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People on War project, the Bosnian lap


If Colombia, where the ICRC's People on War project went through its full dress rehearsal, was hot, Bosnia, where the first lap of a 15-nation consultation journey began, was definitely cold. Freezing even. When the focus groups and researchers got together, in some instances the thermometer outside was reaching for the minus 17 degrees. Yet the layers of snow could not totally hide the scale of destruction, human and other, wrought upon this unhappy part of Europe.

In all three places visited by the consultation team, Banja Luka, Mostar and Sarajevo, the scars of war were strikingly obvious: first there were the burnt-out shells of hundreds of homes, rarely the " collateral damage " of recent battle since there was no trace of violence beyond the walls: no nearby trees uprooted, no shell holes in the cabbage patches, only gutted houses in an otherwise undisturbed urban environment, standing in silent testimony to the terrifying waves of ethnic cleansing that had swept through the land. (One could easily imagine the night-time shouts of drunken posses complete with burning torches and white sheets covering hate-distorted faces, systematically breaking down the doors of detested neighbours, setting homes on fire and maybe inflicting much worse violence upon their terrified inhabitants.) Travelling through Bosnia and Herzegovina today is a continuous unravelling of ghost towns all the starker as they stand lifeless in the soft snow of an early winter.

Then there are the towns that knew acrid front lines, where artillery shelling and wild salvoes of automatic gunfire concentrated ruthlessly on former market squares, on former housing estates, on an historic bridge. Three years after the end of open hostilities, reconstruction work has slowly begun, pointing to the people's resilience and will to survive. Here and there, a family has moved into what can only be described as a ruin, walling up an apartment-size area and calling it a home again. Next to where Mostar's ancient bridge, the town's sixteenth century pride and glory, stood until it was conscientiously destroyed by artillery fire on 5 November 1993, artists relentlessly continue to paint the monument as if it were still there, as if the clock had been turned back, as if they had not yet woken up to the nightmare of reality.

Obviously, in such a setting the stories and opinions gathered by the People on War consultation were often harrowing. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the ICRC/Greenberg team had identified four groups of people for the " focus group " element of the research. In each of the towns they visited, the team listened to and recorded accounts from women who had raised children in ethnically mixed neighbourhoods, " former soldiers " (a term applicable to practically every single male in the region!), journalists, and women still searching for missing relatives.

There were differences between the various regional groups, but they also had much in common. Pain was a common factor, hatred of war as well, especially among the " former soldiers " , and everyone felt an acute sense of waste and overall defeat. Another feeling shared by all was bitterness against an international community that " did not stop the war " and humanitarian agencies, including the ICRC, " who could do so little " (although there was general agreement that if many in Bosnia were still alive today, it was thanks to the efforts of all humanitarian agencies that did their utmost to relieve the suffering). The people of Bosnia and Herzegovina have all been traumatized, and no one is proud of what happened. Ask what are the differences between each co mmunity in this period of forced cohabitation and the overall impression is that Bosnian Muslims are angry and subdued, Mostar's Croats are sullen and hurt, and the Serb Republic's inhabitants are dismayed and only timidly defiant. The braggadocio and swaggering witnessed three years ago have vanished, swept away by the wave of suffering inflicted on what one former soldier called " a million small tragedies " .

Of all the wounds still searing the flesh and minds of the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the problem of the " missing " is certainly the most acute. Small wonder then that this unresolved humanitarian issue dominated the entire consultation. When the team brought together the mothers, wives, daughters and sisters of those gone missing, the clinical listening and the emotional detachment that the team had set out to maintain were immediately swept away by the intensity of the pain and anguish expressed by the interviewees. The neatly set-up " laboratory " , designed to foster a neutral recording and assessment of human motivations and understanding, soon turned into a vale of bitterness, despair and tears, as a Serb mother screamed " I should be happy just to see the bones of my only child " (and one wonders at the incongruity of the word " happy " ) and a Bosnian Muslim, whose husband had disappeared, confided " I'm just trying to keep my children normal " , to which her neighbour at the focus group table added " it cannot possibly satisfy me when people say the missing are certainly dead, I want to know why and where " .

Somehow, with the necessary tact and sensitivity the moderators steered the conversation towards its core purpose, which was to assess the notion that " even wars have limits " and people's experience of the " rules of war " . Then there was diversity, there was contradiction among the responses received. The desire for revenge so acute (and wh o is to blame them?) among the women of Sarajevo stood in stark contrast to the sagging hopes of those in Banja Luka, prompting the inevitable question from a journalist attending one of the sessions: " How on earth are you going to make sense of all this? "

As the team left Bosnia and Herzegovina, the question hung in the chill air.

 International Committee of the Red Cross  

 Campaign unit  

 December 1998  


 Ref. LG 1998-105-ENG