When Is Peace? Women's Post-Accord Experiences in Three Countries

By Cockburn, Cynthia | Soundings, Spring 2013 | Go to article overview

When Is Peace? Women's Post-Accord Experiences in Three Countries


Cockburn, Cynthia, Soundings


What has happened to women's hopes for peace in Northern Ireland, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Israel-Palestine?

Peace is elusive. I don't mean that it eludes us in a practical sense - we think we have it, and then war returns. This is often so, of course. No. I mean in the sense that it's difficult to be sure what conditions we may confidently say add up to a time of peace.

In 1995-6 I went to interview peace-minded women in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Northern Ireland and Israel-Palestine. It was a time when peace agreements were in the air. In early 2012 I went back to revisit as many of the original women as I could find, and to ask them what had flowed from that hopeful moment.1 I wanted to find out how their campaigns had fared in the intervening years - and what had become of peace.

The General Framework Agreement for Peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina, drafted at Dayton, Ohio, was signed in Paris on 14 December 1995, bringing an end to the series of ethnic secessions and aggressions that had destroyed Federal Yugoslavia. Eleven days later I sat down to Christmas dinner in Medica Women's Therapy Centre. Christmas dinner? In Muslim central Bosnia? Yes, because the staffof this extraordinary women's organisation, a medical, psychiatric and social resource for women raped and traumatised in the war - a clientele tha t was mainly Muslim - were an ethnically-mixed team. The majority were certainly Bosniak, as Muslims were now called, though that did not necessarily mean they had set much store by the fact before the identity was forced on them by nationalist demagogues mobilising Croatian and Serbian resurgences in the Yugoslav republics. They had been members of the League of Communists, most likely athei sts. Very few would have adhered to a mosque. A minority of the Medica staff, however, were women of other 'names' - Bosnian Serb/Orthodox and Bosnian Croat/Catholic - or of mixed birth, or in mixed marriages. They had stayed put in Z enica, refusing to be intimidated into following the logic of the war by fleeing to territory secured by 'their' people in 'their' name. The Christmas dinner was not exactly an Orthodox or Catholic celebration, more an excuse, in a time of scarcity, to cook up something special and give presents all round. Having the privilege of living among them for a while, I tried to be usefully involved in Medi ca's information department - fundraising, using my camera and resources to make publicity materials, and passing on research knowhow. But my own purpose was to study and understand the thinking, processes and practices that enabled them to set aside the hugely divisive issues raised between them by the mil itarised nationalist projects of 'ethnic cleansing' in the region, and to work as a co-operative and feminist collective for the care of war survivors.

In Northern Ireland, that year of 1996, ceasefires were on the cards, and a peace process was gradually gearing up. It would culminate in the Peace Agreement signed on Good Friday 1998 that, although it could not right the wrongs of several centuries of colonial oppression, closed three decades of sporadic conflict. From the late 1970s there had been a move by women in many neighbourhoods of Belfast to open drop-in centres, a resource for local women. The city map is a patchwork of Catholic and Protestant housing areas, deeply divided by Republican and Loyalist affinities. Yet in a striking act of solidarity the women's centre of the deeply Protestant Shankill Road came to the support of the Falls Road women's centre when the City Council discriminated against the latter as supposed 'IRA supporters'. Thenceforth the two centres set up, with some other women's organisations and trade union input, a cross-community Women's Support Network. It became a feminist voice of working-class women in Belfast, finding common ground in the poverty, violence and political neglect besetting their neighbourhoods. Their cooperation across conflict lines was condemned and punished by the armed groups controlling their streets. …

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