REFUSING THE REDUCTION OF VALUES
REFUSING THE REDUCTION OF VALUES
Vesna Kesic is a Croatian feminist and peace activist, involved with
Women's Lobby, a political pressure group, and with Autonomous
Women's House, which is working to provide support for women raped
in the war in former-Yugoslavia.
Lepa Mladjenovic is a feminist lesbian pacifist from Belgrade, active
in the anti-war group Women in Black, and with the crisis counselling
line SOS Telephone.
Vesna and Lepa visited Toronto from March 24 to 26 as part of the
Mother Courage Peace Tour, where they were interviewed for the
ACTivist by Maggie Helwig
"Do you think of yourself as Serbian?" someone asks Lepa.
"Oh, no," she responds quickly. "Absolutely not."
"Then what do you think of yourself as?"
Lepa pauses. "Well ... nothing really," she says slowly. "I guess it was
never so important to me to think of myself as a nationality ..." She is
silent for a moment, then holds her two hands a small distance apart.
"My dreams are this size now," she says. "Once, I had big dreams ... The
first time I was told I had to think of myself as 'Serbian', my dreams
shrank to this."
And Vesna Kesic of Zagreb, another feminist and peace activist, says,
"War is the reduction of all values, of all emotions, of the complete
reality ... War is all about breaking the connections between people
to make them fight."
"On TV, there's this constant propaganda against the Enemy," says
Lepa. "And the Enemy is always someone different, first it was the
Slovenians, then Croats, then the Muslims and the Albanians ... but
it's this constant image that there's someone who is the enemy of
*us*. And the effect on children, we've seen at the psychological
research academy, is catastrophic."
Perhaps the greatest accomplishment that Lepa and Vesna have to
their credit is that they have refused this reduction, that these women
who have known each other for more than a decade can still see each
other as people, not as nationalities. "How much are you able to stay in
touch when you're at home?" I ask, knowing that mail cannot travel
between Serbia and Croatia, that the phone lines rarely operate.
"Emotionally," says Lepa.
"Yeah," says Vesna. "We communicate by vibrations."
Lepa, from the aggressor nation, is, and must be, the most outspoken
in refusing any form of support for her government. "We know they
started this war," she says without hesitation. But Vesna's situation is
only slightly different. She is deeply committed to remaining
independent, and to the rejection of any form of nationalism.
Autonomous Women's House, unlike other Croatian women's groups,
will not release any of their information to the government.
For both of them, this has its roots in feminism, and in their history
with the Yugoslav feminist movement, which Vesna believes was "the
first autonomous movement in the socialist state." After a long period
of absence, she returned to the feminist network when she saw a
frightening increase in nationalism, shortly before the war began; there
she could find a group where identity was not based on nation.
"The women's movement may be the only group that can support me
at this moment," she says.
"But it depends how you understand feminism," Lepa points out. "I
mean, some of our old friends, my God!"
"Yes. The first radical feminist group in Croatia, they called themselves
the most radical feminist group in Yugoslavia ... they're the most radical
in breaking those connections. Each nation is producing internal
enemies as well, now. What you might call internationally-oriented
feminists are considered the worst enemies of the state."
Lepa -- an intense and hyperverbal theorist -- has worked particularly
hard to bring her feminist identification and her anti-war politics
together. "I've been thinking a lot over the last few months how this
whole war is constructed basically on the social construction of
masculinity ... [Part of that is that] with the rise of the war, those
guys, to have power over the other guys -- well, their power increases
as their hatred of women increases."
She uses the example of Arkan, one of the most notorious
paramilitary leaders, who began his pre-war career as a 'hero' by
uniting two feuding fan clubs of the same football team. "So he's a
big Garibaldi, right, a great bringer of unity. Then when the war
started, he just gave them guns." He was also known, she says, for
putting cigarettes out on the hands of women who didn't do what he
told them to. "So the other guys would go, 'oh, how strong and how
brave this guy is, to do a thing like that'."
And this, in miniature, illustrates for her a whole complex of beliefs
about strength and bravery, about violence and taking sides and the
relations of gender, that have led to the mass rapes in Bosnia.
Both women know, all too well, that the majority of rape victims are
Muslims, raped by Serbian paramilitaries. But the first case that
Autonomous Women's House took to court was a Croatian woman
raped by Croatian soldiers. And Lepa, who has worked with Serbian
rape survivors, reminds us that "they don't say, 'A Muslim raped me'
or 'A Croat raped me' ... at least, not the young women who
are not contaminated by nationalism ... they say, 'A man raped me'.
They don't say 'I'll never talk to a Muslim again', they say, 'I'm never
going to get married'. Their experience is that it's the male body that
has raped them."
It makes sense to both women, then, that the war both produces, and
feeds off, a mushrooming sex industry. Televised pornography is
flourishing -- soft porn has been playing regularly on Croatian television,
and there are reports that in Krajina (Serbian-controlled Bosnia) there
is very hard porn being broadcast -- and so is prostitution. Most
disturbingly, both women believe that the increase in prostitution is
due most of all to the United Nations 'peacekeepers.'
"We have lots of new bars with women for the UN soldiers," says Lepa.
"Oh my God, lots of them. Some of these 'night bars' are only for the
UN soldiers, some of them a Serbian soldier can maybe get in if he
knows someone. But in some places the paramilitary groups have
opened their own bars as well." She describes a sex industry, including
shipments of women more or less openly 'bought' in the Ukraine, that
is only too familiar from Thailand, from the Philippines. And, as in
Asia, it is likely to outlast the war, perhaps creating 'sex capitals' in
Europe comparable to Bangkok and Manila.
"We're having trouble finding a space for our women's centre," says
Vesna, "because all the spaces are being rented for 'erotic massage'.
We have to compete with 'erotic massage'. And they pay a *lot*."
And, of course, women's reproductive systems are also being forced
into the war system. In Croatia, there was an attempt to introduce an
extremely restrictive abortion law, couched in extravagant rhetoric
about the glory of Croatian motherhood. Though this law was defeated
by the protests of women's groups, abortion is becoming increasingly
expensive and inaccessible in both Serbia and Croatia, and there are
reports that doctors in Serbian-controlled areas of Bosnia
will no longer perfo
In Serbia the situation is complex, especially because of the ethnic
Albanian population of the province of Kosova, and because abortion
has always been the primary form of birth control. Lepa reports that
"experts", all of them men ("not one of them under 60," she adds
scornfully), have been making highly public statements about the
"irrational and non-human" birth rate of Albanians as compared to
the "dangerously low" birth rate of Serbs, and predicting Albanians
"coming 16 kilometres from Belgrade." She fully expects selective
abortion policies to be introduced soon, restricting abortion for Serbs
and forcing it on other ethnic groups.
"It's one of these male phantasms that underlie the whole war
machine; that this Other will come *so close*. They feel that as an
To work against the phantasms and myths, against the war machine
and the million falsifications the war produces, seems hardly possible.
And maybe, Vesna has come to believe, there is nothing that she, or
perhaps anyone, can do to change the course of the war itself. She would,
she says, even support a military intervention if she thought it would
work -- but she cannot see it accomplishing anything good. "All you
can do is support the grass-roots, community, basic, democratic
initiatives." Maybe, then, there will be something left when the war
And the other thing you can do is to continue to see the other, and to
realize that the other is not, after all, a threat to your being. Vesna
and Lepa lean over the table, taking cigarettes from each other's
packages, Vesna teasing Lepa about her heterosexual past -- "Yeah,
when she first met me I was walking around with this guy," Lepa
"A horrible guy, that's the point!"
"So you see, she was always an internationalist. She was small and
nice, very nice," smiles Vesna, pinching Lepa's cheek.
"In the meantime I changed a bit," says Lepa.
* Centre for Women Victims of War, Dordiceva 6, 41000 Zagreb,
Croatia phone: 011- 38-41-434-189 fax: 433-416
* Women in Black, c/o Stasa Zajovic, Dragoslava Popovica 9/10,
Belgrade, Serbia, fax 011-38-11-334-706
* The ACT Women's Collective is continuing to collect funds and
resource materials for women's groups in former-Yugoslavia.
Especially needed are books on feminist therapy, rape counselling,
and feminist theory. Contact us at 736 Bathurst St, Toronto,