'One day justice will be done' Fighting to regain their trust: Joanna Gibbon visits one of the charities that benefited from the 'Independent' Bosnia appeal

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The Independent Culture
'EVEN if you were made of stone, this would break your heart,' says Milka, a tiny mouse of a woman, much older than her years, who is at Marie Stopes International's (MSI) women's centre in Livno, west Herzegovina, for the first time.

She is talking about fleeing Gornji Vakuf after her house was burned down. Three months ago, her 23-year-old nephew - her sister's only child - was killed and she has no idea what has happened to her sister. In tears, she says that here, at the centre, she has found some peace.

The women's centre at Livno is one of three within MSI's west Herzegovina programme. MSI is running three other programmes: one in the Bihac enclave; one at Korcula, an island on the Dalmatian coast; and one in Slavonia, north of Bosnia. This programme is providing valuable regular meeting places for about 5,000-8,000 traumatised, displaced, mostly Bosnian Croat women, most of whom live in poor private accommodation.

MSI's team is providing weekly group meetings for psychological support, activities (sewing, knitting - including a self-financing sock project - drawing and other creative projects), as well as advice and information services. Headed by Pauline Taylor McKeown, field manager, and Antje Streit, social development co-ordinator, the programme is less than a year old.

Over 20 women's support groups have mushroomed elsewhere in the region, either in people's front rooms, in villages, or in collective centres. Ms Taylor McKeown had just received the keys to a meeting place in west Mostar when I met her two weeks ago: if MSI are able, they want to try to reach Muslim women cut off in east Mostar.

The needs are enormous - the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) believes that there are about 330,000 mainly women and children dependent on humanitarian aid in the region, but the team is undaunted by such high numbers.

The amount of women attending the groups and sessions is increasing all the time: some women hitchhike as far as 22km to attend a group. 'Wherever women are we will try to be there, but we have had to be careful not to spread ourselves too thinly and risk letting people down,' explains Ms Taylor McKeown.

The group counselling is seen as crucial to the programme. MSI is seeing those who have had a comparatively recent trauma: an influx of women arrived last summer and autumn and, once the winter weather eases, this spring will see yet more.

Some have been held in prison, some have been sexually harassed and raped, others have walked for many miles. 'We knock on people's doors to find the newly arrived women. For two to three weeks they are in a state of complete shock, and we have reassure them that we are here to help,' explains Ms Taylor McKeown.

A short time later, the women come out of the shock and find themselves crying and rocking, and it is at this time that they are encouraged to join the groups. 'That is the point where we begin our work, helping them to have a framework into which they can put their emotional experiences,' Ms Taylor McKeown says.

Apart from being more economic, the team feels that, for most women, the groups work better than individual counselling. The women are at different stages in coming to terms with their experiences, and can help each other greatly with the process.

A recently arrived woman will gain encouragement from one who is six months further on: she sees that it is possible to continue living. 'With individual counselling it is much harder to understand, because all a counsellor can say is you can expect to feel like this after so much time,' she says.

Such support groups are a new idea to most of the women, but apparently they have taken to them with alacrity. Each session is different - there can be tremendous rage during one, and then a much lighter note the next time. But before a woman is able to talk, she needs to feel she can trust the group and trust is what the past has shattered into pieces.

One woman at the Capljina centre showed a photograph of her family with their neighbours, a relationship that went back many years. When war broke out, the two families stuck together, agreeing how awful it was; then suddenly, the family next door were shooting at them. 'Trying to understand what that must feel like makes it more remarkable that they can show such a level of trust now, given that the groups are ethnically mixed. It proves that our approach is working,' says Ms Taylor McKeown.

On top of such traumas, the women are living in straitened situations with no future to plan. Both private accommodation and the collective camps present difficulties. In the former, the women maintain some of their independence, but there can be terrible tension and a tendency to be isolated. At the camps, privacy and lack of control over almost every aspect of life, so that lethargy and dependency set in, are the two main problems. 'Imagine getting your terrible two-year-old to eat just at the time when it is served in a camp,' she says.

The younger women, Ms Taylor McKeown says, find it especially difficult to establish a new life. They have to care for their young children, not knowing what has happened to their husbands. In addition, the local authorities have approached MSI, saying that they suspect some of the younger displaced women are promiscuous.

'I think it is foolish to suspect. So much of their life has been thrown up in the air, traditional family structures have disappeared and a few women do look for other relationships. We have good relations with the local authorities but I am not sure what we are supposed to do about it,' Ms Taylor McKeown says.

In spite of the sadness, she and the six community workers, who are local or displaced women trained by MSI in counselling skills, have noticed changes in the women who have been attending for a while.

One group, discussing how to spend their money generated by knitting and selling their warm, tough socks, began to show some enthusiasm for buying seeds to grow vegetables. 'Even though they don't know what will happen next, they felt able to look very slightly ahead,' she says.

For Mira, whose 22-year-old son is in prison in her home town of Bugojno, the group is 'wonderful'. 'It is so nice to have the company of the others, I come whenever I can. Afterwards I feel relaxed and soothed. When I don't come I feel empty, and I constantly think about the past, what might have been and what might be. It is hard,' she says, somehow still managing to smile. It sounds like a massive understatement.

Nevertheless, Mira did not find it easy to talk in the group. 'It is difficult to trust. The war teaches us that it is better to keep quiet and only say things to a few people. Sometimes I don't say much,' she says. But today she is talkative, determined and praying for the release of her son, who before the war had many friends at university and who now is imprisoned by those same friends. She shakes her head. 'One day we will walk without shame, justice will be done and that will be good.'

The Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) today launches its 'Appeal for Former Yugoslavia' in aid of British Red Cross, Cafod, Christian Aid, Help the Aged, Oxfam and Save the Children. Donations to: Appeal for Former Yugoslavia, PO Box 99, London EC1M 9AA. For credit card/Switch donations, telephone 0345 222333.

(Photograph omitted)