Ilijas, Bosnia – In the Bosnian town of Ilijas, about 18 kilometres from Sarajevo, a dozen women meet on a Saturday afternoon.
Some chat while drinking traditional strong coffee from a small white cup, as other work on their kilims, hand-woven carpets and a national symbol of Bosnia and Herzegovina. They call themselves the Zlatne Ruke, or Golden Hands.
“We are women who come together. We’re just bonding and sharing, and being there for each other,” explains Zekija Avdibegovic, coordinator of the group.
“We do traditional Bosnian crafts, like knitting and the rugs. We also cook traditional Bosnian dishes, and we’ve participated in competitions all around Bosnia, and even internationally.”
The war in the Western Balkans ended more than two decades ago. Damaged buildings and roads were repaired and rebuilt, but the deep scars of trauma endure.
Family associations in Bosnia and Kosovo – mostly led and made up of women – have been at the forefront of helping people reconstruct their lives and offer a space for collective healing.
“Time doesn’t change the trauma, trauma is still there for many people,” says Aida Mustacevic-Cipurkovic, a psychotherapist working with Vive Zene, a women’s association from Tuzla, in northern Bosnia.
“Their role in the family changed. Women took the responsibility of their families after the war because the men were killed, or missing, or were suffering from PTSD, and had lost their jobs. Here, women activated themselves to create different kinds of associations and civilian organisations to heal their communities. Women took their own initiative to deal with the trauma around them and this created new responsibilities.”
In the summer of 1992, Avdibegovic’s husband and son were taken from their home in the nearby village of Kadarici to a camp in the primary school of Ilijas.
Since then, she has not received any information on their whereabouts.
Along with some of the Golden Hand members, she continues to search for 46 missing people out of the almost 7,000 people who are still unaccounted for from the 1992-1995 Bosnian conflict.
“This story is common for many of these women. In two days, every single man and boy – all Muslims – were taken out from their homes. The women were forced to stay in their house and couldn’t do anything to save their loved ones,” adds Avdibegovic, who is also the president of the Association of Relatives of Missing Persons in Ilijas.
Through the association, families of the missing have united their demands for truth and justice, but it is through Golden Hands that war survivors – with or without missing relatives – have developed new forms of survival through communal art and sorority.
“These associations are a place for the victims, for the survivors, where they can talk about their problems and everyday life. These associations are very important for them,” adds Mustacevic-Cipurkovic.
Over time, the long-term psychological harm that war causes is passed on to other generations.
Throughout the Western Balkans, many children only remember their fathers from stories that adults have told them.
Amela Avdibegovic was seven months pregnant when her husband was taken by Serbian forces in July 1992.
She is one of the few Golden Hands members who had the opportunity to bury her loved one.
Emina, now 27 years old, is sitting between her mother and grandmother quietly. Unlike her brother, who was three at that time, Emina never had the opportunity to meet her father.
“We’ve been in pain for generations. I was inside my mum’s tummy when she was experiencing trauma. I know everything from the stories and my mother still cries. It’s tough. Our people was killed just because we are Muslims,” says Emina.
“My mum had a really strong depression. We survived because of the help of other people.”
For families of the missing, the present is often fixated in the past.
Without any evidence to prove the death of the loved one, the grieving and mourning process cannot take place.
Women relatives of the disappeared also face additional challenges, such as financial problems due to the loss of the family’s breadwinner, and victimisation and stigmatisation in their attempts to support their children, seek justice and rebuild their lives.
Fahrije Hoti was 29 when she had to flee to Albania with her three-year-old daughter and son, just three months.
In March 1999, Serbian forces entered her village, Krushe e Madhe, in southwestern Kosovo, and killed over 200 boys and men. A few months later, she returned only to find her village completely destroyed and her husband missing.
“It was very hard at that time. The village has just gone through the war, and the mentality and patriarchal society says that if you are a widow, you have to be in the house, take care of the children and be a victim. There were a lot of problems for me, but that just made me stronger. I decided I was not going to give up,” she says.
Between 1999 and 2003, Hoti and other women organised protests regularly to demand the return of their loved ones.
But the economic burden was too heavy. Hoti resorted to cultivating peppers and began selling homemade ajvar, a traditional spicy spread, in a makeshift market in the nearby city of Gjakova. Demand grew, and in 2005, Hoti established Kooperativa Krusha, a cooperative that employs dozens of women, mostly war widows.
“It took courage to start this and to actually come to work because of all the prejudices: we are widows and also women. In this way we made sure that with work we actually heal ourselves and the most important thing for us is that we’ve managed to educate our sons,” says Hoti.
Creating a job for herself, and other women, took her life in another direction.
Hoti’s husband is still missing from the 1998-1999 Kosovo war, and the past cannot be forgotten. Having a job, however, has given the women economic independence.
“Spiritually, women were changed once the cooperative was established. When they wake up in the morning, they have this place that they can go to work. They know that there is something waiting for them,” explains Hoti.
“They can share with each other their pain and their experiences. A lot of times within the day, they talk about the tragedies and the people they are missing, but here they also share their joys and laughs. Sometimes, they even sing.”