“We Don’t Want a Country of Invalids and Fresh Graves” Yugoslav Women Against War

“We Don’t Want a Country of Invalids and Fresh Graves” Yugoslav Women Against War

by Jill Benderly

In July, I received this letter from my best friend from Yugoslavia, a lesbian feminist activist from Belgrade (the capital city of both the republic of Serbia and the Yugoslav federation): Dear Jill,

The situation here is hell. I don’t know any more which is better or worse: Political campaigns like Bush’s, so highly programmatised up to details and psychological impressions; or this one where you cannot count on any rational principle we assumed is in the political game. I mean, people are dead on both sides, and both of these types of politicians inflict hate in me. It is enough to see Bush or Baker on TV, the way they hold their bodies, the color of tie they choose, the tone with which they say certain words….Or this one where, in one day, politicians change their decisions, the country is in chaos, control is lost, and lots of spontaneous groups of people are doing whatever they- want: Taking guns, offense, defense…. There is not one law or constitutional order which one can count on being respected.

It comes out in little things like this: There is a local order to send small planes to spray against mosquitoes. But in certain places pilots are afraid that someone will mistake them for army planes and shoot and they refuse to go on duty. So people cannot live on account of the mosquitoes!

Yesterday in famous Centinje (the old capital of Montenegro, way up in the mountains) there was supposed to be a religious meeting because of St. Paul or St. Peter’s Day. In the middle of the crowd there was an old Montenegrin partisan who fought in the last war, and he screamed, “Long live Tito and long live Yugoslavia!” That was the end of the religious part—men started to fight with each other, there were lots of guys dressed up as Chetniks (Serbian monarchist guerrillas) and the whole fighting started and two men were injured!

The famous traditional Yugoslav film festival from Pula is now a Croatian festival with guests invited from other republics. The new director of the festival, who is stupid like a wood, said that before the festival was everybody’s and therefore nobody’s, but now we know whose it is! As if nobody’s-everybody’s is not an idea where everyone can start with equal opportunity. (Ah, the old communist ideas, some of them will never come back and I will have these sentimental journeys about them, and some of them were just great!)

Every day a few men are dead and many hundreds of domestic animals, and if they don’t stop the fighting in Slavonia there will be hectares and hectares of untended crops — in the moment when the economic system is about to collapse. Somebody banned the 17th meeting of Albanian Studies which was to take place in the Serbian-ruled province of Kosovo this year. And still there are 60,000 Albanians in Kosovo out of work.

Some Croats are claiming that the difference between the Ustashe (Croatian fascists) and Chetniks (Serbian monarchists) is that during the Second World War the Ustashe were killing on a more civilized level!

The woman dentist, who filled some of my cavities last week, said of a colleague, “Dr. Rodic is probably Croat!” Just that. My dentist belongs to the high Belgrade class; she didn’t have any other comment. After the nurse went to look up the doctor’s first name and reported it was “Marija” (most likely Catholic, and therefore Croat), that was the end of the conversation! The doctor is a woman working in the same clinic for years like them, and they know each other for years, and all their acquaintance and professional solidarity and women’s solidarity and human solidarity broke down in one second, as if nothing before existed!

So dear Jill these are just some bits of facts from over here, and I am not capable of understanding what’s going on.

Love, Lepa

The Yugoslav civil war that broke out after the republics of Slovenia and Croatia declared independence on June 25 is my hell, too. A hell I adopted when I first fell in love with Yugoslavia in 1984. I fell in love with its cultural diversity, and with the warmth, openness and emotionality of the Yugoslavs I met. I was also fascinated by Yugoslavia’s troubled attempts to create a decentralized socialism, guided by the principles of worker self-management. Both of these complicated aspects of Yugoslavia have torn it apart before my eyes.

I went back to live there for a year in 1986-87 with my husband Evan (like me, an American Jew of East European descent). We started out in Belgrade, and later lived in Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, and — briefly — in Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia. For me, those were the heady days when glasnost and perestroika had just come on the scene in the Soviet Union. Evan and I sat in cafes and talked with Yugoslav intellectuals about the possibilities forreforming socialism. They felt vindicated by the changes in the Soviet Union. (After all, Yugoslavia had broken with Stalin in 1948 and traveled its own road which led it to “market socialism.” Throughout the Cold War, Yugoslavia benefitted from its bargaining position between East and West.) Yugoslav intellectuals described for us their experiences with the shortcomings of reform in a one-party system. They convinced me of the need for political pluralism. I told them my skepticisms about our two-party system.

Meanwhile, I heard ethnic distrust bubbling up from the “ordinary people” I met. This federal state of 24 million people, pulled together after WWI, is made up of peoples with a long history of internecine conflict, culminating in civil war during WWII when Creation fascists, Serbian monarchists, and Communist partisans from all over Yugoslavia slaughtered each other.

In the West are Slovenes and Croats, Roman Catholics who had lived under the Austro-Hungarian empire, and in the East are those who had lived under the Ottoman Empire: Eastern Orthodox Serbs, Montenegrins, and Macedonians and Muslims from Bosnia. These peoples are all South Slavs. In addition, there are a dozen national minorities, the largest being Albanians in the Serbian province of Kosovo, and Hungarians in the Serbian province of Vojvodina.

Then there are North-South divisions between richer and poorer republics and provinces. Slovenia, although tiny, has a GNP higher than that of Spain or Portugal. GNP is six times lower in Kosovo, Yugoslavia’s least developed region.

Although the Communists tried to substitute “socialist brotherhood and unity” for nationalism, the process just drove the resentments underground. In Belgrade, the Serb who repaired my broken radio said, “I’d sooner live in New Jersey than in Zagreb, among all those Croats.” Serbs and Albanians in the southern province of Kosovo lined up (separately) to tell me why their claims to the land were just, and what the other group had done to intimidate and harrass them. Sometimes Ifeltl’dbeenputin the strange role of ambassador—from other Yugoslav republics! One Slovenian asked me whether I knew why people in other republics hated them. A Serb asked why I thought Slovenians felt superior to them.

I sought out (found myself drawn to) the ”marginal” movements: Greens, pacifists, punks, lesbians and gays — and especially feminists. In Ljubljana, I marched against nukes on the first anniversary of Chernobyl and danced in the mud at an all-night outdoor rock concert, a counterculture answer to the official celebrations of Youth Day.

When I was not on the road reporting on the federation’s economic, political and ethnic woes, I spent most of my time with Yugoslav feminists. Women’s groups were young and full of ideas and energy. And they were among the only people I met (other than Communist Party politicians) who had close ties to people from other republics. In 1987, they held the first Feminist Gathering, which brought activists together from all republics. Zagreb feminists were gearing up to start a hotline against violence against women. Belgrade activists celebrated International Women’s Day by conducting a “street survey,” asking whether women feel solidarity with other women. Ljubljana organized the first lesbian group in Yugoslavia.

I went back to Yugoslavia in the spring of 1990. For six months, I traveled in Eastern Europe, returning to my home base in Zagreb to write. The winds of democracy blew hot and cold. I could smell the uncorked nationalist hatreds brewing. My feminist friends felt the chill when, at his inauguration, Croatia’s new president Franjo Tudjman blessed an empty cradle representing “the nation’s unborn children.”

But as all of this contradictory freedom was unfolding, the women’s movement was barreling along. The fourth annual Feminist Gathering shared serious plans for starting women’s studies programs. Anti-violence hotlines were up and running in three cities, and women were seeking space for battered women’s shelters. Feminists were arguing about how, whether and with whom to participate in elections. Friends from Zagreb prepared to publish Kareta, the first printed feminist magazine in Yugoslavia.


The year 1991 saw the mushrooming of women’s initiatives. I flew on a short trip to Yugoslavia in June, in and out of the storm clouds that seemed a metaphor for the political tempest that would erupt only a week after I left. In that climate, the Yugoslavs hosted the Network of East/West Women, the first international conference of East European feminist activists.

In Zagreb, the city where the first anti-violence hotline opened in 1988, Women’s Aid Now opened a shelter for battered women and children in late 1990. They had to start the shelter the hard way—by occupying an apartment that was promised to them but seemed fated to go into some politician’s private hands.

The new republican parliament in Belgrade has the lowest number of women representatives in all of Europe — four women, or 1.6 percent. In response, feminists founded a women’s parliament to propose initiatives concerning women and to react with a women’s perspective to all relevant measures in the “male parliament of Serbia.” The women’s parliament was started by ZEST, the name of the new women’s party; the Belgrade Women’s Lobby, and the feminist group “Women and Society.” They have called for the formation of a women’s ministry, and new laws on marriage and the family.

ZEST, an acronym for Women, Ethics, Cooperation and Tolerance, adheres to principles of “democracy and against all forms and aspects of discrimination and authoritarian power and authority in society, for peace, tolerance and cooperation among nations and peoples, and for the quality of life as the crucial aim of development.” Programmatic goals include creation of a mixed economy, an independent judiciary, health-care reform, a health environment with clean technologies and alternative energy, radical reform of the educational system — especially regarding sex role stereotypes — equality of family life including “individual freedom to choose, according to his/her [sic] needs, a form of community life with equal legal treatment,” autonomous and democratic culture, and equal opportunities for communication via the media.

Women’s parliaments have also been established in Croatia and in the Serbian province of Vojvodina. A few Albanian Moslem women have begun a dialogue with feminists from other parts of Yugoslavia.

Zagreb women connected with the new feminist magazine Kareta put on a women’s self-health weekend. They also initiated a Witches’ Night on April 31, Walpurgis Night, the traditional date for a witches’ sabbath. Masked women and children (some from the battered women’s shelter) handed out leaflets and danced and sang at the site where witches were once burned at the stake.

In Belgrade, a lesbian/gay pride forum in June was sponsored by the newly organized les/gay group Arkadia. In Ljubljana, the lesbian group LL and the gay group Magnus joined together to form the organization Roza Klub, which is publishing a gay magazine, Revolver.


I have been living among Yugoslav feminists on and off for the past five years. They have brought me the high energy and outspoken honesty I remember from my first days in the U.S. feminist movement. The questions they ask me often feel like a shot of truth serum.

In June, I got my first real chance to return the favor. After hearing some vague accounts of problems among my feminist friends, I soon encountered them head on. The feminists in Zagreb threw a party for me that became an all night, open discussion of problems between the four women’s groups in town. I was happy to find myself of use, sitting at the table with them, listening and occasionally asking questions that seemed to affect them like truth serum.

As the Yugoslav women’s movement diversifies and takes on new projects, they suffer resentments, distrust and cooperation problems that feel very familiar from the less golden days I’ve spent in our own women’s movement.

There are splits between professionals and activists, between those who want to influence politics and those who want to provide direct aid to women. I tried to tell my friends on all sides that some of this seems an unavoidable corollary of a movement with growing influence. As work branches out into multiple initiatives guided by different visions, strategies and personalities, we fall more easily into competition and resentment than into cooperation. This worries me, because the Croation ruling party hopes to get an antiabortion amendment (protecting the sanctity of unborn life) into the courts. How can the four groups get together to organize the opposition to this? The power of a crisis conquers factionalism — for a few moments.

As Slavica Jakobovic from the Zagreb hotline/shelter for battered women put it, “Let’s try to understand one another and respect each individual effort. Not to snub or undervalue one another. Not to fall into the old story about women’s gossip being the only possibility for female subversion.”


As the civil war eats up Yugoslavia, the one bright hope is a peace movement started by mothers of soldiers. In July, Serbian parents marched on the Belgrade parliament demanding that their sons be sent home from army duty in Slovenia. That same evening in Zagreb, Croatian mothers demonstrated with banners reading, “Mothers of soldiers, unite! Save our innocent children! We don’t want a country of invalids and fresh graves.” The protesters were joined by eight busloads of Serbian parents. Together, Serbs and Croats confronted Gen. Zivota Avramovic, telling him, “We won’t let you manipulate our children.”

The mothers’ protests set off a wave of antiwar actions across Yugoslavia. And feminists are playing a big part in peace marches in all republics. A delegation of women from the Italian parliament traveled throughout Yugoslavia on a peace mission, along with Yugoslav Greens and i feminists.

In Belgrade, the Women’s Party announced that it “resolutely and vigorously raises its voice of protest and embitteredness against all present and any future national-chauvinist madness and hate which leads to the destruction of society and universal violence. ZEST appeals to women to unite against all actions disastrous to peace and security on all levels — from family and closest environment to mass associations and presentations.”

In Zagreb, feminists helped kick off a petition campaign saying, “We citizens of our republics, Europe and the world resolutely reject violence and war. We will communicate and cooperate regardless of political differences and regardless of how relations between republics are resolved. Individually and together, on local, regional or global levels, we will oppose those who call for war and plead for freedom, justice and prosperity for all.” Amen.