For centuries, women have been a driving force for social justice and political change, but their stories have often gone undocumented and remain untold. In Women’s Hands aims to change this pattern and to put women’s stories and insights, both historical and contemporary, into an accessible format and variety of media to inform the global public. In addition, In Women’s Hands will seek ways to work directly with women and women’s networks to develop organizer and strategy skills, so that women are well prepared to lead in social movements and resistance campaigns that support justice, human rights and overhaul or reform of political systems. Ultimately, such leadership through activism fundamentally supports women as full participants in society, and it tends to build institutions that are resilient, democratic, and responsive to the concerns of women and communities. This blog and my visit to eastern Bosnia was just a start in this process.
One additional goal of In Women’s Hands is to include young women in the story capturing process. It was essential to me to include women like Amra, Ivona and Elmina in order to have diversity of knowledge and perspectives. It is a form of mentorship – and I don’t mean some foreign outsider like me serves as a mentor. This was a way for me to be mentored by them, and for all of us to build our capacity to document (photography, video, blogging, audio recording) as well as improve our understanding of organizing and activism – by getting it straight from the source.
The women I traveled with had each taken the time out of their own schedules. They did not receive compensation, and they were each on holiday. They participated out of solidarity with the women of Srebrenica, and for their own personal and professional development. They moved from being recorders/observers to participants during many conversations, and when translating during meetings, they openly accepted the Srebrenica women’s experiences with respect and curiosity and without challenge or contradiction. They were authentically professional.
Elmina Kulasic, who resides in the U.S. and was staying in Sarajevo with family for one month, commented that it was a lot to take in over two days. Just the cemetery and memorial would have been enough, she told me. Visiting the identification processing centers was overwhelming, while visiting the women’s organizations all along the way was uplifting. Her family also lost loved ones during the war.
Although Elmina left Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1997, she has been advocating for the participation and education of Bosnian communities around the U.S. for years. At different points she would reach out to me and just say, “thank you for inviting me.”
I cannot imagine what it’s like to return to your country after having left as a refugee, after having experienced life in a concentration camp, and after having lost relatives. For Elmina to witness so closely the work of individuals fighting to respectfully bury and honor over 8,000 victims must have been a life-changing experience, and one that I believe will help her with her future work in ways that cannot yet be realized.
Ivona was quiet a lot of the time, but she was thankful to have come. I think everyone reflects and absorbs events in their own way. Ivona’s way was humble and cooperative. She has worked for high-level officials in the international community for many years. Through this work, she has probably viewed events in Srebrenica and the work of families and women from a different perspective. In my experience, it is typical of the international community to be critical of grassroots efforts that for them seem disorganized and overly emotional, or worse, critical and damning of international policies or specific individuals. But you gain an entirely different perspective when you sit down with these women in their own space, drink coffee with them and accept their criticisms openly.
This experience, I believe, was something quit different from Ivona’s typical day at the office. I think the women of Srebrenica hope that she walks away better equipped and with a deeper understanding of their work and their perspective, with better knowledge about the lasting impact of genocide and with a sincere respect and appreciation of the individuals who work to expose it and insist to call it by its name.
There are not enough words to describe Amra Celebic! Can I begin with sassy, intelligent, funny, resourceful, and sensitive? With so much between all that, I would end with responsible, organized, sympathetic and loving. Like Hatidza, she is a force.
Amra had the advantage of having intimate knowledge of the sites we visited and having the trust of the women of Srebrenica as well as many individuals in organizations that work in the field of exhumations, identification and family notification. But one cannot wonder, after so many years, how does she remain so enthusiastic and dedicated? She was our rock throughout the trip. She knelt and prayed with Hatidza at the cemetery, she made us laugh during our meetings with Srebrenica mothers in Tuzla, and she kept us on schedule and oriented. Truly, without Amra, none of our work would have been possible.
Having someone like Amra with us every step of the way, including in the planning stages, was essential for maintaining a level of authenticity in story telling. I learned how important it is to have both a resource on the political situation as well as a well-connected and respected individual in the eyes of grassroots organizers. She was never afraid to correct me on assumptions, and she edited each daily blog that was posted.
And so, this short trip has come to a close, for now. We will continue to communicate with the associations of Srebrenica women and, as they request, provide them with tools and information to help build their capacity so that they can continue to succeed in their important work. On this end, I will work to expose and highlight their work and role in truth-telling and memory of events in eastern Bosnia. Like the women of Srebrenica, the work of In Women’s Hands is also about memory and truth-telling — to tell the truth about the role that women organizers are playing around the world, and to memorialize their work and share it with other women, and men too.
Many, many thanks to the amazing women of Bosnia and Herzegovina!