Final Report
Recreational stay and psychological-pedagogic support for traumatized Women and Children in Project SEKA, Splitska, Brac, Summer 2000

Group 1

The first group (17. - 29. June) included 4 women, 3 young women and 11 children coming from Knin, Croatia. The group was organised by the "Women's Group 'Nada', Knin". ('Nada' means 'hope' in Serbo-Croatian). This group we could invite by the financial help of Light 2000 Trust and The Applegreen Trust. For this support we are very grateful!
Almost all the women and children of this group were Bosnian-Croatian refugees from Central Bosnia, who fled during the "war in the war" 1993 to Croatia.
Besides the traumatic experiences of war and flight all women and children were victims of long lasting extreme violence through the husband / father.
One of the women, M., mother of 9 children in the age of 6 - 25 years, is - commonly with the six youngest children - still living together with the perpetrator. All the six children, with whom she came to SEKA-House, were severely traumatised; especially the two youngest were in a very bad psychological state.
One of the other women, D., mother of 6 children, survived a 20-year lasting martyrdom in her marriage. She became divorced from the perpetrator after he several times had brutally raped the eldest daughter while the mother was in hospital. For this crime the father is still in prison, but will come free latest in 2002. Even being in prison doesn't hinder him to threaten the family further on
Another woman, A., experienced rape in war and reacted to this trauma psychotically. Her psychological state is still very fragile. Besides this she suffers from violence through her family (mother and one brother), with which she is living together.
All families are actually living in Knin or surroundings and they are suffering from severe poverty. Basically they have a right on social welfare, but this - anyhow small - support most time does not arrive at all (as the state has no money). Only to succeed in surviving is for the women and their children the most existential problem. The women are forced to beg for the most urgent things from the priest or the few in the area remaining humanitarian organisations. During summer they partly live from the potatoes and vegetables from their garden.
Almost all of them are living in Serbian houses, in which the real owners want to return. For this also the housing conditions of the families are totally unsecured.
Two of the young women and one of the girls, who came to us without their mothers, showed symptoms of negligence. As we found out, the families live under terrible hygienic conditions. The 11 years old girl in SEKA-House slept for the first time in her life in a real bed and experienced a real bathroom with WC.

With the women of this group I worked myself (Gabriele Mueller, group talks and individual work) and also Mirjana Bilan (group talks in the evening and individual talks).
Our two colleagues Zeljana Buntic-Pejakovic (voluntarily) and Dubravka Tokic-Galic, both psychologists, as well as SEKA-worker Goga Ivancevic as pedagogic helper worked with the children.

Work with the women:

Because of the special composition of the group we decided not to offer common group work in the therapy room to the women but instead of this individual work. We regarded the fact as difficult, to build a group with the four elder and three young women (17 - 20 years old), from whom one was the daughter of one of the elder women. Such a group constellation would have made it difficult for all women to open up.
For this we initiated group talks in a more general or educational form on the terrace in the evening.
During the first days spending commonly at the beach we built up a very good contact to the elder women but also to the younger ones. Through our support in the water (only two of the younger women could swim), through exercises for relaxation, common ball games and talks at the beach their confidence grew quickly.
In the first few evenings I (Gabriele Müller) did not yet start with individual work but commonly with Mirjana Bilan initiated group talks while two of our colleagues worked with the children in the children's therapy house ("kucica"). One of the most central topics in these talks were "violence in partnership and violence towards children".
It became clear, how strongly the elder women from childhood on were determined by very strict patriarchal and repressive standards and by a rigid Catholicism, so that they regarded the more than 20 years lasting severe violence and rapes by their husbands as their "fate as women" and "given by god". Only one of the younger women, the daughter of M., revolted against this attitude of her mother. For years she is trying to get her mother to divorce, and she is the only one, who succeeds in defending herself from her father. She protects her sisters and brothers as much as possible and because of feeling this as her duty has not yet left her parent's house.
Against this background we spoke about the physical and psychological consequences of violence for the women and for the children (two of the women suffer from serious physical and psychosomatic illness), about Human Rights - being valid also for women and children, about gender roles and bringing up children in non violent surroundings, about the position and situation of girls in a patriarchal society, responsibility as mother to support the children, especially the girls; about the consequences of traditional standards for the lives of women, the (non-)reaction of the society towards the problem of violence against women; about possibilities to find help, to search for support.
Unfortunately the possibilities to get support are almost completely missing in Knin and the so called "Krajina", the very poor rural regions in Croatia, which were occupied by the Serbian nationalists from 1991 - 1995. The Croatian population there - especially the Bosnian-Croatian refugees - is poor, fanatical nationalistic and Catholic. Still more after the war - violence is regarded as a normal form of conflict resolution. Misogyny is normal too.

Obviously our opinions (as SEKA-workers) and the information given by us seemed completely unusual for the women. But in spite of this they didn't refuse it, they more and more showed interest and opened up.
The vision we spoke about: a world without violence, with mutual respect and understanding, with caring about each other and openness, such a world they really experienced in SEKA-House. They felt so well with this, they saw their children "flourishing", being happy and feeling free, in a way they never had experienced them. So their interest in the new information, opinions and attitudes grew.
They also were more than ready to accept our offer concerning individual talks / individual therapy work.
So with each of the 3 young women I worked in several sessions between 3 and 4 hours all- together. Topics were for example: problems in their families, alcoholism of the father, pregnancy as girl and giving birth to a baby (in a strictly Catholic sourrounding field), problems with the boy friend, experiences of violence in childhood, separation from the mother in childhood. But also (for M.'s daughter) the actual violent situation in her family, possible ways out, possibilities of protection, of finding support, reflection of the own situation and the own feelings.
With each of the elder women I worked between 4 and 8 hours altogether (in various sessions). Sometimes we used - besides the sessions in the evening - also the morning- and afternoon-hours, to have enough time. Topics in the individual work with them were: problems in marriage, sexual problems, difficulties to defend the own borders / to say "No", experiences of war, flight, rape in war, violence in the original family, experiences of long lasting severe violence and of being raped by the husband, rape of the daughter by the husband, feelings of helplessness, feeling guilty, feelings of loneliness, but also as central topic: the desperate material neediness, in which the families live.
For most of the women it was the first time to tell their story openly and to find sympathy for their painful experiences. D. told me: "Several times a psychologist spoke with me. (concerning the rape of her daughter through her husband). But they never were interested in my feelings. I had the feeling that they only wanted to find out, whether I'm a bad mother. What my ex-husband did was extremely terrible for my daughter, but it was also terrible for me. I thought I would get crazy:"
Besides talk therapy in the work with the women I also used techniques of Psychodrama: work with symbols (f.e. stones, dolls, cushions...), incineration with symbols, but also exercises of relaxation, body awareness and imagination.
Aims of the work were relief, getting aware of the own feelings, naming the experienced violence, sympathy and self-sympathy for the experienced pain, but also stabilisation, recognition of the own strengths, empowerment, to get aware of the own needs and wishes but also the own borders, developing of perspectives and trying of alternative possibilities (f.e. through incineration), searching for support in their surroundings, developing of possibilities to protect themselves and their children.

In the end of the recreational stay I offered a common session to M. and her grown up daughter, in which they worked commonly on strategies to protect the family from the father and to prepare the separation.
To realise the separation from her husband really - after 26 years suffering of severe violence, I think, it would be necessary for M. to get continuously and for a longer time qualified support (by a psychologist or a social worker). But the fact, that M. began to get aware of herself, of her strengths, capacities, her needs and her feelings (also the feelings of rage and disgust), the fact that she began to think about possibilities to get out of the "prison of violence" is a first step out of the "victim's role", in which she was caught from her early youth on.
M. who had arrived on crutches, hardly being able to go 10 meters with them (because of severe problems with her back), was dancing at our good-bye party without the crutches (which had become unnecessary already days ago).
I am planning to visit the women and children of this group in autumn. Meanwhile I will try to find some kind of support for M. and her family in their living surroundings.

Psychological-pedagogic work with the children

All the children of the group had experienced violence, most of them since birth. They had witnessed the massive mistreatment of their mothers as well as they themselves had been victims of violence through their fathers - and partly also through their mothers. Besides this they were traumatised by the experiences of war and flight. And caused by the neediness of their families hunger and deficiency were almost normal feelings for them.
In the same time we noticed a remarkable deep social feeling between the children. Everything what they got they divided, specially taking care about the youngest children. The elder children were very caring and tender towards the younger ones. Scarcely we experienced quarrels between the children of this group.
The children of M. had further developed a really astonishing system of mutual support and protection, through which the elder children tried to protect the younger ones, when "the father again was mad", and to bring them "out of the dangerous zone".
The two youngest children however were in a bad state when they arrived at SEKA-House. They were caught in a cramp of fear. Especially the posture of the 7-years-old boy showed his continuous expectation of being beaten or humiliated. (The mother told us, that her husband in the last time used the mistreating of the boy to set pressure on her.) Head and upper part of the body he held always turned half aside, the eyes looking on the floor, he did not move forward but always half to the side. In the first two days it was not possible to catch his view, as he never looked up. From the third day on he could more and more relax and in the end we couldn't recognise - neither him nor his sister: free and happily they played in the water and in the sand, sometimes searching our contact - to be sure that we are still there caring about them.

The children of this group experienced the sea for the first time. These days at the beach and in the sea made the children relax, supported their self-consciousness and encouraged them. All the children learned swimming. More and more they lost their fears. Especially the young ones enjoyed to be in a close body-contact with us. Very often they came to hug us and then satisfied continued playing.
A 13-year-old boy, the son of D., was handicapped as a consequence of the mistreatment by his father (the hip joint had been hurt). For him it was very important to move and swim in the sea (from a medical point of view). Besides this in the sea he felt not handicapped at all, he was at least so quick and movable as the other children were.
As much as the time at the beach however the children enjoyed the time in the evening, when they played in the children's therapy house. In the beginning the children could hardly believe, that they had their own little house for playing, full of many lovely toys. They felt it like a paradise. The first two evenings the only tried all the different toys and games. At the following evenings the therapists suggested special games: so f.e. role plays, painting, playing with dolls and animals or hand-dolls. It was easy to divide the children's group according to the ages of the children in two groups: one with 6- and 7-year-old children, the other with children in the age of 10 - 13 years.
The younger children expressed in the games their feelings (so f.e. rage, aggression but also fears and longings). The elder children liked to play but had also a big need to talk. They spoke about the situation and the problems at home and about their wishes and plans, how they would like to live in future, when they will be grown up.
As for all groups in this summer also for the children of the first group we had prepared two "surprises": a small photo-project and an action "I paint my t-shirt myself".
Already in 1999 we had got a gift of simple cameras. So each child could get an own camera. After first basic instructions we undertook an excursion still without films, so that the children would get the real "view" of photographers. At the following day we put in the films and each child could then take his / her photographs within the next 4 days.
The project ended one evening before departure with an exhibition of the best photographs of each child. The exhibition also included drawings and paintings, which the children had done through their stay in SEKA-House.
The photo-project has several effects: On one hand the children become much more aware of their surroundings (by the search of motifs), their capacities of experiencing and enjoy grow. They experience themselves as creative, as competent and as subjects: they decide, what photographs and in which way they want to take. Through the photographs they are able to save all this, what has been important to them during their stay in SEKA-House. They can save it for later - as support and empowerment in their every day lives. Especially the exhibition and the appreciation, that each child receives, support their self-esteem. Naturally each of them in the end gets a small album with all his/her photographs.
Also the "T-Shirt painting action" (possible through a grant of 300 white t-shirts from a French organisation) was great. With enthusiasm the children and young women painted their shirts.
The results were very creative and each of them unique. Finally also the women wanted to create "their t-shirts". The whole action we documented again by photographs.
The aim of this action was - besides the support of the creativity of the children - that they could take some concrete "piece of SEKA" with them as support and confirmation in their every day lives. We wish that the children through the photographs as well as through the t-shirts will be reminded to their experience that life can be lovely. That they can remember their feelings of peace, relaxation and safety, as well as their consciousness about their strengths, their own value and their creativity. That it reminds them to the experience, that there exists a world without violence.
Besides this to each child (as well as to the women) we gave the SEKA-telephone-number - as some kind of security. We will stay in contact with their mothers and in autumn I will visit them in Knin.

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