The importance of a hug

  • by Professor Janine Natalya Clark

Mirela (not her real name) was the tenth respondent with whom I have worked since arriving in Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH). We went to her apartment to complete the CSRS questionnaire.

When we got to that part of the questionnaire which asks about the impact of sexual violence, Mirela stood up to close the internal door between her front door and the lounge where we were sitting. Explaining that she would never be able to face her neighbours if they were to find out that she had been raped, she insisted that only the four walls of her apartment would hear us. The closing of the door created a very private space and although the questionnaire did not require her to explain any of her answers, she nevertheless disclosed significant parts of her story.  

A teddy bearMirela is from a village near Zvornik in north-east BiH. When the war started, she and her family left their home. One day, she briefly returned to the house to get flour. Three soldiers were inside looting the property. When she entered, they tied her up for approximately three hours and took it in turns to rape her. She felt ashamed, she revealed, to talk about what they did to her that day.

The women with whom I have worked in BiH often refrain from telling their husbands that they were raped; they fear being rejected. Those who have told their husbands rarely receive the support that they need and deserve. Mirela’s case was different. After she disclosed to her husband that she was raped, he thanked God that she was still alive and hugged her tightly. He had never hugged her and kissed her as much as he did after that. He was subsequently killed and Mirela was left alone with two young children. ‘I was dead’, she explained. Her mother-in-law was the person who saved her. She found psychological help for Mirela, gave her lots of hugs and called her a ‘borac’ (fighter). All of this brought her back to life; ‘I survived’.

The importance of hugs emerged strongly from Mirela’s story. It means a lot when people hug her, she emphasized. After she said this, I realized that hugs are also important to me. Living alone in a foreign country, working on the issue of conflict-related sexual violence, listening to stories of pain and suffering is not easy. Hugs matter. It is not just the physical aspect but the feeling of acceptance. Some NGOs have responded negatively to my requests for assistance, arguing that researchers re-traumatize victims (this word is almost always used rather than ‘survivors’) of sexual violence. When research participants embrace me, it reassures me that CSRS is an important and valuable project. And to those NGOs who insist that research participants should be paid for completing a questionnaire or taking part in an interview, I would like to underscore that the benefits for those with whom we work do not have to be monetary. I spent two hours with Mirela. Just before I left, she told me that I had brightened up her day. She had gained something from participating in the research and her words touched me like a warm hug.