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Strong women give voice to Bosnia's pain

This Was Not Our War: Bosnian Women Reclaiming the Peace, By Swanee Hunt, Duke University Press, 307 pp., $29.95

Former ambassador Swanee Hunt has written an admirable book telling the stories of 26 Bosnian women who survived their war. Serbs, Croats, Muslims, Christians, and Jews all are victims of politicians' avarice more than racial hatred. That they should want to work for peace in that country as teachers, physicians, other professionals, and mothers is a triumph of the human spirit.

Hunt was appointed US ambassador to Austria in 1993 by President Clinton. Seventy thousand Bosnian refugees streamed over the border into Austria in the mid-'90s. That got her interest.

All of the women interviewed by Hunt for ''This Was Not Our War" agree that the cause of conflict was not ethnic incompatibility. Instead they blame ''. . . the unabashed greed of politicians, a policy and practice of privilege that tilted the social balance, and media transformed into a powerful machine, churning out fear for political purposes." The book refutes Slobodan Milosevic's claim of ''intractable hatred" among Bosnians as the reason for the war that left more than 50,000 women raped, an estimated 150,000 dead, and 2,300,000 expelled from their country.

The voices and personalities of the women Hunt interviewed and befriended are remarkable, strong, and vital. About their stories, she says: ''The words are theirs, the framework mine." Hunt says the basis for the technique she used for the book involves ''observer/participant" relationships.

The practice began with Hunt's doctoral studies at Harvard in pastoral care and counseling in the early '80s. ''I immersed myself in the work of the Harvard child psychiatrist Robert Coles . . . as he plunged into what I call 'the socioethical dimensions of empathy.' These principles shaped my relationships with Bosnian women a decade later." Here is a sampling of that cooperation:

Maja Jerkovic, an orthodontic surgeon during the war, explains her sense of duty. She says: ''Let me tell you something. I understand fear." To get to her office in the city of Mostar, Jerkovic had to cross two roads, within range of sharpshooters. ''I was scared," she says, ''but I kept telling myself: 'You may save a life at work. You've got to go.' "

Vesna Kisic, a Catholic who is a key player in the postwar League of Women Voters of Bosnia and Herzegovina, reflects on what must be done in the aftermath of war. ''War caused this hatred among people, but we can overcome this," she says. ''Time will heal. First the economy will bring us together. But just think about it: Even after all we've endured, we have new mixed marriages. You see, love has no borders."

An accounting professor, Mirhunisa Zucic, is equally tough-minded. She says: ''Politicians who've known me for years just ignore me. They never pick up the phone. But I don't mind, because I know what I'm doing -- and I know what they're doing."

Suzana Andjelic, a journalist, is critical of the Dayton peace agreement, signed in December 1995, which ended the war. The agreement's ''constructive ideas," never fully enforced, would have been helpful. About this Andjelic says: ''The truth is, we lost the war, because we lost our country -- and we lost it at Dayton."

Hunt does not avoid controversy. She criticizes the United Nations' role in Bosnia, saying that its imposition of an arms embargo in 1991 ''at the request of Belgrade . . . effectively froze the military imbalance in which the Serbs controlled the fourth-largest army in Europe, and non-Serbs were essentially unarmed." About former President Clinton, who wrote the foreword to her book, Hunt says: ''He was notably indecisive on the Balkans, caught in a tug-of-war between his own high-level officials advocating or discouraging intervention."

Jelka Kebo, who has brought young people together in Mostar, winning acclaim for her Center for Culture and Youth, acknowledges the ambassador's perspective. She told Hunt: ''You've taken my experience and put it in a framework. I couldn't make sense of all this but you have. What a gift. Thank you."

Michael D. Langan, a retired Treasury official, was a senior expert with the United Nations monitoring group that dealt with the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

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