Two female rabbis, a Catholic nun and an American-Iranian woman have joined forces in Los Angeles to send help to rape victims in Bosnia, where sexual assault reportedly has been used as a war tactic by Serbs.
Rabbi Laura Geller, director of the Westside office of the American Jewish Congress, united with members of the Muslim Women’s League and the L.A. Catholic Archdiocese in December to form an interfaith coalition. The Women’s Coalition Against Ethnic Cleansing has grown to include several governmental and rape crisis organizations. They are funding delegations to bring supplies and support to women sexually assaulted in the war-torn former Yugoslavia.
“I think it’s a very important statement . . . that women of faith are organized on this issue, No. 1, and No. 2, that Muslim and Jewish women are working together on something we feel so passionate about,” Geller said.
The coalition also wants to influence public opinion about the plight of Bosnian women.
“We want to raise consciousness that rapes against women are war crimes against humanity,” said Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, director of the Jewish
Feminist Center of the American Jewish Congress. “Armies can’t use women as trophies. The Serbs are intentionally impregnating women as one step of their so-called ethnic cleansing.”
Serbian forces in Bosnia have deliberately detained large groups of women for the purpose of rape and sexual abuse, according to a report by Amnesty International, the London-based human rights group. The European Community has reported that as many as 20,000 women have been raped in the Serbs’ rebellion against a vote by majority Muslims and Croats to make Bosnia independent from Serbian-dominated Yugoslavia. But Amnesty’s legal officer, Nick Howen, says it is impossible to estimate the number of rape victims.
The coalition of 17 organizations includes the Los Angeles Commission on Women, Jewish Hillel Student Organizations and the Pasadena YWCA Rape Crisis Center. Several private individuals are also among the more than 100 members who have participated in rallies and collected donations to begin sending volunteers to refugee camps in Bosnia next month.
The first delegation will assess the victims’ needs and speak at churches, mosques and synagogues after their return to raise money. The first group to go will be Muslim women because the Muslim Women’s League has received reports that the rape survivors trust only other Muslim women, board member Nahid Ansari says.
Subha Sulegmanagic, a 48-year-old native of Bosnia and a member of the first delegation, hopes to reach her two sisters, whom she hasn’t heard from since June.
“I’m afraid of what I’m going to find there,” said the Culver City real estate broker, a member of the first delegation. “What these women went through wasn’t just rape but gang rape. Who knows what state they’ll be in?”
The delegation will also bring books on trauma counseling requested by a women’s shelter called the Zagreb Women’s Lobby. Mental health workers in the former Yugoslavia are unaccustomed to treating rape victims and say materials mailed to them are being confiscated, said Lisa Marsh of the Pasadena center.
Marsh, who has spoken with members of the women’s lobby by telephone, learned about the group through an appeal sent from Zagreb via an electronic bulletin board.
“Exchange of experiences between the women helping rape victims in different countries and direct support is necessary to build the needed network of volunteers and institutions as soon as possible,” the lobby’s open letter reads.
In the last month, the Pasadena center has been flooded with calls from throughout the United States and Canada from people looking to help, said Director Lisa Watson, who recommends that callers send literature on women, rape and war and contribute to the YWCA’s women refugee fund. Coalition members are also coordinating telephone and letter writing campaigns to newly elected government officials.
“We’ve been urging the six women senators to take a position and lead a fight to get relief to these women,” said Rebecca Meyer of the American Jewish Congress. “We’d like to see President Clinton take the steps to document these crimes, bring the perpetrators to justice and provide effective treatment for the rape survivors.”
Frank Buccieri, 62, is one of the coalition’s few male members. The retired entrepreneur fears that ethnic intolerance may be keeping Americans from doing more to help the Bosnian people, he said. “If it were Christians that were being raped, would the response be different? More Jewish and Christian groups should say, ‘It’s enough.’ ”
Drawing attention to the wave of rapes committed in Bosnia-Herzegovina also helps to heighten the horror of rape as a violent crime against women around the world, Elwell says. “We hope our efforts will clarify the distinction between healthy sexuality and violent aggression,” she said. “People start thinking, ‘This could be my mother, my sister, my wife.’ ”
Coalition members stress the urgency of bringing relief to Bosnia. “I was alive when the Holocaust took place,” said Sister Anne Giblin, 52. “People knew what was happening to the Jewish community at the time and yet they went about their daily business. We’re doing the same thing now. Instead of learning from history, we’re making the same mistake. That’s why this coalition is so important.”
For more information on the coalition, call Rebecca Meyer at the American Jewish Congress, (213) 651-4601.