The lives they once knew

Author Swanee Hunt considers what might have been had the Balkans been ruled by women.

bosniabook 88 298 (photo credit: )
bosniabook 88 298
(photo credit: )
This Was Not Our War: Bosnian Women Reclaiming the Peace By Swanee Hunt Foreward by William Jefferson Clinton Duke University Press 307pp., $29.95 In contrast to the numerous learned books that have already been published about the Balkans, in This Was Not Our War, Ambassador-author Swanee Hunt tells the history of the conflict through the experiences of those who lived through it. By conducting in-depth interviews, Hunt analyzes the war from a perspective that "listens to the cries of women in war, understanding that their experience is instructive and their perceptions insightful." Together, the 26 Bosnian women that Hunt spoke with, conclude that if they had been in power, the brutal and grotesque Bosnian conflict would never have happened. "Women have smaller, but more concrete agendas: everyday life, homes, children," explains Alenka Slavic, a widowed mother of two from Tuzla, a devastated city in northeast Bosnia who experienced some of the worst of the war. During most of the Balkan conflict, from 1993-1997, Hunt was the US Ambassador to Austria. "Truth be told," she writes in her preface, "the relationship between Washington and Vienna...didn't need extensive tending. Meanwhile, a few hundred miles south of the erstwhile imperial capital, the Balkans were ablaze. I couldn't ignore the weary pain written on the faces of the refugees...whose testimony of atrocities our embassy personnel gathered." Over a period of seven years, Hunt interviewed dozens of women who had survived the conflict, and, no less importantly, were now trying to build the peace. The women whose stories are included in the book represent a wide cross-section of Bosnian society, representing a full range of ethnic traditions, social classes, and mixed heritages. Their ages spread across sixty years, and their wealth ranges from precious jewels to a few meager chickens. Their bold, painful and sometimes appalling stories are accompanied by strikingly mournful photographs taken by Hunt herself and by photographer Tarik Samarah. While pre-war Bosnia was largely rural and poor, the capital city of Sarajevo was multi-cultural, cosmopolitan and sophisticated. Furthermore, the women stress, prewar Yugoslavia was no more divided than other countries - and in fact, by the 1980s, more than 40 percent of the marriages were inter-ethnic. The Balkans, all the women insist, never were the morass of intractable ethnic hatred portrayed to the west. And the Balkan war, they contend, was not an ethnic war at all, but rather, a war provoked by the agitation of avaricious and blood-thirsty politicians, such as Slobodan Milosevic. In concrete, sometimes excruciating detail, the women describe how their country descended into barbarism. At first, they couldn't comprehend. "I don't think anyone thought war was possible. Maybe when you're too close, you can't feel it," says Rada Sesar, a Bosnian Serb radio journalist, who had the courage to broadcast intimate testimonies of the atrocities committed by the Serbs. Their husbands, sons, and brothers called up into the army, exiled or executed, the women came to realize that life as they knew had disintegrated and that they would have to cope. To flee across uncertain borders or to stay in perilous towns? To allow their children to go to school or to keep them home? How to provide food or medications? To keep the children together or to split them up? And, above all, how to maintain the semblance of normalcy - for their children, their elderly parents, and for themselves. "In the evenings, we'd sit around the TV watching the shelling and burning of our country. Then some hit song or latest new movie would come on...Sometimes, in the middle of the night, the electricity would suddenly start up. Everyone would plug in their electric cookers, radios, TV's. In the quiet of the night, [you'd hear] vacuum cleaners humming throughout the neighborhood," recalls Slavic. And all the while, the women had to accept that the world - the UN, NATO, the US and the other superpowers - were not going to intervene or help them. The American public knew, and cared, Hunt argues, "almost nothing about this country outside Western Europe, with towns whose names suffered a chronic shortage of vowels....Few could, or wanted to, decipher the internal politics resulting in the flood of media accounts that led with tales of stomach-turning depravity." And they wouldn't intervene, the women soon understood, even when the world found out that the Serbs were using rape as a tool of war and an instrument of ethnic cleansing. "Men, were afraid of being killed," says Alma Keco, an engineer and a Bosniak paramedic. "We women were afraid of being caught alive." Yet as horrific as their experiences were, This Was Not Our War is not solely a book about the war. It's also a book about dignity, the human spirit, generosity, courage, and even about love. Throughout, Hunt intersperses her own perspectives. In the more analytic chapters, she is sharply critical of the US and NATO waffling policies. And although she was appointed Ambassador to Austria by Clinton, and although Clinton himself wrote a forward to the book, she doesn't hesitate to claim that had the West used force earlier, they could have saved at least 100,000 lives. Hunt uses both her academic training and political prowess, but refuses to be confined by either. As snippets of conversations show, she formed genuine friendships with some of the women. "Mothers understand each other," they say to each other, knowing that for many of them, mother is also a metaphor for ways to connect. Unlike other, more "academic" histories, Hunt shares her dilemmas with the reader. She reveals the choices she made, including her decision to allow the women to edit and add to their transcripts. She is outraged that not only were the women left out of the war - they were left out of the peace, too. Finally, she concludes, "ultimately, this book isn't about Bosnia. It's about the way we think of the imprecise art of war making...Whether the crisis is Croatia, Congo, or Korea, we must bring women who have their fingers on the pulse of their communities to join the war makers around the decision-making table. Her book lays out the case for their inclusion. As her book's title proclaims, this was not the women's war. Which is why, she insists, it is the women who should shape the peace.