Friday, December 05, 2014

Persephone Rises

by Zinta Aistars
Published in LuxEsto Fall 2014
Kalamazoo College alumni magazine

Bakira Hasecic beckons Ivana Ivkovic ’95 to her garden in Sarajevo and fills her arms with vegetables. She piles potatoes and zucchini into the trunk of Ivkovic’s car, filling the crates crammed next to Ivana’s camera equipment.

“You are like another daughter to me,” says Bakira, and the two women embrace, holding back tears, a farewell until their next meeting. By now, the women have met on three occasions, and the stories they have shared are heart-rending. Bakira and Ivana are bonded in their shared cause of giving voice to the forgotten women of Bosnia.

 For 19 years, since she graduated from Kalamazoo College, majoring in political science and women’s studies, Ivana has held a burning desire to return to this story, to the story of Bakira Hasecic and so many other Bosniak women who survived—or did not survive—systematic rape as a form of genocide in the Serbian war of 1991 to 1995 in Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina.

In the Winter 2001 issue of LuxEsto, Ivana described her experience while a student at K, when she was first drawn to the cause of giving voice to women survivors of the Serb-run rape camps: “My life’s course took a drastic turn during the summer of 1991, when the Serbian army moved into Slovenia, then Croatia, a few months before I embarked on my Land/Sea Experience at Kalamazoo College. Over the next two years, I made four trips to Washington D.C. to lobby Congress to enforce sanctions against Serbia … After graduation, I worked for the Croatian embassy in Washington D.C. and helped open the first Croatian consulate in Los Angeles.”

For Ivana, those early learning experiences, at one point culminating in her Senior Individualized Project about the women that Karadzic attempted to crush, stayed with her, waiting for the right time to surface again.

“It was always at the back of my mind,” she says. “Coming from K, you have all these ideals, all these ideas about how things should work. I wanted to change everything. I was unwilling to compromise. I was impatient.” She laughs, remembering her younger, idealistic but less wise and experienced self.

Born in Croatia, Ivana immigrated to the United States with her parents at age 3. She went to law school in Chicago after graduating from Kalamazoo College, but felt some of the same frustrations arise.

“In law school, I kept looking for courses on human rights,” she says. “Later, I realized I was too impatient for change. I would have been beating my head against a brick wall, frustrated at trying to change a system I couldn’t change, at least not overnight.”

Ivana left law school to move to California, where she studied playwriting at the University of Southern California, where she had received a full scholarship. She later worked for 20th Century Fox, Fox Sports Network, and the Rand Corporation.

“I worked in all aspects of the film industry, from development to distribution, at both small and large production companies,” Ivana says. “I was at 20th Century Fox for four years, and my last two years there, all I could think about was this documentary I wanted to do.”

Remembering that discontent, Ivana wonders if fate didn’t conspire with the call inside her. Her employer downsized in 2010, and Ivkovic found herself newly unemployed.

“Blessing in disguise,” she now says. “I could finally focus on what had been simmering in me all along. I thought about these women and how they must still be dealing with the repercussions of what had been done to them, and I felt a sense of guilt at moving away from that.”

Ivana realized that all was as it should be, however. The story was so powerful, so overwhelming—and she tears up as she considers it even now—that she needed time and distance to gain some measure of objectivity to allow for filming the documentary she had in mind.

In November 2010, Ivana returned to Bosnia and had her first interview with Bakira Hasecic. “Bakira is a powerhouse activist,” says Ivana. “She is a survivor of war rape, and today she is the president of Women Victims of War in Sarajevo. Bakira is the focus of my documentary.

As the documentary developed, Ivana titled it Persephone Speaks: The Forgotten Women of Bosnia, for the mythological figure of Persephone, daughter of the god Zeus, who was kidnapped by Hades and taken down into the underworld while her mother searched for her.

“The title reflects that there is light at the end of the tunnel,” Ivana explains. “That light is to bring the perpetrators of these war crimes to justice. Most people don’t want to hear what these women have to say, they don’t want to know the truth about what happened. They would rather sweep it under the rug and forget, but it’s important to give these women voice. These women deserve to be heard.”

And Ivana is listening, recording and filming. In a series of interviews with Bakira and other women, she has accumulated about 50 hours of film to be edited down to a cohesive documentary. The stories are chilling.

Ivana recalls the story of 80 men, women, and children stuffed into a house that was locked and burned. A memorial stands at the site today. And there are the stories of the hundreds of people executed and tossed from a bridge into the Drina River, Ivana says, so that for weeks the river flowed red with blood.

“You can still see the damage today, what’s left of burned down homes,” she says about her many trips to the Republika Srpska. “Not a single mosque anywhere, but what churches you see are mostly all new. It’s an area that was carved out of Bosnia but is now under Serbia. Republika Srpska is built on genocide.”

Bakira Hasecic reveals in her interviews with Ivana all that she has survived. She saw the execution of many, and her family was forced to watch the torture and death of people they knew, neighbors and friends. Bakira’s daughter was hit with a rifle butt, splitting her head open after her family was forced to watch her being raped repeatedly.

“Bakira returns to the home where her mother lived, on the outskirts of Visegrad, by the cemetery where many of her Bosniak friends and neighbors are buried. In spite of everything that happened, Bakira still considers Visegrad her true home,” Ivana says. “It’s where she was born and raised and where she buried her sister, her brother, mother and father.  Her sister was held in a rape camp during the war, and killed while there, her head put on display above the fireplace of the former restaurant, to serve as an example to the other women what can happen to them if they don’t follow the orders of the Serbian soldiers.

“Bakira gave me the best interview I’ve ever gotten, no filters. We were also able to film her in her garden, in her own element, and people would throw trash in her garden, trying to get her to leave. Her strength amazes me. She receives death threats. Someone even left a sign there that said she deserved what happened to her.”

Ivana visited Vilina Vlas, a hotel and health spa today, but during the war one of the most notorious Serb-run rape camps and detention facilities, where several hundred Bosniak girls and women were raped and impregnated, and where prisoners were tortured and beaten.

“We went into the lobby of Vilina Vlas, and the sound girl for the documentary pretended to be my translator,” Ivkovic recalls. “The manager was a Serb. We asked if we could film there, you know, as a health spa, but he was wary of us. I casually said—we heard a rumor this place was once a rape camp? He got very defensive and refused to answer any more questions, but we kept our cameras rolling. Even when I dropped my camera to my waist, my cinematographer kept his rolling. When I said we had testimonies that Vilina Vlas was a rape camp, he said firmly, ‘Lies! Lies! Lies!’ and asked us to leave immediately.”

Ivana often would play ignorant during the filming of the documentary. Sidling up and slipping in questions unexpectedly, her cameras captured many uncomfortable moments.

“As we came out of Vilina Vlas, we saw Serb men sitting on a bench near the bridge across the Drina, watching us. We pretended ignorance again. We asked: Didn’t this used to be a Bosnian town? Where have they all gone? They replied, Oh, we’ve lived here a long time. So we asked them where they were during the war, and that’s when they all got defensive. One of the men photographed me with his cell phone and said, Now we have your photograph, too.”

Nothing came easily. Ivana filmed, and interviewed, and then returned to the States to work on what she had and to schedule more interviews. Funding was an issue, and she organized two crowdfunding to raise money to film, then edit the documentary taking shape in her hands. The first part of the documentary’s production had been funded from her own savings.

When she had enough funding in hand to continue, Ivana took on her growing list of interviews. She spoke to Lauren Wolfe, an award-winning journalist and director of Women Media Center's Women Under Siege Project, which was originated by Gloria Steinem. Wolfe serves on the advisory committee of the International Campaign to Stop Rape & Gender Violence in Conflict. Wolfe talked to Ivana about her work, writing about what happens to women during war, how rape is used as a weapon of war. Wolfe had researched the fate of women in Rwanda, Syria, and Congo as well as Bosnia.

Ivana interviewed Nerma Jelacic, who was 14 when she fled with her parents to England just before the Serbian army came into Visegrad, in Bosnia. Today, Jelacic is working as head of communications with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) at The Hague in The Netherlands.

The most important interview Ivana tried to arrange was one with Radovan Karadzic, the former Bosnian Serb leader, on trial at The Hague since 2008.

“I came very close,” says Ivana. “I had to submit questions to Karadzic beforehand, but he turned them over to Peter Robinson, his main counsel. Robinson is an American criminal defense lawyer, based in California, and he was also on the prosecuting team for the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. Robinson seemed like such a nice man. He obviously enjoyed what he was doing.”

Ivana couldn’t resist. In an attempt to understand how someone could rise to the defense of Radovan Karadzic, she asked Robinson: “If someone asked you to defend Adolf Hitler, would you?”

Robinson answered her: “Absolutely. Even if I’m not in agreement with the alleged actions of an individual, I believe everyone deserves a defense.”

Roy Gutman, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of A Witness to Genocide, spoke to Ivana about being one of the first to break the story about what was happening in Bosnia. Gutman had talked to Radovan Karadzic and asked about the war crimes. Karadzic had told him it was all lies. Only one woman had been raped, he said, and she was Serbian.

Ivana sighs, rests from her account for a moment before resuming her story. “In spite of all this, all the death threats, all the accusations and harassment, these women continue to come forward to give their testimonies at The Hague. They are not giving up. Too often the responses to their persistence have ranged from continued denial or indifference to, chillingly, an admission that sometimes borders on a celebration of the war crimes. There have even been Serbian festivals, singing songs with lyrics about how such events will someday happen again. To this day, according to Peter Robinson, Karadzic insists that people left their homes ‘peacefully’ during the war. Ratko Mladic, a Bosnian Serb military leader, on the other hand, who is in the same detention center as Karadzic, sneers at the Bosniak women and has said that they got what they deserved. The two of them spend time together every day.”

Ivana hopes to have the documentary completed and submitted to film festivals this year.
“Several people have given their time pro bono,” she says. “The brilliant war photographer, Andree Kaiser, has allowed me to use several of his photographs in the documentary for free. We have one editor, and we are bringing on a music supervisor and possibly a composer. We have already hired a translator and a transcriber. There are legal fees and licensing costs. But these are all necessary expenses to bring the film to the audience so that the voices and stories of these women deserve.”

If history is supposed to instruct us for a better future, Ivana says, we have too often failed to learn her lessons. Ivana’s work to amplify the voices of Bosniak women is meant to inspire people to take a stand against the abuse of women as weapons of war, not just in Bosnia but the world over.

“Women and girls continue to be targeted. When you kill someone, you kill one person, that’s it, they’re gone. To rape a woman, however, destroys an entire family, which in turn, multiplied, destroys a community, destroys a spirit and ultimately, can destroy an entire nation.”

Because of her work on the documentary, Ivana Ivkovic (now Kelley) receives hate mail and threatening comments on her websites. That hasn’t stopped her. The idealism she developed during her years at Kalamazoo College is alive.


Radovan Karadzic, former Bosnian Serb leader, was indicted by the international war crimes tribunal for his war crimes, charged with genocide in connection with the 1995 massacre of nearly 8,000 Muslims, Croats and non-Serbs in the Bosnian village of Srebrenica and accused of overseeing military operations from 1992 until 1995 that spread murder, rape and pillage in the former Yugoslavia. He oversaw concentration camps that included death-rape camps for women. At the height of the military campaign in 1992, 44,000 people were killed, nearly half of the 100,000 who died during the war. Karadzic still awaits a final judgment, which, according to the New York Times, is not expected until 2015.


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