Val’s Blog - International Women’s Day: A Reflection on the Impact of War

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March 8th, is International Women’s Day. A day to celebrate the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women. A day to promote gender parity. However, given the context of the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine, perhaps also a day to reflect on the terrible consequences of war which often disproportionately impacts women and children.

The Ukrainian people voted to leave the Soviet Union and declared independence in 1991. With a war narrative seemingly contrived from the mad visions of a single man, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine by the vast Russian army. Less than two weeks after the initial attack, 2 M Ukrainians have had their life upended and are now refugees.

It is impossible to know what the future holds in store for Ukraine and how it will impact lives for years to come but reflecting upon the Bosnian War of 1992-95 may help us begin to comprehend the difficulties facing women and children, and all people, of Ukraine.

Thirty years ago, in the spring of 1992, as part of the dissolution of Yugoslavia, Bosnia-Herzegovina declared independence. Slobodan Miloševic, Serbian President, along with Radovan Karadžić, founder of the Serb Democratic Party, and military leader Gen. Ratko Mladić engaged in a war based on self-decreed ownership of Bosnia and Herzegovina where Muslim citizens were not welcome. It is estimated that over 100,000 people were killed in the Bosnian War and over 2.2 million people forced from their homes became refugees. Miloševic, Karadžić, and Mladić were later charged with genocide and crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Tribunal established by the United Nations (UN).

Dates and statistics are used to describe wars, but a deeper understanding often comes from the personal stories of those affected by war. Perhaps if we can begin to understand the individual stories of the lives disrupted and destroyed, we will be more cognoscente of and better able to thwart the ambitions of madmen and will have a better grasp of how to help those left wounded by their violence.

One such story that may help us on our journey of understanding is a true story written by Amra Sabic-El-Rayess about her teenage life during the Bosnian War. In The Cat I Never Named: A True Story of Love, War, and Survival, we can begin to understand the lives of millions who have had their lives upended by war.

“The war didn’t spring on me all at once.

Instead, like a cat, it stalked me quietly.

There might have been a rustle of leaves, a glint of golden eye.

But like a mouse, I didn’t believe it was there until it pounced.”

The orphaned kitten who follows Amar home, whom Amar initially has no desire to keep, comes to symbolize the strength and persistence that will become necessary for Amra’s own survival.

The book begins with Amra’s bus ride home to Bihać, Bosnia from Belgrade, Serbia. At sixteen, Amra, a star student had qualified for prestigious, national testing. Furthering her education was important to her and to her parents, but as drunken Chetnik soldiers board her bus and raucously brag about attacks on Croatians, Amar begins to grasp the reality of a grossly changed world. They speak to her as a fellow Serb, warning her of the dangers of traveling alone, while in the back of the bus they joke with each other about the rape of Muslim women. There is no way for the soldiers to tell that Amar is a Bosnian Muslim (Bosniak), but Amar realizes that if they did know, her world would immediately change. The first chapter sets the stage for the absurdity of war. The soldiers cannot even identify their “enemy”. Amar is only the hated enemy if they become aware of a religion attached to her ancestry. Being a young woman makes her even more vulnerable.

The goal of the Serbian invaders is sometimes hard to discern. It seems to be a war centered on hatred of the other. The war itself seems to bring no benefit to anyone, just destruction. Through this senselessness, Amra and her family still seem to find purpose. Even through the trauma, a sense of normalcy, of living the best life possible at that moment, persists. Despite all obstacles, Amra continues her education – something that brings her joy in a time of darkness. A love of learning and the resilience to keep learning and loving are the traits that helped her retain her humanity in a time of inhumanity.

As we now watch in dismay as a war devastates Ukraine, the millions of people impacted by other, equally senseless wars, relive the horrors of their past. Long after the war has ended, painful memories live on. Ukrainians are just beginning this long and arduous journey of loss and sorrow, but also of strength, resilience, and, hopefully soon, renewal. We must not look away but instead, find a way to support the refugees of war.

Below are some organizations working to help Ukrainians

Valerie Kelly is Associate Vice President of the Office of Continuing & Distance Education. She is responsible for the oversight, strategic innovation, and faculty/student support for Kent State Online programs and courses including Continuing Education credit and non-credit workshops/certificates and conferences.
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