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opinion | Swanee Hunt

20 years after Srebrenica massacre, women are the healers

Hajra Catic prays near the grave of her husband near Srebrenica on June 23.reuters

As US ambassador to Austria, I took part in a ceremony in May 1995 marking the half-century anniversary of the liberation of a Nazi concentration camp by American forces. One after another, envoys stood at the wreath-laying and declared: “Never again.”

Yet within a few hundred miles, in a genocidal land grab, Serbian nationalists were conducting a campaign of terror that cost more than 200,000 Yugoslav lives, left 60 percent of Bosnian homes destroyed, and planted millions of landmines in fields. With no international resistance, the horrors peaked in the worst atrocity in Europe since 1945: On July 11, Serb forces began to slaughter 8,000 unarmed Muslim men and boys in the town of Srebrenica. That carnage became a tripwire for US-led intervention to end the atrocities.

On the 20th anniversary of the massacre, the women of the Balkans are finding strength in their calls for justice and their work for reconciliation. Some have defied trauma and moved back to Serb-dominated Srebrenica, managing to put aside memories of rape and torture to breathe life into a place of death. Even as they’ve planted crops in soil where their husbands and sons lie in mass graves, their sisters have built organizations bridging ethnic divides. Together, they have catalyzed a global movement to change the way we halt and heal the wounds of war.

I’ve seen this work up close. In spring 1994, I hosted negotiations to bring together two factions that were fighting each other and battling the Serbs. Months later, we got urgent calls at the embassy in Vienna warning of the imminent fall of Srebrenica. We saw intelligence reports saying the UN-designated “safe haven” was encircled by Serb fighters. I remember thinking, “This is ‘again.’ ” But this time, I was one of those policy makers doing too little too late to stop the genocide.


A year later, I helped organize a Srebrenica commemoration of 4,000 survivors. US military commanders insisted we invite the mothers of the perpetrators as well. Without hesitation, the Muslim women accepted the almost unthinkable demand. One widow said four simple words that could shape history: “We are all mothers.”


This was my introduction to Kada Hodic, who lost her husband, son, two brothers and brother-in-law. She retells her story so others will understand ”evil can happen everywhere, and to everyone.”

Common wisdom would warn these women to be afraid and join the waves of refugees. But Kada helped some say no – they were going to return home, bury their boys and men, and rebuild their lives “across the road from the city of the dead,” one of them told me a few weeks ago.

In April, a dozen women who lived through the bloodshed gave up a precious spring planting day to reflect with me on all they have lost and all they have reclaimed. I told them the name “Srebrenica” is known around the world, and that their bravery has inspired powerful women’s movements that have incalculable impact.

The widows gave me a crocheted flower with 11 petals, representing July 11. One told me that because we had all assembled after that first year, “we could get back on our own two feet, to fight for those of us who survived, to return to our prewar homes and start our lives again.”

Personal and policy are iterative. Five years after Srebrenica, in October 2000, the UN Security Council adopted resolution 1325, declaring that women are not only victims — they must be key actors in creating peace and stability. Out of that landmark call has emerged a doctrine of inclusive security by which women bring their wisdom and skills to intractable conflicts. Inspired by this model, more than 50 countries have designed strategic action plans to translate the UN resolution into reality.


One example: Bosnia and Serbia have now separately committed to integrating women into their armed forces, adding the voices and values of mothers to decisions about when, or whether, to kill. These two former enemies are stitching together a Balkan strategy built on principles of inclusive security.

Policy makers everywhere must follow their example.

Swanee Hunt served as US ambassador to Austria from 1993 to 1997. She is founder and chair of the Institute for Inclusive Security in Washington.


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