Women of Srebrenica

SREBRENICA, Bosnia and Herzegovina (WOMENSNEWS)– Tucked in the forest of the Drina Valley, the old rusted and now defunct battery factory here is where the Dutch battalion known as DutchBat was stationed in this United Nations safe area in 1995.

Seeking protection from the Serb military, thousands of Muslim women, men and children from Srebrenica came here. Serb military, however, outnumbered them and separated males from females. About 8,000 Muslim men and boys were killed over a five-day period on and around the factory’s grounds. Unidentified bodies are still buried in mass graves in the surrounding forest.

Just four years ago, the land across the street from the battery factory in Potocari was quiet and desolate. It was just a cornfield.

But then a group of impassioned and determined women–the Women of Srebrenica, a Tuzla-based non-government organization founded in March 1996–fought for the land where they last saw their husbands, sons and brothers on July 11, 1995. They wanted it to stand as a history lesson “that Srebrenica never happens again, to no one and nowhere,” a message that is now carved in a marble obelisk in the cemetery.

On July 11, an estimated 30,000 people witnessed this group’s victory when they visited the cemetery where 610 newly identified bodies were buried in a ceremony commemorating the 10-year anniversary of the largest European genocide since World War II; 1,372 bodies exhumed from over 60 mass graves have already been buried on the site.

The memorial officially opened in September 2003, with former President Bill Clinton presiding over the ceremony. The $5.8 million complex was financed by both private and government donations. Holes were dug for tubular green-clothed caskets. A gazebo was built for the use of public speaking, prayer and private mourners visiting the graves.

Speaking of the Women of Srebrenica, Paddy Ashdown, the European Union’s High Representative, attributed the memorial to the group’s tireless pressure.

“They have that fight within them,” Asta Zinbo, director of the Civil Society Initiatives Program for International Commission on Missing Person, a Bosnia-based group that identifies bodies through DNA analysis, told Women’s eNews.

With that same fighting spirit, organizations representing local women and their families are returning to Srebrenica and struggling with a horrific past in a place where approximately 42 percent of all returnees are in female-headed households.

Emotional History

Before the war, Srebrenica had some 37,000 inhabitants, 73 percent of whom were Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) and 23 percent Serb. Ten years later, the population is around 10,000, made up of 4,000 Muslim returnees and 6,000 Serbs.

Out of 25,000 missing persons in the former Yugoslavia, 20,000 are from Bosnia. Over 6,000 from Srebrenica have yet to be identified and the perpetrators of the Srebrenica atrocity are still at large.

Until they find answers about the past, women say they cannot look to the future.

Hajra Catic, president of Women of Srebrenica, said the group’s main efforts are to find the bodies of those who are missing and see that war criminals are prosecuted.

The group is represented by a team of lawyers in Holland pressing a lawsuit in Dutch courts against the United Nations and the Dutch government, asserting that the Dutch battalion did not do anything as millions of males were killed.

After 10 years of waiting, Catic was finally able to bury her husband during the recent anniversary after his body was recently identified.

But she is still waiting for her son’s body to be found.

‘It Will Never Be Safe’

In 2000, Muslims began to return to Srebrenica, knowing that they faced potential danger from Serb nationalists still living in Srebrenica. Fifteen rebuilt homes were burned down during that year. Although the climate has improved, Catic says “it will never be safe in Srebrenica.” But returning home, for her and many others, trumped the risks.

The town has become safer for returnees now that it has a Muslim mayor and 40 percent of its police force is Muslim.

Today, the pressing problem is finding work. In a country where unemployment is around 45 percent, conditions are worse in Srebrenica, the nation’s poorest city, where much of the infrastructure is still bombed out and useless and the unemployment rate is around 70 percent.

Combating the situation– common to much of rural Bosnia–has become another mission of the Women of Srebrenica and other area organizations, some of which have adjusted their missions to address the joblessness.

“After 10 years, they have new tasks,” said Nada Ler Sofronic, director of based in Sarajevo-based Women and Society, a research, policy and advocacy center, referring to groups focusing on women in Bosnia. “When you have to fight for bread, for employment, for life, there are more dangers.”

From her home in Srebrenica, Catic can see the renovated building provided by her organization that will soon be a pasta factory. Her organization will employee around 12 returnees. Although not guaranteed that women will be employed, it is considered a likelihood as many women are among the returnees.

Knitting Project

BosFam is a Tuzla-based group with an office in Srebrenica that was founded in 1994 to provide psycho-social support to displaced persons. Part of their approach was giving women something to do through knitting.

“When you sit, you can knit,” was its motto. As time passed, the knitting project became a lucrative answer to a more basic problem. “There are no jobs,” said BosFam’s director and founder Munira Beba Hadzic.

The group now employs female carpet weavers and knitters, about 300 of whom have come from the knitting project. Products are sold in a store that the group runs in Tuzla, or else they are custom-made to the specs of individual clients.

The prices of the carpets and knitted pieces vary, but around 20 percent of the profits go to the women. The remainder of the money goes toward the supplies used to make the products, as well as the organization. The organization was unable to provide how much the project earned in 2004.

Currently, the group is developing a business plan to expand its market internationally.

To help repair the deep damage to community relations in Srebrenica, Hadzic’s group works with and employs women who are both Serb and Bosniak.

Four years ago, Hadzic designed a project in which women were to make 500 sweaters for children in Srebrenica.

With both Serb women and Muslim women in the same room, there were specific instructions: Don’t talk about religion, don’t talk about politics, and don’t talk about the war.

“Women started talking and that was very good,” she said.

Now, she said, if a woman wants to join BosFam–for its employment project or to participate in any of its other activities–they have to answer one question: Can you be in the same room as a Serb and a Bosniak?

If the answer is yes, she said, any woman is welcome.

Mindy Kay Bricker is a freelancer living in Prague.

For more information:

International Commission on Missing Persons:

Women of Srebrenica:

Gendercide Watch —
Case Study: The Srebrenica Massacre, July 1995:

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