Hands of solidarity

Rape, torture, war, terror, expulsion, humiliation, betrayal, pain and fear are just some words which come to mind when looking back over the last five years in the lives of the female populations of Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. The world community reeled in shock at the images of concentration camps, genocidal rape, the targetting of civilian populations and ethnic cleansing, perhaps wishing not to beleive such attrocities could be happening on Europe's doorstep. In 1995 Europe celebrated 50 years of peace and the victory over fascism following the end of World War II in 1945. In 1995 hostilities continued in Bosnia-Herzegovina. There, there was little cause for celebration.

In the harsh winter of 1992 the World Council of Churches sent an investigative team from the Women's Desk in Geneva to Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia. On their return they prepared a report titled "The Rape of Women in War" which was published by the WCC in 1992. In this report they examined the organised abuse of women in the war which devasted the republics of Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, and which left a horrific and indelible scar on the female populations of all communities. Women victims of this horror who managed to survive this nightmare felt afraid, confused, isolated and in pain. There had to be a response. There had to be positive action. There had to be a sign of solidarity from the ecumenical family to all women survivors.

In the spring of 1993 a fund was established in response to the Report's findings and an urgent appeal made on behalf of women on all sides living in the dramatic conditions of war-torn former Yugoslavia. Launched in 1993, the Ecumenical Women's Solidarity Fund became a fast acting funding body supported by individual churches, church councils and affiliated donor agencies of the World Council of Churches throughout W. Europe and N. America. The Fund was to be used by women for women and support local NGOs and individuals to realise the best ways to assist the suffering female population to return self-esteem, dignity and basic human rights, and to offer support and solidarity without imposing alien ideas or culturally insensitive implementation for the population in that particular environment. Over the past five years the EWSF has fulfilled all those criteria and has supported over 100 self-help projects in Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia and Macedonia with beneficiaries numbering over 55,000. In experience gained in working with women at grassroots level, the EWSF has succeeded in building up a network of support founded on trust and mutual respect and, in an environment scarred by ethnic division, has continued to support women victims of war and their families regardless of nationality, religious or ethnic background.

In this way the World Council of Churches has made a direct response and, through the EWSF, has been constructively addressing the needs of suffering women on these territories, offering the solidarity of the ecumenical community to those who have found their lives thrown into immeasurable chaos.

Following the signing of the Peace Accords in Dayton, Ohio the needs and realities of women today are slowly changing as the social-political climate changes. The main reality is the prospect of return to homes women and their families were forced to flee. Clearly set out in black and white as a basic human right, this issue is far from being realised for many of the thousands displaced by ethnic cleansing.

Today in Bosnia-Herzegovina armed SFOR troops patrol all main road junctions, bridges, towns and cities. The ethnically divided country is scarred by corridors which allow the movement of all ethnic groups from one side of the country governed by their ethic group to another side goverend by that same ethnic group. Basic amenities such as 24 hour water supplyand communication links are still being rebuilt and the favoured currency used in shops and markets is the German Mark. In a region once infamous for being one of the most dangerous places on earth, in this post war period events there are no longer a media item. Does this mean therefore that if hostilities have ceased that the need of international humanitarian support is less?

What is life like today for those rebuilding their lives and for refugees facing the long awaited return? The first question facing many today is, is there is a home to go back to and if there is, is there the infrastructure to allow a family to function there; is there a threat of landmines in the surrounding land; can they live side by side with families who were formerly on the other side; if the conditions are such that return is possible can the family agree to return - often this is a dilemma forcing families apart.

A possible scenario could be the following: the men who fought to protect their land and homes wish to return, the elderly wish to return regardless so they may die and be buried in the family grave, mothers are not prepared to take their children into an uncertain environment, teenage children do not want to return as they have made new friends and relationships and have gained employment or have the prospect of further education in the cities or communities they fled to. For other families return is not possible if they belong to an ethnic group different from the ethnic group governing that area - if they return to their country of origin from which they fled they have to find another town in which to rebuild their lives - where do they go, where do they find accommodation, how do they support their families. Such is the struggle to find a place to live that there have been cases which ended in suicide where people have been moved out of accommodation they had settled in because they had nowhere else to go to.

As communities move back so the EWSF moves back with them, helping them find solutions to the many problemns they face. The EWSF cannot boast to offering huge grants and funding massive rebuilding programmes but it can show how a little money can be used in creative and far reaching ways within communities and initiatives that escape the notice of the headline catching international funding bodies.

In what kind of ways can we look to supporting the female communities in this shakey peace time? This year the EWSF, among other projects, has concentrated its activities in supporting women in rural Bosnia. We have done this by setting up a clinic in a predominantly Muslim area which is staffed entirely by women, established a free legal advice service offered by a female lawyer and launched a mobile medical team, again staffed by women, who are offereing health care to a returning population in another rural area of central Bosnia. By doing this we are establishing basic medical care for rural communities which will encourage displaced families to return and, at the same time, offer employment to highly trained local women who, without this, would have left the region. As the first and most basic criteria of the EWSF states, we are helping women to help themselves.

More than ever the female population needs the support and concrete assistance of the world community. I believe that it will be women who will take the lead in the healing process within their communities and, if return, renewal and reconciliation is to begin in the multi-ethnic communities of Croatia, Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, then it is to them that we must continue to offer our solidarity.

Carolyn Boyd, Programme Coordinator
WCC Ecumenical Women's Solidarity Fund Field Office (Former Yugoslavia)