Twenty-plus years after the massacre of more than 8,000 men and boys in Srebrenica, the women of the Balkans are finding strength in their calls for justice and their work for reconciliation.
This website highlights more than two decades of engagement in the Balkans by Ambassador Swanee Hunt and Inclusive Security. Many of the photos featured on this site were shot by Ambassador Hunt, who took her camera with her every time she visited.
In the small town of Srebrenica, Serb forces marched more than 8,000 unarmed Muslim men and boys away from their families. The women were ordered to take their small children and elderly relatives and climb onto buses for the 50-mile drive to Tuzla, in northeast Bosnia, outside of Serb-controlled territory. They were told their men and boys would follow on foot.
It was a cruel ruse. Within a few hours, thousands of males had their throats slit or were lined up, shot, and piled into mass graves. Only a few escaped through the woods.
It was the worst atrocity seen in Europe since World War II.
In a PBS podcast, Dutch historian Selma Leydesdorff reads a moving excerpt from her book about survivors of the Srebrenica massacre.
As US Ambassador to Austria from 1993 to 1997, Swanee Hunt hosted negotiations to secure peace in the neighboring Balkan states. During and after the war, she sought women's voices to make sense of the carnage and understand both the causes and solutions.
While organizing the first commemoration of the Srebrenica massacre, Hunt recalls "a turning point in my life"—when a Bosnian widow chose forgiveness over hatred. The woman's words—"We are all mothers"—moved her to consider women's powerful and underutilized role in creating peace.
In 1996, the US Embassy in Vienna joined with female survivors to plan a commemoration of the fall of Srebrenica. Most of the women were still displaced in nearby Tuzla, as their hometown remained under Serb control. Tens of thousands gathered in a stadium to remember their missing men and boys and call on the world for justice.
Knowing that the real cause of the war was not so-called divisions between Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks, but political greed, women found common ground in their shared humanity. During and after the conflict, they were the one group that consistently reached across ethnic lines, braving sniper fire to mobilize for peace.
Inclusive Security's Vice Chair, Mirsad "Miki" Jacevic, survived years of brutal siege in Sarajevo and remembers that it was women who held his family—and country—together.
In her 2004 book, This Was Not Our War, Ambassador Swanee Hunt profiled 26 Bosnian women who surmounted trauma and confronted violence to renew their country. Below are just a few of their extraordinary stories.
Amna Popovac was born in Mostar in 1970. A staunch, energetic idealist, in the early days of the negotiated peace she traveled through checkpoints to Republika Srpska, seeking out Serbs willing to return to their Mostar homes, then coordinating with aid agencies to help ensure their safe return. She started a radio station with other youth to provide unbiased reporting. At the university in Split, she studied electrical engineering, specializing in computers. Amna and her family were frequently on the move because of the war: She fled the university to escape Serb aggression in Croatia; and twice—when Serbs shelled Mostar and when Bosnian Croats attacked the predominantly Muslim part of town—her family fled to Croatia. When Muslims were expelled from university housing, friends took Amna in so she could complete her schooling.
Alenka Savic is a no-nonsense woman whose father was a Bosnian Serb, while her mother was from Slovenia. She speaks often about the value of "staying normal," which included not leaving Tuzla when it was shelled by Serbs. "I wasn't about to pick up a plastic bag and become another ‘displaced person.'" For four years, she and her children often felt imprisoned in their house, with sporadic electricity and water. A trained engineer, after the war she began working for an NGO and managed the northeast quadrant of the Bosnian Women's Initiative, helping women start businesses. Working with Muslim women returning to Srebrenica and their former Serb neighbors, she says, "Given the slaughter, this is almost unbelievable. It's easy for women to work on reconciliation. We're not afraid to go to the other side—maybe because everyone knows we weren't carrying guns; we weren't in the death squads."
"Ethnic backgrounds aren't important to us in our work. We understand each other very well. Why wouldn't we? We're all women." Vesna Kisic's expression is friendly and her voice soothing, even when she discusses distressing matters. Vesna's husband, a Bosnian Serb, was a sports journalist. She was born in Croatia, but had lived in Bosnia since primary school. They both lost their jobs as a result of their ethnicity. Their flat was on the front line. Vesna struggled with what to say to her adolescent daughter about her mixed parentage, and how that related to the reasons given for the violence raging around them. Her husband was beaten and expelled to Serbia; he missed five years of their daughter's life and was unable to protect her and his wife from privation and harm. Her father-in-law lost half his leg to a land mine. She runs "Antonia," an organization named after her hometown church, the biggest in Bosnia. The women of that organization donate their time to caring for the elderly, educating other women, and meeting community health needs. They've set up a tailoring enterprise to generate funds for their many projects. In addition, Vesna is a key player in the postwar League of Women Voters of Bosnia and Herzegovina, encouraging women's active participation in the political process.
Kristina Kovac is an ethnic Serb from Sipovo, a small town in Republika Srpska. Her husband, a 48-year-old physical education teacher, like the majority of men, was mobilized by the Serb army. During the conflict, she struggled to find clothing or food, much less schoolbooks, for her daughters. In September 1995, the eve of the Dayton Peace Agreement, Croat forces took the territory where Kristina lived; in a panicked exodus the Bosnian Serb population fled. After taking refuge in Banja Luka, Kristina returned to find 50 percent of the town rendered uninhabitable and 80 percent of rural housing destroyed. She's returned to Sipovo, where she and her husband are again teaching. She's recruited help from humanitarian agencies and international troops to refurnish the school and to set up a summer camp for children who lost parents during the war. "We can't live in isolation. There's always someone who needs someone else," she explains, describing her work organizing the care of handicapped and vulnerable people. "Those who've had someone killed will need a lot of time for their wounds to heal." Still, Kristina believes concern for children may reunify her society. "Women are mothers first—no matter the ethnic group. Why war? There's nothing holier than her child."
For years, despite countless deaths and mounting evidence of war crimes, the international community failed to intervene to stop the bloodshed in Bosnia.
Policymakers in the US and elsewhere accepted at face value the narrative that "ethnic rivalry" was inevitable in the region. The lack of connection to people on the ground—especially women—crippled their ability to mount an effective response. When, finally, peace was negotiated, not a single Bosnian woman was present. The resulting Dayton Accords further divided the country.
Now, throughout the world, decision makers have witnessed firsthand the difficulty of forging peace without women's unique perspectives and skills. This concept of inclusive security is driven by efficiency: women bring essential tools, insights, and influence that policymakers cannot afford to overlook.
Five years after the Srebrenica massacre, in October 2000, the UN Security Council adopted a resolution declaring that women are not only, disproportionately, the victims of war—they must be key actors in creating peace and stability. Out of that landmark call has emerged a doctrine enabling the untapped 51 percent of the population to bring wisdom and skills to intractable conflicts.
Inspired by this model, more than 50 countries have designed strategic action plans to translate the resolution into reality. Inclusive Security has assisted the Bosnian government in developing a concrete approach to put this national policy into action and, importantly, measure how it changes people's lives for the better. Bosnia and Herzegovina is also working side by side with Serbia and other neighbors to ensure regional coordination. These former enemies are stitching together a Balkan strategy built on principles of inclusive security.
First-person accounts of twenty-six Bosnian women who are reconstructing their society following years of devastating warfare. A university student working to resettle refugees, a paramedic who founded a veterans' aid group, a fashion designer running two nonprofit organizations, a government minister and professor who survived Auschwitz—these women are advocates, politicians, farmers, journalists, students, doctors, businesswomen, engineers, wives, and mothers.
Tells of a well-meaning foreign policy establishment often deaf to the voices of everyday people. Its focus is the Bosnian War, but its implications extend to any situation that prompts the consideration of military intervention on humanitarian grounds.
Inclusive Security's bold goal is to change the international security paradigm. Sustainable peace is possible only when those who shape policy include women and other affected groups in the prevention and transformation of violent conflict. Guided by this belief and vision, Inclusive Security, a program of Hunt Alternatives Fund, supports women's leadership as an essential tool to prevent violence, stop war, and restore communities after deadly conflicts. We also provide expert advice to policymakers grounded in research that demonstrates women's contributions to peacebuilding.
Contact: Shereen Hall