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Paris, November 2007

This Was Not Our War : Bosnian Women Reclaiming the Peace

“If women had been in charge, there would never have been a war ”

Keywords: | | | | | | | | | Ex Yugoslavia | Bosnia

Ref.: Swanee Hunt, Durham,NC:Duke University Press.2005

Languages: English

Document type:  Book

Women against the Yugoslav war

According to Swanee Hunt, who served as U.S.Ambassador to Austria during most of the Yugoslav war, it was in a private conversation with a group of journalists and funders in 1996 that former Bosnian Foreign Minister and Prime Minister Haris Silajdzik said: “If women had been in charge, there would never have been a war”.

Her book tells us why we should believe Mr.Silajdzik ’s statement to be true. This is not a book about academic political science, academic international relations, academic peace studies, or academic feminism. It is a book of commentary, reflection and critique, about loss, trauma, grief and depravity caused and suffered by human beings living in the pathological environment of war, or as Ms.Hunt calls it, “the onslaught of madness”. It is a book, however, that academics in political science, international relations, peace studies, and women’s studies as well as anyone involved in the practice of foreign policy ought to read, since it is there that decisions that commit resources to go to war, to intervene in a war, to prevent war, or to reconstruct in that aftermath of war are made.

It is told from the perspectives of 26 women who experienced, and unlike many of their family members, friends and neighbours, survived the war in Bosnia. They are mothers, wives, daughters, journalists, engineers, teachers, architects, doctors, businesswomen, public servants and members of parliament. They are Muslim, Serb, Croat, Bosnian, Bosniak, Catholic, Orthodox, Jewish, Yugoslav and citizens of the world. One is a survivor of Auschwitz, professor of architecture and former government minister. Another is the descendant of the Albanian royal family; a dermatologist in Sarajevo trained in Chicago and mother of a daughter who graduated from Oxford. Another is a teenager who came of age in and during the siege of Sarajevo. A complex web of personal and community relationships richly textures the lives of all 26 women. And this is Mr.Silajdzik ’s point. Whether by nature or nurture, whether biologically or culturally driven, it is women ’s lives, however they choose to live them, that weave together the tapestry of human societies. It is also, therefore, women who must be destroyed if one wishes to destroy a community a fact tragically and insidiously witnessed by the intentional use of rape as a tool of terror and “ethnic cleansing”. And so it is women ’s lives that can rebuild, and where possible, reconcile the torn fabric of a society at every level afterward. Where war always, inevitably, assaults our humanity, it is through women ’s lives that it can be restored. To this Ms.Hunt adds another reason that women are more likely to resist war. Women have less social power, she says, and without an external system to defend them, they ’re all the more vulnerable.


A collection of women stories

The book is, as Ms.Hunt says, more than a collection of their stories. It ’s a calling to account that grabs hold of our excuses and refuses to let go. It calls to account, first and foremost, the political leadership of the nationalists (and their collaborators in the media) who exploited the material and emotional vulnerabilities of the people of former Yugoslavia in the aftermath of Tito ’s death and the instabilities and uncertainties following from the collapse of the Soviet Union and the shifting of tectonic plates of world politics. They hold the international community, particularly its powerful leaders, accountable. “The killing was all in service of politics,” says Suzana,,a journalist. “The big powers could have stopped the fighting before it began." Then the politicians divided Bosnia, cutting it up, town by town, in that treachery, no side is innocent. “I sent a fax to Madeleine Albright and the presidents of Bosnia and Herzegovina just before Srebenica fell,” recalls Mirhunisa,,who was working with refugees in Sarajevo at the time: “Please protect the 30,000. 40,000 people crammed into the ‘UN safe havens’." And they hold accountable the Dayton negotiators for leaving Milosevic in power knowing he was undoubtedly a war criminal and for rewarding the war ’s architects by accepting the division of Bosnia as the price of peace. A Bosniak from Prijedor and a survivor of the infamous Omarska death camp, Esmuda believes that “Dayton condoned everything that happened in this war by recognizing Republika Serpska [the eastern “entity ” in Bosnia ]”. “What causes war?” scholars ask.. “Fear,” these women answer, in their own words.Says Galina, “The problem was a few psychopaths, very extreme nationalists. Normal people didn ’t want to have this war ”.“We didn ’t recognize the whole picture,” Alenka reflects, “because it came in tiny, invisible pieces." Propaganda’s campaign produced fear, which is the mechanism that runs war. A Bosnian schoolteacher from a small town offers an insightful and chilling account with lessons for any society on the brink of waging war:

Politics and the war

Imagine a political climate around you is being created. Somebody is suddenly telling you somebody did something they didn ’t do. Or this was said, which wasn ’t said. And you see this huge fight erupting. Then you start to feel you ’re about to lose something, because your politicians are saying you are. They ’re fashioning a political happening that doesn ’t exist, but is about to exist. You ’re caught up in something that ’s actually in the making. There are interminable parliamentary sessions broadcast live on TV. Suddenly people begin to hate, fighting some enemy who, hey ’re told, is threatening their way of life.

The women role on reconciliation and peace approach

Finally, and with lessons for virtually all societies struggling with civil strife or tensions arising of unsettled histories of violence and injury, the women, mediated by Swanee Hunt ’s perceptive and empathetic ear, tell us that reconciliation will require three things: telling the truth, imposing justice and remembering that the perpetrators are human. Each of the women interviewed for this book is putting these imperatives to work in the symbiotic processes of self-healing and the healing of their communities. As the thoughtful commentary and poignant insights presented in this book (of which only a few are presented here) powerfully demonstrate, women ’s virtual exclusion from every stage of policy-and decision-making, from war-making to peace negotiations, comes at an extraordinary cost. In the words of Mediha Filipovic, the only female member of the first Bosnian national parliament, “There ’s plenty women can do in politics, here and everywhere else. No country is so richly endowed that it needs only half its brainpower. But we need to fight not to be left out of the game. Imagine a country doubling its brains by including women ”. Yes, just imagine that.