Interview with Maria M.  

2,000 years and nothing has changed
On a trip to eastern Europe recently, I met Maria M., a Serbian woman living in Belgrade who works with women in camps for refugees from the war in the former Yugoslavia. She is a feminist which does not mean she hates men, but that she disapproves of the role most men have played in most societies. A role which has all too often stressed domination, conflict and its extreme form war.

Names have been changed to protect the interviewee.

aria told me about the situation in Belgrade:

"I work in a Women's Centre that has many projects to help women refugees. I have been a member of the pacifist "Women in Black" movement for three years. We stand each in the Square of the Republic each Wednesday clothed entirely in black. Sometimes people swear at us, but it is even more difficult to be ignored. We listen to the news regularly and try to sort the truth from the lies. The war began with a falsification of reality - to make one side hate the other. 

Recently one of the women in the "Women in Black" group told me of a young man who phoned her, very excited, he had managed to get out of Sarajevo and wanted to come by, to visit her. She is a good friend of the man and said "Come, come at once!" "Don't wait, come now!" She was so excited she gave him no chance to speak. Finally he managed to get a word in and said, "There's something I must tell you before we meet. People are shocked when they see me. I have had one eye shot away."

When you think of the many wars going on at present and those of the last 2,000 years, nothing has changed. That is very depressing.

We try to show our total rejection of the Serbian regime, its war policies and the "ethnic cleansing". We write protests. Sometimes one of the independent papers or a small womens' journal print them. We are met by much rejection - one reason why we go into the street each Wednesday. Sometimes people swear at us, but it is even more difficult to be ignored. We try to express out suffering, doubts and helplessness in language and activities.

When we visit the camps often the women don't even have a piece of soap. It is really purely humanitarian work. We buy oranges, bananas or chocolate for the children. We organise workshops for the female refugees to talk about their problems. Problems ! - the word is no expression for the reality. The women are in a state of absolute despair. The more time passes, the more they sink into a state of helpless, powerless, victim. ...

It is difficult to counsel them since their husband, son and other family members have been killed, their houses destroyed. The role of the women in the war is usually reduced to "sacrificing" the male members of their family. Moslem women have a particularly difficult time in the camps. There are not many of them ... and everything that goes wrong is blamed on them. We try to help them.

The women refugees are totally cut-off from their previous way of life and treated as second-class citizens. Some activities are to help restore the women's self-esteem. The loss of self-esteem is very serious. We are organising projects which bring in income for the women - for example we buy wool for the women to knit in pullovers etc. and then try to sell them. This is a very important project for the women's self-esteem. We were ourselves surprised. Women in Black also have a project "I remember" when the women write about a positive aspect of their previous life - and we "publish" it in perhaps fifty hand-written copies.

Maria and six other women get 100 DM for their full-time work. As Maria said, "It's not much but it's enough."

Colin de la Motte-Sherman

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