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

Group 2:

The second group (June 3-16th) consisting of 18 women and girls, came from Banja Luka, Bosnia-Hercegovina (Republika Srpska). They came to us via the organisation "Zenska akcija Vidra".
The nine older women were either members of persecuted minorities ( Bosnian Croatians, Bosnian Muslims) or Serbians married to a member of one of these minorities. 8 women came originally from Banja Luka, one had been driven out of Prijedor. Three of the women fled from Banja Luka during the war, for example to Germany, but had come back. Only two of them had a job. One woman has been deaf since she was born, but nevertheless communication worked quite well (reading lips).
Out of the 3 younger women (20-21 years old), two came from half-caste families, one from a Muslim family. The 4 teenage girls and one eleven-year-old came with their mothers or with a grown up cousin. One eleven-year-old came alone as her mother had just found a job and could not take the days off. One of the other women took care of her.

All of them had lived through humiliation, threat, and violence during the last nine years of racist and nationalistic "purges", expulsions and excessive violence. They all experienced helplessness in the face of the abduction or maltreatment of relatives and friends. All of them had lost relatives and friends due to expulsion, flight or murder.
Some of the women had been driven out of their houses or apartments. Two of the women who intended to leap to safety with their children abroad, spent weeks, scared to death, in a so called transit camp in old train coaches, guarded by Serbian militia.
Except for a nurse among them, all of the women had lost their jobs ( because they belonged to a minority or were married to a member of a minority.). So did their husbands. The children had been terrorized in school by classmates or in a few cases by teachers. Even the teachers who were in fond of them did not dare to take their part. Their mothers tried to keep the children at home as much as possible to avoid any infringement on them.
One woman´s father and brother had been abducted to Omarska (a torture and death camp near Prijedor). A short time after he had been released from this camp, the father died in consequence of torture. The brother, seriously ill and traumatized, lives now abroad. She lives with her old mother and a younger brother in a tent opposite to their house which is occupied by Serbians. The family´s economical situation is disastrous: many times they don´t know how to survive the next day.The woman´s education and title as an engineer doesn´t help because nobody wants to employ her as she´s a Muslim.
Another woman- a Serbian from the Vojvodina, married to a Muslim, who fled to Germany during the war- just survived a bomb attack on her apartment.
Next another one - a Muslim woman, married to a Serbian- was attacked in her own house and maltreated badly in front of her daughter and mother.
All women and children of the group lived in permanent fear and unbearable stress during the last five years. They had to count with attacks, injuries, even death every moment. For the women, the anxiety about their children was the worst.
Still today they experience the gradual deténte of the situation as very uncertain. The fear is still there, and the tiniest cause raises the old panic.The families´ economical situation still is extraordinarily difficult. There still are no jobs for minority members. Even though the international community puts some pressure on it, the return to the occupied houses is very slow to start.
All the women and teenage girls still feel as if surrounded by enemies, "that can come and get you every moment. You can't trust anybody."

For this group, the trip to the sea meant "to get out of prison for the first time after years."
Women and girls took intensive pleasure on every day at the beach: Almost everybody in this group could swim- the women and older girls had spent their holidays on the seaside in earlier days. Seeing the sea again produced deep feelings in some of them.

For this group, we offered group work in the therapy room for the women as well as for the girls (14-21 years old).
Everybody took the chance to participate. We agreed to work with each group every second evening. Therefore we could take terms in using the therapy room.The psychologist Natasa Lalic worked with the women, Zeljana Buntic-Pejakovic and myself (Gabriele Müller) worked with the young women/girls. Gordana Ivancevic (pedagogic assistant) devoted her attention to the youngest two girls who we tried to integrate as much as possible in the extra- workshop activities with the young women. Therefore, all of them participated in the photo-project and in the painting of T-Shirts. Especially the young women longed to get to know the island and "having a good time". After years of "being locked up" they took pleasure in evening walks. They enjoyed trips to neighbour villages and to Supetar at night. The most important thing for them was to feel "normal" among other people without having to expect negative reactions.

Group work with the women:

After we agreed on certain rules for the group, the SEKA worker started off with some exercise that served for getting to know each other better (these women had only met once before coming to Brac). There was enough room to tell all the personal stories and share the experience of the last years with the others.
After the first relief (many women spoke for the first time about their hard and painful experience), there was time to ask questions, to share own memories, and to express sympathy and support.
The most important issue in all of the sessions was the traumatic experience of the passed years. With therapeutic aid, certain aspects were given more attention, such as:

Apart from common group talks, Natasa Lalic used the following techniques: Talks in small groups and in pairs, imaginative journey, exercises of relaxation, body awareness and emotional detection in combination with drawing, exercises for self-empowerment and self- support (eg. "letter to myself"). Finally she celebrated the ritual " what I want to let go/ what is settled."). Then every woman could choose a stone symbolizing what the workshops had given her and take this stone home to give her strength and remind her of her strength.
Due to the intensive group work and the massive emotional pressure all of them brought in, but as well because of the restricted number of sessions, every woman was very keen on contributing to the group work honestly. The warm group atmosphere helped them to lose their fear and to express their feelings frankly. Every woman gave and recieved consolation. At the same time nobody was forced to open up to the group, everybody had the right not to answer if a question was related to a topic the woman was not ready to talk about.
The group mixture (different ethnic groups) was very important to the women, as they all were comforted by everybody no matter what ethnic group they belonged to. They all became very close friends. The whole group agreed on organizing monthly meetings in Banja Luka, that shall take place alternately in the women´s apartments. (Due to a few calls we know that the women have really met since then.)
In the feedback the women said that before participating in the group work they had not realized how much pain had accumulated inside of them and that they haven´t had the possibility to talk about it before. They mentioned that there were still some topics they couldn´t talk about in Banja Luka nowadays. They emphazised their great relief ("from heart and soul") now that they had expressed their emotions.
In all those years they had to do without a real community, without friendly common talks, without singing, laughing and- last but not least- without the sea they had not seen for ten years.
The stay in SEKA-house meant to them to leave their daily problems behind for the first time, and it meant a total "relaxation for body, mind, and soul" , regaining energy , discovering new strength in themselves, and the experience of being supported and empowered by the others.
One woman described her stay in SEKA house as "opening a door to another world, to a new life, which- as we all hope- the future will bring- a life in peace."

Group work with the young women:

The seven teenage girls and young women were very interested in and curious about our group work offer. At the same time, we felt that they were very cautious and careful. In the course of the sessions, it turned out that the work´s main topic would be "trust", or " being afraid of trusting anybody", "fear to be rejected the way I really am".
That was to be expected, as ten years of persecution, oppression, discrimination, and violence determined the girls´ youth. Therefore, it was very touching to see how these girls accepted the group work offer and started to get the best out of it for themselves, first carefully, then with more and more joy and pleasure.

Zeljana Buntic-Pejacovic and me worked with the group in five sessions, each two to four hours long.
The first group evening included the agreement on common rules as a condition to feel well and safe in the group, and a game to get to know each other better. Additionally, we psychodramatically found out the girls´ interests and topics to be talked about in the group (we used "symbols" on a "stage" to do that.). It appeared that the girls were mainly interested in discussions and in games on self-perception. At that moment, no one was ready to name a personal topic. It corresponds with our general picture that teenagers prefer to talk about the presence and future, not the past.
As possible discussion topics, they named:

With respect to self-percetional exercise, the girls were interested in the topic "my strong points and skills."
We worked on this subject the second group evening, playing the psychodramatic game called " fair of skills and strong points." At first, realizing their strong points and then showing them to the others and talking about them was very strange to the girls. At the same time they took the subject very seriously and acted accordingly. They started to interact carefully, but mainly focussed on us as leaders that evening.
The first two evenings were characterized by a sensitive, cautious atmosphere. The young women checked up on us and each other to find out whether they could let themselves in for the group work and whether we were trustworthy.

The next day it was our colleague´s Natasa´s birthday, which we celebrated- as usual- with a big party and several surprises. The women and girls enjoyed the celebrating and dancing very much. For them, it was the first time in ten years they could celebrate a light-hearted party like this. This night contributed to the girls´communal spirit; from now on, they spent every minute together and deep feelings of friendship arose.
On the third group evening, we discussed- with the help of a little "card game"- the chosen subject "is there something else than human life?" This topic had two main aspects: A spiritual aspect concerning the question "Is there a God or is everything material?" and the idea of extraterrestrial life.
Every girl wrote down her questions, thoughts, and provocative theses that came to her mind on different pieces of paper; the papers got folded and piled up in the middle, then shuffled. Every girl in the round took out a note, read it out loud and stated her opinion on what she just read. Then the other girls had the chance to express and explain their opinions. We participated in the discussion as well. On some statements the discussion lasted very long. Especially talking about God and religion raised the question whether there is a life after death, which moved the girls a lot because of the painful experience of losing their mother, relatives, or friends that died.
This evening further strengthened the girls´confidence in the group.
For the 4th evening´s discussion, the girls agreed on the topic "Are men and women equal? Or: Why do women have less rights than men?"
To work on this topic, we used the method of "sociodrama" under the title: "a talkshow on Banja Luka TV, today about the question "men and women are equal- or are they not?"
The girls let themselves in the roleplay quite enthusiastically. They developed the characters and distributed the roles eagerly. Zeljana played the part of a conservative catholic priest. Apart from her and a "presenter", there were "women" and "men" of different age and opinion performing on the talkshow. It turned out that all the women showed solidarity with each other during the game. It was fascinating to watch how the girls identified with their parts and made them come alive. Girls who had always been rather quiet, experienced themselves as quick-witted, vivid and able to assert themselves with the others through their role. After one and a half hours we had to stop playing much to our regret- the girls would have kept on playing for hours if they could.
Following the roleplay, we analized the roles, gave a feedback and finished with a sharing concerning the question "Did this game remind me of situations in my real life?" At 11.30 pm we decided to finalize the analysis at the beginning of the next (and last) session.
Therefore, we started the 5th session with the analysis of the sociodrama, discussing the question "How do I want to arrange my life as a woman? What ideas and wishes do I have concerning a relationship?" To our surprise, only one girl wished for a traditional marriage and a family with a few children.The other girls´ ideas were rather unconventional; they underlined their need for independence and free space. Important to all of them was "to be myself".
After a short break we carried out the usual ritual with them (" what I want to let go / what is settled"). Every girl wrote down things she lived through, feelings, persons, norms etc., that were either done with and could therefore be let go, or things she wanted to actively free herself from them. The papers were folded, put in a big pot and then handed over to a fire in the therapy room. I have carried out this ritual many times with different groups, but I have never seen a group that had so many things to burn!
As an exercise to strengthen and promote the mutual support, we encouraged the girls to create a "congratulation card" to themselves on a folded large sheet, drawing or writing what was important to them at the moment and what they wanted to remember later on. The cards were then passed around, so that every participant had the possibility to write or draw something in everybody´s card- as a memory and support. Later on, we wrote a few lines in every card as confirmation. The girls took these cards home as a small " source of strength" in their daily struggle.
Finally, every girl could choose a semiprecious stone as a symbol for the group work´s personal achievement.
It was hard for the girls and for us to say good-bye to each other after such an intensive and touching time we spent together. (We would have loved to keep on working with them). As the girls assured us over and over again, their group had really been a place of security and freedom at the same time, they enjoyed the feeling of being taken seriously, getting support, and being confirmed; they loved to be allowed to talk about anything they wanted, and they had an excellent time in their group. They decided to meet regularly in Banja Luka; through phone calls and e-mails we know that they actually do.

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