The power of bodies

I always feel extremely nervous before a flight. I worry about all the things that could go wrong mid-air, and most of all I dread the possibility of hitting an area of turbulence, of the plane uncontrollably lurching from side to side.

Last week, on a return flight from Luxembourg after attending the international conference ‘Stand, Speak, Rise Up to End Sexual Violence in Fragile Environments’, I sat next to a young woman from South Sudan. She had also been at the conference and I knew fragments of her story. I felt embarrassed to tell her that I am afraid of flying. As the plane started to accelerate along the runway, she gently reached out and held my hand. As we left the ground, she squeezed it. Her own hand felt cold yet her touch was strangely calming. It somehow put me at ease. 

Hands reaching out to each other

Bodies can be powerful sites of connectivity. I was reminded of this as I sat on the plane. Feeling the comforting hand on my own, I thought about the body that belonged to it. What had that body lived through, what had it seen and experienced? In those few seconds, that was all I could think about. I tried to imagine what that body had been made to endure and to feel. As the plane continued its ascent, my travelling companion removed her hand and looked out of the window. My focus changed to Bosnia-Herzegovina, the country in which I have been living since August 2018 – and where I have been doing research since 2008. I thought about the men and women who have participated in my ongoing research, victims/survivors of conflict-related sexual violence from all three ethnic groups (Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats).  I thought about how divided they are and how depressingly politicized the issue of wartime rape remains in BiH. Victims/survivors from different ethnic groups have had few, if any, opportunities to come together, to listen to each other’s stories, to connect with each other. Some might say that it is too soon for this, but such arguments – 24 years after the Bosnian war ended – simply obstruct positive change and reinforce the status quo.

Some victims/survivors maybe do not know that men and women on ‘the other side’ also suffered sexual violence. Maybe some of them do not want to know. Others think that their own suffering was worse than any suffering that the other group went through. But what if some of them had the opportunity to meet, to look into each other’s eyes, to hold hands, to hug one another? The plane reached its cruising altitude and my mind shifted to a time, several years ago, when I was doing research in Vukovar in Croatia. More than two decades after the siege of Vukovar in 1991, the town remains polarized in many ways. While I was there, I had the honour of meeting the late Dr Liljana Gehrecke. She was committed to bringing together Serb and Croat women in the town as a step towards reconciliation and healing. At first, Serb women would stand on one side of the room and Croat women would stand on the other. The atmosphere felt awkward, tense. Nobody knew what to say. Yet, initially at least, they were not there to speak. They were there to do activities together, yoga, deep breathing, gentle exercises. As their bodies performed the movements in harmony, they became connected; and through their inter-connectedness, the women started to talk to each other, to listen to each other, to share their stories. Their ethnicity became less significant. They had all suffered in different ways and there were some shared experiences.

On the flight back to Sarajevo, I thought about some of the Colombian women that I met at the conference – and those I had met during my visits to Bogotá and Medellín last year. These women come together and support each other. There is a strong sense of solidarity among them and their fight is a collective one. BiH still has a very long way to go. In lieu of competition and rivalry between victims/survivors, I would like to see them coming together and using their collective strength to advocate for change. Such change could include the adoption of a State-level law that treats everyone who suffered conflict-related sexual violence – regardless of gender, ethnicity and place of residence – the same. A united movement of victims/survivors could also be one of the most effective ways to tackle the problem of stigma. It would give more victims/survivors the confidence to ‘stand, speak, rise up’, thereby sending the powerful message to their communities and the wider society that the stigma of sexual violence rightfully lies not with them but with those who commit these heinous crimes.