She is one of the 1000 women proposed fort the Nobel Peace Price 2005.
She says: “The trauma of war fills all our cells with fear; healing allows a return to peace, to trust, as a human being.”
Bosiljka Schedlich, born in 1948 in what is today Croatia, founded the Southeast European Cultural Center in Berlin in 1991. Since then, some 30,000 war refugees from former Yugoslavia have received care, counseling, and therapy.
Bosiljka Schedlich – Germany & Croatia
Bosiljka led therapy groups of people traumatized from the war and soon became an expert on trauma. Meanwhile, many war refugees have returned voluntarily. Bosiljka and her colleagues have recreated their reconciliation projects in former war zones through sponsorships or “storytelling cafés” in which people can speak freely about their war experiences.Bosiljka Schedlich is a short woman whose large dark eyes radiate an astonishing mix of gentle motherly patience and strict precision. When she talks she gets right to the point, her psychological intuition is on target and her memory exact.
The 57-year old knows the long and complicated history of the war in former Yugoslavia only too well. In 1991, she founded the Southeast European Cultural Center in which some 30,000 war refugees have received care, counseling and therapy. After the end of the war in former Yugoslavia, many refugees returned more or less voluntarily. For them the center provides help with the return, arranges for supporting sponsorships, and runs reconciliation projects in the war zones. For example, the “storytelling cafés” in which people can talk freely about their war experiences in a pleasant coffee house atmosphere.
Bosiljka was born in 1948 in the former Yugoslavia, today’s Croatia, and came to West Berlin in 1968 as a young girl. She worked in an electric company to support herself so she could study German language and literature. She then married a German and had two children. In the 1970s and 1980s, she worked as a court translator and created counseling centers for Yugoslav women.
Although a native of Croatia, Bosiljka is against all forms of nationalism. She never talks about “the” Serbs, “the” Albanians, “the” Bosnian Muslims or “we” Croatians. “People” is the word she uses most. She says “we people” or “the people”. She avoids talking about guilt, and when she means responsibility she talks about “us” or “we”. We people in Europe, we people in the whole world.
She has received numerous human rights prizes for her reconciliation projects: the Moses Mendelssohn Prize, the Louise Schröder Medal and the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany.
Why did the relatively well-off Yugoslavia sink into such deadly nationalistic wars? The causes are many, some having to do with the future, others with the past. “Many Yugoslavs were convinced,” says Bosiljka, “that socialism was the natural conclusion of history. And as this ideology was questioned after the fall of the Berlin wall, there was a huge vacuum, which the extremists used for their purposes.”
A second cause was the failure to come to terms with the history of the Second World War. There was no way that the entire population had been part of the resistance to the German Nazis, and in fact the heroic anti-Nazi partisans also had blood on their hands. This was a big Yugoslav taboo that was never talked about. These suppressed realities created severe confusion in people’s psyches. As the fighting began, many Serbs believed they had to once again — as in the Second World War — fight the fascist Croatian Ustascha.
The war began in the summer of 1991, as Croatia and Slovenia declared their independence. The Yugoslav army marched into Slovenia, occupied Croatian territory and bombed Croatian cities, supported by Serb irregulars. In 1992, the conflict started in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Serb militia drove out the non-Serb population and besieged the capital city of Sarajevo. The fighting continued until November 1995, claiming thousands of victims. The fronts became ever more complicated as the Bosnian Croats declared their own state of “Herceg-Bosna” and expelled the non-Croatian population. Some 200,000 people died during the Bosnian war. Between 20,000 and 50,000 women and an unknown number of men were raped. Around two and a half million people were displaced and, at the end of the war, only a third of the population lived where they had before.
Between 1992 and 1995, some 45,000 war victims fled to Berlin, and as many as 150 people came to Bosiljka’s center every day for protection and help. This huge demand was almost impossible to manage, even for her. Many people had been confined in camps, tortured, abused and raped or had seen terrible things: 54-year old Remjiza had survived the massacre of Srebrenica, and witnessed a grenade attack on 72 school children. She cannot sleep “longer than two hours at night.” The rain reminds her of grenades and airplane noise of bombs.
49-year old Fazila lost her son and husband. Neighbors killed them so they could take over their family home. Today, she has a heart condition and is “a nervous wreck.” Miljana, just 29 years old, vegetated for a year and a half, hidden in a basement in the heavily contested town of Mostar. Today, she still has daily headaches and panics at the sight of uniforms. 68-year old Barsia was abused in a Serbian camp, where he had to watch the murder of his son. He cannot sleep or talk about it, and is almost always silent.
People with post-traumatic stress syndrome, the medical term for this condition, lose their sense of trust in the larger world. “They cannot stand the dark,” Bosiljka explained in one of her public talks. “Darkness prevents control over their surroundings, just as they had no control over the suffering to which they were subjected, and were helpless against. So they sleep with the lights on. That way it is easier to recover from the recurring nightmares. They cannot stand noise, which reminds them of bombs and screams. Nor can they stand the quiet, for then their fears and memories start to take over. They are scared of metal objects, which remind them of camp or prison keys or of things with which they were beaten. Many everyday objects can be associated with experiences that caused their trauma. They are continually on alert.”
Modern neuro-scientists have discovered that life-threatening situations actually cause changes in the human brain. After a traumatic experience, people live in constant stress. They cannot sleep through the night because that part of their brain, which normally turns off in sleep, cannot shut down. The traumatic events cannot be processed, writes the German trauma specialist Sibylle Jatzko, as the overwhelming events remain “stuck” in the deep core of the brain and cannot be passed on to the sections of the brain for feelings, speech and consciousness. The people stay literally speechless, and at the same time are continually confronted with flashbacks, as the pictures of horror return once again, whether they are asleep or awake. Many become physically ill from this, or become unable to make human contact, and react with mistrust, depression, anger and fury, fear or go into a state of panic.
Electronic measurements show that such people have a blockage in the limbic system of the brain, which is responsible for processing feelings. The result is “lack of feeling” – a typical symptom of Holocaust survivors and war veterans. Instead of feelings they just experience physical reactions. And so it is also with the war victims of southeastern Europe.
What can one do with so many traumatized people? In her desperate situation, Bosiljka organized group therapy sessions for women and men separately, but ethnically mixed, reflecting the center’s anti-nationalistic philosophy. Bosiljka led the men’s therapy group. “It included 178 men of all nationalities, and around 80 were present at the session. God, that was sometimes really loud. They were screaming at each other. I asked them if they wanted me to lead the session, and was thus slowly able to quiet them down.”
The women’s group was led by a trained psychotherapist, with Bosiljka interpreting. “She had 228 members, mostly between 60 to 80 women were present. There were so many deaths to mourn that sometimes women would faint. Their brains simply shut down because they could not take it anymore. Every time a woman told her story, all the others could see their own experiences, passing by as in a film. After the first session with the therapist several women came and said: “We cannot participate any more. Everything is coming back. We cannot sleep anymore, we sweat at night. It is much worse for us.”
The therapist explained what was happening, and I learned from her and then explained it to the men’s group: “What comes out like a ghost at night and allows people no rest has to come out, so that it can be overcome. You have to face it, and so survive it, as you survived before. People are not made of steel. We are up to seventy percent fluid, we are fragile, we frighten quickly. The life-threatening experiences act like burning poison. But we can also be water for each other, diluting the poison. Everyone in the group can share the fresh water, through telling their story.”
In late 1995, Bosiljka was close to a breakdown herself, and experienced similar symptoms as the traumatized people she was helping. “I had terrible nightmares or could not sleep. Sometimes in the morning I did not have the strength to get up.” Then she imagined that she lay in a coffin, and that the coffin was in a grave. “I pretended that I was dead, to spare myself all the responsibility.” And then she kept remembering the mountain panorama that she had seen from the graveyard in her home village. “Below in the valley I saw a blue luminescent pond and small wells, surrounded by green and golden fields and then undulating mountains. And I thought: it is worth getting up and going back to life after all.”
The past will never truly be over until the offenders have spoken, Bosiljka is sure of that: “neither the history of the Second World War nor the history of the war in Yugoslavia. For many victims,” she says, “it is not about a heavy punishment for the offenders.” There are no appropriate punishments. How can you punish someone who admits to having killed 75 people? The remorse of the offenders and their request for forgiveness, that is the only way for the victims to get some satisfaction.”
Her 14 years of work with refugees and traumatized people have taught her to see the world with completely different eyes. “The history of humankind is a history of wars and trauma,” she summarized once in a talk. When these traumas are not worked through and spoken about, the parents unknowingly pass the feelings on to their children and grandchildren. “This can continue for up to eight generations, concluded a Jewish researcher in a book – that means around two hundred years. In the meantime there are always new wars, which strengthen the old unresolved traumas.” In this way there are large areas on all continents where silence is kept, and thus the dangers of new wars. “There can be no peace at the hands of destroyed souls,” Bosiljka quoted from a poem.
Therefore it is so important to break through the conspiracy of silence,” she says. And gives an example from her men’s therapy group: “When the traumatized start to speak, and allow themselves to remember, they feel hatred. And vengeance. I have encouraged them to talk about their fantasies of vengeance; they have a right to that. This process has lasted as long six months. An Albanian among them was an officer first in Yugoslavia, then in the Croatian army. He was put in a camp by the Croatians and terribly abused. For a long time he spoke only about cruel revenge. And eventually he paused, then continued with this decisive sentence: “Once you have said it, you do not have to do it anymore.”Something like this makes me very happy. Precisely that is the peace process.” (Read all this on this 1000 peace women page).
Publications in german: