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10. October 2019

Bosnia: Pioneers of reconciliation

“Only over my dead body!” or “Why bother - they’re all the same as each other.” Dismissive reactions such as these are still common in Bosnia where any suggestion of contact with people in other ethnic groups is hardly imaginable. So it is all the more remarkable to hear that Vive Žene plan to take the most unexpected group as pioneers of reconciliation: women who suffered wartime violence. The idea is that if even these women can succeed in building bridges, then the rest of society certainly can.

The war in Bosnia and Herzegovina ended 25 years ago but the ethnic tensions still manifest in sharp divisions throughout the country. In fact, the peace accord reached in Dayton has played a part in this, since ethnic identity is built into it as a principle. The peace created in this way has led to artificial divisions in many aspects of daily life. Even at school in some regions, children are already being separated according to ethnicity.

Staff at the women’s rights organisation Vive Žene know how unsettling this can be. Since 1994, the organisation has been offering psychosocial support to those affected by sexualised wartime violence. The counsellors regularly hear their clients explain how an everyday encounter with violence and separation can set them back in their process of healing, even when they had been stabilising for a long period. If mutual distrust is so present in their everyday life, how can these women learn to trust themselves?

Women's encounters in Bosnia: from trauma-work to reconciliation

In order to break through this vicious cycle, Vive Žene initiated the project “From trauma work to reconciliation”. The project aims to bring women from different ethnic groups together to share their experiences with each other. This needed to be prepared well: “Before taking this step we had to support the individual’s process of coming to terms with their experiences,” explains Jasna Zečević, Director of Vive Žene. The women had experienced torture and sexualised violence during the war, and many had lost close relatives. Dealing with this needed a lot of time.

So it was only about one year ago that the next step could begin. In Bratunac and Kravica in the north-eastern part of the country, one Bosniak and one Serb women’s group were set up. It proved to be a great challenge to find enough interested women: “Everyone was very sceptical,” says Zečević. “At first, the women could not imagine meeting the others, often because they also assumed that nobody on the other side would be willing to meet them.” 

Women affected by violence: sharing experiences of grief and hope makes reconciliation possible

It was very important to ensure good preparation and skilled facilitation during the meetings. The group leaders ensured that positive aspects were shared alongside the sadness and worries: these included coping strategies, sources of strength, and hopes for the future. In this way, the scepticism slowly gave way to actual experience. “As is often the case in groups, after a couple of meetings and looking at some common issues together, the group members can then begin to think in a more nuanced way,” summarises Zečević. 

The next stage of the project sees the Vive Žene staff attempting another new perspective. Similarly to the women’s groups, they have now set up four groups of fifth-graders. Their support helps the children learn to speak about their needs and to deal with conflicts. Then in Autumn 2019, they will take part in inter-ethnic workshops and next year the project will finish with all the groups celebrating together.

At first glance, the plan at Vive Žene might seem to be quite modest, and a few groups will certainly not process all the wartime trauma. However, as Jasna Zečević points out, the project will send a clear signal: “If survivors of violence can change their attitudes and behaviour towards people with other ethnicities, then anybody can do it.”

That's how much our help costs, which is only possible with your donation:

  • 30 euro per month pays for one woman to attend specialist psychosocial counselling. This involves one or two sessions per week.
  • 76 euro covers the travel costs for one year to enable participants in a psychosocial women’s group to attend the group meetings.

    Published in memo (2019/02), p.6 (german)

    Related topics

    More about our work in Southeastern Europe

    Sexualised wartime violence: “Trauma is a serious obstacle to peace-building.”

    Bosnian partner organisation Vive Žene: Helping lives to continue