Have you ever met a person and sensed there is something special about them?
Since joining the NCCWN Donegal Women’s Network advocating for women’s rights and equality, I have had the privilege of meeting inspirational women who have opened my eyes to the strength and vision of women in Donegal and around the world. I have, as one friend would say, found my gender lens!
This summer I travelled to Mostar in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) where for four weeks I stayed in the family-run hostel, Nina Mostar. Here I met the very cheerful owner Jadranka or as everyone calls her, Beba.
One night in conversation Beba remarked that she had a mixed marriage which in Mostar meant she was a Croat and her husband a Bosniak. She made light of the fact that in the former Yugoslavia, mixed marriages were encouraged but in the aftermath of the 1992-1995 war which left 100,000 dead, people said these marriages would not last, though this wasn’t the case for Beba.
I was interested to hear more about her life, so asked if she would be happy to sit down and talk more, to my excitement she said yes. It was a warm sunny afternoon when we sat in the garden to talk. Before we began, Beba lit up a cigarette and joked that all women in Mostar smoke! This friendly humour would set the tone of our conversation and I knew I was about to be enlightened by this unique lady.
She told me she had studied law when she was younger. She married at 19 and when war broke out she was 33 and while we didn’t go into the politics of the war, she remarked that the war was imposed by others and that people were made to leave their homes without thought or care. It was also difficult for her because she didn’t take sides but people knew who she was because of her last name.
In 1992, like two million other displaced persons in Bosnia, she had to leave her home becoming a refugee in Norway, where she had no direct contact with her husband for two years but for messages sent via the Red Cross. She spoke of the contrast and shock of living in Norway where there was no conflict and families could freely walk around. By 1994 she felt she could no longer be apart from her husband and made the decision to return home with her two young children.
Arriving back home she was presented with complete destruction and for some years the family faced challenges. She recalled having to wash cloths down by the river, living without electricity and proper windows. It was not easy to start the rebuilding and she worked to get as much money as she could as it was difficult for her husband to find paid work.
Beba spoke freely about her experience and the development that allowed the hostel to grow into a successful business. She recalled the funny memories too, like serving guests breakfast out in the garden and the table wobbling because of a hole in the ground still remaining from the conflict. The old car they had looked like it was falling apart yet it still managed to get them around and take guests on tours.
I ended our conversation by asking what would she say to future women in Mostar? She replied: “People can be fake, materialist and just want to make an impression, but this is not what gets you places. People think too that you have to be lucky, but you have to work, be active and take what opportunities you can”. Everyone has to get on with life, she concluded.
For me Beba is a woman of strength and vision, she is a positive example of the great value women bring to their societies. My afternoon with Beba has been one of great learning about the effect of conflict on women’s lives, and the resilience women hold to get through the most challenging of circumstances.