The 4th group in summer 2001 (august 17 to 30) consisted in 22 women and children from Slavonski Brod (eastern Slavonia/Croatia) and from several villages bordering on Slavonia on the northern Bosnian side (Republika Srpska). This group was mediated by the "center for peace, non-violence and human rights Osijek", respect. by the "peace team 'lice mira' (= face of peace)" from Slavonski Brod.
Both eastern Slavonia and the "Bosanska Posavina" (= "Bosnian plain", the Bosnian region on the border to Slavonia) were badly destroyed during the war in Croatia and Bosnia. The main part of the population was expelled. The people experienced awful war atrocities, many were murdered, others were abducted and later on killed. The militia of "Arkan", a Serbian criminal who was hired by Serbian nationalists for the war against Croatia and Bosnia and was known for his extraordinary cruelty, had caused havoc in the eastern Slavonian region. The horrible experience of war and violence had stirred up hate and mistrust among the several national re. religious communities (orthodox Serbians, catholic Croats, Moslem Bosniacs).
To counter hate, violence, and nationalism and build up a "culture of peace", the "centre for peace, non-violence and human rights" in Osijek was founded when the war was still on. Aiming at supporting mutual understanding between the enemy groups, the centre has since then organized several projects and activities. In order to reach the surrounding and more remote villages as well, the centre initiated several "peace teams" in the eastern Slavonian area, among them one in Vukovar and one in Slavonski Brod. These teams carried out the project "active listening" last year. Within this project, the peace activists (almost all female) visit single persons or families in their villages to talk with them about their experience, their problems, needs, and wishes, but to ask them about their opinion on the question of living together with other national communities in their village again.
As due to expulsions many Croatian and Bosniac refugees from the "Bosanska Posavina" still live in Slavonski Brod, the peace team there did not only include those Bosnian families in the project, but also expanded the whole "active listening" program into the "Bosanska Posavina".
On the one hand, the activists visited the refugees in Slavonski Brod, most of them wanting to return to their villages in Bosnia, but fearing that they might not be able to deal with the situation in the "Republika Srpska", anxiously wondering how the Serbian population would react to their return. They were as well worried about how to make a living back there and about how to finance the reconstruction of their houses, wondering whether there was any possibility of receiving financial aids.
On the other hand, the peace team visited people in the villages of the "Bosanska Posavina", among them the villages "Zboriste" (formerly mainly Serbian), "Kolibe Gornje" (formerly mainly Moslem), and "Novo Selo" (formerly mainly Croatian.)
In many conversations, it appeared that women and children were the ones most open to take a step towards the "others".
Therefore, the peace team developed the idea of a recreational stay for women and children of all three national communities as a further step of their "reconciliation project". As "Lice Mira" had heard about SEKA from the centre for peace Osijek, and as the activists thought of the SEKA program with its recreational stays including psychological/pedagogic support for the participants as ideal for their needs, they asked us to be included in the summer 2001 schedule. With financial aid of the "Stiftung Sternstunden" foundation and our supporter Ute Pfeifer, we were able to invite the group to stay 14 days in SEKA- House.
The peace team members elected the participants. As essential criteria to get selected, women and older children had to consciously take the decision to participate in this "mixed" vacation, this is to say they had to be ready to take a step towards "the others".
The group finally consisted in seven women (3 Serbs, 2 Croats, 2 Bosniacs) and their 15 children. The Bosniac and Serbian women had already returned to their villages, the Croats were still living in Slavonski Brod, hoping for their return. Women and children of the same national background knew each other at least slightly, because they came from the same village. Some women from different ethnic groups used to know each other slightly before the war, as their villages were only a few kilometres apart. Before the trip to SEKA-House the women had only met once, joined by two women of the peace team, to get to know each other a bit and prepare the common journey. The children had only met on the trip itself.
During the first days of their stay, the women were rather cautious and shy. On the one hand, they were enthusiastic about the beauty of the island, the sea, SEKA-House with its cosy rooms and the nice terraces. They felt like "having won the lottery", as they told us later. On the other hand, it seemed hard on them to believe that all this was real. Especially the atmosphere in SEKA-House, the warm, hearty welcome, "even though you SEKA-women did not know us at all", was almost unbelievable for them. They were afraid we would expect anything from them in return. They could not imagine that what we did was what we just liked to do, only wanting them to feel happy here, and enjoying their happiness.
Therefore, it was especially important to this group that Mirjana Bilan and myself (Gabriele Muller) told the women all about the history of this project: We told them about how the idea arose, about how we installed the project under difficult conditions, and about our personal reasons to do this work. The women listened with great interest. They were moved and thrilled by the fact that women can do the impossible if they really want to. They asked many questions and cautiously started telling us about their experience.
After this evening, the women could accept our empathy and warmth. They were then ready to believe that those were "real" and that there were "no bad surprises waiting behind the corner".
All these women were multiply traumatized - by war, by flight, by the loss of close relatives, and by the long lasting experience o living in surroundings where at any time hostility, hate and violence could burst out again.
The atmosphere in SEKA therefore produced a positive shock.
After this evening, the women were able to relax more and more, as well in terms of dealing with each other. Even though on the first two days the women had rather stayed with women from their subgroup, those groups started dissolving on the third day on the beach. There was still a lot of caution, uneasy topics related to war and persecution were rather avoided, but the women began to talk about ordinary topics such as the children, their family situation and similar things.
With us SEKA workers (Mirjana Bilan, Melita Tumbri (psychologist), Vesna Sobot (educator), and Gabriele Muller) the women did talk about war and flight in private conversations. Other major topics were: the grief about the death of close relatives, the loss of friends who had not come back until then or had emigrated, financial problems of reconstruction, assuring of livelihood (almost no woman had a job), family or marriage problems, problems with the children (s.b.), experience with violence, either in the war or domestic violence, feelings of loneliness and senselessness up until suicidal plans, disappointment, and mistrust towards other people.
When we asked the women about their wishes at the beginning of their stay and mentioned working in the therapy room as a possibility, the women agreed in saying that they mainly wanted to recreate, swim, sunbath, get away from their all day problems and just be together without bigger demands, and get to know each other. We naturally accepted that, as we noticed that the women connected "group work" with their fear of touching uneasy topics they were just not ready to deal with.
The women loved to go for walks in the evenings or gather on the terrace and chat when the children were in the "kucica" (child therapy house). They joked around and laughed a lot, on two evenings they even danced.
After a week, the group had grown together very much, and their different national/religious backgrounds were not noticeable anymore. Some close friendships were established. The women began to talk about personal things - not in the big group, but in groups of 2 or 3 women.
In the second week some women expressed interest in working in the therapy room. Except for one woman, all of them finally took the offer of a first group evening. We started off with the subject "safety in the group", working out rules for the group work. We went on with a motion game on relaxation and energization and the game "chain-pantomime" which lead to a jolly atmosphere.
On another evening, some women wanted to talk about the question "do I have the right to express my feelings?" This topic naturally gave rise to painful feelings, but talking about it finally produced some relief and more openness among the women. To close this session, we did some exercises on getting rid of heavy energies (stamping; shaking and tapping oneself) and afterwards did a motion game to lighten the group atmosphere again.
On the last evening we carried out our ritual called "letting go - getting rid of things." (Now all women without exception participated) which the women experienced as an relief. After that, all women wrote down what they had gained from their stay in SEKA. Those feedbacks show that the women from different national/religious communities have achieved more then to make just one step towards each other. They established a group of close people, wishing to go on getting together. Certainly, the common experience in SEKA will be carried on into the women's and children's surroundings, their families, and their village communities. At the end, some women said that they would like to return to SEKA for a seminar, maybe together with other women from their villages, to go on working on the topics that have not been ready to be treated this time.
We would love to offer such a (maybe 4 days lasting) seminar to this group and other women from those villages. External financial backing would be a prerequisite.
The 15 children of this group, seven girls and 8 boys, were between 2 and 16 years old. Therefore we formed subgroups according to age: One colleague (either Maida Koso, child psychologist, or Vesna Sobot, educator) would dedicate her attention to the smaller children between 3 and 6 years of age, and the other would work with the older ones in the meantime. To our surprise, 14-year-old Besim still loved to play in the children's house, preferably with LEGO and figures. The two-year-old boy was mainly taken care of by his mother; the 16-year-old girl participated only in some of the children's activities such as the photo project.
From the beginning, there was not much tension between the children of different "entities". The eight youngest (up until 6 years) were free from prejudice. Conflicts in this group originated from other things than different group identities.
The 9-year-old and the 13-year-old asked in the children's meeting on the first evening whether we had "war toys" here. We explained to them why we didn't and what kind of project this was: That we wanted our visitors to get along with each other well, that all women and children are equally important here, that we watch out for each other, and that everybody is allowed to say if he or she is not well. We pointed out that sometimes we as well had different opinions on something or wanted to achieve different things, but that this is not bad, because we can always find a solution, just sitting down together to talk about it. After that explanation, the "war toys" topic was finished with. Later on we found out that both boys had witnessed violent attacks on their mothers.
The six older children had experienced war and flight from their home villages. Two children had lost their father. Another child lived alone with its mother, because the father "had left." As this father had been violent, the boy said that he was happy to be alone with his mother now. Nevertheless, the boy was very uncertain and had problems concerning his self-esteem.
Three smaller boys were rather hyperactive and at the beginning very aggressive and ruthless. They behaved contrary, bawled and hit anything near them until their mother gave in. The three little sons were asking too much of her as a single mother, and she was totally exhausted.
Two girls presented symptoms of a slight mental handicap. Another boy had speech impediments and sometimes stuttered which made him angry and caused aggressive behaviour towards other children. One child was very dependent on his mother who further encouraged that.
Generally, all children had difficulties to pay attention, watch out for each other, and accept rules and limits.
This group of children therefore was challenging for us, too. Nevertheless, our daily program tailor-made for children's needs helped us a lot in dealing with them. The trips to the beach (none of the children had been at the seaside before), playing in the sand, looking for seashells and stones, building sandcastles, digging themselves in the sand, learning to swim, jump and dive helped the children to live up to their need of motion and action.
At first, all children were a bit afraid of water but were at the same time fascinated by it. With a little support and equipped with swimming belts, they finally dared to enter the water and became freer and braver day by day. Except for the youngest, almost all children learned to swim, and we very much enjoyed watching them swim, dive and jump or float on the water. Nevertheless, they liked the swimming pool near the beach in Supetar (the island's main town) better than the sea itself. The pool's demarcation and the plain ground without plants made them feel safer.
The children loved the evenings they spent in the children's house as well. They could hardly wait to go into the "kucica" and play with the "aunties" (the SEKA workers) after dinner.
The older children loved to play whole plots with LEGO, developing another episode every evening. The smaller children especially liked role games with our dolls and puppets. In these games, they assimilated all day experiences such as family life, shopping, or birthday parties as well as topics like illness, death, birth, accidents, or arguments. The SEKA workers normally participated in the games playing a role the children had assigned them to (mostly the father's, the mother's, or a victim's part). In this way, the children could either fulfil their needs to be taken care of or act out their aggressions in a harmless way.
In the beginning it was often necessary to settle conflicts among the children. The more the children accepted our rules, the easier it became to settle those problems. Step by step the children learned to pay more attention and watch out for each other, because they realized it was worth the effort. Naturally, there were the three surprises for them as well: the photo- project and the exhibition on the last evening, a boat trip in small groups with "aunty" Mirjana's boat, and the "T-Shirt painting" activity (see group 1).
Taking photos with their "real own camera" was a great attraction for these children as well. The little course improved their ability to concentrate and to perceive and increased their self-esteem due to the exhibition on the last evening. Last but not least, they learned how to handle a camera and take photos.
The boat trip was a dream come true for these children. For days, they had longingly watched the boats at the quays in Supetar and Splitska. They could hardly believe it that they were now to ride on such a boat themselves. They enjoyed this "surprise" proudly and with beaming faces.
The mothers were kept busy with their own problems at first, they were exhausted and hardly had any capacity for the children, neither to play with them nor to have arguments or settle conflicts. They basically ignored their children's behavior as long as they could; only when it became impossible to ignore, they eventually slapped or beat them.
It became clear that next to the offers we made for the children, conversations with the mothers on the children were extraordinarily important. At the very beginning when introducing the house rules, we had pointed out that SEKA was a "place without violence" and had offered our assistance in solving problems with the children and in finding non-violent solutions. Most mothers were happy to take the offer. Caused by acute problems on the beach, it often came to such conversations. We encouraged the mothers to put up necessary limits and make sensible demands, and to consistently keep to them.
Other topics were:
In the end there were major changes to be seen in the relationship between mothers and children: On one hand, the mothers began to do more with their children, to play with them and to enjoy being with them. On the other hand, they increasingly managed to put up limits and keep to them. After a period of outbursts of rage, the children began to accept their mothers' new behaviour what the women felt to be a great relief. One woman said at the end of her stay: "I have learned more about educating children here in 14 days than in the rest of my life so far."