Between the 6th and the 9th of June, WILPF attended the Sarajevo Peace Conference, coincidently occurring 100 years from WW1, it follows a theme of “Prevent and Abolish War for a Culture of Peace”. Below is a reflection written by WILPF Germany’s EU Coordinator Heidi Meinzolt. 

Linking a “Culture of Remembering” to a “Culture of Peace” – Sarajevo is the place to find crossroads between history, the present and – hopefully a more peaceful – future.

Crossing the Bosnian border on a lovely morning in June 2014, we were not prepared to be immediately confronted with the evident damage from the floods, which only 2 weeks earlier had destroyed houses, gardens, streets and the lives of many. Its possible wreckage could not be foreseen and many could not escape in time.

Shortly after our arrival and after recovering from the sudden shock, we followed a small river in a ‘romantic’ green valley. Along our way we heard that local communities had started to help each other after the flood, contributing to reconciliations between separated societies. Its irony rang true: further destruction has brought communities closer together.

sarajevo-cityIn each village or city on the way to Sarajevo, the wounds of the war 20 years ago are still surprisingly visible and you can only imagine the deeper wounds in the hearts and souls of the people. Yet I continue to struggle with the understanding of how this could happen in the middle of Europe at the end of the 20th century.

You try to understand on the basis of what you have read, you observe and combine different views of the drama, but nothing has the same effect of seeing it with your own eyes. I saw three houses on the hill beside the street; our driver explained them to be “Serbian houses”, directing to reflections on ethnicity. I thought of the woman coming home from the supermarket carrying bread and tomatoes, who is she? Is the scarf the difference? Who are her neighbours, her (ex-) enemies? I found myself questioning, are we still in a war-zone?

Filling with warnings of land mines, now unallocated after the flood, you remember the silenced stories of war criminals and perpetrators turning back to their families and communities after a trial or still living door to door with victims. These outcomes are a result of impunity and economic emergencies, which most recently, provoked important social protests in Bosnia.

museumIn the city centre of Sarajevo we park behind the municipal museum at the ‘historical corner’ where the Austrian Franz-Ferdinand and his wife were murdered in 1914. The museum was featuring a photo exhibition on WW1, reminding us of the hatred and trauma.

In another art gallery, the genocide in Srebrenica in 1994 shows pictures of collective suffering, and the failure of the international community to avoid the massacres despite distressing oral witnesses of individuals, especially women.

If you look at the wonderful green mountains surrounding Sarajevo and the lively party zone in the city centre, now a place for tourists, you try to imagine the two years of Serbian siege, the sniper attacks, the killings and the starving of the population. Adding further to your imagination of the conflict, you notice the incredible number of cemeteries in each part of the city with numerous graves dating from 1992 to 1994.

This is the place of the peace event in 2014, where a meeting of about 900 activists from 32 countries, including scientists, NGOs came together to discuss the future of peace. Alongside the event were the creative and dynamic international youth camp composing of many Bosnian students, the ‘Mayors for Peace’ and Pax Christi international gathered simultaneously to strengthen the voice in Sarajevo against war.

With great solidarity and mutual respect, the conference addressed the common concern in a time of increasing confrontations worldwide in conjunction with the certainty that ‘peace is possible’. These ideals were expressed through numerous alternatives to military, violence and war discussed and exchanged in hundreds of workshops and round tables.

The opening and closing sessions of the conference

The conference was opened by a strong video message of Noam Chomsky stating that “WW1 should have given a lesson!” and ended with a very personal and wise contribution of the Serbian author and human rights activist Sonia Biserko on the root causes of war with strong reference to unresolved conflicts and the lacking answers to evident social and political problems in the Balkans. Biserko in her speech gave great responsibility to the international community, especially in times of growing nationalisms and xenophobia.

Bishop Kevin Dowling from Pax Christi international in South Africa quoted Nelson Mandela’s ‘Long Way to Freedom’ stating “there is still a long way to peace… but we carry in our hearts the cries of the oppressed and the oppressor that must be answered”. Hundreds of concrete proposals for common campaigns, for example ‘Disarm for development’, ‘You get what you pay for’ by IPB and WILPF, and upcoming events such as, No to NATO summit in Cardiff and World Social Forum in Tunis 2015, creating optimism in the strength of the peace movement.

From the WILPF standpoint, it was obvious that Women’s Power to Stop War is relevant in post conflict Bosnia and Herzegovina. A vision, a dream, and an invitation to the events celebrating the women’s movement from the past 100years and WILPF’s Anniversary in the Hague in April 2015!

WILPF’s Event

The WILPF Workshop (hosted by Helen Kay- Scotland, Tatjana Kurtiqui- Albania, Nela Prorobic- Bosnia, Ite van Dijk- Holland, Heidi Meinzolt and Irmgard Hofer- Germany) invited the participants to have a closer look at the more than 1200 courageous women who met during WW1 in The Hague and who are often neglected by official history.

Helen Kay quoted Aletta Jacobs in 1915 at the opening of the Hague Conference, referencing “…these dreadful times in which so much hate has been spread among different nations, the women have to show that we retain our solidarity and that we are able to maintain our mutual friendship”.

Their resistance to war propaganda, their clear minded and very modern analysis of root causes of war, such as armament, economic interests and the absence of international arbitration, the personal risk they took to formulate 20 resolutions to stop this war and to avoid further wars “have a relevancy that continues to resonate today”.

These women promoted their political requests through numerous visits to leaders of belligerent and non-belligerent countries after the conference, showing not only their political commitment but standing as inspiration for the WILPF Manifesto in 2015!

In addition to WILPF’s gendered historic memory, I added the reflection that WILPF discusses in the Manifesto process on “Future tasks”. The 21st century presents new frontlines which now more than ever need strong women’s investment in peace. Future challenges such as the drastic militarisation and a war propaganda supporting casino banking, predatory capitalistic and geostrategic interests in the name of outrunning resources results in growing corruption, unjust distribution, exclusion and environmental damages.

In the sense of “Human Security” the access to clean water, food sovereignty etc. are vital interests of women to be defended. The importance of a political shift towards conflict prevention and non-violent transformation of conflicts with equal participation of women in negotiation processes and mediation is obvious and must be organised.

women-stop-warNela Porobic illustrated these requests with the example of the rich peace dialogues between Bosnian and Syrian women organised recently by WILPF, “We discussed how to organise survival in war times and how we can save a minimum of justice and inviolability in our respective environment”. For the Bosnian situation she pointed out the difficulties to live with the follow-up of [the Dayton] Peace agreement, which is at the heart of the current political crisis, cementing ethnic division and continuing a failed post-war economy”.

All participants in the Workshop strongly supported the necessity to strengthen women’s voices against war and signed the pledge for The Hague.

Women in war

The academic network of ‘Women in War’ organised a side event at the conference, guided by Carol Mann, based in Paris with a branch in Sarajevo. It was uniquely devoted to study gender in armed conflicts, convinced that war is not gender-neutral. 30 women experts from all over the world presented war and genocide through a gender lens, linking scientific research to dramatic experiences on the ground of survivors, victims and resistants.

The women referenced three examples from a gender lens:

  • Carol Mann talked about how women developed a culture of survival and an imagination for the future during the siege of Sarajevo from 1992 to 1994. In Dobrinja, which was heavily attacked part of the city, was “a middle-class environment where ethnicity did not exist before” and populated mostly by women and children at this time. The women organised hospitals, laundry, civil defence, shared resources, re-discovered old techniques of food conservation and wrote a cookbook which they than presented to UNPROFOR. They dressed “like in Paris”, carried “high heels in the eyes of the snipers” and adults came to teach pupils under staircases so to maintain education. Mann summarised that “these women are the unknown heroes in all wars!”
  • Silenced suffering– Women discussed if “silence is the price for peace.” How can we witness the impossible? This remains a big question in a post-war society. There are individual ways to live with the trauma, these represented in in Bosnia, Afghanistan, Rwanda and elsewhere in the world. In instances of giving birth amidst destroyed infrastructure and non functional health services, experiencing sexual violence, threats, systematic rape as a war crime, killings, forced prostitution, starvation, not being able to feed the children, faced with the question of where to go with all the suffering and how to continue living. It was clear for all, “war is not gender-neutral and it is hard to be optimistic!”
  • Fighting impunity and continue the search for missing persons while organising a society beyond ethnic division, an enormous juridical challenge, but the main question remains will the political and economic elites learn from history? “They just seem so powerful and well organised that they control the world and our women’s forces and visions often seem exhausted”.

It is still a long way to peace, but it is within reach!

Written by Heidi Meinzolt