Longing for ‘normality’: women’s experience of post-war Bosnia-Herzegovina

Returning to Bosnia-Herzegovina after 17 years, Cynthia Cockburn finds Bosnian women criticizing their country's nationalist political culture. Longing for civil 'normality', they hark back to the former Yugoslavia and look forward to membership of the European Union, despite the imperfections of the former and increasing divisiveness in the E.U.

 In November 1995, just a week after the Dayton Peace Agreement was signed, I travelled to a devastated Bosnia-Herzegovina to study the situation of Medica Women’s Therapy Centre, a resource offering medical and psycho-social care to women survivors of war-time rape. Seventeen years later, in March 2012, I went back to Bosnia, where Medica now responds to the needs of women survivors of domestic violence. My aim was to seek out my earlier contacts and discover what changes the post-conflict period had brought them.

Medica is situated in the town of Zenica, in that area of central Bosnia held by Bosniak (Muslim) forces during the nationalist wars. Inevitably most of the staff were Bosniaks, but among them were also women of Bosnian Serb, Bosnian Croat and mixed ethnic identities who had resisted the tide of virulent nationalism and refused to flee to territory claimed in ‘their’ name. My study of Medica focused on this refusal of ethnic hatred and the ways the women achieved their co-operation. Returning in March 2012 I wanted to see what had happened to those relationships in the transition from war to peace.

What I found was heavily shaped by the extraordinarily conflictual ethno-politicization that persists in the country as a whole. The moment of my return to BiH coincided with the resolution of a constitutional crisis of more than a year’s duration. The general elections of October 2010 had failed to produce a government, due to a dispute on politico-ethnic lines concerning one of the appointments to the three-person presidency. The details of the case are less important than what it exemplifies: the unsatisfactory, indeed the ultimately non-viable, state structure resulting from the Dayton Peace Agreement of 1995. International engineering had created of BiH a weak state split between two uncontrollable entities, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (perceived as homeland to a conflictual population of Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats) on 51% of the land area, and the Republika Srpska (to satisfy Bosnian Serb nationalist ambitions) on 49%. The political system not only encourages and sustains ethnic identification and rivalry in citizens and politicians, it could not operate in its absence, sometimes cannot operate at all and is ultimately in conflict with international standards (such as the membership criteria of the European Union) and international law.

In my revisiting of Zenica in March 2012 I found all of the seventeen women I interviewed, without exception, depressed and angry about Bosnia’s condition. The economy is in dire shape, with 43% unemployment and a gap between rich and poor of scandalous proportions. This they blame first and foremost on a dominant stratum composed of leading and prominent politicians and those super-wealthy actors who enable them, are enabled by them, and in many cases are the very same people. They are angry with this ruling class for the appalling standard of governance they provide, for their ignorance, their irresponsibility and their venality. Dzenana Husremovic for instance told me, ‘Politics in BH contaminates everything. You can't say anything about anything without addressing politics. The politicians are like mediaeval barons. Their arrogance and ambition is simply unbelievable. In fact it is beyond ambition. They allow themselves total licence and entitlement.’ It is widely experienced that politicians bestow jobs on their family, friends and party members. When state assets are privatised, they pocket a proportion of the money personally and get a percentage on every deal that is cut. Bribery is commonplace. Several people told me they felt themselves to be not so much the constituents as the victims of politicians in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Ferida Djekic said, ‘For me, politics  - it's dead!’ As a nurse, she thought of a cardiogram. ‘The line is flat! Politics is a load of individual profiteers, all in cahoots with each other. They may appear to be in different parties, but they are all intertwined, like intestines. I’ve no time for any of them’.

Many of the women I spoke with used the word ‘normality’ to express what they pine for, strive for, dream of. They used the word to allude to another time and place where things were or would be very different from present reality they deemed profoundly abnormal. In one sense the normality referred to a ‘fairer’ and less class-riven society, and one in which women have equality with men. More often, though, they were using the notion of normality and abnormality to characterize relations between the three ‘constituent peoples’ of Bosnia-Herzegovina. They were comparing modern BiH, flawed by extremes of religious and national identification and hatred with an ideal community in which ethno-national difference is, was or could be, de-emphasized, of minimal significance. Thus Edita Ostojic referred to ‘people who think normally’, i.e. people who ‘don't want to be infected by this nationalist way of thinking.’

Many remembered pre-war Federal Yugoslavia in this light. I had met Amira Frljak when she was a gynaecologist in Medica during the war. Now she has her own clinic in Sarajevo. She said, ‘We were normal in Yugoslavia.’ It had not been normal Yugoslavs who had brought about the disaster that ruined the country. Rather, ‘it was crazy people who started the war.’ Vahida Mustafic was a kindergarten teacher in Medica during the conflict. She agreed with Amira. What happened in Bosnia-Herzegovina had been brought about by people from outside, many from the diaspora. These women remember Yugoslavia and its ‘normality’ with a great sense of loss. Vahida said, ‘We didn't have a lot of material goods, but there was love, respect and freedom. I felt safer. It was safe to walk around on the street. And we could travel a lot’. They recall how shocked and disbelieving they had been when the country they had taken for granted collapsed into division and war.

These women make it clear that they feel it important to defy the nationalists and actively model that normality for which they long.Ferida Djekic is an inspiring example. Still working as a nurse in Medica today, seventeen years after the war ended, her first name, Ferida, speaks of her ‘Muslim’ father. Yet her mother was ‘Croat’ by name and she herself was born in the Yugoslav Republic of Croatia. Her surname, Djekic, is that of her husband of many years, a man of ‘Serb’ background. She says emphatically, ‘I don’t belong to any religious groups! I belong only to myself. Nobody sees me as Bosniak, Croat or Serb, because I don't allow it. I celebrate every holiday in the calendar, Christian, Muslim, whatever, to be a good example to the children. It's not a person's name, but how they behave that matters’.

It was interesting to exchange ideas once again, these many years later,  with Rada Stakic, whom I had known as a German-language interpreter back in the ‘90s. ‘Ethnic identity’ is something on which she is highly articulate. Her family are ‘Bosnian Serb’, or ‘Orthodox’ by background. But she tells me now, as she told me then, ‘I have a real difficulty in thinking of myself as belonging to any one of these communities. I don't see myself that way’. She recalled how when I first came to Bosnia I had expressed astonishment at finding Bosniak, Serb and Croat had been working together in Medica throughout the war. She had been surprised at my surprise. ‘For me at that moment it was nothing so special. For those like me of that period it was simply our lifestyle, and you couldn't destroy that. It was our culture to work together.’  Today, Rada teaches university-level students, predominantly identifying as Bosnian Serbs, in her German classes in Banja Luka. She says of them, ‘They are young and polite... but they have no experience of 'the other'. The authorities in Sarajevo and Banja Luka don't encourage visits, exchanges. Most of them have never visited the other city’.  She fears how these young ones may turn out. ‘Maybe there’s a lost generation, lost for progressive thought.’

Although the touchstone for ‘normality’ in the women’s discourse was most often Yugoslavia in period of Tito and the League of Communists, sometimes what they seemed to have in mind was a normality guaranteed by a ‘modern’ Europe, imagined as a welcoming European Union to which they might one day be belong. There is something poignant about both these normalities. The first depends on an idealized past, because, after all, bitter memories of ethnic massacres in World War II had remained latent in federal Yugoslavia. But the second depends on an idealized future. Europe’s economies are in crisis and the far right, expressing extreme opposition to multiculturalism, is on the rise in many EU member states. For all that, a sense of what is ‘normal’ appears to be a sustaining concept for the women I spoke with. It offers a shared value, a standard to hold onto and a goal to which to aspire through hard times.

About the author

Cynthia Cockburn is a feminist researcher and writer, living in London, associated as honorary professor with the Department of Sociology, City University London, and the Centre for the Study of Women and Gender, Warwick University. Her most recent book is  Antimilitarism:Political and Gender Dynamics of Peace Movements