Where dignity would be a pair of knickers: Rhys Williams talks to two counsellors trying to help the women of Bosnia salvage their sanity and self-respect

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'YOU KNOW what the women in the refugee camps actually need? Knickers. When you send clothing to some charities they don't take underwear. Can you imagine, the poor things have no knickers. That's terrible, that really takes away your dignity.'

Kate Stevenson returned this week from former Yugoslavia, where, with a fellow trauma counsellor, Maria Wheeler, she has helped implement stage two of Marie Stopes International's aid effort for women in Bosnia.

Last year the European Community reported that 20,000 Bosnian women had been raped by Serbs. Thousands more have had to endure the pyschological stress of being driven from their homes and into refugee camps, where they have been left alone to contemplate their own and their families' uncertain future. 'The hidden victims,' Kate called them.

Last March, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the EC approached Marie Stopes, a charity concerned with family planning and health care, to design and implement a programme to help these women. Part of it has centred on training local volunteers, who, as well as counselling trauma victims, will in turn train more counsellors. Kate and Maria, professional therapists seconded by Marie Stopes from the Kensington Consulting Centre in London, returned from their first training mission on Tuesday.

They visited a refugee camp in Posusje where around 400 refugees who had been driven from three villages by Serbian forces were holed up in a school gym. It had been converted into a giant dormitory with no privacy, no electricity and with running water for one hour a day.

'We felt terribly uncomfortable, terribly voyeuristic, and told them we'd seen enough,' Kate said. 'But they insisted, 'We want you to see all of it, we want the world to know'.'

The refugees' bewilderment was absolute. 'It was so shocking hearing old ladies saying, 'We've lost our homes, we've lost everything'. A lot had never left their villages before. They had lost their identity. Some were still mothers, maybe, but their identity was their home, their cooking, looking after everybody. It's all been taken away and, worse still, now they're being looked after by other people.

'They had been in a complete panic when they were told by soldiers they had only 10 minutes to get out. That's 10 minutes when they were totally distraught and frantic,' Kate said.

Often when they fled they brought only bags of children's clothes, which, after walking down a road for several hours, they found they could not carry. 'They brought nothing for themselves. It was panic at not knowing what to take, where they were going or what was happening to their families and friends,' Kate said.

Any attempt to hold on to their severely battered dignity was hindered by the general contempt in which the local Bosnian Croat population held the refugees. 'Refugees are hated because they appear to be getting more,' Maria explained. 'They lose their identity twice, once to the enemy, and then once to their own people.'

The issue of the underwear serves only to make a horrendous situation intolerable. 'They need to feel safe, covered and clean, particularly those who may have been raped.'

BENEATH the bewilderment lay the wounds dealt by bereavement, violence and, in some cases, rape. 'It's like an onion, you just keep peeling off the layers,' Maria said.

One of the trainees was a Croat. Her best friend had been a Muslim. One night Croatian troops torched the Muslim family's house. 'Her mother hid behind the curtains, looking at this house burning and hearing the children screaming. She couldn't move. The difference between this war and others is that if a house was bombed everyone would rally round and sift through the rubble. Here you're actually talking about whole communities paralysed by fear in such a way that nobody helps. They heard children scream and couldn't do a thing.'

A Muslim in another camp had been held prisoner by Serbs, was raped and became pregnant. She escaped and was reunited with her family. Her husband has disowned her, branding her a 'whore'.

Some refugees sit on their bunk-beds in almost catatonic trances, others experience violent mood swings, many cannot sleep. Maria described how at the camp in Posusje, a woman ran up and pleaded for her son. 'What's wrong with your son?' I asked. ' 'His hands,' she said, 'he's eaten his hands.' ' The 21-year-old man had gnawed off all his fingers.

What the women crave more than anything is information about their families, Kate said, but they acknowledged that the counselling helps. 'They said it's enough to have you here, to know that someone cares. You can't find their husbands for them, but you can help with the trauma. We know that if you can talk about what's happened, you can move on.

'At the moment they can't talk. But very gradually you can help them get some sense of themselves again, allow them to build a picture of the future.'

The consequences of not providing counselling could be disastrous. 'You may see the creation of a whole generation who are completely traumatised, who will grow up unable to function,' Maria said. 'We saw it happening to Jews who lived through the Holocaust. The only way to say I can't manage is by having an illness. You'll have a generation of psychiatric patients, aged 21, who've eaten their hands.'

Kate and Maria fear that the joy which would surely follow the silencing of the guns over Bosnia would also deflect attention from a deeply traumatised people, ill-equipped to cope with rebuilding a nation. Without peace of mind, how can there be real peace?

They worry that the refugees' psychological needs are being overlooked in the effort to deliver basic food and medical aid.

'The psychological problems begin when you survive,' Kate explained. 'If the war ended tomorrow, the refugees would still have nowhere to go. If they go back somewhere, they've still got to start again - to establish their own identity, regain some dignity and deal with all the trauma and losses that they've suffered.'

KATE believes that if and when the war is over, the need for counselling will widen to the entire family. 'Men will be returning from the front having not seen their family for more than a year. They will have changed. How will those families get back together again?'

Both women have been deeply affected by their experiences in Bosnia. 'How can you go there and not be traumatised?' Kate said. For them, the starting of a collection of underwear for refugee-camp women and money to buy schoolbooks for the children has provided some comfort.

But unlike many food aid workers who have described working in the region as intensely disheartening, Kate and Maria remain optimistic. Several of their first batch of 10 trainees were themselves victims of the conflict. Some were Croat, others were Muslim, one had Serbian blood. Two had lost their brothers the previous month, another had fled her home in Sarajevo after crawling through mud, her child in one arm. For them the training programme proved cathartic.

'They said they had learnt to live with each other's differences, that's hope for you,' said Maria as she handed over a piece of paper on which her students had scribbled their impressions of the course. 'Ability to cope with life with such emotion, warmth that provides hope,' it read.

Anyone wishing to donate underwear or money for schoolbooks should contact the Kensington Consulting Centre on 071-793 0148. For donations to or information about Marie Stopes International, call 071-388 3034, or write to the charity at 68 Grafton Way, London W1P 5LE.

(Photographs omitted)

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