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Harvard Divinity scholar speaks on refugee trauma in Bosnia

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Section: News

March 21, 2013

Exploring the implications of the trauma endured by countless refugees expelled from their home country during a period of bitter political and emotional turmoil, Dr. Zilka Spahic Siljak of the Harvard Divinity School presented the lecture “Women peacemakers on the ethnic borders of Bosnia Herzegovina” at the Women’s Studies Research Center.

Emphasizing the crucial role of compassion, Spahic Siljak depicted the convergence of Muslim, Catholic and Orthodox Christian communities developing along the complicated borders of Bosnia. As a country divided among two entities and further subdivided into cantons, the political ramifications of such divisions contribute to the ethnic strife located along the borders. Members of different faiths converge in these communities, as Spahic Siljak explained, “If you don’t want to be Bosnian Muslim, you’re immediately othered.”

Through ethnographic studies focused on nine women expelled from their homes during periods of political turbulence, Spahic Siljak discovered persistent stories of reconciliation and forgiveness among these victims. She emphasized the term merhamet, pertaining to compassion, and komsiluk, meaning neighborliness, to depict the potential for peace along borders previously stricken with tragedy.

Prior to war and turmoil, she asserts that relations between neighbors were often friendly, extending aid to one another and developing close personal ties. In fact, she revealed, “we did not feel any impediment against close friendly relations.” However, upon the outbreak of the war, these relationships were severely questioned, as individuals were forced to flee to avoid violent attacks. Spahic Siljak emphasizes the sense of betrayal felt by victims, who exclaimed, “Why didn’t our neighbors at least tell us, say go, leave your village…not a word.”

Attributing this failure to extend warnings to a deeply embedded sense of fear, Spahic Siljak describes the painful process of returning to these border regions following the conclusion of the war. Despite feelings of betrayal and grief at the loss of loved ones, she claims victims realized that “you need to interact with your neighbors if you want to live.” Due to the division of the country, facilities are shared between members living alongside the borders despite ethnic, cultural or religious differences.

Expanding upon the capacity for forgiveness demonstrated by countless women in the area, she reveals the sentiments of village women who assert, “We don’t want to spend our lives in isolation enslaved by hatred.”

Only bearing minimal education levels, these women nevertheless realized the danger of isolation and discovered the capacity for reconciliation, utilizing the shared experience of pain as a common ground for peace-building initiatives. According to Spahic Siljak, courageous members of the community frequented workshops designed to heal and reconcile traumatic experiences, at times facing the wrath of their husbands in consequence. By crossing borders and renewing relations with neighbors, women seeking peace-building initiatives were subjected to comments urging husbands to “discipline her”. Husbands were told that their wives were “transgressing ethnic and gender borders,” and that “it is a betrayal of the entire community.”

Describing the tension brewing within the community, one woman stated “it was not so hard to cross the border, it was hard to come back”, referencing the judgments perpetuated by family and community members.

Despite the precarious nature of the situation, Spahic Siljak reveals the heightened impact of religion following the conclusion of the war. Although initially she recognized the struggle to believe in God or a higher power following the brutal loss of loved ones, violent rapes and other atrocities associated with war, she states that victims claimed to experience spiritual awakenings. Due to gender binaries and cultural contexts, she shares the sentiment embodied by female victims of rape, confiding that “shame in this culture is the biggest thing that can happen to someone, not murder.”

Despite these plights, she claims “women found their inner peace, release of hatred and they were able to reconcile their communities.” Expanding upon the notions of merhamet and komsiluk, she asserts, “it seems to be extraordinary in human capacities for caring, how integrated they are into the culture.”

Through local workshops and other enterprises, women merged together under heightened religious devotion and sought to attain education for economic empowerment while rebuilding schools and seeking to reunite communities of distinct ethnicities and beliefs.

Stressing the importance of the mode by which the traumatic events are explained to children, Spahic Siljak acknowledges that “family experiences are important, but the story in school is disastrous, they are portraying each other as enemies.” Stemming from the motivation of the women engaged in peace-building initiatives, she claims, “the sense for life and the desire to live seems to be much stronger than anything else, they didn’t want their children to be raised isolated or with hatred.”

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