Project Maja was focused this year on building on the Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative (PSVI) and the enormously successful Summit held in London in June. Seventeen of us went to Bosnia was to help with the refurbishment of a safe house for victims of sexual violence.
Visiting Bosnia with Project Maja this summer we found a country that remains deeply divided. With youth unemployment sky-high and political progress stalled, the prospect of renewed violence lurks ominously in the background. The outburst of demonstrations in Sarajevo in February this year showed a glimpse of the simmering tensions that lie just beneath the surface.
For many, it has been impossible to move forward. The brutal civil war of 1992-1995 has left in its wake many widows and wives of the missing, and although there are an estimated 30-50,000 women in camps who have been raped, there have only been a pitiful number of successful prosecutions.
The terrible massacre at Srebrenica, where 8,000 men and boys were summarily shot, remains fresh in the minds of relatives. Many still wait for the bodies of their loved ones to be found, their grief compounded by the practice of Serb forces who bulldozed existing mass graves and then reburied many of their victims in an effort to cover their traces.
The ICMP (International Commission of Missing Persons) mortuary that we visited in Tuzla contained 1,100 body bags waiting for identification. This is a long and painstaking process, as one body may be found in several secondary graves. The ICMP carries out their work with enormous professionalism. Families of the missing come forward to give information and blood samples – and the ICMP’s data base now holds around 90,000 blood samples. About 89 per cent of those missing have now been identified.
Re-visiting Srebrenica, little seems to have changed there since my last visit five years ago, except for the extra lines of gravestones. We stood outside the battery factory, where many had fled during the war hoping for protection from the UN forces, while Hasan Hasanovic, his face etched with pain, recounted what had happened.
He was only 19 at the time of the massacre and, like many of the men, had taken to the hills to try and get to Tuzla. He was one of the lucky ones who got through, but he got separated from his twin brother and father, and it was many years until he discovered where both had been shot. It was a harrowing and painful visit, but gave us a very real understanding of what had happened.
Medica Zenica has a safe house for victims of sexual violence in Zenica, a town some 40 minutes outside Sarajevo. Here survivors can receive counselling, and group and family therapy. Medica Zenica also deliver vocational training for women and girls and have recently established a 24 hour helpline, in co-operation with the police, the first in Bosnia. Not only do they work with children, both survivors of violence and also street children, but with men as well, who have different psychological consequences from war. Their informal networks of women give support and they work to encourage women to speak out and be active in political parties. Due to demand the safe house is being expanded and the new building will contain a centre for children to receive counselling to try to prevent trans-generational trauma.
Talking to Sabiha, the Director of Medica Zenica, known to many as ‘The Angel’, I realised that she was a refugee herself and a victim of the war, and that this was her way of trying to turn a terrible experience into something positive by helping others. We had two very happy days there helping with the refurbishment by painting rooms, and brightening up the yard outside with decorations on the walls, joined hand in hand with the wonderful children of Medica Zenica.
We also heard a most moving account of how vital the work of the Centre was from a male victim of sexual violence. Everyone there spoke with such admiration of the Ending Sexual Violence Initiative, and the visit there earlier this year by William Hague and Angelina Jolie was clearly something unforgettable and life-changing for them all.
For all of us who participated on the project, this was a wonderful chance to see how the Ending Sexual Violence Initiative impacts people at grassroots and thus how important and life-changing it can be. I have no doubt that the initiative will, in time, change lives for many millions of people across the world and we should all be so proud to belong to the country that has led the way.
The photograph at the top of this article shows a handpainting by local children and British Parliamentarians on a wall at Medica Zenica.