Magazine article New Internationalist

Daring to Dance: Even at the Darkest Hour There Is Light. Nikki Van der Gaag Travels to Croatia to Meet Women Peace Activists from Some of the World's Most Bitter and Intractable Coflicts

Magazine article New Internationalist

Daring to Dance: Even at the Darkest Hour There Is Light. Nikki Van der Gaag Travels to Croatia to Meet Women Peace Activists from Some of the World's Most Bitter and Intractable Coflicts

Article excerpt

Daring to dance

I AM ON MY WAY to a conference in Zagreb, Croatia, entitled 'Women and the Politics of Peace'. The plane glides smoothly in a bright clear sky. Below us stretch the Alps, jagged and imposing; their snow - covered tips clearly outlined against the darkness of the valleys below. Next to me sits Maja (pronouced Maya), a dark - haired young doctor from Split, now in Croatia. She is working in London as an au pair while she undertakes further studies.

There are no jobs now at home,' she says simply. I ask her how she has been affected by the war and what she hopes for the future. 'Well... like most people, I just want a nice peaceful little life.'

Most of the 150 women attending the conference are not leading peaceful lives. They come not just from the countries of former Yugoslavia, but from Israel, Russia, Northern Ireland - places where conflict has torn countries, communities and families apart. They have all been working to mitigate the effects of those conflicts; to counsel, to support and to build bridges over the rivers of fear and hate that are the inevitable consequence of conflict - especially civil war. Their work goes unsung and unreported, but it is they who make it possible for life to go on under such conditions.

These women have come to share their experiences, to learn from each other, and to forge an international solidarity that goes beyond national conflict.

The women from Bosnia, though they live closer than I do, have taken much longer than me to get here. In better times, it would have been a short four hours for them on the road from Sarajevo to Zagreb. Now they have to go via Hungary, which takes ten. It is a journey that would have been impossible during the war, when the only form of communication was e - mail:

A few months ago I could only dream of a trip like this,' says Duska Ruzicic - Andric, a vibrant woman with short, shiny hair. 'I had to travel a long way round to get here. I feel very excited that I can be with women I have not seen for years, women I love. My arms are not big enough or I would embrace you all - but my heart is.'

Duska (pronounced Dushka) works with Medica, an organization based in Zenica, in central Bosnia, which provides medical services and psychological support to women in the area. It was set up after the rape of thousands of women during the war.

In the beginning,' says Duska, 'we had only our anger. It took us a year to realize what was going on; to try and remedy what was happening. We didn't cherish lofty ideals - we just felt that the best person to help a woman was another woman. In the beginning there were just 15 of us - psychologists, doctors, psychiatrists, even a theologian. Today there are 70.'

Medica has dispensed free prescriptions for over 16,000 women and has conducted over 22,000 gynaecological examinations. They also work with young women who have been affected by the war, providing housing, education and training - young women like Adila, who was expelled from Srebrenica last year as part of the Serbs' 'ethnic - cleansing' programme. She spends her evenings like any other teenager, doing her homework, watching TV and chatting to her friends. But Adila still doesn't know if her father is in prison or lying in a mass grave in Srebrenica.

From where we are sitting on the roof of the conference centre I can see a park. Its tall autumnal trees and cold bright sunshine reveal women everywhere, in pairs or in groups, deep in conversation. Excitement and energy, hope and fear, pour out of the building and envelop the surrounding area. Emotions are often raw, stories personal and harrowing.

When somebody says the word "rape", it feels as though she is calling my name,' says one woman who came to Medica for support. 'Rape is not just a physical attack. It is also psychological. It is an experience of facing death.'

The extraordinary thing, explains Marijana, who works with Duska, is how the women cope afterwards. …

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