OTI Online
Spring 1994

HEALING American Rape Crisis Counselors in Bosnia
by Andrea Wolper


Resort hotels should be filled with laughter, but in March 1993 the atmosphere at this one in Makarska on the Dalmation Coast is tense and unsettling. Outside, a stiff Adriatic wind makes the air too chilly for beach-going. Inside, the bar is thick with cigarette smoke but, little conversation goes on. Children roam the halls and public spaces, looking lost and out of place. Young men with pieces of their bodies missing sit for hours staring into space. In this hotel-turned- rehabilitation center, the wounded have little to do but try to mend, the displaced little to do but wait.

In a basement-level meeting room that looks through glass doors to the sea, a young American woman plays the role of a Bosnian rape victim. "I haven't been able to sleep," she says in English. When her words have been translated into Serbo-Croatian, a man, one of the half-dozen people gathered in a semi-circle around her, responds. His offer of sleeping pills is made in Serbo-Croatian, then repeated in English.

From the sidelines, another American woman steps forward. "Don't try to fix it," Ruth Forero advises the man. "Say something like, 'That must be very difficult.' Ask her what it's like when she can't sleep." Forero, a psychiatric social worker at New York's St. Luke's/Roosevelt Hospital Rape Intervention Program, is facilitating the role-playing exercise between the Marie Edesess, who is playing the victim, and a group of Bosnian health care providers. Forero, Edesess and two other Americans have come to Makarska to help Bosnian medical personnel learn how to work with survivors of the sexual assault that is an unremitting part of war in the Balkans.

American Rape Crisis Counselors in Bosnia
©Meredith Stern

The visit was organized by Edesess, a volunteer advocate in New York's St. Vincent's Hospital's Rape Crisis Program. For the past several months, she had been hearing of the unimaginable acts of cruelty suffered by women in places most of us can't even pronounce: Omarska, Keraterm, Trnopolje, all in a land once known as Yugoslavia. Reports from human rights investigators and journalists revealed that throughout Bosnia-Herzegovina, women and girls - very likely thousands of them - were being subjected to rape, torture and forced pregnancy as part of a land-grab strategy known as ethnic cleansing.

Even rape trauma professionals, who are accustomed to hearing horror stories, were shocked. Edesess was struck by the connection between the rape survivors in Bosnia and those she sees at St. Vincent's: "The self-blame, the self- loathing, the helplessness, hopelessness, powerlessness - very, very similar aspects of the survivor syndrome we see here."

It was probably this similarity that convinced Edesess that something could be done to help. The pervasive attitude that rape survivors are essentially "throw-away people," combined with a survivor's almost inevitable feelings of shame and guilt, gives sexual assault the unique potential to weaken and even destroy ordinarily strong bonds. "Sometimes violence from without can actually strengthen a community," says Edesess. But the opposite is true of sexual assault. "It can turn family members against one another, communities against each other and victims against themselves." Rape, then, with its ripple-effect destruction, makes a chillingly effective tool of genocide.

In Bosnia-Herzegovina - where each assault is intended as an attack on an entire population; where, as Edesess puts it, the ultimate misogynist weapon is used against an entire nation - for the community to embrace the survivors would be itself an act of resistance. And since reintegration is critical to the process of recovery, the most meaningful treatment also comes from within the community. That's why, when a Chicago-based relief agency offered to sponsor a mission to Croatia, Edesess decided that, rather than work directly with survivors, she would train local medical and social workers to do so.

Anger from Bosnian Health Professionals Before she left for Croatia, Edesess met with Muslim women in New York City, seeking information and, ideally, experienced rape crisis counselors to make the trip with her. Unable to find trained counselors in an otherwise strong and willing Muslim women's community, Edesess and Forero, along with two Chicago rape crisis counselors, Robbie Bogart and Meghan Kennedy, flew to Croatia in March 1993.

The four spent a week in Zagreb training health and social services professionals who work in nearby refugee camps. At that time in Zagreb, one could almost forget there was a war going on, Edesess says, but the team encountered a great deal of anger. There was anger at American inaction, anger, says Edesess, "about why we were there, who we were, what "we thought we knew about their situation. There was disbelief that anything we had to say was applicable, that our experience with 'civilian rape' had any lessons for them." The turning point came when the Americans addressed the resistance head on, emphasizing their intention to work in partnership with the trainees. "You're right," was the Americans' message. " We need to learn from you how to apply our skills to your situation."

From Zagreb, the team traveled to Makarska to work with a group of physicians and other health professionals brought in from the front lines by the Bosnian Red Cross. Even with this generally more receptive group, finding common ground was no simple task; in addition to the war-related loss and displacement they had suffered personally, the trainees told of such experiences as spending twelve-hour days performing amputations without anesthesia, frequently on children. The role-playing exercises would break down because enacting the part of survivors was clearly too painful for the trainees. That's when the team members themselves took over that task, assigning trainees to play the role of counselor.

As in actual counseling, then, the women adapted their techniques to the situation. "You base a lot of what you do on an intuitive sense," points out Forero. "When people are unwilling to respond, you adjust to what they need." But as skilled as the Americans were, the enormity of the need frequently seemed overwhelming, and the team members, unaccustomed to the pressure of a grueling 24-hour schedule, found themselves questioning the value of what they were doing. (Some team members still find it hard to recount their experiences.) When the Americans were asked to return to conduct more training sessions, they realized with some relief that their work had indeed found fertile ground.

Religious Stereotypes Challenged Back in New York, Edesess, Forero and their colleagues set about raising funds, recruiting additional trainers, researching, revising their training manual and collecting donated pharmaceutical supplies. In late September, a group of eleven - now officially called the Balkan Rape Crisis Response Team - flew to Zagreb, where they spent a week working with health professionals and volunteers provided by the Bosnian Red Cross and the feminist organizations Kareta and the Center for Women War Victims.

They took with them 200 copies of a 284-page training manual designed for the Balkans, with parts translated into Serbo-Croatian. Written by a team of rape crisis counselors, it deals with such topics as trauma, rape as a weapon of war, torture, medical response, suicide prevention and counseling techniques. (The group expects to translate the entire text and ship more copies to the area soon.)

Gayle Raskin, program manager for the St. Vincent's program and a member of the second team, recalls her initial doubts about the project: "I thought it was impossible. After all, one of the basic principles in healing someone from rape trauma is establishing safety." How, she wondered, could they ever provide that to people who had been completely uprooted, who didn't know the status of their families or their homes.

A scaled-down sense of safety was the best they could offer, Raskin found. "Even if you're in a refugee camp with someone who has experienced every atrocity in the world, they're with you at that moment, and that's a safe place. You give them a sense that there's some safety in the world, so they can begin to deal with their feelings - including feelings of being unsafe." This, she came to realize, was not much different from her work with survivors in the tiny counseling room at St. Vincent's.

"I've been doing this work for twenty years," says Susan Xenarios, director/coordinator of the Rape Intervention Program at St. Luke's/Roosevelt Hospital in New York, who also went on the second mission. "I've worked with women who have been intended victims of snuff pornography, who have been kidnapped and raped over and over again, who were raped every day by their fathers when they were children." As Xenarios sees it, the difference between rape in the Balkan war and rape anywhere else is essentially one of numbers. "We live in terror in many different ways. I think it's dangerous to compare how much worse one way is than another."

Still, certain differences could be overlooked. In this war, rape is likely to be just one piece of the devastation and destruction experienced by most survivors. And as another team member, Lisa Master, program coordinator at St. Vincent's, points out, in the U.S., counselors like herself work with survivors -who are willing to disclose what they've experienced. In Croatia, the team had to prepare people to work with survivors who might not be ready to talk.

While one might attribute such reluctance to an exaggerated sense of shame among Muslim survivors, the truth is not so simple. For every time you hear that virginity and sexual fidelity are "overvalued" in Muslim culture, there's a survivor anywhere else in the world, curled up in silence on her bed, who also suffers unbearable shame; there's a judge or jury or loved one who blames her; a husband or boyfriend who finds himself turning away. That, it seems, is the very nature of sexual assault.

Still, it does seem likely that both health professionals and the general public in former Yugoslavia are several years behind their U.S. counterparts. For the Americans, then, giving culturally appropriate training requires putting politics aside and getting on with the business of addressing an urgent need. Crisis response work, says Edesess, "needs to capitalize on the existing cultural dynamic. You either use what's there to help the women, or you [and they] miss out."

Susan Xenarios agrees, noting that "if you go in pushing the feminist agenda you may think goes with rape crisis work, you'll get resistance." The teams's top priority in such an emergency had to be to impart basic skills that could be used with both Muslim and non-Muslim survivors, and with the scores of men and boys who have been forced to witness rapes or even to commit them, or who have been sexually assaulted themselves.

But in Zagreb, while Xenarios trained health services personnel for the Bosnian Red Cross, Lisa Master worked with the Center for Women War Victims and included feminist consciousness-raising and a history of the rape crisis movement by specific request. "They wanted their volunteers to begin to make connections about women internationally," says Master, "and to understand the use of rape in the context of sexism and the domination of women through violence."

The injuries sustained in this war - like any war - will live on for generations, making it difficult to gauge the ultimate impact of the Balkan Rape Crisis Team's efforts. For now, it may be enough just to know they were there. "I think the best thing we offered," says Gayle Raskin, "is that we went. Not to say that they didn't appreciate our skills, or that what we had to offer wasn't applicable. But the fact that we went, that we bore witness, gave people hope."


Andrea Wolper has written for such publications as New York Woman, New York Newsday, New Directions for Women, and The Sun. She is co-editor of a collection of essays on women's human rights, to be published later this year by Routledge, Chapman and Hall.

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