the children for about two hours in the child therapy house. As the children hardly had toys at home, they were busy exploring the house and trying out the toys the whole first evening. Despite the immense diversion in age (the children were between 3 and 16 years old) they got used to each other relatively quick.
From the third evening on, our colleagues made offers to the children they happily took. Painting, drawing, and working with plastilin were some of their most favourite activities. They enjoyed role games on family issues as well, and liked to talk about the following topics: "Things we like or dislike", "Things we are afraid of", "What makes us angry, what makes us happy", and "How we want to treat each other", (a question that was raised because of one child's aggressive behaviour). Some children had difficulties to stick to rules in games, especially if their mothers had never put up rules for them. Nevertheless, the children enjoyed this kind of games as well.
One boy repeatedly burst out in rage and became aggressive. Marijana Smeric therefore did some extra work with him only.
Obviously, we put up our three standard "surprises" with this group as well and carried out the photo project, painted T-shirts and went for a boat trip in small groups (see group 1). As always, the ceremonious exhibition of the children's photos and other pieces of art took place on the last evening of the group's stay.

These children changed very much during their stay as well: Generally, there was a decrease in fear and uncertainty (especially due to playing in the water), and they all gained in self-confidence (because they had learnt how to swim, jump, and dive, and due to the photo project and the final exhibition). Provoking or aggressive behaviour was hardly to be observed at the end. The children could finally stick to rules and agreements quite well. Some managed to become more independent from their mothers (because they were given more freedom.) Their attitude towards each other changed remarkably, they began to look after each other, listen to each other, and help each other.
In addition to the work with the children, Marijana Smeric and Vesna Sobot had several conversations with the mothers about the children and education in general.
Important topics were:

The mothers were very interested in conversations about the topics mentioned above. Some mothers were recommended to look for professional support for their children. For one girl, logopedist exercise would be helpful. One boy needs more support in learning.
We will discuss possible ways of further support for women and children with "Anima".

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