From Anger to Action: The Women of Srebrenica Organize

One persistent theory I have after meeting with several women and mother’s group of Srebrenica is this: anger can be a mobilizing force. I’ve always felt that people have to be pissed-off enough about something to rise up and act. I saw this as a child when mothers in South Bronx tenaments would organize collectively to change something — garbage collection, crime, better education and school services. Imagine if your son or husband had been taken from you under the eyes of an international protection force, and you believed they might be alive somewhere — in a camp, a prison, or just hiding in the woods. Multiply that anxiety and anger by 8,000. Of course the Women of Srebrenica organized!

Nura Begovic, Habiba Masic, and Hajra Catic talk to us about their organizing efforts.

When I asked the core leaders of the Women of Srebrenica Association, based in Tuzla, how their organization has changed from 1995 to the present, they replied:

“Back then, there were more of us, and we were angrier. We had hope that our men and sons were still alive.”

But what were there concrete goals? Did they have any? Were their actions spontaneous? Here are some discoveries:

Goals: These ladies summed up their core goals as truth and justice. At the start, they wanted to know what happened to over 8,000 men and boys, and they wanted those responsible to be identified and arrested. Thousands of women were forced from Srebrenica to Tuzla in 1995, and in May of 1996, many of these women formed a loose, unregistered organization. This association represented a somewhat unified voice which provided information about missing persons and actions of Serb soldiers and paramilitary groups, as well as action and inaction of UN forces in the summer of 1995. The women realized that they had to officially register in order to undertake other activities. Over 830 children lost their parents, and approximately 6,100 children were left with just one parent. Among other things, being a registered entity allowed them to establish a foundation that could provide scholarships for many of these children in order to study, and it could help provide some financial support for single mothers left without an income. They could fundraise, establish bank accounts, and involve national, diaspora and international members and supporters.

Nura explains the photography project, a way to humanize victims and keep their stories and memories alive.

The association, it seems to me, operates with multi-track goals. Because they became the “go-to” organization for Srebrenica genocide survivor families in Tuzla, they also became a resource for information about the missing persons identification process. These women were a go-between for international organizations and family members. But they refused to passively sit around and wait for the international community to set the priorities. They continued with their protest activities, their documentation process, and the work of humanizing the victims — their loved ones — through photography and collections of stories. This process keeps the issue alive and provides an archival record of those missing and killed. It assists in combating denial of genocide and is helping to establish an international memory of Srebrenica —  from the survivor families’ perspective rather than an international community perspective. These sorts of activities are a form of civil resistance because it opposes the tendency that international groups have to seek reconciliation and peace. Rather, these women continue to fight for the use of appropriate language (genocide rather than massacre, justice rather than reconciliation, aggression and ethnic cleansing rather than civil war).  I suspect the women’s resistance work annoys many in the international community, especially since the women don’t hesitate to name officials like Carl Bildt, European Union Special Envoy to Former Yugoslavia from June 1995 and later High Representative, or other leading international actors as easily as they name other well-known war criminals. These women are bold, persistent, and resilient, yet their goals are flexible and evolving. This is effective: they are in the struggle for the long haul, but they are willing to be flexible enough to take on activities and adjust based on ever-changing national policies and international influences. However, long term for any movement or organization there is the need to establish fixed goals and maintain a plan or guide to help you achieve them.

Advija Ibrahimovic, left, is a young organizer and spokesperson for the Women of Srebrenica Association and also one of those children that lost both parents.

Planning: The women recognize the need for planning. The donated home they recently acquired is a helpful venue for such activities. They now have an appropriate space for meetings, storage and displays, and to host and house international guests. One young member and scholarship recipient, Advija Ibrahimovic, is an existing part of the next stage of planning — recruiting the younger generation. Advija acknowledges the need for more rigorous planning. This is something that they could use help with, she said. She recognizes that they too could do better at assessing the national and regional situation in order to be better informed for planning actions, and that they need to establish concrete priorities since they have limited financial and human resources.

Advija is the young face of the movement, and represented the organization on the opening of the Srebrenica-Potocari Memorial and Cemetery, (opened by former US President Clinton in 2003). in 2003. She was eager to learn more about planning and prioritizing activities, and she said she welcomed international resources and support on this.

To their credit, the women are managing many moving parts. The European Union integration process is another challenge — educating victims about what this means for them in relation to Srebrenica. We explained to them the importance of establishing a database of contacts with different agencies and offices, like the EU or human rights commissions and important institutions involved in BiH and Srebrenica issues in order to speedily send press releases and establish lasting relationships with representatives.  Elmina Kulasic (see “Travel Mates” post below) explained her work at the Bosniak-American Advisory Council for Bosnia and Herzegovina and how important it is to reach out to the diaspora, especially those from Srebrenica doing similar work and having the same or similar goals. Good point — this can have a multiplier effect, especially if all Bosnian victims from around the world can speak in one voice.

All of these suggestions point to the need for a thorough assessment of the situation — a core principal of strategic planning. As well, conducting assessments naturally leads to relationship mapping, a system that helps organizations and movements acquire an in-depth understanding of relationships, who’s connected to whom, and where alliances can be formed.  Of course, it’s not just about forming alliances, but also creating divisions. Who is against your work, and why? How can you shift the loyalties of those that support genocide denial or refuse to support the right of return? This is much more difficult work, but the ladies agreed that their planning should include multi-track priorities so that they can work on many things at once, yet maintain focus a few critical issues.

Actions: This, for me, was a fun conversation. We tossed around ideas about creative actions and moving beyond traditional protest and petitioning.  With so much intelligence and humor, I declared, the young people can surely come up with many creative ideas!  We talked about the use of humor, art, music and theater, and how using these methods can help garner the interest of young people. I shared stories that I know about creative civil resistance actions around the world, including in the U.S. For example, gently mocking political leaders and decision makers has been a way to bring attention to an unjust situation, and using new media as a communications tool is increasingly an effective means of bringing a local voice to a younger audience.

Hajra Catic holds a plaque presented to the organization by House of Angels in Bologna, Italy.

Impact: The women have attained a level of international recognition. The wall shelves in the dining room exhibits about ten different plaques they have received for their work in supporting women and orphans. They are modest about this, and certainly do not see such accolades as a measure of their impact.  But they do recognize that without their pressure, the Srebrenica Memorial and Cemetery may not have been established, or would have been created with their input.

Keeping the issue of the missing on the long list of Bosnian activities may be their greatest impact, but they also work to continue to bear pressure on the international community to address the issue of war criminal arrests. For them, this is an integral part of maintaining peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

And so, the women continue their work despite a decreased level of anger. I am not sure anger is a sustainable force for mobilization and action. It is not for me to judge, since I have never walked in their shoes, but it appears that they are entering  — at this 15th year since the genocide — new phases in their struggle. Their openness to discuss this and to hear new ideas, as well as to include younger members, is a hopeful sign for their continued impact and success.  Part of me also realizes that “impact” seems an inadequate concept when one is talking about truth of the disappearance and death of over 8,000 people and accountability. The work these women are doing is beyond basic organizing concepts, and beyond words.

Tomorrow, I wrap up with closing thoughts, a tribute to my travel mates, and reflections on women in resistance.



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