This Was Not Our War: Bosnian Women Reclaiming the Peace / Edition 1

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"Replacing tyranny with justice, healing deep scars, exchanging hatred for hope . . . the women in This Was Not Our War teach us how."—William Jefferson Clinton

This Was Not Our War shares amazing 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. They are from all parts of Bosnia and represent the full range of ethnic traditions and mixed heritages. Their ages spread across sixty years, and their wealth ranges from expensive jewels to a few chickens. For all their differences, they have this much in common: all survived the war with enough emotional strength to work toward rebuilding their country. Swanee Hunt met these women through her diplomatic and humanitarian work in the 1990s. Over the course of seven years, she conducted multiple interviews with each one. In presenting those interviews here, Hunt provides a narrative framework that connects the women’s stories, allowing them to speak to one another.

The women describe what it was like living in a vibrant multicultural community that suddenly imploded in an onslaught of violence. They relate the chaos; the atrocities, including the rapes of many neighbors and friends; the hurried decisions whether to stay or flee; the extraordinary efforts to care for children and elderly parents and to find food and clean drinking water. Reflecting on the causes of the war, they vehemently reject the idea that age-old ethnic hatreds made the war inevitable. The women share their reactions to the Dayton Accords, the end of hostilities, and international relief efforts. While they are candid about the difficulties they face, they are committed to rebuilding Bosnia based on ideals of truth, justice, and a common humanity encompassing those of all faiths and ethnicities. Their wisdom is instructive, their courage and fortitude inspirational.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Here is history watched in its unfolding, then put on record. Women tell an astute listener what they saw, read, and remember even as their careful witness—at once an eloquent and tragic story—is enabled by the knowing attention of a seasoned diplomat and psychologist. This effort advances the kind of history Tolstoy urged be written—a narration of on-the-scene individuals rendered by one herself very much willing to be respectfully among them.”—Robert Coles, Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry and Medical Humanities and former James Agee Professor of Social Ethics, Harvard University

“I met Swanee Hunt as a diplomat in Vienna. I worked beside her as an activist in the Balkans. Now I know her as a writer, addressing a world sorely in need of her message of challenge and hope. Her words resonate with the authenticity of an observer and advocate who has devoted not only attention, time, and position, but also soul.”—Queen Noor of Jordan, humanitarian activist for world peace and justice and best-selling author of Leap of Faith: Memoirs of an Unexpected Life

“Swanee Hunt is a diplomat, human rights advocate, and teacher. With This Was Not Our War she shows she is also a gifted listener and writer. In these pages, Hunt captures the rationales and rationalizations for war as well as the despair and stirring dignity of twenty-six women who lived through the Bosnian horrors. Hunt lets the women speak for themselves, telling the story of Bosnia’s descent and recovery their way, and, in so doing, she shows just how vital their voices, insights, and talents will be in rebuilding Bosnia and its shattered lives.”—Samantha Power, author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning “A Problem from Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide

Rob Mitchell
"[A] compelling case for the inclusion of women at the world's decision-making tables. . . . [A] fluid narrative that provides an intimate, less blustery perspective on the Bosnian conflict. . . . If the 26 women [Hunt] profiles are any indication, the women of Bosnia have the requisite ideas, energy and determination and are particularly well-suited to the sensitive work of leading their country toward recovery."
Boston Herald
Verna Noel Jones
"[Hunt] succeeds in offering a historically detailed account of the war and the women's experiences. Her narrative is heart-rending and filled with revealing pictures of the women's strength, courage and leadership."
Rocky Mountain News
Ellen Michaud
"Keenly reported, intelligently reasoned, and passionately presented, This Was Not Our War is a must read for policy makers, historians, cultural anthropologists, and peacebuilders."
Friends Journal
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822333555
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 11/28/2004
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 344
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.40 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Swanee Hunt chairs the Washington-based Institute for Inclusive Security. During her tenure as U.S. ambassador to Austria (1993–97), she hosted negotiations and symposia focused on securing the peace in the neighboring Balkan states. She is a member of the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations, the Eleanor Roosevelt Lecturer in Public Policy at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, the president of Hunt Alternatives Fund, and the author of Worlds Apart: Bosnian Lessons for Global Security and Half-Life of a Zealot, both also published by Duke University Press.

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Read an Excerpt

This was not our war

Bosnian women reclaiming the peace
By Swanee Hunt

Duke University Press

ISBN: 0-8223-3355-4

Chapter One

Hell Breaks Loose

NURDZIHANA: Serbs who left their flats just before the war gave us their keys and asked us to water their flowers and feed their fish. No one said anything about the horror to come. RADA: We were like calves grazing by an active volcano.

The story of vulnerable women has already been written. The untold tale is women's extraordinary ability to survive the eruption, transform suffering into savvy, and challenge assumptions about why their worlds were torn apart. From these accounts emerges a wisdom that will startle those who believe Balkan people will always be fighting.

I didn't want to compile a book of war stories. But even though the bulk of our interviews took place after the war, and my interviewees knew my focus was on how they are rebuilding their country, the women talking with me couldn't describe their current activities without recounting memories that spilled messily across whatever else was our topic at hand. The stories weren't told chronologically: A word from me or idea from them might uncork a sequence whose logic was only in the living. Nor was the telling optional. The women's postconflict work was built on the foundation of their war experience: not just physical losses or emotional travails, but courage that emerged from the wounds of warand energy that was summoned as they responded to the violence.

The episodes the women related are burdened with desperation, terror, confusion, loss. For all our sympathy about the plight of refugees or the trauma inflicted on those who survived years of siege, those who are able to tell what happened are the lucky ones. They know they must bear witness for those who can't speak. When refugees' accounts began to trickle out, such as those gathered by my embassy staff from the tens of thousands who fled to Austria, the UN tribunal was created in The Hague to bring war criminals to justice. We policymakers spawned a host of conferences, scores of publications, and mounds of resolutions. That process of bringing the stories to light was both necessary and hurtful. Extracting testimony from victims creates a struggle between private and public worlds. Atrocity is a necessary subject of human rights advocates and international lawyers, but even putting the experience into words can deepen the wounds of the sufferer.

Still, the pain that punctuates these pages is not the final word for any of these women. Their wartime stories are included to help give the reader firsthand accounts underlying their assessment of the reasons for the war and their motivation to transform and heal their society. The reader needs to know their stories to understand their work. But the telling was also important to the women, who are anxious to have their voices heard. Many traveled a full day to our meetings in Sarajevo. They were ready to talk-and not, it should be added, inclined to complain. Each of these women had not only survived but had taken the madness of her experience and let it live inside her, work on her, gnaw at her, energize her. In the process she'd refashioned her values to reflect a harsher reality. She'd kept her balance and remained standing in the wake of sudden aggression. Maintaining her bearings, she'd daily made the terrible decision to pack her bags, or risk putting herself and her loved ones in harm's way. The women's stories of onslaught, chaos, flight, and atrocities are told in this chapter.


DANICA: We were sitting around chatting, and the next day was war. KRISTINA: You learn to feel in your gut when to go hide. IRMA: We couldn't ... It was like, "Oh God, who wants to hurt us? [She begins to cry.] What's happening?"

The effect of violence in Bosnia was magnified by the shock of the onslaught. Stepping back from the women's narratives, an outsider can trace a perverse order in the acts that led to hostile conflict. But those simply trying to maintain a normal life as the world around them was warping couldn't imagine that events would develop as they did. Like much of the rest of Eastern Europe in 1989 and 1990, Bosnians were hopeful at the prospect of democracy in their country. Instead, they became enmeshed in the nationalist politics that presaged the breakup of Yugoslavia. In 1991, when Slovenia and Croatia declared independence, alarm spread among the non-Serb majority in Bosnia that they would be left as a disadvantaged minority in a rump Yugoslavia fashioned as Greater Serbia. A referendum over February 29 to March 1, 1992, on whether Bosnia too should secede from Yugoslavia, yielded a 99 percent favorable response; though the nationalist Serb political party (SDS) and much of the Serb population boycotted the vote, leaving the decisions to 63.4 percent of the eligible voting population. Bosnia declared independence from Yugoslavia on March 3, as Serb forces set up barricades and sniper positions around Sarajevo.

Fighting erupted in the capital and across the country. Ethnic cleansing began in early April, when the notorious Serb thug called Arkan and his paramilitaries entered Bijeljina and Zvornik (on the Serb border of northeastern Bosnia) and began expelling or killing the Bosniak residents. With the invasion of Vukovar, Croatia, the year before, Arkan had pioneered the technique of terrorizing civilians into fleeing. In Bijeljina, his "Tigers" set up sniper positions to terrorize the citizens. They hunted and shot Bosniak leaders on the spot and went through the streets indiscriminately firing their machine guns. Meanwhile, in the capital, Serb snipers fired into a peace demonstration on April 6. As Serb troops encircled the city, the three-and-a-half year siege of Sarajevo began.

Then, all of a sudden-at least to me it seemed sudden-something happened. FAHRIJA was shocked when her politician husband urged her to leave Bosnia, convinced that an outbreak of violence was just around the corner. Demagogues surfaced, making bizarre claims and promoting notions of ethnic differentiation. The trouble originated in Serbia. Strange political meetings were held. There was a lot of talk about history, and accusations about terrors during the Ottoman Empire. The theories put forward were ludicrous to us. We didn't take them seriously. I thought we, as a people, were so strongly connected that nothing could destroy that bond. My husband said I should take the children somewhere awhile, so he would be free to join the political scene and fight for Yugoslavia. Ejup knew the war was starting that day, but he didn't tell me. He knew I wouldn't leave. Arriving in Belgrade, we immediately received news that Serb forces had attacked Sarajevo. I knew they wouldn't let us come back.

Fahrija is a sophisticated, Chicago-trained dermatologist, raised in Serbia in a wealthy Albanian Muslim family. She and her husband, Ejup, a former professor of engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, had returned to Bosnia with their two small children. As the trouble erupted, she decided to go to her father's home about 150 miles from Belgrade. Given Ejup's high profile as a political leader, she decided to go by bus, hoping she and her two children could pass incognito. I saw strange things during the journey. There seemed to be something everybody else had known for a long time, something I was just realizing. Groups of soldiers were at every checkpoint. The bus driver would simply wave a three-finger salute in political solidarity, and we were allowed to pass. Each time my heart would stop, fearing a soldier would board and check our papers. They'd realize that I was the wife of-and these were the children of-Ejup Ganic. We were in the middle of Serbia, and they were blaming Ejup and our president, Izetbegovic, for the war. I was trembling.

TANJA was also politically involved, a member of the prewar Bosnian Parliament, who eventually moved into the multiperson presidency (a typical Balkan political construct). Before and after her political work, she was a professor of landscape architecture. Tanja is active, forceful, and intelligent; still, like Fahrija, she was caught completely off guard by the eruption of hostilities: Even in the Parliament, none of us could imagine war was coming. Many of my political colleagues were thinking about what seemed to me to be an abstract idea-the division of the country-and all my being welled up against the notion. When the shelling started, I thought it must be some drunks. When we discovered it was serious, and it was ethnic Serbs attacking the city, even though I'm a Serb I decided to stay in Sarajevo and not go to the mountains-not shoot down from the hills on my friends and colleagues.

Tanja's words challenge credulity. Surely she must have known war was brewing. But disbelief among professionals and common citizens was widespread. SUZANA's account corroborates Tanja's. She too is a Bosnian Serb, an identity that allowed this delicate young woman entree into the sphere of the Serb military as a journalist during the conflict: One day before the shooting broke out in Sarajevo, a friend of mine from the Yugoslav army told me I should leave immediately, because the next day the fighting would start. I was shocked. He knew the exact day war would break out! But of course I stayed. As the onslaught started, twenty-three-year-old Suzana went to pick up some food from her parents, who lived a two-hour drive northwest of the capital. I was naive to believe the war would be over in a couple of days, so I was trapped there in Serb territory. I was a journalist for what some considered a Muslim magazine. The Serbs came to my father and tried, at gunpoint, to mobilize me for civil defense, to make me prove my loyalty. My father managed to get me transferred to the medical corps, where I was active only once-helping with a violent psychotic woman from the emptied mental hospitals. After three months, I escaped my parents' town on the first bus allowed to leave Bosnia and go to Serbia.

Another media professional caught completely unaware was RADA, living unwittingly on the front line with her radio director husband, seventeen-year-old daughter, and eight-year-old son. Rada embodies the mixed demographics of Bosnians: from a rural family, transplanted to Sarajevo, married to a Bosnian Croat, and with ethnic Serb parents. With the onset of war, the radio station was in disarray as programming began to be politicized by the SDA, the prominent Bosniak party. Although she was in the heart of the news industry, Rada felt outside the information loop. Nationalist leaders were appearing on TV, but I don't think anyone thought war was possible. Maybe when you're too close, you can't feel it. There were lots of nationalist Serb and Croat political party members, as well as Serbs in upscale apartments owned by the army. They left in February. Jeeps and cars picked them up, so they must have already had some warning that something was going to happen. We saw them leave but didn't attach any importance to it, because the war had started in Slovenia and Croatia, and antiarmy feelings were increasing. We thought the army people were afraid of the animosity, and that was why they were leaving for a while. They didn't move their furniture. They just left with suitcases, so we weren't alarmed. We accepted it as normal.

From her sixth-floor apartment, Rada looked out over a peaceful, quiet neighborhood, filled with a large number of Bosniaks, as well as Serbs. Then one evening in early March '92, trucks arrived with armed men-some in camouflage, some in blue, some with bands around their sleeves with white eagles, which were the only sign that they were extremists. There was nothing strategically essential about our neighborhood. Although the Yugoslav army was all around, we didn't feel threatened. Near our area there was a water supply plant, and they took it over; but we thought that it was for some public purpose: to guard it-maybe prevent someone from poisoning us. [She laughs sardonically.] Almost overnight, the modern residential neighborhood in which Rada lived was transformed into the front line for Serbs attempting to take over Sarajevo. From my flat I watched armed people come in and out. Telephone lines were cut; I had no contact with Pale [Karadzic's newly declared Bosnian Serb capital fifteen miles from Sarajevo]. No communication whatsoever. We were trying to figure out what was going on. But war? No way. [Rada laughs again.]

Rada went out to her balcony to watch the soldiers. They started shooting at our windows, thinking we were Bosniaks or their sympathizers. At the beginning it was sort of a warning. That's what we believed-rather innocently. We weren't supposed to watch, but we didn't know that. [She leans forward, laughing again, her hands moving constantly as she paints the scene.] We had a fantastic view, right in front of our eyes, like a movie screen. Every day they were shooting, not over the buildings, but into our windows. After that, the military issued orders for us to put blankets over the windows-for security reasons, they said. Sometimes, out of curiosity, we tried to peep out and see what was going on. They'd shoot directly into our windows if they saw us. One morning, a sniper fired at me seven times. If I hadn't dropped to the floor, I'd be dead. My flat was completely destroyed early in May '92. It was hit by so many shells that it looked like an arsenal.

In May or June, and even after, most journalists just wanted to get out of Sarajevo. It was mass confusion. Nobody knew what was going on or how long it would last. Everybody thought it would be just one or two months-at worst until winter, then everything would be over. Some of my Serb colleagues felt ashamed, so they either stayed at home, waiting for the fighting to stop, or they left for Serb territory or Zagreb. The Bosniaks mainly remained, although the ones who had relatives abroad went to be with them. We were left-patriots who had no idea what we were fighting for, just a compulsion to do something.

As other journalists were leaving, Rada stayed and recorded stories of refugees expelled from their homes. My brother and mother in Pale didn't want to accept reality; but I interviewed Bosniaks from Pale I'd known all my life. That was awful, listening to people who were living with their friends one day, and the next day had to flee. Their expulsion, we realized later, was lucky, because in the spring of 1992 an enormous number of soldiers from Serbia moved in, most of them wearing the white eagles insignia. Executions followed.

The aggression led by Milosevic-backed forces was stunning. Repeatedly, the women expressed their amazement, shock, and disbelief that this nightmare could be descending on their stable, modern country. Alma, a young engineer, had been raised in Mostar, a couple of hours' drive south of Sarajevo. One of two children, with a gutsy spirit, she had been a talented high school athlete. In April 1992, Alma was visiting her parents in Sarajevo for Bajram, a three-day Muslim holiday. Though fighting had started in the capital, she imagined it would be fleeting. She was concerned about missing work in Mostar, so she boarded a train to go back home. That trip changed her life forever. The track had been blown up, and she found herself trapped. I was stuck midway, in some town where I had no friends or family. Like any person trying to make rational decisions in crazy times, she was disoriented. I just couldn't believe this was happening. There was still electricity. On TV I saw Sarajevo being shelled. My parents were there! I kept thinking the track would be repaired. I wanted to go back to Sarajevo or on to Mostar, but I couldn't get to either.

Over the next weeks the war escalated. To survive, I joined the army trying to protect Bosnia, working as a medic. Women in the army had no training and no one directing them. As a girl, it was hard; women had to prove themselves more and Along the main road from the airport to Sarajevo. December 1995. had to protect themselves, psychologically as well as physically. We were on our own-defending our people.


Excerpted from This was not our war by Swanee Hunt Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

1 Hell breaks loose 15
2 Love in the crucible 59
3 Reasons for the war 73
4 The lie of intractable hatred 95
5 Challenges 119
6 Women transforming 137
7 The road to reconciliation 169
Epilogue : the courage to hope 191
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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 26, 2005


    This is an exquisitely executed book about the struggles of women in Bosnia to survive the ravages of a war fuelled by political expedience and glamorized as an ethnic struggle. Swanee Hunt's own tone of moral outrage never eclipses the voices of the women she has interviewed. She writes of them with love, and also finds much love in them, a love only more startling for having survived such intense hatred. This book is a great, great achievement, both for its singular mix of empathy and for its clarity. As Primo Levi and Viktor Frankl found meaning in the Holocaust without diminishing its horror, so Hunt finds a language of strength and power in these compromised lives. This is a book about the very best and very worst of humanity.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 8, 2005

    Are we willing to listen?

    Swanee Hunt's book is a tour de force for sounding the voices of women who were largely ignored or marginalized in the war in Bosnia, a war contrived and executed by men. Hunt was United States Ambassador to Austria during the Bosnian conflict, and her embassy office was in Vienna, not far from the common border Austria shares with Bosnia. Her book is a gripping narrative of her own observations and commentary written into the taped transcriptions of actual interviews she conducted while serving as Ambassador and also working as a peace negotiator. These are the voices of women, those who had no voice in the war or in the peace. Swanee Hunt is a woman of peace who gives these women a voice. This book is a must read for anyone interested in international affairs, social ethics and peace.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 27, 2005

    A 'Must Read'

    Swanee Hunt¿s new book, This Was Not Our War, is an honest and poignant account of what happened in Bosnia during and after the 1992-95 conflict, as seen through the eyes of women of all ages, all four Bosnian ethnic backgrounds and a variety of experiences. Hunt¿s writing and analysis are right on the mark, and the book is a ¿must read¿ for anyone interested not only in the political underpinnings of the tragic war but in its psychological impact on all vulnerable groups, especially women. I will use this book in teaching a course at University of Michigan in October called ¿Psychosocial Consequences of War.¿

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