Wounded souls only heal slowly

Central Bosnia - six years after the war / visiting "Anima" in Donji Vakuf

The trip to Bosnia

On a beautiful day Henni Bartram and I, Gabriele Müller, go on the journey to central Bosnia. We want to visit women and children of our third "summer group" in Donji Vakuf, I want to again look personally at the current situation in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and for Henni it is the first visit to Bosnia-Herzegovina. To her, it is important to learn more about where many women and children we invite to SEKA come from, how they live and why it is so important to them that SEKA exists.

We don't have any problems at the border near Kamensko, but already in Livno our old bus doesn't want to go any further. After an hour and a half of useless repair work, we are picked up by another bus.
As always when travelling to Bosnia-Herzegovina, I'm very anxious to see what has changed in the meantime and how the country's reconstruction moves on.
Already on the plateau before Kupres it becomes clear that the reconstruction program has finally reached the remote rural areas as well. In many of the totally destroyed little villages and hamlets life has returned, and a great part of houses is being repaired or newly build.
Eventually Kupres, a town that has been totally destroyed for years after the re-conquest by the Croatian-Bosnian HVO is almost completely rebuilt.
On the ongoing trip towards Bugojno it becomes obvious that in this part of Bosnia reconstruction has made a lot of progress.
All the trash that had been hemming the streets, floating in the rivers or hanging up in the trees carried by the wind during and after the war, has almost completely disappeared. The Bosnian landscape with its romantic valleys, its gentle green hills, its autumnally coloured forests, looks so beautiful and peaceful in the golden October sunlight: It would be the idyll of a holiday region, if there wasn't the fact that huge parts of the forests and meadows are still contaminated by landmines.
Nevertheless, I'm glad to see that six years after the war, a slow but noticeable progress is being made.
Bugojno, a relatively big town that had been under massive shellfire for years during the war and where there was almost no house left undamaged in 1995, is almost completely re-constructed. Some buildings are resplendent due to renovation, such as the beautiful old mosque, the huge Catholic church, or the high-school that rather looks like a big pink cake with icing on top. Apart from this, a huge Islamic centre with an own big mosque has been built.
On many houses downtown war traces are still to be seen: shellfire holes, splinter scars, burned out apartments. Many times there are shops or cafes styled in glass, chrome and neon light on the ground floor of a destroyed house - a bizarre combination. There is almost anything to buy again for those who can afford it.
Finally we reach Donji Vakuf without further breakdowns.
Every time I drive over the bridge into town, I recall how the town looked in autumn 1995 after being re-captured by the Bosnian army:
The black charred remaining of the bridge that had already been blown up by Serbian militia in 1992 and had only been poorly repaired by UNPROFOR (UN-troops in Bosnia), the checkpoint with the piled sandbags before it, then the town or rather what was left of it: a ghost town full of shattered houses, burnt ruins, no people anywhere, rubbish heaps on the banks of the river Vrbas, trash in the river, until up high in the trees.

Traces of war in Donji Vakuf

Only some buildings in town remind now of this wretched picture, for example the former hotel that stares at us with black window holes, the destroyed recreation and sports centre, finished just before the war and never opened, or a several story building on the riverbank whose black walls and partly un-redeveloped burnt apartments remind of the past lasting fire.
The Donji Vakuf of today seems to have gone back to normal, if you ignore the witnesses of the past mentioned above. Almost all houses have been redeveloped or are under construction. The street lighting works, so does the power and water supply. Many little shops have opened again, there are three schools, a kindergarten, a mosque, a big orthodox church and a smaller catholic one, all redeveloped, there is the big timber factory, but only running minimally, the local authority is working again, and - very unusual for a Bosnian small town: Everywhere we can see grass verges and flowerbeds that give the town a friendly and welcoming appearance.
Just as we get off the bus, a pale but relieved Timka O. hugs us who had been waiting for us for two hours and had been extremely worried. The bus company had not informed those waiting about the breakdown of the bus.
Timka's husband who has come to pick us up by car, gives us a hearty welcome as well; we will stay at the couple's house.
Shortly after our arrival some women of the summer group who live close come over to welcome us enthusiastically. A meeting with all women and children has been scheduled for the next morning.

Meeting "our group"

Meeting "our group"

All of them have come except for Dzemila1 and her little son Amir who live very remotely in a hamlet on the street to Jaice and could not be informed. We decide to visit Dzemila and Amir on the next day.
The "Anima" women have prepared a big table with drinks and sweets on it. We have brought kilos of mandarins and dried figs as a memory of the island of Brac.
Now we sit in a big round "just like on the SEKA terrace", as one woman puts it, and tell each other what has happened in the meantime.
Daily life in Donji Vakuf is still very hard. The women try in every possible way to earn a little money: They do needlework, clean in private company's offices, sell homemade paintings and other things. Fortunately, most own a little garden where they plant potatoes and vegetables without which they could not survive now.
Winter is coming, chopped wood has to be organized - winters are very cold and snowy here!
An old woman, Hafa, who lives at her son's, has received the "delozacija" order2, which means that they have three weeks to find another place to live because the original owners of that apartment claim their place. It is very difficult to find anything especially now when winter starts - certainly every other place would be worse, again an old rotten house nobody lives in and that has to be made somehow habitable and ready for winter. The totally destroyed house Hafa used to own is still under construction. I'm again astonished and moved how calmly the Bosnian women face these never ending difficulties. "We'll find something", Hafa says, "and maybe already next year we can live in our own house again!"
Next to the current issues, memories of the time in SEKA are a major topic in our conversation. Women and children remind each other of the days they spent at the beach, of the sea, of little funny incidents I had already forgotten, of the evenings, the group work and last but not least of the wonderful food (Marija, our cook, must have had buzzing in her ears due to so much praise!)
Whilst they speak about their experience in kuca SEKA, their faces change: their eyes sparkle, they joke around and laugh, and are light-hearted all of a sudden - just like in summer at the beach.
As I ask whether it was hard on them to return here after their stay in SEKA, one woman says: "You know, our life here is still full of struggles, but we gained so much strength and courage and confidence at SEKA which helps a lot and makes things easier!" "And we found friends in the group we barely knew before. Now we visit and help each other", another woman adds.
One of the oldest of the group says: " I was hardly able to walk as I arrived in SEKA. Swimming in the sea was medicine to me, same as the loving way in which you spoiled us, so that I could forget all my worries for a while. Now I am able to walk almost normally and I'm scarcely in pain!"
Finally all of them underline: "It's just good to know that you are there in kuca SEKA, and to think of you again and again. And who knows, maybe we will be able to visit you again some day."
Naturally, we take a lot of photos and agree with some women to visit them at home.
Then, "Radio Donji Vakuf" arrives to interview me on kuca SEKA and its cooperation with "Anima".
After that we get to know the several projects "Anima" carries out and learn about the results they achieve.

On this evening and the two following days we visit some women and children at their homes. On our way to Jaice (one of the neighbour towns) we manage to find Dzemila and Amir who are so happy to see us that they don't know what to say at first.
Then it turns out that it's very good we came: Dzemila and Amir do not only live in severe poverty - out of 30 German marks of monthly social aid - in an old, humid house, they live in permanent fear of Dzemila's former boyfriend, Amir's father, who appears occasionally and just recently badly maltreated her again. She can't expect any of her neighbours in this dreary hamlet to help her - nobody has a telephone. She doesn't now how to call for help in case of emergency.
Dzemila cries out of pain and fear, but as well out of relief that we came, that she is not all alone.
Timka and Safija V. from "Anima" promise Dzemila they haven't known before as she had been put on the list of participants for the recreational stay by the centre for social work, to look for another place to stay for her and her little son in cooperation with the local social worker (who is unfortunately very overstressed), preferably in downtown Donji Vakuf. Then Dzemila would have a network of people around her (the women from the group) and could always ask them for help.
At the same time I propose to schedule an appointment in the Medica therapy centre in Zenica to find out whether it would be possible for her and Amir to go there as in-patients for a couple of months. I had already suggested that in summer, because Dzemila had neither digested the war experience nor the death of her little daughter who was hit by a car in front of Dzemila's eyes. In my opinion, the additional experience of domestic violence makes such a therapeutic stay as an in-patient even more urgently necessary. For Amir, who is totally overtaxed by worrying about his mother and being afraid for her, that would be a great relief, too.
As we finally say good-bye, Dzemila is calm and confident. Now she is able to appreciate the food we brought her.

This day and the following are filled with more visits we pay to women of the group, but as well to friends I know from wartimes. We drive to Jaice, one on the formerly most beautiful cities of Yugoslavia that has been turned into a ruin in this war. Now the atmosphere there has changed as well. Agony and depression seem to have disappeared, now the city seems to cautiously move forward.
We shortly visit Bugojno as well. I want Henni to get as many impressions from central Bosnia as possible.
We have a lot of intensive conversations during our visits and with the "Anima" women and our host family, talking until late at night. We speak about people's war experience that is still very present and painful to everybody, we talk about the situation in Donji Vakuf and central Bosnia nowadays, and about "Anima's" work. I'll summarize the most important information we obtained in the following.

The small town of Donji Vakuf in central Bosnia

Donji Vakuf is situated picturesquely in the river Vrbas valley, surrounded by gentle hill-like mountains. Even before the war, this very small town used to have a rather rural character, in spite of being 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 approx. 24.000, among them around 55% Moslems, approx. 37 % Serbians, and 2 % Croats. 6% saw themselves as Yugoslavs (those not wanting to assign to a specific nationality).
Donji Vakuf mainly lived out of timber industry (8000 people used to work in the local timber factory, the biggest local business), and timber trade. Apart from that, there used to be several plaster pits and a plaster factory offering 3000 jobs, and some transport business and farming in the vicinity. The "dom zdravlja" (a mixture of ambulance and policlinic) had 99 employees.
Donji Vakuf was not a rich city, but as I was assured many times, everybody made a living and was happy with it, most people had their own house.
But there were two barracks of the Yugoslavian People's army as well that should play an important role when war started in 1992.

War, expulsion, and destruction

"Hot" war started in Donji Vakuf on April 30th of 1992 when Serbian militia blew up the Vrbas Bridge. Five people died on that bridge. The tremendous detonation made the whole town tremble. The blowing up of the bridge was the last sign for the non-Serbian population remaining in town that they would have to flee in order to save their lives, that there was no other choice.

Already weeks earlier, tension and fear had been in the air. YPA (Yugoslavian People's army) and Bosnian-Serbian militia had already occupied Eastern Bosnia, parts of northern Bosnia and parts of Sarajevo. There were rumours about atrocities against and the expulsion of the non-Serbian population from these areas.

The local SDS (Karadzic's nationalist Serbian party) became increasingly aggressive in making pro-great-Serbian propaganda. The two YPA barracks that were dominated by Serbians additionally frightened people. Then there were fights at Kupres pass.
Since the beginning of April, scary creatures had appeared in town: Serbian cetniks from the Krajina, thick with weapons, with long hair and beards down to their chests. They drove cars without plaques, shot around at random, and started to terrorize the place. They shot a young man in the middle of the street.
"Once", tells us Timka who used to work as a nurse in the already parted "dom zdravlja" in those days, "three of those guys came into our section of the policlinic (the one for non-Serbians), sat down in the lobby with their weapons and just stayed there the whole day without saying a word. We were all scared, nobody would speak to them. We didn't want to get shot." The children didn't go to school anymore, because the teachers (mainly Serbians) were leaving town. Actually, most Serbian families had left since the beginning of April. It was obvious that they were informed about what was to happen. Almost nobody warned his non-Serbian friends, colleagues or neighbours, though, which has caused feelings of bitterness and disappointment. "We actually had more Serbian than Moslem friends", says Timka. "They all withdrew from us then."
Increasingly, Croatian and Moslem families were leaving Donji Vakuf as well, because the situation in town became more and more threatening. The local administration was now as parted as the dom zdravlja. Wounded Serbian soldiers were brought from the front at Kupres to Donji Vakuf. From the surrounding forests, shots could be heard more often. At night, there were shootings and explosions in town as well.
Finally on April 30th, the bridge exploded. The remaining population was paralysed. They stayed in their cellars for a couple of days. At night, signal rockets were fired towards town from the surroundings. "My garage lies underneath the house and therefore offers a bit of protection from shellfire. During those days, up to 150 people who weren't save in their own houses were hiding in there", reports Timka. "It was unbelievable."

Then the mass flight of the Moslem and Croatian population began. In overloaded cars, tractors and trailers, on bikes or on foot, people - most of them women, children and elderly - tried to leap to safety. Many men stayed in town to protect their family's house, some of them gave their lives for that.
Where could the frightened people go? West roads towards Croatia were battlefields, the northern and northern-eastern regions were already occupied by Serbians. Only heading towards Bugojno and from there on tracks across the fields and mountains to Dalmatia was left as an option. Many families who owned a car or were given a ride by others succeeded in the adventurous flight to Croatia, where they were temporarily cooped up in mass camps. Some were able to further escape into other European countries. Though, many refugees only reached Bugojno, Travnik or possibly Zenica in central Bosnia.
On April 9th (?????) only 200 Moslems were left in Donji Vakuf. As the Serbian occupiers began to install camps, to abduct people (there was a men and a women camp3 in Donji Vakuf), and to force men to join the Serbian army or compel them to forced labour, almost all remaining Moslems fled from town to Bugoijno.
19 old persons remained in town not wanting to leave their houses. Some of them didn't survive the occupation.
As soon as the town was "purified from all non-Serbians", some former Serbian inhabitants returned to town. At the same time, Serbian troops concentrated in the area. From Donji Vakuf, Bugoijno and the surrounding villages were taken under massive fire for years until 1995.
Apart from having to cope with the ongoing shellfire, the refugees who had fled to central Bosnian towns such as Bugojno, Travnik or Zenica, were suffering from an awful famine that had been caused by the blockade during the "war in the war" (that means, by the additional attack on central Bosnia by Bosnian Croats coming from the West) from spring 1993 to spring 1994.

For Moslem refugees, who had leaped to safety in Croatia, the sudden Croatian hostility towards them meant they weren't any longer safe in Croatia, neither. They had to daily bear insults, humiliation, and partly even violent attacks. In this period, Croatia tried to mass deport Bosnian - Moslem refuges to countries such as Pakistan, Malaysia or Iran. Timka and her family eventually managed to be admitted to Switzerland. Others could escape to Austria, Germany, or Scandinavian countries.

After weeks of bitter fights, the re-conquest of Donji Vakuf by the Bosnian army finally took place in autumn 1995. After the "liberation", the town was left a burnt, shot city of ruins.

Return and reconstruction

Safija V. from "Anima" was one of the first to return to Donji Vakuf, as her husband was supposed to reinstall public order as a policeman. They arrived on the first day after the fights ended in what used to be their town. "It was awful", remembers Safija. "Everything was broken, some ruins were still on fire, smoke everywhere, single dead bodies, bodies of dead pets, and trash, trash, heaps of trash. I've never seen so much junk in my life. We then started to clean up and clear the city from garbage and rubble - at first with not much more than our hands. We worked until we faded, everybody helped, all who had returned in these first days. It was terrible, but I was so glad to be here again."

Relatively quickly, power and water supply are reinstalled. Already in 1996, street lighting starts running again, Ifor-troops rebuild the bridge. Gradually, the refugees return, first those from other Bosnian towns, then more and more those who had been abroad. Life begins to normalize in the small town. Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, and German humanitarian organisations help the returnees to rebuild their houses. For rebuilding a house, approx. 7000 DM are granted on an average. Prices for construction material are very low in Bosnia, and people do a lot themselves and support each other. Some receive financial support from relatives living abroad; returnees often invest their savings and possible returning aids in reconstruction.
In 2001, Donji Vakuf has reached a population of 12.000 again. Most Moslems and all Croats are back. The former Serbian population rather hesitates to come back, although they are granted reconstruction aid as well. Some only want to rebuild their house in order to sell it or exchange it for a Moslem House in the "Republika Srpska".

Donji Vakuf Today

Even if life in the small town seems almost normal on the surface, we can see easily that people still suffer badly from the consequences of war.
The unemployment rate is still as high as 65 to 70 %. The economy is shattered, there is a lack of capital for redevelopment, for example concerning the big timber factory and the necessary replacement of its plants. The factory is running, but not more than 300 jobs are left of the pre-war number of 8000. The plaster pint and plaster factory are at work, but again only with a capacity of 800 jobs out of formerly 3000.
Many people try to fight their way through with small business or small trade. Most are unable to find work in their profession.

Until today, corruption remains a huge problem due to the political situation. Since the war ended, the SDA (Izetbegovic's nationalist party) has formed the regional administration and has ruled Donji Vakuf's city council. Foreign grants remained in the party leaders' private pockets or were spent on prestige projects such as monumental buildings. The common population never profited from those grants.
In the last elections, SDA lost the majority, but in spite managed to form the government again, buying off the only liberal representative.
This leads to increasing frustration and to a loss of reliability of politics in general.

In addition to that, there is tension between those who survived war in Bosnia and the returnees from abroad. "You let us down", the returnees are accused. It's especially difficult for them to find work, as jobs are preferably given to those who stayed.
Social conditions are just lousy. Those who depend on social aid because they don't have an income at all and no relatives abroad to support them, struggle to survive (e.g. single mothers with small children, old, ill, or handicapped people).
Many people got very ill after the war - suffering from cancer or heart diseases, or even died due to these diseases. Undigested war traumata demand a tribute in this way, too.
Generally, I very much noticed in all conversations how present war atrocities and survived violence still are. This experience repeatedly comes to the surface. Most people try to repress it, but don't succeed. I saw deep pain and certain unbelief about what had happened to them in many women and men I spoke with.

Psychological support is urgently needed, but no such offer exists in Donji Vakuf.
The lack of local psychosocial support caused women from Donji Vakuf to found the "Anima" club in January 2000.

The Women's Organisation "Anima Donji Vakuf"

When asked why they named their club "Anima"4, Timka explains: "We saw the progress that was made in rebuilding houses after the war, but people's souls and all their wounds were kept being forgotten. There was not a single foreign or domestic organisation offering psychosocial support during or after the war here. In order to compensate this lack, we founded "Anima", particularly for the women who again have to take the main responsibility for the well-being of their families, but as well for the community in general, for children and teenagers, for people in need."
In the clubrooms, women from Donji Vakuf and the vicinities can meet, talk, and exchange views, here activities and projects are planned, and further vocational trainings take place. The club women want to contribute to increase common awareness of women's rights and the female question, and to strengthen the position of women in society. But they as well aim to improve the living conditions for all inhabitants, to support communal life and to motivate people to help each other.

Although the small organisation with its approx. 30 members and a core team of five volunteers has started off with almost no financial basis and still today has to deal with huge financial problems, the women have achieved an unbelievable lot during the 1.5 years of club activity:
They organize computer and English courses for women and teenagers that are very well attended.
With the help of UNHCR and Malteser's, they started to run an upholstering workshop. In this project, 12 women receive a one-year vocational training in upholstering and refurbishing old furniture. With that education, they can make an income later on. Four women will be taken on by the club and will remain working in the club workshop. In this way, the people of Donji Vakuf have the ongoing possibility to let their old furniture be upholstered for a reasonable price. We have the chance to go and see the work's high quality for ourselves. The women's workshop already has an excellent reputation even beyond Donji Vakuf.

Henni Bartram in the upholster-project of "Anima"

The women made a particularly great effort in realizing an ecological project that required a lot of work time and energy:
During the last two years, they managed to free the Vrbas riverbanks on both sides in a full length of 1.8 km from the trash heaps that had been piled up already before the war when the Vrbas riverbanks were used as a waste disposal site. Those trash heaps had further grown during the war. Car wrecks, old fridges, stoves, and other rubble had to be removed from the river with excavators and tractors.
As we now walked by the riverbank with the "Anima" women, we could hardly imagine how it must have looked before. We felt like walking in a park. On a nice spot that is suited for swimming, the women have additionally set up a bathing beach with a diveboard which particularly thrills the local children and teenagers.
The most astonishing fact is that the women have carried out this project with only little financial input (some support by the Suisse embassy), because they succeeded in convincing many citizens to volunteer. One came with his excavator, another with his tractor and trailer, small lorries were freely supplied, restaurants and shops granted food for the volunteers, and many people participated in the action. "On some Saturdays up to a hundred people were helping here", Vesna B. tells us. "That was somehow the greatest success for us."

The core team of "Anima" with SEKA-trainee Henni Bartram

For the second year, the "Anima" women maintain little grass verges and flowerbeds in town. In spring 2000, they had laboriously turned over the ground, sowed and planted it. "It is so important to object beauty and liveliness to destruction and violence we lived trough during the war", Hilda M. says, "it helps against people's resignation, too. At first, people laughed at us because of all the effort we made, but now more and more people join in and plant flowers in their own gardens. And they approach us and ask for advice."
The club women still take it very important to be present for the local women and to make clear they can be approached if there's any problem or their help is requested.
Concerning psychosocial support, "Anima" applied for a recreational stay in kuca SEKA in summer 2001. In cooperation with the local centre for social work, they elected women and children to participate who most badly needed recreation and psychological support.
"Cooperating with SEKA has always meant a lot to us Anima women", Timka emphasizes. "It was my first seminar in SEKA that gave me all the strength and courage to start our work here."

At the end of our visit, we discuss "Anima's" plans to become more involved in the psychosocial field. Particularly the problem of domestic violence against women and children becomes more and more obvious. "Actually, we would need a shelter for abused women here", Timka says. "But it would be generally important that all of us, the whole community, deal with the problem differently, that we stop blaming the victims. We still have to learn a lot around here regarding that... Do you think you could organize such seminars for volunteers in kuca SEKA? On how we as volunteers can help these women, and generally on the domestic violence issue?"
I promise to think about it and discuss the question with my colleagues. I wonder whether we will be able to find financial backers for that...
Tired and thoughtful, but filled with admiration for "Anima's" work, we finally go on the trip home.

Gabriele Müller


Note 1 All women's and children's names are changed

Note 2 delozacija = legal expulsion from the apartment

Note 3 We must assume that in this camp located close to the police station, women have been submitted to rape, like elsewhere. Nobody could give me further information, though.

Note 4 Anima = female aspect of the soul