When Bridges Are Needed

by Janet M. Powers

During a recent research trip to Bosnia, I met with executive directors of a number of non-governmental organizations in an effort to find out what steps women had taken in recovering from war. Today in Sarajevo and smaller cities, people work amicably together across ethnic lines, despite the bitter war which divided the country twenty years ago.  Things are more strained in the countryside where Serbian Orthodox and Croatian Catholics attacked Muslims and Christian minorities still feel uncomfortable.  “Bridge-building” thus became part of our agenda, in addition to fact-finding.

In Mostar, a city famous for its graceful arched bridge, built in the 16th century but destroyed in 1993, I spoke with a wise woman named Azra whose organization, Zena BiH, runs a shelter for women victims of trafficking and domestic abuse. She founded that organization during the war (1994) at a time when Croat Catholics had expelled all Muslims from the west part of the city and many women had been severely traumatized. Tending to their psycho-social needs and demands for shelter were huge priorities.

But bridging the ethnic divide was also uppermost in the women’s minds.  So they designed a project called “Bridges of Friendship: Women’s Small Talk,” and invited

Serb and Catholic women living in the west part of the city to cross over and meet with Muslim women in the east part.  In fact, some of those Christian women were then living in apartments belonging to displaced Muslims. By establishing contact between them and encouraging them to share their wartime experiences, Azra and her team enabled the women to talk and stay in touch. Often, new women came, as word spread that it was “not so dangerous” to meet women from the other side.

The project went on for more than a year.  Talking was therapeutic, and incentives of lunch and bus tickets encouraged the women to keep coming back, twice a month. What did they talk about?  According to Azra, they spent a lot of time dispelling rumors and pinning down truth about who did what to whom. “Correct and complete information is important in everything,” she insisted. The story has a happy ending.  By the time the project ended, most flats had been returned to their former owners and it was again a simple matter to cross the river.

In a village area where Croat Catholics also battled Muslims, “bridge-building” is still going on. Marica Prozo and I managed to bring a group of Croat Christian women together with Muslim women who had been living nearby but never interacting.  The meeting was accompanied by a mountain storm – thunder, lightning and hail, but that didn’t stop the women from chattering happily about their families.  We didn’t get around to talking about the war, but maybe that will happen another year.  Perhaps it’s enough that they know “it’s not so dangerous” to encounter the other.

“Bridge-building” is of course the basis of mediation.  It’s what we do – bringing antagonistic people together and enabling them to find win-win solutions for their problems. In the process, we inevitably discover new information, often game-changers that enable the process of conflict resolution. Call the MSAC Help Line at 717-334-7312 or e-mail us at mediationac@yahoo.com.

Janet M. Powers is MSAC Presiding Officer and Gettysburg College Professor Emerita.