Monday, December 20, 2004

It Begins with a Thought...

When genocide against women happens in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Amy Elman, professor of political science at Kalamazoo College in Kalamazoo, Michigan, does battle to bring Karadzic to justice. Published in Encore magazine, March 2001.

On the wall just inside the third floor office of Amy Elman, associate professor of political science at Kalamazoo College, is a framed arrangement of Nazi symbols on a black background. Stars of David in yellow silky material. An assortment of triangles and varied letters. She explains each one without hesitation, without pause - it is that ingrained in her mind.

"The six-pointed yellow Star of David is well-known," she says. "That was the symbol every Jew had to wear for identification during the Third Reich. But there were many other symbols people were forced to wear." She points at one of the triangles. "Red triangles for political dissidents. Green for criminals. Purple for Jehovah's Witnesses. Blue for emigrants, brown for Gypsies, black for lesbians and other 'anti-socials,' and pink for homosexual men."

Elman narrows her dark eyes at the framed symbols. Her lips are pinched. Her short dark hair falls freely across one cheek, but then she tucks it behind one ear.

"Does it surprise you how many different symbols they used for people? I'll tell you what surprises me. The pink triangle," she nods again at the largest of all the triangles on her wall. First adopted by American gay men in the early 1970s, Elman explains, the pink triangle is now seen as a symbol of gay and lesbian pride and liberation. She asks out loud, "How can you use a symbol of destruction and annihilation for liberation? The willingness to embrace the very symbols of one's destruction reflects an incredible degree of hatred and self-contempt."

These are the kind of questions that torment a mind like Amy Elman's. They give her no peace; they send her on a crusade of rectifying a wrong and educating those who perpetrate the wrongs, and, perhaps even more, the ones who seem to be the blissfully ignorant bystanders to the wrongs. There is no glory in ignorance. There is no excuse. Elman accepts none of them.

Elman teaches her classes in political science and women's issues at Kalamazoo College with a passion for justice and a crusade to awaken the blissfully ignorant. She came to the College in 1991, the same year she completed her Ph.D. at New York University. Her courses range from introduction to comparative politics to comparative revolutions, from women and the western state to the politics of the Holocaust. The Holocaust, at least in part due to her own Jewish background, is her chosen specialty.

"Being Jewish has everything to do with it," she waves a hand. "I grew up in a socially responsible atmosphere. You have to be Jewish to truly understand the Holocaust. You need that grounding."

Yet Elman herself has never been to Israel, has never yet visited the concentration camps in Germany. To speak of it, Elman tenses. Her voice drops an octave, grows more subdued. "I will go, someday I will go," she promises, and she is speaking to herself more than to anyone else in the room. There is no doubt in hearing her that she will. Elman does what she says she will do. The completion of this promise, though, may require some special moment in time.

"I've been in Germany twice," she muses. "First time as a Fulbright scholar. The trip was all paid for… and I called home and asked my family - should I go to Germany? Go! they said. Very strange being there, very strange."

When she makes the journey a second time, she does so in the company of a close and trusted friend, and still, she cannot bring herself to visit the concentration camps. "I know myself well. I know my boundaries," she says. "I feel bad about this, and I should make the trip, I need to do this… and in time, I will."

Elman has never been one to shy away from a cause she believes in. Fueled by her own Jewish ancestry, even though she declares she does not follow the Jewish faith personally, she is aware that her ancestry, her blood, her traditional Jewish upbringing, has made her into who she is: a woman driven to raise the flag for those who are oppressed. More often than not, the oppressed are women.

"I was going to be a lawyer," Elman recalls. "But I went into the world of academia instead - and I don't regret that. Academia traditionally attracts those who wish to transform the world through their ideas and research. But I'm not so sure that it is still that way. Academics sometimes are in danger of too much navel-gazing, too much abstract thinking. We're living in reactionary times. Those in teaching jobs are often poorly paid, less respected than we once were. There's a feeling that now you have to escape to the wilderness to find the idealistic world you seek. But it's really up to us to make our work interesting. It is up to us to make our work worthwhile."

Even while places like New York, Boston, Stockholm feel more like home to the native New Yorker - "I'm an exile in the Midwest!" - Elman feels a deep loyalty to Kalamazoo College. She serves as Chair for the political science department as well as Chair for the Women's Studies Program. She is co-director of the Center for European Studies. In 1997, she was awarded the Florence J. Lucasse Lectureship for Excellence in Scholarship. Author of two books, Sexual Subordination and State Intervention: Comparing Sweden and the United States, and Sexual Politics and the European Union: The New Feminist Challenge, Elman is frequently invited to lecture throughout the U.S. and Europe. Her work has earned her numerous grants and awards.

"The first article I ever had published was about lessons for feminists from the Nazi state," Elman says. Published in 1987 in a journal called Trivia, the article is called "Sexual Subordination and State Intervention." In it, Elman foreshadows what have become ever greater concerns in her academic work - and in her personal battles with the injustices she finds in the world around her. "The twentieth century has witnessed an increase in human brutalities and a decrease in the number of people willing to rebel against them," Elman writes. She states that the proliferation of pornography anesthetized and enabled the sexual oppression of women in the Nazi state. "The role sexuality plays in the suffocation of dissent has received little analysis," Elman's article states. "While, no doubt, the very horror of the Holocaust often contributes to a paralysis by despair, there are numerous scholars interested in accounting for its occurrence. Most, however, have attributed the appeal of fascism to economic, social, and psychological factors. The sexual appeal of anti-Semitism is often either completely overlooked or quickly dismissed. The sexuality of anti-Semitism is rooted in the way in which sexuality is structured under male supremacy. It is detached from women and men; it is thus experienced as an immensely powerful force beyond one's own control. Hence, the common excuse that men - being the victims of their (biological) sexual drive - have no choice in behaving abusively with sex towards women and girls."

The stage is set. "It all begins with a thought," Elman says. "Just a thought. And it is a mistake of immense proportions if we, as a society, do not take these thoughts seriously. There is a connection between thinking and acting."

From a thought begins action, and action can lead to violence, and violence can lead to oppression, and oppression can lead to genocide.

Elman speaks often about this connection and the need to be aware of it. Her work leads progressively along each of these steps: the thoughts, the actions, the violence, the oppression, the genocide. She deals with each step - and she has recently dealt with the whole. After years of work in the classroom, at national and international conferences, at public lectures, and in published articles, Elman has argued against the lack of understanding that allows prostitution, domestic violence, inequality among the genders, pornography to exist and even prosper - and that all can eventually lead to a holocaust against women.

Does she realize that such a view might raise eyebrows? She does. Raising eyebrows, Elman feels, may just be a necessity. If raised eyebrows mean opening eyes wider - then she may have accomplished the improved vision that is education.

In 1993, Elman took part in a conference on the dangers of pornography at the University of Chicago Law School. The gathering of women - feminist leaders, professors, lawyers, and others - argued that pornography was not an outgrowth, however distasteful, of first Amendment rights, and for that reason to be tolerated, but the direct result of oppression and forced prostitution. The panel's approach to pornography was to treat it as a civil rights issue, instead of as a first Amendment issue. A result of such views was that Elman found herself, called by some a radical feminist, pitted against other feminists who defend the use of pornography as nothing more than another "freedom."

"Pornography is the theory, rape is the practice," says Elman. If libel, sexual harassment, and criminal threats can be considered legally outside of first Amendment rights, then why not pornography? she asks.

It was at this same conference that Elman found a strong ally in her views. A spokesperson for the regulation, if not prosecution, of the use of pornography, was Catherine MacKinnon, law professor from University of Michigan.

It had been MacKinnon who, at an earlier meeting with Elman, had urged her to enter the world of academics instead of law. "She dissuaded me from becoming a lawyer," Elman says, "saying that it would be like being a rat in a maze." Ironically, it would be as a lawyer, that Catherine MacKinnon would, just a few years later, play a major role in proving the validity of this very theory in a federal courtroom.

A tragic and nightmarish oppression of women, often with the accompanying use of pornography and forced prostitution, would bring Amy Elman and Catherine MacKinnon into a New York federal courtroom during August, 2000 in the defense of eleven women survivors of Serb rape-death camps.

It is August of 2000, and Amy Elman is in New York City awaiting the arrival of eleven women she has never met before, but who would shortly become eleven of the most vividly remembered faces of her life. She is uncharacteristically nervous. What will she do when they arrive? How will she recognize them? How will they communicate? The eleven women do not speak English and Elman doesn't know a word of Croatian.

The women arrive from various places around the world, emerging from the dark shadows where they have been hidden for their safety, to step now into the stark spotlight of a New York courtroom and into the full view of the public eye.

If these eleven women are unknown to Elman, their tragedy is not. She has followed their stories, their personal living nightmares, for eight years leading up to this meeting. Having befriended a young woman named Natalie Nenadic at a conference called "Prostitution from Academia to Activism," she had learned about the alarmingly escalating incidents of raped and murdered women in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia. Under the leadership of Radovan Karadzic, Serb troops had built rape-death camps and systematically imprisoned Croatian, Bosnian-Muslim, and Bosnian-Croat women to impregnate them with the purpose of producing Serb children. These eleven women were survivors of such camps.

"I met Natalie Nenadic, who was then a law scholar at the University of Michigan, the day after she had returned from a trip to Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. She was still feeling the effects of jet lag. But even more than the jet lag, she was feeling the effects of what she had seen in the country of her own ancestry," Elman recalls. "I was horrified by the stories she had to tell. She was describing something to me that was even more sinister than what I understood about the Holocaust. Women were being raped, tortured, humiliated, murdered in their communities and in front of their families. Held captive in rape-death camps, they were systematically being impregnated to produce chetniks - that is, Serb children, or, future soldiers."

Because the Serbs believe that paternity determines identity, they had created camps to hold the captive women for a minimum of 28 days - to insure a full estrus cycle. The women were imprisoned, raped as many as a dozen or more times a night by groups of Serb soldiers, in a systematic manner until they were obviously impregnated. If they survived at all, they were released only when their pregnancies were nearly full term, and abortions were no longer possible. Once released, the women were homeless, impoverished, traumatized, their families and homes destroyed. Many are still in refugee camps today.

"Women were raped during the Holocaust, as they have been raped and murdered in all wars," Elman says. "But this was not a by-product of war. Women have always been treated as 'loot' in war, as the bounty of the conqueror. It has come to be something that is ignored, even accepted by society. But this was a systematic rape of thousands upon thousands of women, including the very young, still children themselves. That was bringing genocide to a new level of horror, never before experienced."

Survivor testimony had been leaking out from Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina for years, but there was a curious silence among the international community that was maddening to Elman. She refused to be a part of that killing silence. Despite a growing number of compelling reports on what was euphemistically referred to as "ethnic cleansing," the United States government in the early 1990s insisted that the war against Bosnia was "a blood feud grown out of age-old animosities," expressing the notion that it was a civil war in which all sides were equally to blame. The State Department discouraged congressional or private delegations from going to the scene and cited a CIA investigation had found no evidence of systematic killing in the camps, only of "unpleasant conditions."

Elman fought her battles in the academic arena, and beyond. She introduced students from her classes at Kalamazoo College to Natalie Nenadic, so that they might hear for themselves the stories Nenadic had to tell. Two of the students, Ivana Ivkovic, also of Croatian ancestry, and Corinne Vorenkamp, would accompany Nenadic back to Croatia to meet some of the women survivors for themselves. Elman herself made trips to the war-torn country, to be a witness with her own eyes to what was happening, and to meet with the women survivors.

"I was very proud of my students," Elman smiles. "When I arrived in Croatia to meet some of the women survivors of the rape-death camps, they were naturally very distrustful of a new face in their midst. I was a stranger. But once I was introduced to them as the professor of Ivana and Corinne, they immediately allowed me into their trusted circle."

Elman's students not only completed research projects on their experiences in refugee camps in Croatia, but would return to Kalamazoo College to speak to the entire campus about what they had witnessed and what might be done to help. Fundraising events from bottle collections to concerts were organized by the College students to assist in bringing financial aid to the survivors as well as to raise an awareness of their plight.

The students would soon graduate, but Elman continued to teach in her classes about the dangers of remaining uninvolved and apathetic to atrocities perpetrated against women in any arena - domestic or international.

When a women's group called Kareta, based in Croatia, helped to organize a group of women survivors willing to testify against Radovan Karadzic and the rape-death camps run by his Serbian armies, a small coalition of women, including Natalie Nenadic and University of Michigan law professor Catherine MacKinnon, filed a lawsuit in New York City called the Rape/Genocide Law Project. MacKinnon agreed to represent the cause of the Croatian and Bosnian women pro bono. They were able to bring a lawsuit against Karadzic in a United States federal court based on the obscure Alien Tort Claims Act of 1789, giving foreigners the right to file civil suits in U.S. courts for injuries suffered in violation of international law.

On sabbatical from Kalamazoo College in 1998-99, Elman returned to Croatia and worked with Nenadic and the Kareta Women's Group to make the U.S. civil case against Radovan Karadzic possible. A year later, she waited to greet the women survivors to give testimony in the case in New York.

"Then they arrived," Elman takes a deep breath. "Women with small bags or duffels in their hands, they had hardly any belongings at all, not even real shoes on their feet, but only thongs… yet they had such incredible strength and dignity. Some huddled their children, also victims of the camps, close beside them."

Elman describes the women with a reverential voice. These are women of remarkable courage, willing to give testimony at a time when their rapists and tormentors were still in power in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, she says. These are women who survived atrocities that test the limits of imagination. Their bodies are broken and ravaged, their families have been destroyed, their homes pounded into dust. Still, they arrive in a country they have never seen before, to give testimony in a court held in a language none of them speak. Only one of the women has any English skills.

"Oh, but we found ways to communicate," Elman says. "Gestures, expressions. You understand each other. Eyes speak volumes."

Elman secured safe havens where the women could stay during the trial in New York. Upon seeing them, she also realized they would require court-appropriate clothing. Going to battered women's shelters in the city, she was able to find enough clothing that the women would be dressed for the trial.

"To preserve personal dignity was crucial. They had been humiliated enough. To give testimony about what had been done to them would be added humiliation. It was important that they wear clothing that would allow for self-respect so long denied them."

It was also apparent that all of the women suffered one form or another of medical conditions caused by their experiences. Elman set to work finding medical help for each of the women's needs.

"Finding medical care without cost in New York City," Elman shakes her head, "now that was a challenge! Doctors willing to give medical care to eleven women without charging a cent… but I found them." Nothing short of a miracle, it would seem, but medical care was obtained pro bono from internists, gynecologists, audiologists, and optometrists.

When one of the women expressed a desire to hear classical music again - she had loved to play the piano, but had not heard a concert in ten years - Elman readily gave up a ticket to a Mozart concert in Lincoln Center. She took another woman, who had never seen a large body of water, to Battery Park. The Statue of Liberty brought tears of joy to the woman's eyes. A third woman wished to see a holocaust museum in New York, a smaller version of the Washington D.C. museum.

"It was important for her to know she was not alone," Elman says. "She needed to affirm that others had survived the worst kind of atrocities - and that they were remembered and honored for what they had suffered."

Serving as tour guide of the American city, Elman walked with the women through the streets, explaining what she could with gestures.

"At one moment, a motorcycle passed us and suddenly backfired. One of the women immediately froze. In an instant, her entire body was drenched with sweat."

When it was time for the trial to begin, Elman encouraged a third Kalamazoo College student to come to New York and witness the proceedings. Liza Brereton, currently a political science major at Kalamazoo College, joined the professor in New York.

"Dr. Elman has made me aware of the abuses women suffer all around the world," Liza says. "I am much more conscious now of how women are treated, what is appropriate and what is not. What seems like a relatively small thing, in comparison to this kind of genocide of women, I now understand can begin with society looking the other way when a husband beats his wife." About witnessing the trial, Liza says, "I will never forget. There is no textbook that can teach you what you learn by being there. It was the most horrifying two weeks, but I wouldn't give that experience up for anything."

Nine jurors were selected for the trial. A photograph of Radovan Karadzic was taped to a chair, in the spot were the defendant would have been seated if present. An attorney represented him in his absence. The United States District Court of Judge Peter K. Leisure was ready to hear the case.

And then the eight days of testimony began.

Elman understood what these women needed the most from her. They did not share a common language, but they shared a common bond as women, as human beings. Each day, Elman sat where she could be clearly seen by the women as they testified in front of the jury and the public through translators.

"They needed a friendly face in the crowd, a focal point," Elman says simply. "For eight years, they were not believed, or, worse, they were ignored by the international community as they cried out for help. Would they be heard this time? Would their suffering be acknowledged at last? I wanted at least my face to be one among the crowd that did."

One of the women, a Bosnian Muslim, testified how she had been dragged from her home by Serb soldiers, one of whom had been a neighbor from her town in northern Bosnia. She described the men as wearing photographs of the self-proclaimed Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic pinned to their shirts. The woman, along with her two small children, was forcefully taken to a mountainside shack where she was locked inside and repeatedly raped - with her children present.

Another woman testified that her abductors, as reported in a New York Times article, "slapped me in the face, saying there was nothing and no one to save me, ever. It was their state and they could do as they pleased. There was no way for me to escape."

Many of the women wept as they testified on the stand. One of the women fainted. Another ran out of the courtroom after completing her testimony and broke into sobs in the hallway.

Radovan Karadzic, who had already been indicted for genocide by the international war crimes tribunal in The Hague, never appeared in the courtroom during the eight days of testimony, but did submit documents that vigorously contested the right to hold a civil trial in the United States for offenses the plaintiffs claimed were committed overseas. He rejected the ability of American courts to sit in judgment on his actions.

"Can you really hope to find truth, or do justice, or protect rights of people in distant lands?" Karadzic writes in his letter, according to New York Times reporter John Sullivan. "Do you really believe that attaching a U.S. dollar sign to human tragedy around the world by empty judgments in uncontested lawsuits is a step towards peace or justice?"

Perhaps a dollar amount attached to human suffering does nothing to erase that suffering, or even lessen it. But after testimony was given by all eleven women survivors, after a short deliberation by the nine jurors, Karadzic was ordered to pay $745 million in damages to the women and to two organizations of survivors that they represented.

"Then something happened that I had never heard of before," Elman says. "The judgment was handed down, the trial was over. The jurors then stood up and invited the eleven women survivors into a back room, where they could talk with them privately. There was a great deal of tears in that back room. And a lot of hugging. That part did not require a translator."

Elman tells of one such embrace that had a special meaning to her as she prepared to leave the Manhattan courtroom and return to her work at Kalamazoo College.

"There was one woman, she was extremely thin, who could not bear to be touched. Not even a handshake. We had all been very careful not to have any physical contact with her whatsoever or she would break down. But when the trial was over and the judge had read the verdict, this woman approached me to give me a hug…"

Elman grows silent. Her dark eyes focus somewhere in the distance. It is but a moment, an instant, and she is back again, her face resolved and calm.

"It is important to emphasize," she says again, "and I cannot say this enough - that all actions begin with a thought. There is a progression in how such things happen. And they can happen anywhere. It is dangerous to think that such atrocities can happen only in some distant and uncivilized country. The Holocaust happened in one of the most civilized countries - Germany - that has ever existed. Genocide can happen in different forms and variations, but it takes seed in a society that grows anesthetized to the abuse of women by allowing the spread of pornography, the media violence against women we view as entertainment, the misuse of symbols such as these pink triangles that were once symbols of destruction, the mute acceptance of domestic violence. It is important that we as a nation have a clear understanding of the workings of fascism. It is important that we fight tirelessly against all forms of bigotry."

Elman has returned to her classroom in the halls of the political science and women's studies departments at Kalamazoo College. She continues to speak at conferences on women's issues both in the United States and in Europe.

"Higher education institutions can do so much," she says. "We have the resources, we have the time, we have the minds. There is a real opportunity to educate not only our students, but society."

While no longer directly involved with Kareta Women's Group in Croatia, Elman does not offer a happy ending to the stories of these women's lives. Many of the women who survived the Serb rape-death camps now face a community in which they are ostracized as "undesirable and damaged property." Many still live in crowded and impoverished refugee camps with no prospect of rebuilding their homes and families.

"Aside from the ongoing suffering of these women," Elman explains, "there is now the new generation, children born of the rapes. Who will love these children conceived in such violence? How will they feel about the fact of their own existence? If the goal of the Serbs was to effectively destroy the Bosnian community through the atrocities inflicted upon these women, they have succeeded."

Elman is thoughtful for a moment, then says: "But violence against women is still a war to be won. Winning, you know, begins with a thought."

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