Charities: Haunted by rape of Bosnia: Nikkie du Preez has formed a British group to help women ravaged by the horrors of war. Joanna Gibbon talks to her

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Indy Lifestyle Online
THREE weeks ago, Nikkie du Preez, a management consultant living in Edinburgh, watched a Channel 4 News item in horror: the growing evidence that at least 20,000 Muslim women have been raped, probably systematically, by Serbian forces in Bosnia. 'It really blew my mind, I felt outraged,' says Ms du Preez, who last autumn had been helping a charity send clothes to Bosnia.

As a Jew, she sees parallels between the Muslims in Bosnia and the Jewish people in Europe before and during the Second World War. 'This sounds very much to me like Hitler's expansionist programme and his propaganda that the German people were being oppressed in Czechoslovakia before he invaded the country,' she says.

Her anger and desire to do something had not died away by the next day. She was haunted by it. She read all the news reports she could find and concluded that the rapes were planned and directed from the top. 'This is not just a group of soldiers going mad - and I know I haven't any firm evidence - this is systematic: a people who have taken it upon themselves to destroy another people,' she says.

Emboldened by a telephone conversation with Jon Snow of Channel 4 News, Ms du Preez travelled to London on a fact-finding mission, with the germ of an idea to create Bosnia Now, a charitable organisation aimed at helping the raped women. She then knocked on the doors of newspapers, before delivering a letter asking the Princess of Wales to be patron or to become even more involved with her idea. Afterwards she had a meeting with a rabbi and finally she arrived, exhausted, at the home of her brother, who told her she was crazy.

She found that there appears to be no other organisation in this country specifically helping the raped Bosnian women. 'I don't think the reports will be exaggerated in the end, I think there are thousands and thousands of women. Everything won't be recorded, there will be a conspiracy of silence among the women; rape victims here won't go to the police,' she maintains.

With two children to support and a full-time self-employed job, it seems extraordinary, possibly foolhardy, that Ms du Preez is still determined to start any organisation, let alone one helping the women of a war-torn country.

Setting up a charity in Scotland is a different process to that of England and Wales. There is no Scottish version of the Charity Commission and the Inland Revenue decides whether an organisation can have charitable status. Ms du Preez contacted the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO) for advice about the process and how to put together a constitution which is sent to the Inland Revenue.

With emergency causes the Inland Revenue can process an application within a few weeks, says Dot Pringle, information officer of the SCVO, who advised Ms du Preez. Ms Pringle asks the person if they have contacted the international aid agencies - Ms du Preez has yet to do this - and whether the work would not be done better by the local people of the country.

'When it comes to someone who has a cause with a motive like this one then it is like stopping a locomotive if you ask them questions, they stare at you as if you were bananas,' says Ms Pringle, adding that most organisations which set up quickly in response to an emergency usually work well for the specific remit they want.

At the same time, recent changes in Scottish law protect the giving public to a far greater extent than previously from any misdemeanours a new and enthusiastic charity might unwittingly commit. Since last July, new charities must send their accounts to anyone who asks to see them. Also, they can be reported to the newly formed Scottish Charities Office, which will investigate allegations made by a member of the public.

Meanwhile, Ms du Preez has gathered three committee members - the majority of trustees must live in Scotland for a charity to register north of the border - and has decided to form a company with limited guarantee. This protects the trustees' personal liability should a financial dispute arise. Tomorrow they meet to register the company at Companies House and send their papers to the Inland Revenue.

Two of the committee members are Muslim women from Edinburgh's Asian community. Ms du Preez explains: 'It is traditional for women to be virgins in order to marry. I know Jewish men wouldn't marry the Jewish women who survived the concentration camps in the Second World War.'

The trauma for the married women is just as great, says Ms du Preez: 'Their husbands feel they have failed, they haven't protected their wives and there is this feeling that the women have been through another man's hands; it is sick but that is how they feel. Their family lives have been pulverised.' However, if the Serbs thought they were increasing their numbers by forcing these women to give birth they were wrong: any child born of a Muslim mother remains a Muslim.

At the moment the objectives of Bosnia Now are fluid and appear ambitious. Ms du Preez is aware that she needs more proof and plans to visit Bosnia early this year; by then she hopes to have met a doctor and a specialist in rape who will accompany her. She wants to contact Amnesty, the United Nations and other aid agencies: 'We need to find out what exists in Bosnia to help these women and what they need.'

She is aware that the larger organisations discourage little agencies from becoming involved but remains undaunted. 'In six months I need to learn Serbo-Croat, raise money and push with publicity. I have this feeling of tremendous urgency - I will chase people at every level,' she says, adding that she hopes she does not wear out her committee members during that time.

Bosnia Now, 63 Warrender Park Road, Edinburgh EH9 1ES. Tel 031-229 4550.

(Photograph omitted)

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