How Growing Up In War-Torn Bosnia Inspired Activist Selma Hadzihalilovic To Help Vulnerable Women
Selma Hadzihalilovic didn’t seek out activism. It found her.
She was just a teenager when war broke out in her native Bosnia and Herzegovina. She was training to become a nurse at a medical high school when the conflict between Croats and Serbs turned her life upside down.
“When you live in a war, you don’t know if you will wake up tomorrow,” Hadzihalilovic told KGOU’s World Views. “Roads are closed. You don’t have electricity. One of the happiest moments of my life was actually when we got electricity and water at the same time, and I was watching the washing machine doing its circle.”
She described the toll the conflict took on her mental health, hearing terrible stories, wondering if she would ever see her friends again, and her first experience of shelling and aerial bombing in her hometown of Zenica.
“You don’t know what is going on, you just know that somebody wants to kill you for a reason that you don’t really understand,” Hadzihalilovic said. “Twenty-something years later, I still don’t understand.”
Hadzihalilovic said she comes from a strong feminist/activist background. Her grandmother taught literacy classes for women during World War II, and her mother was a pediatrician involved with supporting children and their mothers during the war. Hadzihalilovic’s mother took her 17-year-old daughter to a center for victims of war rape, and it affected her deeply.
“That’s where I grew up, that is the place where I became a woman, that is a place where I learned what life is about, that’s a place where I learned what war is about,” Hadzihalilovic said. “But it was my choice. The important thing is I chose that because I felt I have to do something, and I wish that there were more of us.”
The University of Oklahoma recently honored Hadzihalilovic with its Clyde Snow Social Justice Award for her work with the center. Last year marked 20 years since the peace accords reached in Dayton, Ohio ended the fighting in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Hadzihalilovic wishes women had been better represented during the talks. She says the lives of daily citizens – and issues like health, education, and infrastructure – weren’t on their radar.
“Twenty years after the war we are talking about segregated education. We are talking about two schools under one roof. We are talking about the fact that we cannot get health protection in every city of Bosnia and Herzegovina,” Hadzihalilovic said. “I think that if women were engaged – if they were asked about priorities, if they were invited to the negotiation table – the Dayton peace agreement would actually bring more than just stopping the immediate shooting. It will bring a certain sense of prosperity for the future.”
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REBECCA CRUISE, HOST: Selma Hadzihalilovic, welcome to World Views.
SELMA HADZIHALILOVIC: Thank you, Rebecca. Thank you for having me here.
CRUISE: Tell us a little bit about how you came to activism and what your role was and maybe how that has inspired you through these last 20 years.
HADZIHALILOVIC: I don't know why I became an activist, there is no explanation that I could say I read this book and then I found this definition interesting and I decided to join. I would say it was rather a necessity, a desire of a young person to fill out her time and to leave the house in times of great desperation. That time in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Basically, I was in high school when the war started. I was in a medical high school training to become a nurse. I had great aspirations to become a surgeon one day, but then the war started and it turned my life upside down. So many of you probably learned about war from books and movies and some of you have family members involved in war in various ways. But to live in a war - that's a very specific, I can't call it lifestyle, I can't call it stage of life, but it’s something very, very specific. When you live in a war, you don't know if you will wake up tomorrow. You can't say, ‘OK, today I'm living in a war, tomorrow I will go to a beach.’ It is not possible because roads are closed. You don't have electricity. I was - one of the happiest moments of my life was actually when we got electricity and water at the same time and I was watching the washing machine doing its circle. You know, I grew up in Africa, I was travelling a lot before the war, so I didn't really know how to wash clothes on my hands, but it's something that you have to learn if you want to survive, if you want to help your family survive. I had no idea what cooking was about, how to make bread. I mean of course you go to a shop and buy bread, that's how you make bread. And then suddenly you find yourself that there are no shops, there is no bread in the shops and there is no money to buy that bread that doesn't even exist in the shops. So, you don't have electricity, you don't have water, the roads are closed. Not having electricity means you can't watch movies, there is no TV, at that time there was no internet, there was something else was later developed. Your friends are going and you don't know if you will ever see them again. You have people coming to your hometown with terrible, terrible stories that you just can't you know, it is not possible, who are those people they are talking about? And then you experience the first shelling or the first aerial bombing that was one of my first experiences when airplanes from our former joint state Yugoslavia, the GNA airplane, bombed my hometown of Zenica. So, you don't know what is going on, you just know that somebody wants to kill you for a reason that you don't really understand. And I still, 20-something years later, I still don't understand, so that is something that is very important for us back there in the Balkans is that we don't understand why this has happened to us. Those terrible war atrocities, those terrible crimes against humanity, those terrible killings, why? Why, why, why? It is still a big question. So, you become, as a young person you become depressed. You don't really know what to do with yourself, with your life. I have to say I am coming from a family that has a very strong feminist activist history. My grandmother used to provide literacy classes for women during the Second World War. My mom is a pediatrician who was very much involved in providing support for kids and to their mothers, and she obviously decided that she will probably go insane if she stays at home. So she took me to visit something that just started being built, it was a center for women victims of war rape. I think at that time I had no idea what war rape was about. I just knew that it was a center for women who were refugees and their kids. There were some German women around, there were some Bosnian and Herzegovinian women around, women of different nationalities, of different social backgrounds, and they were all trying to do something. I was 17 at that time and that's where I grew up, that is the place where I became a woman, that is a place where I learned what life is about, that's a place where I learned what war is about. That is a place where I learned what violence against women during war time means. I don't know, can you imagine, you are still young, you are trying to have a coffee with girls that are about your age, and then suddenly something happens and they start crying or screaming and going again through what happened to them in either raping camps or elsewhere where they were raped either by one individual or by groups of individuals and you just ask yourself, why? Why would anybody do something like that? You get the chance to, so I got them chance to grow up. Instead of having fun with other kids from school of my age I really had to, but it was my choice, the important thing is I chose that because I felt that I have to do something and I wish that there were more of us who have chosen, maybe not to be part of like the world where I decided I want to be a part and do something, there were other things that we could have done, but it is a question of my own choice. I chose to be involved in something that later on has simply shaped my life.
CRUISE: Very personal experience it sounds like, and, obviously in a war time situation and you chose to be an activist and continue to be an activist and obviously, as you mentioned, this was a time where rape was used as a weapon of war. Rape is often part of war, but this was a systematized policy of using war rape and then came the trafficking of women. Women really were victimized in many different ways and, on top of that, we have just this last year marked 20 years since the Dayton Peace Accords that brought an end to the violence though perhaps not the tensions. But, there were not a lot of women involved even though they were such an important aspect of the conflict. Why weren't more women involved and what could they have brought to the table? Why is it so important to have women in these post conflict discussions?
HADZIHALILOVIC: Well, I would leave kind of scientific answers to those callers who are trying make research on the participation and the role of women, especially in politics during war context. But from somebody who’s been there 20 years ago we knew very little about Dayton, so we were not informed at all. We were already actively participating in a kind of social politics. We were taking care of the women survivors of war violence. We were taking care of refugees. We were making sure that certain aspects of the society still exist, but believe me we were not informed about the Dayton peace agreement. It was only later that when peace finally came we had the chance to speak with some of the women who were, in a certain way, directly involved, such as ambassador Swanee Hunt, the former U.S. Ambassador to Vienna who hosted pre-negotiations of the Washington peace agreement, and when she spoke from her perspective how it was to host peace negotiations and how she felt when she saw that none of the sides from our war brought women to negotiation table. So none of them thought that women had something to say, which, unfortunately, was a very bad judgment and we are still bearing the consequences of that very, very bad judgment because the great international forces invited only male representatives to Dayton to basically negotiate the peace agreement. And men at that time and even today unfortunately, let's say they were not so much interested in social aspects of peace negotiations. So they did agree on the sort of division of Bosnia and Herzegovina. As you know we have a very complicated constitutional system and different jurisdictions and so on. But they never reflected on how this very complicated division of Bosnia and Herzegovina will affect the life of daily citizens. Issues such as health were not on their agenda. Issues such as education were not on their agenda. Transportation. I mean why should they worry about the transportation when they have all those expensive and special cars that are escorted by police or military or helicopters and so on? Ordinary citizens do not have all those luxuries, and 20 years after the war we are talking about segregated education, we are talking about two schools under one roof. We are talking about the fact that we cannot get health protection in every city of Bosnia and Herzegovina. There is an extraordinary discrimination and so many administrative problems. Education, I mean, I think that we have 14 laws on education and we are a country of less than 3.5 million people. So potable water. I mean just name it. Environment. I think that if women were engaged, if they were asked about priorities, if there were invited to the negotiation table, the Dayton peace agreement would actually bring more than just stopping the immediate shooting. It will bring a certain sense of prosperity for the future. 21 years after the Dayton peace agreement we are really struggling to build our lives. So there is no war anymore so there is no immediate shooting, but the tensions are still very high.
CRUISE: The ethnic groups as you said, segregated education, segregated geography in many ways.
HADZIHALILOVIC: Exactly. And I have to say that the international community is not helping. In a certain way there are new conflicts around the world and Bosnia and Herzegovina is not the priority of the agenda and I won't be saying that it is still the responsibility of the international community to watch over Bosnia and Herzegovina fully, but I think that the international peace efforts when it comes to Bosnia and Herzegovina have failed on so many different tracks that, yes, in a certain way it is still the responsibility of all of those involved in the peace negotiation process to make sure that we have new peace negotiations, that we now try to repair and use the lessons learned to make women participate at the peace negotiation table, to think more about the society and problems about everyday citizens, ordinary citizens in their everyday lives than about this high politics and really try to I can't say make a fresh start, we will never have a fresh start, but to make really this little piece of world finally life in peace.
CRUISE: Well, it is an important lesson, of course, that post-conflict is not a set period of time. The violence ends and there is a lot of rebuilding to do, both emotionally, politically, economically and socially, and that that will continue to be a challenge for Bosnia, for the Balkan region and for the international community and also, as you said, there are lessons to be learned here as we look at other conflicts around the world. Well, we could talk on and on about this, just a fascinating topic and we thank you so much for joining us today and sharing your story and your country's story with us.
HADZIHALILOVIC: Thank you for having me here.
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