A story from Berak

  • HrvatskiHrvatski
  • Romani chibRomani chib
  • Foto: luc-berak.hr

    The village of Berak is located in the municipality of Tompojevci, south of Vukovar, in eastern Slavonia. Its development was first mentioned in documents in the middle of the last millennium, and the area was inhabited by numerous nations. In September 1991, the war began, which marked rural everyday life with killing, imprisonment, rape, and exile. That year, before the war, the village had more than 900 inhabitants, while according to the last population census, in 2021, less than 300 inhabitants still live here, most of them women. Among them is Dragica Aleksa, who returned to the village after the peaceful reintegration of the Danube region in 1996-1998, being exiled to Suhopolje near Virovitica. I had the opportunity to talk with this peace activist one summer afternoon, who in 2005, as a result of the work of the initiative “1000 Women for the Nobel Peace Prize 2005” was nominated for the collective Nobel Peace Award together with other women from Croatia and the region. Her many years of experience in peacemaking and interreligious dialogue, as well as related activities, characterized Aleksa as a “people’s peacemaker”, about which a book was written.

    When I got married, my life was centered around agriculture and household. I had to be by my husband’s side all the time, if he started one tractor, I started the other – all that was expected of me. The only thing that made me different from the usual village wife was that I liked to read a lot. I read what I could get my hands on, and it didn’t fit into my village life at all. I would read at night and start the day by milking cows.

    The village, her place of birth, remained the center of her activities even after the war. After returning to the village and her devastated house, Aleksa met the peace teams from the Center for Peace, Non-violence and Human Rights, Osijek, and began her peace education – initially to help herself to overcome the traumas of the war and to open herself up to new knowledge in a surrounding that required reconstruction and rebuilding of the community. As the most important event, she cites the education in which, in response to a question about the ten determinants of her own identity, she managed to write down only four on a sheet of paper, in the following order – Croat, woman, Catholic, and Aleksa.

    I was about 50 years old at the time when I realized that I didn’t know anything about myself. This was followed by a meeting with peace activists who, in my opinion, asked me an unusual question – ‘How are you feeling?’ I was in my shattered house, I was sitting on the threshold, on a crate instead of a chair, and while I was counting how many people were taken from which house and killed, that question seemed meaningless to me. But now I know that it made sense, I started education and training primarily to help myself, to clarify who I was and how I felt in a village that I no longer recognized.

    The workshops that followed were neither simple nor easy. Locals who participated in them, who had often faced verbal or physical clashes, shared their views on conflict, and peace, but also the “other” who had been dehumanized for many years. That’s how Aleksa felt when she clashed with a fellow resident of Serbian nationality, which she later described in her notes as “we hate because ‘they’ are responsible for our suffering”. Guided by the principle that peace must be built and conflicts prevented or at least mitigated, Aleksa began writing down stories. She visited the houses of her fellow villagers, and village women of various nationalities and religions, and talked with them about their experiences of trauma and wars through the “Active Listening” project. The experiences she collected were gathered in the booklet “Priče iz Berka” (“Stories from Berak”).

    Before the war, we had Serbian friends who were so close that my husband shared a coat with my friend’s wife when we went to weddings. After returning to the village, the grandmother from their house passed away. I sat by the window, over my sewing machine, and cried. Feelings of sadness at the death were mixed with feelings of regret for not being with them at the funeral.

    A few years later, in March 2004, Aleksa, together with other fellow residents, founded the association Luč za dijalog i nenasilje (Light for dialogue and nonviolence), based in Berak, which gathers enthusiasts to advocate for peace, nonviolence, and tolerance. As an exceptional example, she points out the invitation to the first education in nonviolent communication, which aroused great interest among participants from eastern Slavonia, as well as the fact that the participants of their education founded three peace associations that operate in their local communities.

    Interreligious dialogue – in practice as well

    The importance of using religion in the process of building peace, but also of focusing on universal values, was recognized by Aleksa and fellow resident Marija Stojanović. Thus, in 2006, the two of them, members of the Croatian and Serbian peoples, a Catholic and an Orthodox woman, organized the first interreligious prayer for peace in the spirit of Assisi, gathering believers of different religions from Berak and surrounding towns for a joint prayer. The initiative was built on the idea when in 1986, at the invitation of Pope John Paul II in the Italian town of Assisi, the birthplace of St. Francis, gathered high representatives of Christian churches and church communities and heads of major world religions so that everyone, in their way, but in the same place, could pray – for peace in the world. Although the initiative was not received with particular approval in Berak, the initiators continued to organize it every year and over time gathered believers and representatives from different Christian communities and the Islamic religious community.

    I talked to our village priest to give us the church to hold a joint prayer, but that was refused, with the suggestion that we hold it in the school or on the playground. The second time I turned to the bishop, and I received a written answer that our local pastor would participate in the prayer. Although it was a positive example, every year we go through the same uncertainty regarding the space. So I wonder who is the church? The church is us, the people, not the building or the walls.

    Women are more numerous at the interreligious prayer in Berk, as well as at the peace educations that Dragica and Marija attended and those that they organized independently. Women make up the majority of peace associations, although they did not participate in making war decisions or in peace negotiations. In my village too, women are the ones who first extended the hand of reconciliation and are significantly less burdened by ethnic differences.

    Aleksa advises that religion can be a powerful tool in creating peace, and religious individuals are influential peacemakers, especially those at the local level who have direct contact and relationships with community members. She points out that despite the struggle to build peace, there is still intolerance, which is also reflected in religious communities. Freedom of religion and interreligious dialogue are very often only declarative. When we try to gather believers of different confessions in places that still display the effects of the war, we rarely get support – both from the religious communities themselves and the local communities.

    For her, peace work is inseparable from religious activities and gatherings. Locals connect by satisfying their religious needs and overcoming ethnic differences. In retrospect, regarding the ten identities that Aleksa thought about at the beginning of her peace education, now so many years later, she puts education first and describes herself primarily as an educated woman, mother, and grandmother. War has a devastating effect on people, relationships, infrastructure, and the economy, and her family lost everything material in the war. However, everything negative can always be transformed into something from which we learn, says Aleksa, so the war brought something new to her as well – getting to know herself and the community that is still being built almost three decades after the end of the war.


    Unesite svoj komentar
    Unesite svoje ime