One swallow does not make a spring

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  • Foto: Mirjana Bilopavlović

    Centar za podršku i razvoj civilnog društva Delfin (Center for Support and Development of Civil Society Delfin) from Pakrac was founded in 2002, but most of its members had previous experience in the organization they had been in for many years – the Pakrac Women’s Club, which started its activities amid the war in Croatia. The club was created through the activities of the Pakrac Volunteer Project within the framework of the Anti-War Campaign – a civil peace movement that over time grew into a network of associations, organizations, and projects.

    On Fighter’s Day, July 4, 1991, a great national holiday (look at the coincidences!), which we all celebrated until then, in Zagreb a handful of people who did not want to accept the imposed system of values and the way we should live opposed what later turned into war and everything that happened from 1991 to 1995, and then later in Kosovo. Thus, in the garden of the Zagorka cafe, the start of the Anti-War Campaign was agreed upon, which happened at the same time as the story of the Women in black in Belgrade who opposed the wars, says proudly Mirjana Bilopavlović, co-founder of the Center and one of the women from Croatia nominated for the collective Nobel Peace Prize in 2005 as part of the “1000 Women for the Nobel Peace Prize 2005” initiative, for the active promotion of peace and tolerance.

    When the war broke, Bilopavlović lived in Lipik, from which she went into exile in the fall of 1991. A year later, she came to Pakrac, which before the war belonged to the same municipality as Lipik, to her mother-in-law’s apartment. I quickly realized that nothing would resolve itself if I didn’t roll up my sleeves and help my children. Very soon, during the exile, in the hotel where we were initially placed, we organized a kindergarten for children and support groups for older children to help them with their homework and learning. It was difficult because you didn’t know if your house had been destroyed or if someone close to you had been killed, but we women tried to organize ourselves and make everyday life more bearable so that we wouldn’t think about the worst. My children were the first post-war generation of schoolchildren in Pakrac.

    In 1993, the Anti-War Campaign, together with peace activist Wam Kat from the Netherlands, launched the Pakrac Volunteer Project, which would operate until 1997 and gather over several hundred national and international volunteers, on both sides of the divided city. Through the joint work of volunteers and the local community, a different view of peace was created, through, at first glance, simple activities, which were extremely important for functioning in the new everyday life – cleaning the streets and the area around the ruins, coordination and communication with the people who remained (but also among warring parties), reunification of separated families, socializing and learning, creating social bonds and non-violent communication. Was it the time to act, wonders Bilopavlović, a participant in peacekeeping initiatives, and answers that the gap of thirty years shows that certain values have been recognized, and the experiences of building peace in Pakrac have been replicated in some other places in the territories of the former Yugoslavia, but also in conflict in Ukraine.

    The arrival of volunteers in Pakrac and Lipik initially caused disbelief and mistrust that people “from outside”, foreigners, were coming to talk about peace. Where did they get the right to tell us how we should solve this war? she asked herself at the time. Volunteers came from various European countries and America, staying from several weeks to several months, and some stayed for the duration of the entire project.

    Women, war, and peace

    Volunteers worked in shifts, clearing the streets and the consequences of the destruction. You can imagine, in 1991-1992 we filled the pantries thinking that the war would not last long so that we would have something to survive on. That amount of food had to be safely stored to prevent any infections and epidemics, but also to prevent the rodents from multiplying and further harming us. Despite the language barrier, volunteers included mothers and grandmothers when working with children, whom they approached through play, which led to greater social cohesion. After the shifts ended, socializing with adults continued. Part of their selfless help and support resulted in colleague Željka from Sarajevo proposing an association. That’s how the idea started in 1993, and in 1994 the Pakrac Women’s Club was registered, which, among other things, is known for having the first entrepreneurial project in Croatia at that time – we opened a laundry. We got washing machines from an American organization and we said: ‘Let’s wash the “dirty laundry”, dirty laundry representing not the clothes that needed to be washed, but also talk about our attitudes and everything that was happening around us. Although the laundromat provided services for houses that remained without electricity, the story of women’s organization and the development of awareness of the importance of taking on a role and solving problems at the local level also began.

    The maintenance of social networks was also established through regular “coffee meetings“. Let’s go get some tea now, the volunteers would say after the work was done. We explained to them that ours was not a tea culture, but that conversation over coffee was important to us. That’s how we gathered at our ‘coffee meetings’, drinking coffee, and talking in several languages at the same time, just so we could all get along. At that time, we talked about who would go to Kutina to get bread and milk, whether we would have electricity tomorrow afternoon, how lucky we were that we did not come across a dead animal, or how good it was that someone removed the refrigerator with the rotten meat, that someone did not die from residual mines and explosives, that a beam did not fall on someone. Unfortunately, a day came when one of our volunteers died. In 2018, a memorial plaque was unveiled to Urs Weber, a young volunteer from Switzerland, who died tragically in the summer of 1994 when clearing the ruins of Mali Dvor – Janković, today’s building of the Pakrac Town Museum.

    The contribution of the volunteers was immeasurable, Bilopavlović points out: The Pakrac volunteer project was important because it also taught young people digital literacy. We sent the first e-mail from Pakrac with the help of volunteers, and with the support of the high school principal at the time, who gave us space. The Pakrac Women’s Club held its meetings there, we got the opportunity to learn and work on ourselves, realizing what our prejudices are, how much we are a product of the environment we live in, and how ready we are to tell that environment that it can be different.

    The volunteers realized, both local and foreign, continued Bilopavlović, that if you offer women the opportunity to talk about their feelings and to express what these events mean to them, it can lead to many actions in the community itself. And she, she says, realized only later that this gathering over coffee had exceeded its symbolic level and ultimately generated activities that benefited all.

    I do not think this is something synonymous only with the Anti-War Campaign, but with all peace movements in the world. Women practice a ‘softer’ policy, a policy of negotiation and conversation, and listening, not a policy of violence. It seems to me that the Anti-War Campaign also worked like that, even though it included men and women equally, driven by a common goal.

    Bilopavlović fondly remembers the implementation of the “Women in War and Peace” project, which was financed by Friedrich Ebert Stiftung. Together with Goran Božičević, Martina Velić, and Vesna Kesić, she gathered women from the former Yugoslavia in Pakrac in 1994 to discuss the gender dimension of war, which they only learned to identify it as such years later. We brought women from Bosnia and Herzegovina and other parts of Croatia, with UN passes, without thinking much about the possible consequences, although we had the support of the police. They came by train from Banova Jaruga, a steam locomotive was running – in front, it had one wagon with stones, and behind one wagon with wooden benches like in the cowboy movies. The war was not over yet and it was a risky situation, and these are the memories that still hold me today – if women at that time were ready to risk their lives, come to Pakrac and sit down at the table to talk about peace – I knew it was worth it. Was it brave and crazy? Both, certainly.

    In October 1995, MIRamiDa was held in Pakrac – the first peace-building program in the countries of the former Yugoslavia, and many of today’s activists who are still active in various initiatives and associations that emerged from the Anti-War Campaign went through the training. Among them were the activists of the Center mentioned at the top, where Bilopavlović also works as a coordinator. She sees the most important influence of MIRamiDA in accepting responsibility for one’s own actions, but also in the possibility of exchanging opinions, especially with people who have different beliefs than hers.

    It can always be different, but we can’t expect it from others if we don’t show it ourselves. One swallow does not make a summer, says Bilopavlović.


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