Bosnia Appeal: Bringing hope and dignity

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PAULINE Taylor McKeown, who has worked in southern Bosnia for Marie Stopes International (MSI) during the last six months, has found having a break over Christmas in Britain difficult, writes Joanna Gibbon. She arrived back on Monday and almost immediately telephoned one of the temporary project leaders in Bosnia to see if they were managing. 'I couldn't resist calling them,' she says.

MSI has set up four field-trauma centres in Croatia and Bosnia since it first became involved in the war in the former Yugoslavia in May. Ms Taylor McKeown has been working with two staff psychotherapists in the area between between Livno and Mostar, organising day centres and regular group meetings for displaced women who are either living in collective centres or in cramped private accommodation.

The women have had to cope with the trauma of leaving their homes suddenly, with leaving relatives and friends behind, with seeing their menfolk being taken as prisoners of war and with bereavement. 'There is not one woman working with us who has not lost a brother, a husband or a son.' says Ms Taylor McKeown.

So far nearly 30 groups have formed which offer practical help and therapeutic care. A therapy class includes showing the women a selection of general photographs and pictures of women from all over the world - this allows them to talk about their own feelings and their fears about the future.

For the women, being listened to and being shown that someone cares is very important. Having space away from their grim living conditions is valued very highly and Ms Taylor McKeown and her team have great difficulty getting them to leave at the end of a day. 'We are trying to help them understand that the emotional difficulties they are experiencing are normal given the abnormality of their situation.' she explains.

The practical classes include craft work, sewing and even macrame. One knitting project involves using cheap wool from a local factory - itself just managing to survive. The women knit heavy socks or slippers, which are worn around the house instead of shoes, and MSI undertakes to sell them locally. The proceeds from the sales allows the women some feeling of independence - they can decide together how to spend their money.

Ms Taylor McKeown feels this is very important because one of the most difficult aspects of the women's present life is coming to terms with being totally dependent. 'They have so little choice - they are even told when to eat. Not surprisingly they find it very hard. The knitting projects empowers them.'

What is particularly gratifying to Ms Taylor McKeown, apart from seeing the women's faces light up every time they come to the groups, is the positive reactions from local authorities and the fact that the refugees who have trained as co-workers will be able to spawn more groups in time. There are about 300,000 displaced and traumatised women in this area of Bosnia and MSI is aware of having just touched the tip of the iceberg. Its radio programmes for women - broadcast on a local radio station - are reaching many more living in the area.

Over Christmas some of the refugee co-workers will run the groups until Ms Taylor McKeown returns in early January. 'Christmas will be a tense emotional time for everyone. The workers will be flat on their backs by the time we return.' she says.

Meanwhile, MSI wants to set up projects in eastern Mostar and Sarajevo, both great areas of need. To carry out all the projects a further pounds 500,000 is sought by the charity.

For every donation to one or more of 15 charities working in the region, the Independent will add 10 per cent, up to pounds 30,000.

If you would like to support one or more of the charitable organisations please send a separate cheque for each donation, made payable to the organisation - with the wording as below - and send to: Bosnia Appeal, The Independent, 40 City Road, London EC1Y 2DB.

1 War Child; 2 Victims of War Appeal (former Yugoslavia) - this for the Red Cross; 3 Care; 4 Cafod (Bosnia); 5 Christian Aid (Bosnia); 6 Edinburgh Direct Aid; 7 Feed the Children; 8 Help the Aged Former Yugoslavia Appeal; 9 Islamic Relief Bosnia Fund; 10 Marie Stopes International (Bosnia); 11 Oxfam; 12 The Refugee Council; 13 Save the Children Fund; 14 Scottish European Aid; 15 UNA Trust Bosnia.

Letters, page 13

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