By Cyrille Cartier
Sunday, September 14, 2008
Croatia's war ended in 1995 but soldiers who returned home with post-traumatic stress never received adequate assistance. One group of veterans' wives took it upon themselves to help form 11 centers to help families cope.
ZAGREB, Croatia (WOMENSENEWS)--The sound of gunshots, a bomb, screams--anything that evokes war--is Sanja Mrva's worst fear. Whenever war comes up on television in a documentary or the latest Matt Damon movie, Mrva stops whatever she is doing and turns off the box.
"War is a topic that's out of the question," says Mrva, who has been seeing a psychiatrist since 1998, about three years after the conflict in Croatia ended.
Any allusions to war threaten the fragile balance she's built with her two sons and her husband, Damir. He came back in 1996 from the battlefield of wars that cut up Yugoslavia along ethnic lines. Diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, he suffered sleepless nights peppered with nightmares. By his own admission, he almost killed his mother when she woke him up and he confused her for an enemy.
Of about 450,000 Croatian veterans from the 1990s wars, nongovernmental organizations estimate 55,000 have PTSD.
The conflict that resulted in 100,000 deaths and 2.5 million internally displaced people is over. It echoes only in the headlines through the high-profile war crimes cases of Croatian general Ante Gotovina and Radovan Karadzic, the former Serb leader, at the Hague's International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.
The public, worn out with war and keen to forget, is apathetic about PTSD; the government follows in step. Funding is low and there are very few awareness campaigns.
But many families still fight on at home. Demobilized and disillusioned soldiers often turn to drugs and alcohol for relief. Their wives and children often suffer depression and stress-related problems. Sometimes the story is woven with abuse. The children turn asocial. Suicides occur. Families break up.
So some women have taken matters into their own hands.
The push began a decade ago when Marija Markotic formed an unofficial group with the wives of veterans in their club in Zagreb. In 2006 they became the first registered Center for Families of Veterans with PTSD with about 3,000 members. Since then, they helped create 11 other centers around Croatia to provide psychological support and legal advice.
The center is scantily furnished. On the walls are pictures of their heroes--including Gotovina--and two posters: "Dad, what is PTSD?" and "Stop suicide. Not all wounds are visible."
Although the center is open every day, the group meets once a week during the psychologist's visit, their refuge between work shifts, children and chores. The room fills with chatter over drinks and snacks. One woman announces that a friend is in the hospital, attempted suicide. A flash of understanding, quick plans; all the women have had their share of rough times.
"We were not allowed to be sick or show we had problems because otherwise the whole family would fall apart," says Markotic, the organization's volunteer staffer.
Home was just one frontline, the government another. Markotic waited for over a year to have a meeting with Jadranka Kosor, the minister of veteran and family affairs, and warned about the long-term effects of PTSD on families. The warning fell on near-deaf ears, she says, and produced a mere $6,000 in funding, about 30 percent of the center's annual costs.
"If we don't put resources now into our families, in 20 years time we will have more PTSD with our kids," Markotic says.
Combating violence toward the children was the main impetus behind creating the center, she says.
Before coming to the center four years ago, Roberta Durbic, 13, spent most of her time alone. Now she has friends, family communication is better and laughter more frequent. But she is still afraid of her father, a veteran. "He is too rough for me. I'm scared when I'm talking to him."
Veterans in Croatia are revered as heroes. It's hard for many to admit to psychological problems and face society's stigma toward PTSD. As a result, the women bear the brunt at home.
Dubravka, who reveals only her first name, sits small and frail on a rare outing from the Autonomous Women's House Zagreb, a shelter for women.
She hasn't seen her three children since she ran away from her abusive husband in 2002. Before the war, he was in prison for murder but was released to join the army when combat started. After a few years his growing aggression turned on her.
Once, she discovered a hidden deposit of hand grenades and guns under their bed. She called the police, who took it away. When asked how he reacted, she forms one fist with her hand and hits the other one hard. No words. She lights a cigarette.
"If the rain falls, I'm guilty," she says.
She stayed with him because of the children and out of duty to her veteran husband.
"I thought I had to be with him because he was wounded, he could get better, that he would agree to medical assistance."
They have since divorced, but he has refused examinations for PTSD, knowing he would lose custody of the children.
Mrva also considered leaving her husband, Damir. But the psychiatrist she and her husband see in rural Virovitica convinced her to stay.
Elvira Koic, the psychiatrist, was overwhelmed with the soldiers coming off the battlefield in the mid-1990s with invisible wounds. Many committed suicide. She turned to the women for help.
She urged them not to leave them until they get better, "Alone I couldn't do anything for these young men."
Koic helps both her veteran clients and their families by organizing socializing events and support groups for the women.
Both Koic and Markotic get little financial support from the government. They volunteer many hours and most of the funding is private.
The government is too busy dealing with veterans to focus more on the families, says Ivan Tolic, a veteran with PTSD from Markotic's center.
But, he says, "We have people who are sick. Just waiting makes it worse."
Cyrille Cartier was working at Reuters in Washington, D.C., before she began freelancing in Iraq and is now living in Croatia covering the Balkans.