Upon entry to the home I grew up in but was away from for years, I run to the hallway closet to check to see if they are still there. The “they” in this equation are the most perfect pair of high gloss, black patented heels. These were the heels my mother wore before the war broke out in Sarajevo, during the worst of the Siege as she tried to continue a sense of normalcy, and even afterwards, amid all the rubble and destruction around us. They were and remain everlasting, despite now being scuffed and worn out. In their prime, paired with one of my mother’s classic dresses and the perfect red lip, they were the most beautiful symbol of resistance to me.
The world may be familiar with the picture of Meliha Varesanovic, the Bosnian woman walking with all the courage, glamour and resilience in the world, in the midst of the Siege of Sarajevo and despite the shelling and sniper attacks all around her. Some have depicted her as bringing glamour to the besieged city and she has in many ways become a symbol of Bosnian women’s defiance and stoicism. Meliha, just like my mother, remains a symbol of resistance to me.
Meliha’s impact had little to do with the fact she looked so unbelievably elegant, just like my mother’s actual shoes had little to do with resistance. Rather, it is the thought that went behind wearing them during war; the fact that, despite the horror of war and genocide, the women of Bosnia pushed through with as much strength as they could. For some, that meant each day, despite the bombings, putting on their best dresses, their lipstick and mascara, and looking like the epitome of elegance in the worst circumstance one can dream of.
The Siege of Sarajevo lasted for over four very long years. In that time, many of Sarajevo’s women were killed by snipers or shelling and many of Bosnia’s women were subjected to rapes and horrifying abuse in concentration camps. This war and genocide did not discriminate between genders. The women were killed just the same as men and often, even worse, they were subjected to the kind of horror few will experience in their lives.
I know these women intimately. I was born of them and they remain a part of me. Their suffering is often dismissed, and their resilience often fetishised by those who will never be able to relate to the harrowing injustice and crimes committed upon them. It is understandable that the stoicism of Sarajevo’s women remains a talking-point for academics and Balkan enthusiasts alike. There is something ultimately persevering about it all. It speaks to our human nature; the hope that no matter how bad things get, there will always be someone to shine a light in the midst of the darkness.
Meliha’s picture, just like photographs of many women showcasing stoicism in the face of horror, has been spread far and wide, often with accolades about her resilience and strength. Of course, there is both strength and resilience in this picture, but somewhere along the line the more people seemed to express their awe at her picture the more it seemed dismissive of the actual pain that the Bosnian war and genocide brought. The discussion of Bosnian women during the war and genocide seemed to always focus on their strength, resilience, and elegance and not the pain and horrors they experienced. Over the last twenty-five years, the world has looked at Bosnia’s women as symbols and not as people who lost everything and continue to lose today.
A month ago, I was in Sarajevo, drinking coffee with a group of women who, during the war, were nurses, soldiers, mothers, wives, and everything in between. As a child, they were an inspiration to me. I knew they had walked the streets of Sarajevo in their best clothes and make-up even on the deadliest of days. But today, sitting across from me, they were exhausted and drained. There was no make-up on their faces, their clothes were nothing special, and while they still gave off the energy of the sort of stoicism that persevered throughout the war, they seemed fed up above all.
It has been twenty-five years since the Siege came to an end and during this time, these women have had to fight like never before. They have had to fight to keep their jobs, to feed their families, to school their children, to nurse their elderly parents back to health in a country where, despite the fact the war is over, there seems to have been no improvement to people’s lives.
Sitting with me, they reminisced about Tito’s Yugoslavia, the parties they would attend, and even occasionally they would throw in some dark humour about the Bosnian War. I built up the courage to ask them why they seemed to have changed so much and I got an answer I wasn’t expecting. It was a family friend that had spoken up first. She explained, and others agreed, that there was little time for dressing up now as their days were spent ensuring their families were fed. They told me it was up to my generation to continue representing Sarajevo and its women with resilience, elegance, and strength.
These women who survived the Siege have grown older and tired. Underneath their dignified resilience, I saw pain, grief, and exhaustion. The psychological damage of the war remains, even if the rest of world can’t see that. It is easier for the outside world to think about the stoicism and strength of Bosnia’s women than it is to think about why they needed such a great amount of strength in the first place, and what they are left with today.
The resistance of Sarajevo’s women never really had anything to do with make-up, beautiful clothes, or heels. It was about ensuring that, despite the fact the perpetrators of the war and genocide wanted to dehumanise them, their humanity remained protected. Cut off from the world, without food, electricity, and water, Sarajevo’s women retained their humanity above all, in spite of the perpetrators. Through their daily habits of dressing up they ensured the survival of their individuality in a time when they were being targeted for their identity.
Even today, 25 years after the war, it is the women of Bosnia that remain the glue that holds much of the country together. They are our teachers, mothers, sisters, doctors, wives, nurses, soldiers, caretakers and much more. They are resilient, strong, and enduring. But if we wish to honour them and their everlasting stoicism, we need to recognise the continued grief, pain, and exhaustion that remains a part of their psyche.
These women, who gave way to inspiration and strength, deserve a country in which their labour is not just recognised but compensated. They deserve a country without corruption and lines of red tape standing in the way of their dreams. They deserve more than feeling forced to vote for nationalist parties whose hold on the country has only grown stronger since the war. They deserve equal pay, safe streets, a future in which their children are not forced to leave the country to find work, and they deserve to live in a place where their experiences are not denied by the growing rise of ethnonationalists.
We must move past the fetishisation of their strength and work to ensure a world where Bosnia’s women can finally get some rest. For it is tiring to have to continue fighting for your humanity, years after the last bomb has dropped.