“History belongs to everyone, including women”

The interview was conducted by Hannah Sanders, forumZFD

How does war, peace and reconstruction look like through the eyes of women? This question is at the heart of the exhibition “Peace with Women’s Face”, which is now shown in Germany for the first time. The exhibition portrays 20 women from all parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina, who share their personal stories from the war and the post-war time. We have spoken with Radmila Žigić, one of the driving forces behind this unique project, about the importance of including female perspectives in the culture of remembrance.

It has been nearly 27 years now that the Dayton Peace Agreement marked the end of the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1995. How does the war affect the society until today?

When the war began in 1992, it fully dominated our lives for four years. Everything else was put aside in face of the horror and destruction. And when the fighting ended, the country was divided along ethnic lines. These divisions are still alive today. They are present in politics and they have a significant impact on the development of society. As a result, we still have an extended state of war – a war which is not fought by arms but by preserving these divisions. What happened during the 1990s has not yet become part of our archives or history books. We still have not agreed upon what kind of war this was: Some believe that it was a civil war, others believe that it was an aggression against Bosnia and Herzegovina by Serbia or Croatia. This question about who started the war or who attacked whom hinders us from moving forward with the peace process. As a civic activist it worries me that we keep living with these divisions. We have three different educational systems, three different media systems, and this of course has a direct impact on the young generations. The children learn different versions of history in school. This influences the values that they grow up with, based on which they will later on build the political and economic processes in this country. This is one of the serious problems that we are facing.

Now I have painted quite a bad picture of Bosnia and Herzegovina. So let me add that in fact the citizens do live normally here. They communicate with each other, and they travel within the country. But when it comes to the remembrance of the war in the public space, this is determined by politicians, and therefore the war is remembered along ethnic lines.

Could you explain that a little bit more: How exactly is the war remembered?

In the public space, the Serbian, Croatian and Bosniak leaders only remember their own heroes, their own suffering, the killings and crimes committed against their people. There is no common remembrance such as for example joint commemoration days. The political decision-makers prevent society from facing the past in a consistent and organized manner. Responsibility for war crimes is being denied in the public space and in the media. At the same time, in civil society there is a significant resistance against these policies of division. Many civil society organisations, including women’s organization, are trying to overcome ethnic divisions. For example, they initiate joint memorialization and face the past at the grassroots level.

Why is it important to have an exhibition that tells about the war through the perspective of women?

For the simple fact that women make up 50 percent of the population. We live in a patriarchal society in which big historical events are told from the perspectives of men, especially soldiers and politicians. This is not particular to Bosnia and Herzegovina, it happens in other countries as well. We belong to a global movement of women that would like history to be told not just from the perspective of men but also from the perspective of women. During the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the fighting took place in every street, in every village and city. This of course involved men, women and children. Women suffered terribly during this period: At least a million of them had to leave their homes, many were victims of sexual violence, and around ten thousand were killed. This data but also the individual destinies should be a part of our memory. History belongs to everyone, including women.

And from a more practical perspective this also needs to be taken into account when creating policies. This is a clear message that we want to send: Whenever we talk about reparations, recovery or similar policies, we have to consider what happened to women during the war. So far this has not been the case in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and neither in other places around the world.

Finally, by talking about what happened to women we deconstruct the myth that war is something heroic, that it is normal in some way. In fact, war is an extremely difficult situation. It means destruction, brutality, crimes and killings. Therefore, the exhibition sends a clear message of peace: Political conflicts cannot and must not be resolved through war.

The exhibition is the result of a cooperation between the women’s peace movement “Mir sa ženskim licem” (“Peace with Women’s Face”), the History Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and forumZFD. How did you come up with this idea?

Sunita Dautbegović Bošnjaković from forumZFD and me were discussing different ways to tell the stories of women during the war and post-war period. We came up with this idea, which we then presented in a meeting with around 20 civil society organisations who work on women’s topics. It was challenging, because usually exhibitions and museums focus on the past, on events that happened long ago. Our exhibition, by contrast, touches not only the past but also the present. Finally, we managed to find the right format, and we were particularly glad that the History Museum got involved with their professional expertise. Together we found a way to transform these oral histories into exhibits.

How did you choose the twenty women who are portrayed in the exhibition?

Overall, 13 organisations participated in the selection process. We first jointly defined criteria, and then every organisation from the initiative “Peace with women’s face” could propose women for the exhibition. We wanted to have women from all different parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina, with different ethnic and religious affiliations. Their stories are typical destinies from the war and post-war period. For example, some of the women portrayed in the exhibition were refugees or displaced, some were subject to sexual violence or torture, and some have lost family members. They all fought in different ways to survive.

One crucial criterion in the selection process was civil activism: All of these women managed to overcome what happened to them. These are women who have rebuilt their lives and maybe even helped others. Yes, they suffered, but they all became active. By choosing to portray civil activists, we wanted to counter the wide-spread image of women as victims.

The women tell very personal stories of their experiences before, during and after the war. Was it difficult to convince them to share their stories publicly?

All women agreed to tell their story under their real name. They understood why this exhibition is important, and they are proud to be part of it. Many of them actually felt the need to tell their stories. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, women have limited space to express their opinions. In the newly elected parliament after the war in the 1990s there were absolutely no women. Women completely lost their political and public space where they could express their opinions and ask for their rights. This significantly limited our abilities to impact policies. Subsequently, a large number of women’s organizations was founded because this was the only way to advocate for our interests. That is another reason why our exhibition focuses on female civil activism: It shows how women fought to get back their space in the public and in politics.

What impressed you most when you heard the stories of the women?

Given my age and experience, these stories were not new to me. I was already an adult when the war happened, and I worked as a journalist. I have known for a long time what happened to these women. Of course, I recognized myself in some of these stories, for example one women who helped people of a different ethnic group. This is something that I have experienced myself. However, when the team and I were working on the exhibition, we were not so much focused on the details, but on making these stories available to the public at large. My wish is that one day these stories might become official sources when it comes to information about the war and the post-war period.

The exhibition has been shown in various places in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and also in Serbia. What reactions did you get from the visitors and from the public in general?

We get very positive reactions from the public. As I mentioned before, in Bosnia and Herzegovina we have very few occasions for joint remembrance across ethnic and religious divisions. This is what makes the exhibition very special. We have received a lot of praise from visitors everywhere. It was a bit more challenging to show the exhibition in cities where massive war crimes were committed. The situation in these places is quite complex, because the denial of war crimes is very wide-spread. There is no facing the past, and any event that promotes inclusive narratives is not desirable. In some of these cities, the atmosphere was tense and the opening of the exhibition was secured by the police.

For the first time now, the exhibition is shown in Germany. What is your message to the German public?

We are very grateful for the good partnership with forumZFD and Pax Christi Aachen which enables us to show a completely different picture about Bosnia and Herzegovina and the role of women to the public in Germany. I hope that we will find the right way to present our messages. Bosnia and Herzegovina is a country of stark differences – there are some bad things, but there are also some very good things and courageous people, in this case women.

For the team and for myself it was a great challenge to bring across a message from one geographical area to another. But I would say that we have two elements here: One is that the stories of these women speak for themselves. The underlying message is that women are a serious force when it comes to peacebuilding. No matter how the history will be written, women are the true heroines when it comes to reconstruction. Everyone who visits Bosnia and Herzegovina should take the female civil movement seriously. The second element are the universal messages of this exhibition. Coming back to what I said in the beginning, it is important to understand what happens to women in a war, but also to understand what women can contribute in the post-war period. They deserve to be involved in all policies regarding reconstruction and peacebuilding. As far as I know there are at the moment around 20 conflicts around the world. These messages of the exhibition apply to all of these countries.

Looking ahead: What plans do you have for the future?

Of course, we are already working on our plans for after the event in Germany. We will show the exhibition in more cities in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and we are also trying to find a way to make it permanently available to all citizens. At the same time, we have another very important campaign. It is called “100 women – 100 streets named after women”. It is carried out in 12 cities in Bosnia and Herzegovina and aims at making the culture of remembrance more gender-sensitive. We also have lots of other ideas and see the need for more projects. But for the sake of quality we need to focus – we can’t do everything at the same time.