OTI Online
Spring 1997

A Nation of Widows
by Jan Goodwin


The adult population of Bosnia is now 70 percent female, but women are being shortchanged in the reconstruction


Bosnia, November 1996: In the hardscrabble yard, the small group of women and children are catching the last vestige of the day's weak sunshine. By afternoon's end, when the late autumn chill sets in, the temperature in their homes will be the same as that outside. What little fuel they have is reserved for cooking, not heating. The pinched, gaunt look of the adults, is matched by that of the children, who have seen too much pain, felt too much fear, far too soon. They are the kids Bosnia's former Prime Minister, Haris Silajdzic, describes as having the "gray hair and eyes and hearts of old men."


Above: Fikreta Sulejmanovic, 42 (right) with her mother-in-law, Aisa Fejzic, 76.

Below: primitive plumbing facilities at a derelict school, now a refugee collective center.


One of Bosnia's resources is its large number of highly educated women. But more need ot assert their rights: Last October, only one woman was elected to parliament.



Above: Halima Hadzijamakovic, head of Sarajevo's largest municipality.

Below: parliamentarian Mediha Filipovic, M.D.

Below: Woman at Bosfam's carpet-weaving, income-generating project.

The children's faces bear the sores and eruptions of poor nourishment. The average Bosnian lost 28 pounds during the war, according to the World Health Organization. Many also suffered from vitamin and mineral deficiencies. Youngsters like these continue to do so, despite Bosnia's stores being full again, and the small street stalls again laden with imported fruit. "During the war, bananas were just a dream," recalls 20-year-old Leila Begtasevic. But for many Bosnians, bananas continue to be beyond their reach; they do not have the money to buy them.

It is exactly a year since the Dayton Accord brought uncertain peace to this devastated land. It is 16 months since Fikreta Sulejmanovic moved into this derelict school, now designated a refugee collective center, with her 7-year-old son, Hassan, and elderly mother-in-law after the fall of Srebrenica. They are only the only known survivors of her family in what was the largest single European massacre since World War II and the lowest point of ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia.

On July 11, 1995, Bosnian Serb soldiers rounded up the Muslim inhabitants of the UN "safe haven" of Srebrenica and herded some 25,000 women and children onto buses, while detaining approximately 10,300 men and teenage boys at gunpoint. "Go. They will be safe. You will see them at the other end," the terrified women were told by General Radko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb military commander. The entire male population of Srebrenica was never seen again. Instead, in recent months, their mass graves have begun to be uncovered.

We are now just a world of women," says Fikreta, through her tears. Aged 42, she lost her husband and 16-year-old son, her two brothers, and their two sons. Her mother-in-law, Aisa Fejzic, 76, lost her daughter and son and five grandchildren. The litany of loss is manifoldly echoed, over and over, when talking to her neighbors or other Srebrenica widows in other refugee collective centers. Most tellingly, the adult population of Bosnia is now 70 percent female. In the aftermath of the brutal four-year war, it is the women of Bosnia who must rebuild their country.

Despite this stark statistic, however, Bosnian women are not viewed as a priority, either by their own government or by international donors. Humanitarian funding for women's projects is minuscule. The U.S., for example, is spending $400 million rearming the country after the war and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has allocated $45 million of a loan program to small businesses, but none of that money is going to businesses headed by widows or other women. Clinton's Bosnian Women's Initiative, by contrast, is distributing $5 million, much of it targeted for programs that supplement incomes but don't permit women to earn enough to support their families now that they are the sole breadwinners.

In their wisdom, the UN and USAID have also decided that Bosnian women no longer need psychological counseling; funding for this vital service has been curtailed. But war trauma does not disappear that easily. Thousands of Bosnian women were wounded or physically brutalized during the war, and many also lost not only their husbands but all the male members of their families -- sons, fathers, brothers.

Politically, too, women have lost ground. In the former Yugoslavia, an estimated 16 to 30 percent of the government was female. Today, only one woman serves in the parliament. But a journey through Bosnia reveals that despite the unrelenting hardships, Bosnian women continue to display the courage, determination and strength they exhibited during the war.

Fikreta's new home sits between Tuzla, a northern industrial city, and the former frontline, now renamed the Zone of Separation, a narrow corridor intended to keep the formerly warring factions apart. Near the refugee center is a demining center, a reminder of how close the frontline was. Bosnia's woods and meadows are seeded with an estimated 10 million landmines, a legacy of the war. So serious is the problem that public-service ads on television, and Superman comic strips, constantly warn Bosnians of all ages of the dangers. "I wouldn't walk off a paved surface anywhere in this country," says George Focsaneanu, the UN coordinator for mine clearance. Yet despite this extensive campaign, during the previous month in Sarajevo alone, 61 adults and children were killed or maimed by landmines, usually as they searched for wood for fuel.

The refugee collective center had no glass in the windows when Fikreta moved in, and missing chunks of plaster in the ceilings testify to frequent rain leaks, as do the water stains on the walls. There was primitive plumbing, and no heating, although simple wood-burning stoves have more recently been installed. Each former classroom has a few bunk beds, occupied on a first come, first served basis. Slabs of bare foam rubber on the floor serve as mattresses for the remainder. Scratchy gray blankets, but no sheets, complete the furnishings. Privacy, even to weep, is a thing of the past; one's neighbor is just a mattress away.

Fikreta spends most of her time these days crying and replaying repeatedly in her mind that last day in Srebrenica. Her face awash in tears, she says, "My son was only 16, but big for his age. He looked 20. When the Serbs started separating the men from the women, a neighbor of ours said, 'They are going to kill them.' She told my boy to run. But he couldn't move; he was too afraid, too frightened. And so..." her voice trails off. Today, Fikreta can't even say her son's name. "He's been missing for over a year.... He spoke good English, he was a good student...," she says with maternal pride. "What do you think happened to him, to my husband?"

Her mother-in-law answers the question for her. "They are dead, killed for sure. Every day the government reports that more bodies, more mass graves are being found." The older woman isn't being callous. She has simply lived too long to accept false hope, unlike some Srebrenica women who want to believe their menfolk escaped into the woods before the massacre began and are still too afraid to reveal themselves.

In her heart, Fikreta knows that her son, her husband and her brothers are dead. "I don't want to live anymore, either," she says. "I'm so sick, my nerves.... But I have to go on living for my child, Hassan." When she talks of her surviving son, her tears give way to anger. "Nobody is helping us. We don't have shoes or quilts for the children. I can't even send Hassan to school because I don't have 20 deutsche marks to pay for his bus fare. (During the war, Bosnia's currency, the dinar, collapsed, and was informally replaced by German currency.) We get only some humanitarian food, but no wood for the stove to cook it."

Women like those in the refugee center, who did not work before the war, also need job-training skills, and many like Fikreta need psychological counseling. But even when skills training is available, there are far too few jobs available in this war-shattered economy. Nineteen-year-old Senada Velagic is about to begin an IBM-sponsored computer training course in Tuzla. She must support herself, her 15-year-old sister and her invalid mother, chronically ill with heart and kidney disease. Her father was killed at the onset of the war, and her two brothers, aged 20 and 17, have not been seen since the fall of Srebrenica. She believes they were killed. "These days, when you look for a job everyone asks if you can use a computer," she says. Senada is also aware that of 224 recent graduates from a similar course, less than a third found work.

In the meantime, she is helping to counsel elderly widows at a program run by the U.S.-based International Rescue Committee. "I try to give these women hope, even if it is false," she says gently, "because that is what they want to hear. Everyone needs hope." Senada's salary is paid in food. During the war, Bosnians who were fortunate enough to be employed usually worked for free or for food parcels. Today, an estimated 60-80 percent of city-dwellers are currently unemployed; in rural areas, the situation is worse.

Psychological counseling is rarely available now because international bodies, such as the United Nations and USAID, that fund the humanitarian relief agencies have decided that it is no longer necessary in Bosnia. Instead, "reconstruction and reconciliation" are the current bywords of the international donor community. There are many critics of this decision.

"The war didn't end with the Dayton Accord, not in our heads. It isn't over just because you say it is over. It is a fragile peace, as fragile as the most delicate porcelain," says Professor Rado Boric, who used to teach languages (she is fluent in eleven) at Zagreb University. When the war broke out Boric, a former Fulbright scholar at Indiana University, stopped teaching to help run an indigenous humanitarian organization, "Women for Women War Victims."

"There is tremendous war trauma," she says. "People are facing reality for the first time. Mass graves are only now being excavated, people remain missing, refugees want to return home but can't. The men are either dead or depressed, suffering from post-traumatic stress. Suicide is up, so is alcoholism, drug abuse and domestic abuse." So too is divorce. In Sarajevo alone, the rate is reportedly eight times higher than it was before the war. "Everybody has arms now, so men are threatening women with weapons brought from the battlefield," says Professor Boric. "I know of a case just recently when a woman was locked in the bathroom by her husband, who placed hand-grenades outside the door, telling her she could not leave. He threatened to detonate them if she came out."

By some estimates, it will take decades for Bosnia's psychic wounds to heal. Yet despite this, the UN and USAID are telling NGOs (non-governmental organizations) not to apply for funding for psycho-social programs, says Boric. "They inform us, 'There is no longer any need for counseling of women. We don't fund it anymore.' As if saying it makes the problems go away. It's become almost a joke, except that it isn't. Such decisions are clearly made in a vacuum.

"Foreign 'experts' come here as consultants to study the problem. Based on those brief visits, they decide the fashion of the day will now be X or Y. Right now, it is reconstruction and reconciliation. Recently, an official from UNHCR (the United Nations High Commission for Refugees) admitted to me that they were 'inventing' what the next phase for funding would be, and that this is wrong. Why don't they ask us what we need, instead of imposing on us what they think we need?"

Boric points out that because of such attitudes during the war, the refugees received, for example, vast quantities of tampons, for a culture that does not use them. "We had warehouses full of them and no sanitary napkins, which women really needed. But then they also sent us semen to inseminate cows when hospitals for humans had no antibiotics." As one Bosnian politician put it, "When we needed a doctor, you sent us a priest. Now that the war has ended, and we need a priest, you send us a doctor." (A dramatic example of this is the U.S. refusing to supply Bosnia with arms during the war, but now that the fighting is over, sending them $400 million of weapons and the specialists to teach the Bosnian military how to use them.)

Maurice Cronly, who heads the British Charities Aid Foundation, concurs with Boric. "UNHCR brings in consultants, who get paid $300 a day, to learn what Bosnians could teach them. There are many highly educated men and women in the former Yugoslavia. This is not an underdeveloped African nation." The former Yugoslavia is, of course, in the heart of Europe; Sarajevo is as close to Rome, as the crow flies, as Milan is. Education was stressed under the socialist system for both sexes, and the country has proportionately more college graduates and postgraduates than many European countries. In fact, by that same ratio, there are more technically qualified women engineers, architects, etc. in Bosnia, than there are in the U.S.

"One of our major resources is the very high level of education here," says Halima Hadzijamakovic, a 41-year-old woman economist who was elected the president of Sarajevo's largest municipality the day before we met. "Rebuilding Bosnia will fall to women because so many lost their husbands. Fortunately, we have strong, very talented women. But under socialism, we also had a cradle-to-grave mentality. We now have to change that. We also need to develop a free market economy to compete in the world."

If Bosnia is to survive in this post-war era it has several key transitions to make: from war to peace, communism to democracy, and planned economy to a free- market system. The Dayton Accord is far from ideal, calling as it does for a triumvirate of Presidents to head the country, one from each ethnic group -- Muslim, Croat, Serb. It has been likened to insisting that Clinton, Dole and Perot sit together in the Oval Office and simultaneously lead America; an impossible task, even without their having spent four years at war with one another.

"Never, even in ancient history, has the world seen a single country run by a three-president leadership. How can it be successful? We are walking on very thin ice" says Mediha Filipovic, M.D., the only woman elected to parliament in the first elections after the war, held in October. Filipovic is vice-president of Bosnia's opposition party. She is also a professor of orthodontia at Sarajevo University, and despite the three-and-a-half year siege by Bosnian Serbs and constant shelling, she is proud that the school was open every day. Like her colleagues, she worked without salary throughout the war, and like all Sarajevans daily carried wood and water to her home. "Do you know how rich orthodontists are in other countries?" she can joke now. During the war, she lived 100 meters from the frontline, and her apartment building was shelled 17 times. "Each morning, I read obits on men and boys I had known all my life. Fifty young men on my street alone were killed."

More than 100 women ran in the October elections. Filipovic is "deeply disappointed" that she was the sole woman elected. "There were a number of highly qualified women candidates," she says. "But these elections were run on the parliamentary system, which means candidates were appointed by their parties, and few women were at the top of their parties." She expects this to change.

"Women need to assert their rights and seize the opportunity to become more powerful in politics," she says. She is one of 42 members of parliament; divided strictly along ethnic lines, Muslims, Croats and Serbs have 14 representatives each. At the time that On The Issues spoke with her, the Bosnian Serbs were delaying the opening of parliament in Sarajevo by refusing to attend.

"They claimed they were afraid to come here, which is hard to believe,"said Filipovic. "I don't believe that people who were capable of killing 250,000 Muslims, or raping 7-year-olds, and who slaughtered 10,000 men on the spot in Srebrenica, are afraid. They were also offered extremely high security by SFOR (the Nato-led Stabilization Force) a multi-national peace-keeping force, which includes American troops). In my opinion, it is only procrastination."At the same time as Bosnian Serbs were foot-dragging politically, there were outbreaks of violence, described as the worst fighting since the war, as Muslims tried to exercise the right accorded them by the Dayton Accord and return to their former homes. Bosnian Serbs, determined to keep them out, however, have been destroying such houses by blowing them up or burning them down, often as returning Muslims watched from nearby. So far, of the 2.7 million displaced, (more than half the former Bosnian population according to UN statistics), less than 250,000 have been able to return home. Even more disheartening, an estimated 90,000 have been driven out since the war ended.

The peace agreement may now be into its second year but indicted war criminals continue to go free, a number living at home in comfort without fear of arrest. Four such criminals continue to work as Bosnian Serb policemen. Only seven of the 75 people indicted for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity are in custody. This, says one critic, is like "leaving Himmler and Eichmann, and other Nazi architects of genocide walking the streets and in control of a large part of the country after WWII." In November, the first sentence was handed down by the War Crimes Tribunal. A 25-year-old Croat in the Bosnian Serb army confessed to being part of an execution squad at the Srebrenica massacre; his unit alone killed 1,200 unarmed men in five hours. He was sentenced to 10 years, while the senior military commanders who ordered the slaughter remain free.

Almost as daunting as keeping the peace is the reconstruction of Bosnia, as the statistics attest: An estimated 60 percent of housing throughout the country has been damaged or destroyed, entire villages have been gutted, and in Sarajevo, many high-rise blocks of apartments are hollow shells. Two-thirds of the capital's windows are still covered with UNHCR plastic sheeting instead of glass. Forty percent of the country's bridges are down, and as many roads have been damaged in bombardments. The parliament building and national library are burned-out shells, the million volumes and rare manuscripts of the latter reduced to ashes, and the garden of the national museum is heavily landmined. A number of Bosnians who lived in cellars during the constant shelling continue to do so for want of any other shelter. Some communities will spend a fifth winter without running water or central heat, as the wood stacks on high-rise balconies confirm.

Before the war, Yugoslavia had perhaps the highest standard of living of any socialist country. It was not unusual for Bosnians to own cars and beach vacation homes. The same appliances found in American homes -- televisions, VCRs, computers, washing machines -- were common. Even now, small TV satellite dishes are visible on many houses, even those that are burned out.

According to the World Bank, Bosnia needs $5.1 billion for the first three years of reconstruction. So far, only a third, $1.8 billion, has been donated by the world community. The U.S. share of that sum is $600 million over a three-year period. Assuming that the $5.1 billion package is implemented, by the year 2,000 Bosnians will be back at about half of what they had when the war started in l992," says a spokesman for USAID in Sarajevo.

Exacerbating the problem is that large amounts of the monies so far made available are sitting in bank accounts, held up by bureaucratic sloth, or in pipelines awaiting approval. World Bank president James Wolfensohn has criticized the moribund pace of spending for Bosnian reconstruction, and a report by the Washington, D.C-based Peace Through Law Education Fund concluded that, "The longer we wait to address such realities, the more bitterness will swell and close the window of peace that U.S. diplomacy and SFOR opened."

Of the international funding that has made its way into Bosnia, accusations of corruption both on the grand and petty scale are beginning to arise, and USAID in Sarajevo admits that it is a concern.

All these factors affect the women of Bosnia, of course, many of them sole breadwinners struggling to feed their families. So, too, does the fact that the former communist country, with no experience of NGOs, is refusing to give relief agencies the tax exemptions they would normally receive, particularly when bringing humanitarian supplies into the country. Without such tax exemptions there is also no incentive for businesses to contribute to programs for refugees. "This makes it impossible for such projects to become self-sustaining," said the deputy director of an American NGO working in Bosnia.

Bosnian authorities are also insisting that the standardized income tax formerly paid under socialism should be adhered to by war victims employed in such income-generating projects. "Consequently," says Neljira Nalic, head of BOSPO, the Bosnian Committee for Help, a humanitarian agency aiding women refugees, "women earning DM 100 a month in small-scale projects, such as producing honey, tailoring or knitting sweaters, are expected to pay DM 150 a month, which in the socialist era went to pay for taxes, pension and health insurance. It's crazy. And, of course, the women can't pay it. It's just another example of where the new government has to catch up with the situation today."

It isn't only the Bosnian government that seems out of touch with the times. USAID officials in Sarajevo, who were in the process of allocating $45 million of a loan program for small businesses, admitted in April to representatives from the New York-based Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children that none of that substantial sum was going to businesses headed by widows or other women. Two months later, Swanee Hunt, the U.S. ambassador to Austria (see profile on page 32) persuaded President Clinton to launch the $5 million Bosnian Women's Initiative (BWI). This would provide loans and training in economic development for women.

According to Hunt, women in Bosnia have also lost many of the socialized services they enjoyed in the former Yugoslavia, such as subsidized food, day- care facilities, family allowances, maternity leave, health services. Compared to the need, and the fact that nearly three-quarters of Bosnia's adult population is now female, $5 million is not a large sum, but it is a step in the right direction.

Humanitarian aid funding, such as this amount, is reduced further, however, by the international agencies through which the money is funneled -- for the BWI that's the UNHCR and the International Rescue Committee. Large sums are consumed by the salaries and other living expenses of the foreign nationals who administer the grants, as well as the fees of foreign consultants brought in to advise, point out both Cronly and Boric. On a much larger scale, the multi-million dollar reconstruction projects funded by USAID, for example, require that a substantial portion of the raw materials and equipment be purchased in the U.S., thereby reducing the actual funds entering the recipient country on such a grant by as much as 50 percent.

The UN operates in a similar vein. Amila Omersoftic, the 51-year-old director of Bosnia's Radio and Television Networks, used the same skills she learned as a systems engineer and in establishing her own software production company, to analyze the requirements for refugees and displaced persons when the government asked her to become an adviser during the war. She worked closely with UNHCR at the time.

"I remember the discussion about purchasing the vast quantity of plastic sheeting needed to replace windows blown out during the war," she says. "In researching the issue, I located a company who could supply the plastic for six times less than the UN wanted to pay for it. When I mentioned this, I was told, 'No, that is not your job. We are here to give you goods. It is not for you to decide where they should be bought.' How silly. How condescending."

So often, says Boric, UN agencies do not want to share power, "especially with women. In this regard, they are a little imperialistic. UNHCR also has a poor record on gender issues."

Women like Omersoftic and Boric would like to see Western companies willing to become partners with Bosnian women able to operate small businesses, which in turn would employ and/or train local women. "We need the loans and the raw materials; we have the know-how and the skills. We need support, but we are not disabled," says Boric.

Even women in rural areas have proved that. Hanifa Karic, in the small northern community of Babunovici, demonstrated her entrepreneurial talents when she launched a sugar-cube manufacturing company in her living room. The supply of sugar cubes, preferred by Bosnians in the small cups of thick, syrupy coffee they consume daily, dried up in the war when both factories ended up in the Serb-controlled part of the country. Recognizing a need, Karic, who worked in a textile factory before the war but was retired after being injured in a fall, applied for a 12-month micro-enterprise loan of DM 2,000. The six-month-old business, which until now has been hand-operated, has been so successful that it is about to become mechanized. It currently produces almost a ton of sugar cubes daily by operating 16 hours a day in eight-hour shifts.

The business has also enabled Karic to buy a car, a VW Golf. "I feel much safer than before, now that I have a business," she says.

Karic, a Muslim, employs a Serb bookkeeper. "It is important to respect a person regardless of their nationality," she says, sweeping away the ethnic divisions that rent this country during the war. In this regard, she is not that unusual. Many Serbs stayed on in Bosnia during the war, and many protected Muslims from Serb soldiers, some dying in the process. During the height of the Sarajevo siege, of the 380,000 remaining population, an estimated 55,000 were Serbs.

Mira Bajer is a 41-year-old high school teacher of Bosnian language in Tuzla. A Serb married to a Croat, she and her husband elected to stay in the city as more and more Muslims refugees flooded in, and Serb artillery daily targeted Tuzla. Throughout the war, she also worked a second job as a program coordinator at BOSPO, aiding Muslim women refugees. Her husband served in the Bosnian army, which in fact, was not unusual. While it is little known outside the former Yugoslavia, one third of the Bosnian Defense Forces during the war were Serbs and Croats.

Bajer insists she and her husband are not unique. Before the war, she points out, as many as 40 percent of urban Bosnian marriages were ethnically mixed. Religious observation, after all, was illegal in socialist Yugoslavia, and the vast majority of the population was secular. Even today, her teenage daughter has a Muslim boyfriend. "It's true that when I first started working at BOSPO, I didn't tell the women, many of them Srebrenica refugees, that I was a Serb," she points out. "They were too unhappy then. I waited until they knew who I was, before I said it, and then it didn't matter anymore. By then they could view me as a woman, and not as a Chetnik.

"We must break this, 'You're a Serb, I'm a Muslim,' and be a bridge between people, eyes to eyes. I can teach many skills to the women at BOSPO; that's what's important, not my ethnic background."

The economic futures of women working in income-generating projects run by humanitarian organizations may be tenuous at best. The handful of refugee women sitting in front of looms at the Bosfam agency, a Bosnian NGO in Tuzla, learned to weave when they were growing up. Back home, weaving was a hobby, and the carpets they produced were used to decorate their homes. But now, women like 50-year-old Nura Habibovic, who lost everything during the fall of Srebrenica, would be destitute without the DM 150 a month they make here.

Bosfam is already struggling to pay its monthly rent of DM 3,000. And projects like the carpet-weaving one are increasingly expected by international donors to become self-sustaining, which usually means that international funding will soon end. "It's ludicrous to expect such projects to be self-sustaining in a collapsed economy," says Boric, who adds that under such guidelines, one major funder that operated 80 such projects last year, renewed only three of them this year. "I think that is pretty telling, don't you?" she asks.

The intricate, pure wool carpets are of excellent quality, but in Bosnia only SFOR troops or foreign relief workers can afford them. Dealers in Austria have shown interest in marketing them, but consider the cost, DM 850 for a 9 x 6 ft carpet, overpriced. That sum, approximately $600, was less than a month's income for many in the former Yugoslavia. Each carpet takes a refugee woman, working full time, six days a week, between four and five months to weave.

Even more important than the income is the social support the women at projects like Bosfam receive. "I thought I would die when I was forced to leave Srebrenica," says Habibovic, her voice cracking. "I miss everything. I don't have anything now. It's easier for me to work and not remember."

Beba Hadzic, the 49-year-old program manager of Bosfam, knows the importance of the emotional support her agency offers. "The agency has a psycho-social component. The women here have all been through the same experiences, and we understand how that feels." On the wall behind her as she talks, hangs a small cushion cover with the name Paric Alem, and the date July 11, 1995, embroidered on it. "We have over 9,000 of those," she says. "Each one carries the name of a missing Srebrenica man. Paric is my 17-year-old nephew." (Some 750 Srebrenica men have already been confirmed dead.)

A Srebrenica refugee herself, Hadzic, a former elementary-school administrator, says, "Bosfam has become a replacement extended family for these women." Such a role is a heavy responsibility. And it is repeated throughout the country, by other agencies working with other women war survivors. One can only hope that the international donor community is up to the task. Bosnian women have suffered enough.


Jan Goodwin is a human-rights activist, an award-winning journalist, and the author of Price of Honor: Muslim Women Lift the Veil of Silence on the Islamic World (Plume/Penguin). Photographs courtesy of Jan Goodwin.


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