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PeaceTimes: Three Women, Two Nations, One Passion for Resistance

Advija, Iltezam, and Leila: Three community activists

- By Vanessa Ortiz, special to PeaceTimes

What, you may wonder, do women from Srebrenica in Bosnia and Herzegovina have to learn from a young woman from a small village in the Palestinian West Bank? And what would that Palestinian activist have to learn from a youth organizer in Sarajevo? According to each of them . . . plenty!

In a hillside home in Tuzla, Bosnia and Herzegovina, women organizers took time out to meet each other and share their knowledge and experience in nonviolent resistance and protest activism. Organized by In Women’s Hands, a small group of women activists, scholars, and bloggers, their meeting was one more step in creating a global force for solidarity among women who take risks every day to nonviolently resist injustices and human rights violations.

Below we highlight the exchange among three women organizers from very different struggles.

  • Leila Seper, Activist, Dosta! movement, Bosnia and Herzegovina (based in Sarajevo)
  • Iltezam Morrar, Community Organizer, Budrus, West Bank, and protagonist in the Just Vision film Budrus, which takes its name from her village
  • Advija Ibrahimovic, Youth leader and organizer with the Srebrenica Women’s Association, Bosnia and Herzegovina (based in Tuzla)

These special women spent a day together, talked, shared meals, and walked away . . . well, feeling stronger, a bit more energized and powerful.

Dosta Zenica protest

Leila Seper

Activist, Dosta! (Enough!), Sarajevo

“Honestly, I was really honored to be part of this event. I personally know what the women of Srebrenica have done. I also watched the Budrus trailer, and I was honored to personally meet Iltezam Morrar. I figured the main difference between my struggle and theirs is that they each have a special, highly focused goal [end of occupation; accountability for missing persons massacred in Srebrenica]. The Dosta! movement has broader goals, like peace and citizen engagement for the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina.”

Leila Seper is one of the young, progressive female activists sprouting up around Bosnia and Herzegovina, particularly in Sarajevo. The movement Dosta! is increasingly attracting people like Leila―particularly the youth, who are tired of politics based on ethnic nationalism and want to end corruption at the municipal and state levels. Dosta’s goal is to activate citizens to participate in the political sphere, and this activation is inspired by creative and humorous campaigns that use new media to mock the system while exposing corruption and building citizen awareness. Such campaigns don’t take a political side. They are simply about truth―like letting voters know exactly how much a particular elected official paid for his sumptuous home. Leila says:

“I truly admire the Srebrenica women. Talking with them was amazing. I sometimes wonder: What if it was me? What if I had lost my father, brother, uncle in such a concentrated extermination campaign? All of us who lived through the war were touched very personally, but what if I was not able to trace the remains of my missing loved ones?  Would I be as persistent as they are?

In the Budrus struggle shown in the film and explained to us by Iltezam, you notice a tradition of activism in Iltezam’s family (grandparents, parents), and also within her community. Iltezam is the first generation to really see results of the Palestinian nonviolent struggle. In fact, the documentation of this film is a result. The Palestinian people should not surrender and they should remain true to their tradition of nonviolent activism, informing the world through new media and technology.”

Leila appreciated learning about the Israeli activists who participated alongside Palestinians in Budrus. She believes it was a key message of the film―that people can and should work across ethnic and religious lines. Leila saw connections between the experience of Budrus and the situation in her country. Bosnia’s five-year conflict divided communities, cities, and the country. A fragile peace still holds, but nationalistic sentiment, often fueled by an old-guard of political leaders, is a dominant feature of the new, democratic Bosnia.

“Something like this, joint actions and campaigns, could unite us. We should never live in the situation that the Palestinians are in now―where they are selling land, where they are being forced out, and where people are being separated. Everyone can learn from the main lesson of Budrus: Don’t give up.”

Iltezam with Srebrenica women

Iltezam Morrar, Community Organizer, Budrus

“It was really amazing to meet all these women from Srebrenica who have worked together since 1995. They have been so active, every single month, year after year. They have done a great job of keeping the issue of truth and justice alive so that people around the world won’t forget about Srebrenica. Their work has spread to Tuzla, Sarajevo and other cities. Their lessons of organizing are important ones.”

At first sight, Iltezam’s tiny frame and soft-spoken manner can fool you into believing this is simply a young student with little life experience. Dig a bit deeper, and you realize you are in the presence of a powerful, canny activist and organizer. The women of Srebrenica, on the other hand, often come across as tough and skeptical, as if they have lost faith in systems, institutions, and people. In their early years of activism, anger and outrage was the movement’s fuel. The Srebrenica women, both older than Iltezam, listened with admiration as she recounted the nonviolent struggle in her village, and her active participation at the age of 15.

Adija told her about the Women’s Association’s diverse activities, including large protest actions targeting international bodies and institutions like the Office of the High Representative at the United Nations, and the International Criminal Court for the Former Yugoslavia. They expanded the movement to include documentation and testimonials from victims of the 1995 massacre that claimed over 8,000 lives. Without their constant pressure, the Srebrenica Memorial and Cemetery would not have been established.

“One lesson I learned is how important it is to take the movement’s issue to the mainstream media and the international community, so they can help deliver that message, and so that people can eventually be held accountable for what happened here.”

Iltezam was also impressed by the example of the Dosta! movement.

“Dosta! is important as a youth organization, for civic struggles and citizen participation and how each local issue affects people’s daily life. It is fascinating how Dosta is not committed to any one specific idea or goal. It selects issues based on current political and social events and timing. Dosta activists choose issues that deserve mention in society, and then select actions that resonate for citizens.”

Iltezam listened to all the stories and experiences shared throughout the day, and found parallels and lessons for Palestinians as their struggle against occupation continues.

“It would be good to examine the two models shown by the Srebrenica Women’s Association and Dosta!, because they both offer new ideas that could be mixed with tradition and persistence. In using tradition, like the women of Srebrenica do, you can learn determination and commitment to the goal. They offer a very human perspective―for them it is about their children and relationships. In Palestine, however, many people only listen to elder leadership, and this perhaps prevents us from experimenting with new ideas like those being generated by Dosta.”

Advija Ibrahimovic

Advija Ibrahimovic, Youth leader and organizer, Srebrenica Women’s Association

“I know there are many new ideas, particularly from different movements and people around the world. So, I immediately said yes, that I would come! I believe it is extremely important to have contacts with people, different activists and organizations, from all over. This meeting was good because we got the chance to meet people like Iltezam, and we will stay in touch with her. We hope to help her struggle, and we hope the Palestinians will help us. These connections are important.”

As the youngest member of the Women of Srebrenica Association, Advija is a link between generations. Now she is bringing new energy and new issues to the national women’s movement.

Advija lost her parents during the Srebrenica genocide, and as the women of Srebrenica organized, some of their activism targeted the needs of orphaned children. Advija received support, then she grew up with the women and became part of their struggle. She was selected to represent the Association during the 2003 unveiling of the Srebrenica-Potocari Memorial and Cemetery, where she stood alongside President Bill Clinton and offered opening remarks. Advija took several lessons from hearing about the work of Itezam and Leila.

“After watching the film, Budrus, and hearing from Leila about Dosta!, I realized that the most important things for successful organizing and for results are: 1) Have a good strategy, 2) Believe in what you’re doing and have confidence, and 3) Never give up. In the end, everything we want will come, although perhaps slowly.”

She feels strongly that this moment in history is for women in activism. It appears, she says, that times are changing, women are doing more activism work, and their participation is creating a positive impact.

“In Budrus, when they were initially defending the village, participation only involved the men. When women of the village got involved, and then Israeli activists, it strengthened the campaign and helped them achieve their goal [stopping the building of a wall that would uproot olive trees and separate villagers from their land]. I was surprised to see so many women in action. The women had a tremendous influence on the Israeli Defense soldiers. It was more difficult to physically confront the women, for example.”

Advija’s commitment and dedication to the Women of Srebrenica Association is strong. A tireless volunteer, she acknowledges that the Association needs more young people, particularly because the women are getting old and will need to pass on their important work to the next generation of activists. Advija also recognizes the power of the Women and their influence on the country.

“The Women of Srebrenica have a lot of influence. Senior political leaders, not only from this region, but from around the world, are actually afraid of them! They are persistent, they don’t give up. For them, their fight is about justice and truth. They do not seek power, only truth. And in some ways, this makes them fearless.”

Make the truth known, and let it speak for itself. Don’t give up. Keep learning―and share what you learn. Leila, Iltezam, and Advija are all stronger because they came together. So are the movements they represent, and the worldwide movement for nonviolent, constructive social change. I agree with the pioneering psychologist Carol Gilligan: “In this world, the measure of peace is connectedness.”

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