home biser trauma ozenama karadzic rusenje muskaracizena projekti novosti

Working with trauma, training democracy

by Aida Daidzic and Eldina Mehic, 2001

BISER is an International Initiative of Women from/for Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The organization was named after the Verdanatic and traditional jewel of bosnian women, the symbol of tears.

As you can see on the photo, BISER is a small organization, but the women engaged in it, are not only highly educated but also very efficient.

"BISER" was founded in the summer of 1992 when the first pieces of information about mass rapes started pouring in. Right away the identical scenario emerged - the crimes took place simultaneously in various places, and using the same methodology.

It was visible that a perfect organization was behind these crimes (buildings like school and factories for detaining people were prepared in advance, keys and locks were on the right doors, transport was organized and all those small things were clicking that normally never function in Bosnia).

The results of this monstrous and, unfortunately, very successful project, whose wounds are far from being healed, are frightening. Only today do we know that the purpose of such cruelty was to make return and reconciliation impossible.

Dumbfounded by the horror happening everywhere around us we instinctively did the right thing - we started to count. Very soon we had the data about the number of women in camps (in Zagreb at that time), about children and the elderly; we knew what size of clothes and shoes they wore. At the beginning we did what was most urgent, such as providing food, clothing, cooking stoves, coal and firewood. During the first year of the war we managed to bring into Bosnia-Herzegovina a million German marks worth of aid.

Gradually it was becoming clear to us that we had to get organized to be able to resist such an organized destruction of people. The organizational structure had to be stable and yet flexible enough to make us capable of adjusting to unexpected situations. It was perfectly clear to us that we should not just respond to situations, but to be proactive in our approach.

We knew that dealing with war and its consequences was going to be an extremely difficult job. During our work we developed a self-sustaining mechanism, which enabled us to do a lot with a relatively small input.


Our operational principles:

  1. Offering help to the most socially vulnerable women
  2. Offering limited support to major self-support
  3. Agora for Women, social inclusion of women in our own centers.
  4. The organization of a network
  5. An integrative approach

Very soon the principles by which we wanted to operate crystallized. They were the following:

1. Offering help to the socially most vulnerable women - through employing educated women on the jobs of supporting, treating, educating and counseling of socially vulnerable women.

2. Offering limited support for major self-support - by initiating mechanisms of self-healing to make women capable of helping themselves.

3. Acquisition of our own premises - The Agora for Women - since the public space was occupied by men we tried and succeeded in buying houses arranged into the women's multi-service centers (MUSA) in which the activities of "BISER" were carried out, especially those intended for women from rural areas.

4. Organization of network - the centralized one for major, strategic projects and fundraising and decentralized one for working with women in the field in order to take into account local specificities.

5. Integrative approach - according to which all offers are accessible to all women and free of charge to avoid any kind of segregation or stigmatization.


Development of the MUSA centers: from humanitarian offices to educational centers

Most of the women-refugees from B-H stayed in the refugee camps in Zagreb, but many of them also had private accommodation. These women needed a place which could replace their home, a place where they could read newspapers, have a cup of coffee, exchange information - something like a living room. Next to the "living room" we furnished an instruction room for sewing, a universal classroom which we used for teaching foreign languages, analphabetic courses, playing room for children and the like. We also had a small doctor's office, which heard some of the most horrible stories of the B-H war.


Activities in MUSA center

Working with trauma

  • Sewing
  • Knitting
  • Embroidery
  • SOS line
  • Health Consultancy
Occupational therapy

Additional skills - Qualifications

  • Foreign Languages
  • Computer
  • Typewriting
  • Modern secretary
  • Bookkeeping
  • Read and write
Training Democracy
  • Women's club
  • Kindergarten
Agora for women



The first MUSA center (multiservice center for women) was founded in Zagreb in 1993, the next one in Tuzla in 1995, then in Travnik in 1996 and in Sarajevo in 1999.

The first activities in the centers were working activities - the so called occupational therapy, which was the beginning of treatment of the victimized women, but in which the women were able to acquire specific skills to help them to sustain themselves later on.

 It some times took three courses for some of the women to be able to sew up a skirt because they were simply not able to concentrate. But after several months they were even capable to instruct others. In 1993, owing to this program, we managed to find employment for over 30 women. Today the Travnik ready-made clothes factory regularly employs women trained in "BISER."

The scope of our work broadened since we wanted to respond to the situation and to the needs. The next step was to transform the space originally conceived as the "living room" into an Agora for Women. The complete public space was occupied by men and accessible only to a small circle of women - the educated ones from urban environments. Therefore in our centers we developed clubs where women could get together, create friendships and social links, find consolation or information how to find help.

In "BISER" we never organized the classical psychotherapy since we had modest funding and that form of help was a luxury for us. Besides, we noticed that the classical methods of psychotherapy did not give good results in women coming from rural environments, whose educational level was rather low and we mostly worked with such women. Therefore we established a principle that therapy should be based on the local culture and specificities and that its results should be visible in a relatively short period of time. MUSA centers were ideal for that: between 1000 and 5000 women passed through them each year.

1. The structure of the course attendants according to ducation:



2.The structure of the sewing course attendants according to art of residence:



3. The age of women asking for aid:



Respect of human rights in general and women's rights in particular is instrumental for the development of democracy. In this process it is necessary for women to take over responsibility for themselves. We were very much aware of that and we wanted to teach women democracy. The question was, how to teach it? We did not like the idea of distributing pamphlets or preaching. We thought that democracy should be trained. Therefore we included all women in debate clubs and also induced them to practice tolerance towards the opinions of others. Through the trial and error method we trained them in everyday situations to be able to speak up and fight for themselves.

Unfortunately, in January 2001 we spent the last funds for financing the MUSA centers and now they are all closed.

Changed role of woman

The B-H society is patriarchal and traditional one and it entered the new social transformations with a heritage according to which man is the one that works and provides for the family. This patriarchal structure is, unfortunately, often supported by women. But after the war many of those men of the house and breadwinners were not here: they were killed in the war, or crippled, or unemployed. Many women are now in the situation to take over the role of breadwinners. Some of them pity themselves for being forced to take over the man's role. Along with the male role they automatically take over the male, authoritative model of behavior, instead of relying on feminine traits such as tenderness, communication and cooperation. They become unhappy, lose their personality, lose orientation in their relationship with children and thus transmit the trauma to the next generation. But most of tern are not able to find employment, because of their poor education as well as due to an unfavorable economic situation in them country.

The experience in our work with women has shown that the poorer and less educated the women are, the more difficult their destiny turns out to be.

Those that attacked B-H targeted their attacks on its "foundations" - the women. It would be naive to think that this special strain of genocide took place just in Bosnia and that it would never be repeated anywhere in the world.

The women's community in B-H is divided into a small segment of educated women from urban environment and a great number of women from the country, many of whom have been forced by the war to come to towns, where they do not "live" but simply “vegetate," pushed to the margins of society. These are the "socially vulnerable women who can be divided in two subgroups - the mothers and the daughters. I am sure that all of the mothers who went through our courses will not allow their daughters to grow up without education. All women that went through our training are aware that their daughters - the new generation of the Bosnian women - must be educated to be able to take an active part in the economic and social life and become its most creative and most productive part.

Women will inevitably have to develop skills and qualities which will enable them to survive and to provide for their children. The change of structure will definitely take place, the only question is whether it will happen in 10, 20 or 30 years from now.

Educational structure - year 2001

Women make up about 60% of the B-H population. Displacement and forced migrations caused by the war have changed the structure of urban population - it is now larger than the rural. Country women, now living in towns, were brought up in a different system of values and trained for different kind of work and life. It is indicative to look at the educational level of unemployed women registered in the employment offices in five major B-H towns: Sarajevo, Banja Luka, Tuzla, Mostar and Travnik.

These tables show clearly that B-H is lacking that segment of skilled and educated women which is, in the normal circumstances, the moving power of development. The percentages of unskilled women are extremely high. In the conditions of global economy and quickly changing technologies B-H needs a strategy for restructuring of the country and a strategy for development. Enormous funds have been spent on the reconstruction of material structures, and very little or nothing on education and training of citizens who are expected to meet the requirements imposed by the transition period and beckoning globalization.

The problems we are facing are complex and the task of rebuilding of the B-H society and economy is overwhelming. A lot has been done, but not nearly enough. Much more has to be done in the sphere of spiritual healing of the Bosnian society The wealth of Bosnia-Herzegovina is in its social culture, and the proponents of that culture are women.

The only solution is in better education, democracy, and development of civil society in combination with individual responsibility of all citizens. Although B-H politics proved to be incompetence in its elementary task -care for citizens - the responsibility for the existing situation has to be shared by each individual member of the B-H society.