Not only are they known in Bosnia and Herzegovina, they have become household names in the United States and Canada. I have to say I was inspired and blown away by the strength and perseverance of these three women and I made it my priority to visit them when I went to Bosnia and Herzegovina in August.
They are Hajra Catic, Bakira Hasecic and Fata Orlovic (or as we have come to know her as Nana Fata). Hajra Catic is one of the head coordinators for Women of Srebrenica, Bakira Hasecic runs the association for Woman Victims of the War and Fata Orlovic is an elderly woman who lives in Konjevic Polje, near Bratunac. Her story is quite unique because she has been fighting for years now to remove a Serbian Orthodox church from her front yard that was illegally built in 1996. This is the story of how I met these three amazing women.
I will start by telling you a bit more about Hajra Catic. She is from Srebrenica, lived there with her husband and son before the aggression and genocide. Today, she spends half of her week at the Women of Srebrenica house in Tuzla and the other half of the week at her family home in Srebrenica. Like most of the women from this eastern Bosnian town, her husband and son were massacred by the Serbian genocidal aggressors.
Her husband was found and buried in Potocari in 2005. As for her son, Nihad Nino Catic, she knows where his remains are; unfortunately she has not been able to bury him because his remains are surrounded by land mines. For the last year Hajra has been fighting to get the land mines removed so Ninos remains along with the remains of others could be retrieved. She has gone to the Bosnian politicians, international organizations and NGOs for help regarding this matter but the governments and the organizations do what they do best: stall. Of course Hajra is not planning on giving up until she has a proper burial for her son. That is the closest thing she has to a proper goodbye. She made sure the world knows her sons story. Ninos story has been featured in various documentaries, including one dedicated to him and in books such as The United Nations on Srebrenicas Pillar of Shame, published by the Women of Srebrenica.
Through various publications, appearances and demonstrations this organization gives a voice to all victims of genocide, fights for truth and justice, provides support to all those affected by genocide and educates individuals about the brutalities committed by Serbian forces on the Bosniak population. The house of this organization is located at 54 Kicelj and I advise anyone who wants more information about the Srebrenica genocide or if you would just like to stop by and have a chat with Hajra to please feel free to visit. All the women are very friendly and will be happy to answer any questions you may have.
My intent was to learn as much as possible from these survivors of genocide and I have to say sitting down with Hajra was an eye opening experience.
I realized how much of an impact the international community has had during and after the genocide. Here is one interesting fact that I was not aware of until my conversation with Hajra. After the genocide in Srebrenica, the international community was assigned the task of issuing and recording the number of missing or massacred post Srebrenica genocide. From what Hajra recalls, there was a rule put in place where the missing or massacred could only be reported by those residing in the same house. If an individual did not live in the household, the surviving family member(s) could not report a person dead or missing. Many families were completely wiped out but were never recorded as such because of this rule. Hajra attempted to report her neighbors killing and was denied because he was not part of her immediate family. This is how she found out about this rule. By attempting to reduce the number of massacred, the international organizations are minimize the seriousness of this genocide and only supporting the Serbian aggressors.
Today this organization educates the public on such injustices as those committed by the international community. While I was there a young medical student came by to say hi to Hajra. This young woman lost her whole family during the 1995 genocide in Srebrenica. Thanks to a wonderful charity that was set up by a prominent Bosniak journalist Senad Hadzifejzovic and the Women of Srebrenica, this young woman has got a second chance in life. She is studying to become a doctor and in her spare time she loves to visit Hajra. I was glad to see that these women have such a strong bond and it made me realize in the end support is what we need if we want to heal.
I am sure this is a very well known woman however I will give a bit of background information about Bakira and her hometown. She was born and lived in Visegrad, Bosnia and Herzegovina until the beginning of the aggression in 1992. Visegrad is on the boarder with Serbia and was one of the first places hit by genocide. Prior to the war there were 13,000 residents, 64% of the residents were Bosnian Muslims (Bosniaks). During the aggression 60% of the towns total population was slaughtered (Open Democracy). It must be noted, the 60 % of those killed were Bosniaks. Those who survived were ethnically cleansed, leaving the city predominantly Serbian. Not only is Visegrad a city where genocide began it is also known for Serbian run rape camps that operated from 1992-1995. Bakira Hasecic is a rape victim. She was raped in a Visegrad police station by a Serb from the Republika Srpska Army and later on raped again by a Serb soldier from Serbia. Her sister died in a Serbian run rape camp. As a result she has dedicated her life to human rights and hunting down the Serbian war criminals that have participated in rape, massacre and ethnic cleansing. In her spare time she returns home to Visegrad to do some gardening.
I had a chance to visit her in Sarajevo at the centre for Woman Victims of War. To be honest I did not know about this association or what they do and I was very happy to learn that this type of an organization exists. This is a place where raped women and in some cases men can come in and anonymously report their cases which are used in war crime prosecutions in state and international courts. This however is not all that this centre does, Bakira has made it her priority to go after the most notorious war criminals. She also aims to educate the public and gather as many testimonies as possible from all rape victims.
One problem she stresses is the lack of victims coming forward about their rape. Many women and men are just too traumatized to speak about their daunting experience and that is understandable however, all statements are very important because there are hundreds upon hundreds of Serbian war criminals walking freely. Most of those criminals have gone back to their homes and gone back to their old jobs. One of those genocidal criminals that Bakira told me about is Rade Capara, an elementary school teacher in Visegrad. During the aggression he killed Bosniak children that he taught. She has made it her priority to capture him and has gone to his house and took a picture with him, just for the courts. As Bakira mentioned, they (Serb aggressors) want us to feel ashamed. When the war started I use to run and hide so they would not see me, now I stand proud in my garden in Visegrad. They should be ashamed, not us. What she said will always stick with me and I wish all those that have suffered and were made to feel ashamed about being a Bosniak would think the way Bakira thinks.
Amnesty International estimates about 20,000 to 50,000 Bosniak women were raped by Serb aggressors (amnesty.org). According to Bakira and Amnesty International, it has been very challenging to get a testimony from many rape victims and for that reason the number fluctuates between twenty and fifty thousand. Many victims actually live in the United States, Canada and Australia. Some women Bakira has been able to get in touch with and they promised her a testimony but in the end did not deliver. This is a very concerning issue and more emphasis needs to be put on this problem by Bosniak organizations in the Diaspora. There needs to be a place where rape victims will feel safe to tell his or her story.The lack of testimonies has been a big issue but another serious problem is the bureaucracy within the courts. Bakira and her colleagues have encountered much of this over the last few years.
One of those incidents was the submission of testimonies to a court for war crimes prosecutions. After putting hundreds of pages together and handing it over to the courts, the judge stated that the testimonies were invalid because documents submitted by the association for Women Victims of War were missing. Since these documents were not properly monitored, it was easy for anyone within the courts to temper with them. The association for Women Victims of War had to reprint and prepare all the testimonies again which cost them more money and delayed the prosecution.
Not only is this centre challenged by corruption and bureaucracy from the outside, finances and the lack of financial support has had an impact on their fight for justice. Although donations from international organizations have come in, they do not get much financial support from the local government. The organization has finished a book about rape victims of Bosnia and Herzegovina however they do not have enough money to print these books. This is not a plea for money; I just want to emphasize that small organizations such as these need both political and financial support from international and local governments and organizations. This type of book is very important because it will shed light and educate people about rape during the aggression in Bosnia and Herzegovina and hopefully make victims more at ease about coming forward. Speaking up is very important for the Bosniak community worldwide because in this way we are able to fight for justice. We all need to look at Bakira as an example. This is a woman who does not give up and will not let anyone make her feel ashamed for being a Bosniak.
Since 1996 Nana Fata has had a Serbian Orthodox church in her front yard. Today no one goes to this church. Only once in a while a man comes and cleans it. Nana Fata filed for a law suit to have this church removed and won. Unfortunately to the Serbian Orthodox church and the Republika Srpska government legal documents do not mean much. As a result nana Fata continues to push for the removal of the church from her front yard. She has been continuously going to the local Republika Srpska politicians and the politicians in the Federation; all she has are empty promises.
As I spoke to nana Fata, I could feel her frustration. None of the politicians care, the Serbian Orthodox church has support from the politicians in Serbia and Republika Srpska and for that reason they are ignoring the legal documents. She made it clear that she will not give up what is hers.
This is understandable and all of us would fight injustice. What I do not understand is why there is so much opposition from the Republika Srpska government and the Serbian Orthodox church when the courts declared that the church has been illegally built in Fata Orlovics front yard. I asked Fata why she thinks the there is such an opposition to the removal of the church by the government and the priests she told me she believes that there is a mass grave under the church.
When Fata Orlovic returned to her home in 1996 she recalls seeing people digging and trucks across the street coming to pick some kind of material up during the night. Today there is a gas station directly across the street where Fata Orlovic saw the trucks years ago. For that reason she assumes the Republika Srpska and the Serbian Orthodox church is doing everything in its power to stall the removal of the church. To think there is a mass grave directly under the church is beyond comprehendible however, I found it believable. For a second I wondered why I believed this woman instantly. Then I remembered, over 8,000 men and children were massacred a few kilometers from Nana Fatas house and thousands more are still missing.
On September 9th, 2010, on the first day Eid Nana Fata was hospitalized as a result of an attack by a Serbian police officer. A member of the Serbian Orthodox church decided to come and clean this abandoned church coincidentally on the Muslim holiday. Fata Orlovic asked the man to leave her property. The man refused and the police was called in. Twenty officers faced Fata Orlovic while she protested for the man to leave her property. One of the police officers stepped out and a physical confrontation took place. Nana Fata Orlovic ended up in the hospital with cuts all over her hands. According to the Serbian police officer, this elderly lady attacked them with two bricks.
This is a continuous story that the police officers of Republika Srpska keep telling to the media. Nana Fata was accused of killing five Serbian police officers a few years ago. This matter was resolved in court and all accusations were found to be false. I personally found the story funny. The attack on Nana Fata Orlovic on September 9th, 2010 was a clear act of provocation. A year ago the Serbian Orthodox church promised to remove the church after one last sermon (Dnevni Avaz, 2009). They held their last sermon but never removed the church.
As I watched Nana Fata with cut up and bloody hands, not even a month after my visit I see how much injustice there is toward the Bosniaks in Republika Srpska. These people have a right to come live in their own homes. They are entitled to all citizen rights and privileges. Nana Fata Orlovic is not the only one who continues to be discriminated and provoked in this so called Republika Srpska all because of her religious views. Every Bosniak has faced provocation post war from Bosnian Serbs.
I realized how lucky I am to live in a place where I do not have to worry about being provoked or attacked because of my name. Traveling through Republika Srpska, I felt the tension and hostility wherever I went. I thought to myself if I feel this way as visitor, how do the Bosniaks living here feel. I had a chance to talk to many of them. Some have given up hope and others are fighting for their rights. As Canadian Bosniaks our responsibility is to fight for truth and justice by pressing the Bosnian governments to act on such issues as those of Nana Fata, Bakira Hasecic and Hajra Catic. I do live in Canada but I am forever a Bosnian citizen and more importantly a Bosnian Muslim and I will continue to fight against injustice.