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“Persist In Forming A Family!”: Uniting People Around The World To Bring Peace.

{Photo credit: Stephanie Koehler}

{Photo credit: Stephanie Koehler}

‘Women across Borders’ is a global awareness campaign, shedding light onto the issue of sexual violence around the world. Photographer and executive producer, Stephanie Koehler, traveled to various Balkan states in 2015 to interview female survivors of sexual violence and experts in the field. Part of the campaign is a personal message from each survivor that is captured photographically. Her findings will be published in a series of articles documenting the stories of women in each of the countries she visited.

Read her articles on Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia (One and Two), Montenegro (One and Two) and Kosovo.

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I couldn’t stop crying as I read 260 Days, nor was I able to put the book aside. Written by Marijan Gubina, 260 Days is a personal account of the 260 days of captivity that Marijan and his six member family experienced during the Croatian War. It holds stories beyond any cruelty imaginable. His family was captured in Dalj, a village close to Vukovar, in the summer of 1991. Marijan, then at the tender age of 10, and his family were forced to observe genocide, were physically, emotionally and verbally tortured, were exposed to the terrors of others, and were pushed beyond what they thought possible to endure. The brutalities continued so frequently and relentlessly that they often couldn’t distinguish night from day. Many of the graphic scenes are so deeply ingrained into the family’s memories that they are relived vividly with all their senses whenever they are recalled.

After the concentration camp, they were exiled to Osijek, Croatia. Their trauma continued. The tragic death of their father and younger sister caused developmental issues in Marijan, issues that landed him on the street at age 14, forcing him to leave the family home. It was not until 2002 that he turned his life around and transformed his experiences. Since 2010, he has focused his career on issues of substance abuse. It is truly most astonishing that his mission in life now is to be a role model in society, to treat people with love and compassion, and to unite them by accepting each other’s differences and promoting peace. The reason for sharing the family’s story and his outlook on life was to prove that it is possible to persevere and overcome the deepest trauma and obstacles inflicted by humanity. It was his determination and newfound purpose that inspired Zorana to speak up.

Zorana, Marijan’s older sister, was not always open to sharing her experiences, but says that she now likes to do so. When I met them, it was apparent that Marijan had been a driving force encouraging her to speak up and break her silence.

After her family was expelled during the war, she stayed behind for what would prove to be the most torturous 18 months of her life. Then age 20, she was raped repeatedly by a group of men and held captive. One of her captors did eventually facilitate her escape by suggesting that she take the bus as long as she still could. What he was referring to was a bus with Croatian refugees that would lead her out of the area into neighboring Serbia. From Serbia, she went to Hungary, where she gave birth to a son in 1992. In January of 1993, she returned to Croatia where, with the help of Red Cross, she was reunited with her family.

She later got married and started her own family. After these horrific experiences, Zorana was afraid of everybody, including herself, she recounts. It was her mother who sought help for her daughter and contacted a psychologist in Osijek. He prescribed medication rather than offering much needed therapy. Compared to the women from Vukovar mentioned in my last article, who had received one year counseling funded through the United Nation Development Program (UNDP), no one spoke about the atrocities that took place where they had lived. Only in the last few years has similar support been made available to women like Zorana in her area.

According to the Croatian Association of Camp Prisoners, over 30,000 people went to concentration camps during the war. More than 500 were children. The exact number of rapes is not known, but women, men and children had to endure sexual violence.

According to her brother Marijan, up until 2013 no one ever came to ask them how they were doing. He recalls frequent interrogations by the police starting in 1993, 1996, 1999 and again in 2013. Every time he was questioned, he felt as if he was imprisoned and accused of a crime. The frequency of their questioning left him with the impression that authorities wanted him to get tired of sharing his story.

When I asked Zorana whether she had sought the prosecution of her assailants, she mentioned that 2 out of 5 rapists were prosecuted and have only been in prison since 2011. The court proceedings have taken over 12 years and were still ongoing when I met with them. Most all of the investigations would have never started if it hadn’t been for the persistence of Zorana’s brother Marijan. One of the perpetrators was only 17 years old at the time of the rapes. He fled to Denmark after the war had ended, and it was said that since he was a minor at the time, he could not be accused of rape. Another of the perpetrators used to sit in front of the national theater in a wheelchair, dressed in a Croatian national outfit, pretending to be a Croatian war veteran. Marijan called on authorities and media, but no one was ready to step in until he finally rounded up enough influential people to open an investigation against this assailant. When he, at some point, questioned the people at the court why there was not more support in their favor, he was told to not rock the boat anymore, that this was as far as they could go. Based on what I understood from our conversation, there is a strong Serbian political lobby in Zagreb that influences the prosecutions of war criminals (or the lack thereof).

Marijan also mentioned that shortly after publishing his book 260 Days, a Spanish TV station offered him a large sum of money for the rights to the book. When he requested a contract outlining what would happen with the book after this transaction, he was told, “Nothing.” He later learned that the TV station was supported by Serbian parties. In his opinion, the offer was a pretense, an attempt to silence him and his story. Needless to say, he didn’t sell the rights to his book.

Marijan shared more examples of a corrupt system, something I have heard many times during my travels in the Balkans and in each respective country. And I can only second his feelings of disappointment that many people seem to prefer to sell themselves or their ideals for money, versus doing the right thing and supporting those who have suffered unspeakable trauma. His story has spread widely, and he travels a lot to speaking engagements nationally and internationally. Thankfully, he made sure that what he, his family and many other people during the war endured is well-documented and cannot be ignored by those who ever hear about him or his book. I feel honored that I am among those whom Zorana and Marijan trusted with their story.

Today, Zorana tells me that she is fine and lives a fulfilling life surrounded by her husband and children. She encourages other women to find what gives them strength. Her message is to stop violence in the future, and to never allow anything like this to happen again. When I asked what she thought needed to be done to end sexual violence, she was not sure. But she felt that campaigns such as her brother’s, or this one, would set an example. The more she and other women can share, the better.

Her chosen quotation is: “Persist in forming a family!”

As this is the last of the articles written about my experience in the Balkans, I can sympathize with all of the survivors. Just like Marijan wants to emphasize, peace can only happen when we accept and cherish each other’s differences. The situation in the Balkans is complicated, and ethnic tensions are still ongoing. That, to me, is a shame! I recall a comment I heard in one of my first interviews: every ethnic group has its own truth. Unless we are willing to leave the past behind and start healing the wounds inflicted on all affected in the war of the 90’s, nothing can ever change. We have to be willing to take the first step, and see the beauty that lies within each one of us, regardless of race or ethnic background, and break down all mentally construed separation. Love and compassion do not have borders, and they can, in fact, heal wounds if we let them.

A special Thank You to my dear friend Kim Birdsong for her support in producing the articles in this Balkan series.

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StephanieKoehlerStephanie Koehler is a journalist and photographer residing in California. Her goal of ‘Women across Borders’ is to unite women all over the world to document the pain they endure as a result of sexual violence and the healing approach they take to grow from victim to survivor. Her work started in the U.S. and took root in form of interviews with women in various Balkan States and Germany. Her articles include photo essays of female survivors, and are platforms to tell their story. Her former work can be read on The Women’s International Perspective. Stephanie’s vision is to grow this work into a global sexual assault awareness campaign.

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