Bratunac, Bosnia and Herzegovina — Stanojka Avramovic risked everything by becoming friends with Zejneba Sarajlic.
As a Serb woman befriending a Muslim in the aftermath of the Bosnian War, Avramovic not only alienated her family and friends, but weathered threats of physical violence. Those threats persist today, more than a decade after the war ended. However, Avramovic has never questioned her decision to stand by her friend.
In Zejneba Sarajlic, she saw a sister, a colleague and a kindred spirit. She saw a friendship that could not only succeed, but flourish and bring positive change to war-wracked communities across Bosnia and Herzegovina.
It was this unbreakable bond and unshakable commitment that brought Mercy Corps to work with these remarkable women in 1997. Since then, the agency has supported them as they've helped other Bosnian women heal the wounds of war and move on with their lives.
Women standing together
The town of Bratunac lies in eastern Bosnia and Herzegovina, in the Bosnian Serb-dominated Republika Srpska region. When the Bosnian War began in 1992, most of the area's Bosnian Muslims, or Bosniaks, fled their homes to escape the onslaught of Yugoslav troops and paramilitaries. During the war, houses and businesses belonging to Bosniaks were largely burned, looted or confiscated. Muslim families that chose to stay or were unable to flee endured horrific violence, including atrocities like the Srebrenica massacre.
Zejneba Sarajlic lost both her husband and son in 1992, as troops invaded her town to rid the area of non-Serbs. Her family and home taken away from her, she fled to Tuzla, a larger city where many Bosniak families sought refuge. Once in Tuzla, Sarajlic made the acquaintance of several other war widows and women who had lost their homes. Together, these women vowed to not only return to the cities they'd been forced to flee, but also rebuild their lives stronger than ever.
Avramovic, who remained in Bratunac, was leading similar efforts for Bosnian Serb women who had been affected by the war. She heard about Sarajlic's organization in Tuzla, and began to consider the possibilities of working together. When the war ended in 1995 and movement around the country became possible again, Avramovic and Sarajlic were finally able to meet.
Even then, it wasn't easy.
A partnership is born
In many ways, the Dayton Agreement that ended the war failed to improve ethnic divisions in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The country remained sundered in two political entities: the aforementioned Republika Srpska and the Bosniak-governed Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. It was difficult for Bosniak families to return to their homes in Serb-dominated areas, and vice-versa.
"Even though the war is officially finished, to some people it still rages on," Avramovic said.
Soon after their first meeting in the town of Zvornik in 1995, Avramovic and Sarajlic joined forces to found the Women's Association of Podrinje, whose main goal was to help women return to their home towns, rebuild their houses and find ways to earn a living.
Avramovic immediately put this objective into practice by inviting Sarajlic to move in with her and her family in Bratunac. It was a courageous move that outraged her neighbors and local politicians, but cemented the irrevocable bond between the two women.
From Sarajevo to New York
Over the next couple of years, the association had to meet in secret. Republika Srpska officials banned the formation of any associations, and so Avramovic, Sarajlic and other committed women had to travel as far as Sarajevo — several hours away — to convene. They did so for five years, during which time dozens of women joined their cause.
In 1997, Mercy Corps joined their cause as well, helping 15 Bosniak families and 15 Serb families gain sustainable economic footing, return to the towns they'd fled and begin to start over from scratch.
"Although our association's members are women, we support entire families," Avramovic explained.
With support from Mercy Corps, the association grew in numbers, prominence and reputation. In 2000, this growth culminated with a conference of women in Srebrenica. Dozens of women, both Bosniak and Serb, convened to discuss how to coexist, reconcile and facilitate a return to peaceful, productive communities. They sympathized with one another over their war experiences and losses. They took time to understand. It was the first meeting of its kind in post-war Bosnia and Herzegovina, and started a wellspring of activism and social change that continues today.
In 2001, Mercy Corps solidified its commitment to the now-burgeoning association by helping them to procure and equip an office in Bratunac, and also providing training in various administrative and finance procedures.
"Mercy Corps' involvement has made people take notice of what we're doing," Avramovic commented. "Now we can meet openly with women in the area - they're not scared to meet with us any more. Also, we can meet with local officials, have coffee and discuss our goals with them as equals."
The association's hard work, directed by the dynamic team of Avramovic and Sarajlic, earned them recognition in May 2002. The two were flown to New York City, where they received the "Voices of Courage" award from the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children. Only four such awards were given that year.
Avramovic, sitting at her desk at the office in Bratunac, smiles when she remembers the fun they had in New York City. She glances at the award perched atop a pile of papers. Then she takes a few moments to gaze and ponder on her colleague's now-empty desk.
Driven by a memory
Just four months after they stood side-by-side accepting awards in New York, Zejneba Sarajlic was killed in a car accident. Stanojka Avramovic keeps her memory alive every day, and her friend's portrait provides constant reassurance that she is, indeed, always watching over the association.
Even legitimized by the "Voices of Courage" award and with hundreds of women around the world supporting their cause, Avramovic is still having difficulties with some hard-line elements in the area.
"Last year, a local publisher did a book that smeared me, my friend and my family. It accused us of being spies," she said.
Avramovic has faced such challenges before, and isn't budging from her commitment. In fact, she's fighting back. She is suing the publisher and affiliated local officials in a national court.
She knows that more is at stake than her reputation; the fortunes of those women and families who have yet to return also depend on the future of the association.
"Even though it's hard, I won't leave. I will stay and fight," Avramovic vows. "I carry my friend's memory with me every day, and she continues to strengthen me."