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VAK Women convoy to Tuzla (Bosnia)

Text and Photos:Lieve Snellings, November 1994

From October 26 till November 8, 1994, I was one of the V.A.K. ( Vrouwen Aktie Kollektief ) members who went with a women’s convoy to Tuzla. On request of the women of Tuzla we brought them hygienic products detergents, cleaning products, pantyhose , beauty products , make-up up… We left from Belgium with one truck , the drivers were Moniek and Bert , and one car with four women : Jenny, Dimphna, Aldegonde and I.

Tuzla a multicultural and multi-ethnic town

More and more I realize this multicultural and multi-ethnic society is very proper to the people of Tuzla. I saw many testifies of this many times. I want to share some examples to illustrate this :

  • As long as the war is going on, there is no money to pay salaries. They only receive some food for their work. Two doctors told me a lot of colleague has left the country there are to less doctors there now. BUT you can’t blame anyone who left they said to me.
  • The teachers told me a similar story. There are also too less teachers English because Unprofor gives big salaries to interpreters/translators. As outsider I was thinking : “the hell Unprofor ruins all this system. But you can’t blame anybody who choose for a well payed job. You can’t, are not allowed to decide for other people
  • Aicha is one young woman around 30 who is in the army and fight at the frontlines. She showed me pictures of 3 young men. These were her brothers, killed by the Chetnics in the beginning of the war. Mirsada , who herselve is married to a Serb , replayed to me “well after all what happened to her family you can’t expect that Aicha likes Serbs. Aicha moves her finger and says : “no, you may not say this that way , I have nothing against Serbs, I hate the Chetniks , that’s something totally dirrerent, I have really close friends who are Serbs”. I DO HOPE I can have a similar reaction in such a situation, but I’m not sure if I can. I’m really touched by these words, every single hair on my body trills.
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But war is destroying life in this multi-cultural

In spite of this strength for life, you can feel how war ruins people. Life and death is always and everywhere present here.

  • There is only water for 3 or 4 hours a day. But if you want to do the laundry, have dinner , cook, drink tea or coffee, clean, use the water of the closet, then you have to be home when the water comes to fill all your bottles and water holders.
  • There is electricity every other day. Also this makes life very complicated. Round 18.00 o'clock night is falling quickly, you always need to have a (bulb ?) hand light with you when you go out. And in the house you need everywhere candle lights so you always have them by hand. Dina and Emina , two 17 year old girls said about this : “… and you don’t have any privacy anymore because when there is no electricity, that means it is also very quite/silence at home. Nowhere is playing radio or TV in the apartments building. Everything what you say can be heard by everyone , also within the bathroom. In fact the bathroom is then most hearable place at home.
  • There are a lot of apartment buildings in Tuzla. Can you imagine you live at the 5th, the 9th or even the 15th floor and the elevator doesn’t work. “We have well trained leg muscles” the women said.
  • This was told by Suada , the doctor in the family where I was a guest “…we are really happy persons : here we are happy whenever we have water, here we are happy whenever we have electricity, here we are happy when the shell doesn’t hit our house, here we are happy when we have food to eat, here we are happy when nobody is wounded, you see we are always happy. It is hard to write this, thinking of her, how she is hurt. She doesn’t feel well at all. Suada works as doctor in the “hospital for physics medical and rehabilitation , a rehabilitation clinic in a shed. Beside this, she is effective in a women counseling place for war victims. For neither jobs she receive any salary. She also has to take care for her family, she has one daughter and one son. She worries a lot about their future. Before , she said we had we a good system of health care, of education, we could travel… but now we have anything anymore.
  • Emina told us that she slept for week in the bathroom during the bombardments, she in the bathtub and her parents on the ground nearby.
  • Almost during all wartime it was impossible to have phone communications with somebody outside. Lucky is the phone inside Tuzla always worked, so people could stay in touch.
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City images of Tuzla

  • Everywhere in the streets you can see sale stands where people sell their furniture to survive. Previous winter , the coldest winter out of history, the town was under strong attacks. Interchange and selling private belongings was a real survival strategy. In Belgium I always have been fond of flea markets. But in Tuzla there wasn’t this pleasing scent, it was bitter necessity to survive…
  • Various lawn between the apartment buildings are transformed into kitchen gardens, where persons themselves can grow vegetables.
  • The moment we were there, the wear of war in town was on a low level. That is to say , the two nights I was there where was shooting ( the second night very much). Sometimes these last months there was during daytime was a shell exploding. The weeks before, a shell felt on the playground of the Gymnasium. Lucky the classes were going on and everybody was in them. Half an hour earlier, or later, and there would have been many slay and wounded. Therefore they say in Tuzla “it’s your destiny”. Only after the first shell felt you can seek for shelter. It is yours destiny whether you survive the first one or not
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Assistance yes… but not when it costs the helped persons dignity

Regularly the women told us “we are used to take care for ourselves, it isn’t fun to depend on others help…” It is as it takes away part of their dignity. When we take away their dignity, what mean has assistance than, unless for our self to feel powerful and strong ?

When we were driving the convoy into Bosnia, I saw some trucks before ours, they were throwing beer and chocolates out to the people who begged for it… I felt ashamed, though I remembered my mother saying they were happy with the chocolate American soldiers through to them at the end of WW2. I wished they gave this at a different way…

We had an opposite experience when we were unpacking the our truck of the convoy en they saw there was make-up in, they were so. We couldn’t give them greater pleasure. “As long as we make us pretty, we keep our dignity” they told us. When I ever doubt whether this request for make-up is part of necessity war aid, now I am absolute convinced it is a top.
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Muslim culture and multicultural society

Various times we were asked “what do you think about us?” And the men asked “what do you think about the women of Tuzla ?” First we didn’t understand what they meant. But then they said “don’t we look like European ? We are not Muslims like in Iran or Saoudi Arabia… we are modern women, not veiled women, and we don’t want to become that.

My guest family is Mussulman. We have discussed about this a lot. “We are Muzelmans , have a Muslim culture” they said “that are our roots, our origin. But most don’t practice. It is so wrong the West always suggest and visualize Muslims with a veil. In Sweden, at the announcement poster for a meeting about the situation in Tuzla, they put a picture with a veiled woman. This makes us furious We are against fundamentalism , also against Muslim fundamentalism. For us our Muslim culture means we are open and tolerant, we are multicultural and and want to go on living multi etnic…”.

In the streets of Tuzla you hardly see a woman with a shador, I haven’t seen 1 veiled woman. The population of Tuzla is about double since the refugees came, and there are differences of cultural between refugees and citizen of Tuzla. These refugees have gone through so much, lost everything, live now so close in small places… and you see these women more and more wearing a shador. In fact they are driven into the arms of fundamentalism. “You, the West has to support usd, if only for your own selfdefence” we were told. “If here, after so many ages, multicultural society will be destroyed,than it looks really bad for the world. Nationalism will grow bigger everywhere.

In Former Yugoslavia there is more than nationalist groups , there are also people who believe in multi culture… “Isn’t it hypocritical the West support multicultural life with words, but doesn’t allow the people who want to live in a multicultural society defend themselves, they even don’t want to talk with us” they said.
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Working visit at the University Clinic in Tuzla

My working visit at the University Clinic of Tuzla made me feel really bad. I needed to get a clearer view about the mammography machine the Women Association of Tuzla wanted.

There are about 1.000.000 residents in the canton of Tuzla. It is an area heavy industry , where cancer has a high number. The University Clinic is a huge complex, scattered over different buildings, it has 1.800 beds and 2.500 people working , ( somehow like the University Clinic where I work in Leuven). All the discipline of a modern clinic are present : surgery, orthopedy, oncology, radiology, hematology , internal medicine, neurology , psychiatry and a polyclinic. They don’t have an Emergency Room . They planned to start building, but than it stopped till the end of war.

I couldn’t take pictures from outside the building of the clinic (because this is a war target). Everywhere you can see the grenades (shell) input. The windows are broken and replaced by plastic. “Now everything is covered up” said Dina and Suada. “Last year we had the worst winter out of history and all the window were shot”.

Dr. Filipovic lead us around at the unit orthopedy – surgery . He is working for 2,5 years without having one single day free. He has done about 2.500 complicated operations, the simple ones are not cunted anymore. There still are 15 surgeons working in 3 operating operation rooms. 90 to 95 % of the number of patients are war victims. As well soldiers as civilians as refugees. Most are men, but also women and children.

Even in the clinic water is restricted disposable, and only every other day there is electricity. Of course there are special SOS producers, but they can only use them when there are really emergent operations or for people in Intensive Care…

It’s really a mystery for me how these people can go on working in circumstances. I feel respect and admiration for them, request myself how long they can maintain.

About the mammography machine :

They got a mammography machine from Italy,BUT it was broken., and so old they couldn’t find pieces to replace and fix the machine anymore. “Nevertheless we need this mammography machine so much, explains the director of the clinic. We had this on our priority list, but than came war and now we don’t have the money anymore.

We need the mammography as well for prevention , diagnosis as treatments of cancer in an early stadium. Dr. Suada Kapidzic told me that 3 months ago she appointed a swelling/tumor in her breast. Because Tuzla doesn’t have a mammography machine, she had to go to Llublijana. Lucky for her, the diagnosis was negative. “But” she says “if it was cancer, the treatment in Llublijana would have cost me 20.000 D.M. Most women can’t pay that. If we have our own mammography machine, we could diagnostic and intervene so much faster”. The explanation of the director and Dr. Kapidzic story are so close to what the Women Association of Tuzla request. The disillusion was great because Italy gave a machine that didn’t work and we didn’t have another with us.

Before war, cancer was of the most important reasons why people died. But now, during war, dieing from cancer… this is too much. This is what I understand listening to what the doctors tell me. I really hope we will succeed to help them. Our friends in Austria and Greece also want to see what they can do to help. Together we have to succeed.

I’m so angry with this “own folk first” war.

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webdesign & photos: Lieve Snellings

last updated: 14th of May 2005
© 2005 Vrouwen in 't Zwart Leuven