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Bosnia: 'Voices Of Courage' Award Bestowed In New York

Stanojka Avramovic and Zejneba Sarajlic of Bosnia and Herzegovina are among the latest recipients of the Voices of Courage award granted each year by the New York-based nonprofit Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children. Avramovic and Sarajlic were cited for their persistence and dedication in working to build peace in a war-scarred community.

New York, 16 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Bosnian Serb Stanojka Avramovic witnessed many atrocities at her home in Podrinje Canton during the 1992-1996 war in Bosnia. Speaking yesterday in New York, where she was honored for her humanitarian efforts in the war-torn country, Avramovic said the hardest aspect of life during the war was coping with the deep sense of injustice.

"The hardest part during the war was the injustice. Injustice that was done to all three peoples of Bosnia. And in the one little town that we come from, of course, Serbs who were not grounded in democracy engaged in genocide. On the other side there were Muslims, and on still another side there were Croats," Avramovic said.

Zejneba Sarajlic, a Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) who together with Avramovic was among this year's recipients of the Voices of Courage award granted by the U.S.-based Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children, described the horrors her family endured at the hands of Serbian forces during the war.

"The worst thing during the war was that we were driven out of our home; I was driven from my property. My husband was killed the following day near Bratunac. My son was in a concentration camp. We were driven out to Tuzla Canton. Of course we had nothing left -- just with the clothes on our backs, absolutely no money. Everything was left behind: my husband and my son. Everything that we had worked for, my husband and I, for 32 years, was lost. I had to start from nothing and find some way to feed my children," Sarajlic said.

In 1993, Sarajlic co-founded Women of Podrinje, a support group directing humanitarian aid to displaced women and children and their husbands, brothers, fathers, and sons in the Bosnian army. In May last year, Sarajlic and Avramovic opened a branch of the group in Bratunac, which has become a central meeting point for people of different ethnic backgrounds who have been separated by war and hatred.

Avramovic said the two women -- longtime friends despite their own ethnic differences -- have worked hard to reconcile the people of their region.

"I think that it is the right thing to do, the best solution. If it wasn't, we wouldn't be doing what we're doing. [The Women of Podrinje association] is working for the reconciliation of the people in our region. When we began this work, people began to return from exile to their homes. And we received a small grant last year from [the United Nations refugee agency] in Tuzla, which enabled us to sponsor a number of families who wanted to come back. Without [the UN support] -- because our resources are extremely limited, almost nonexistent -- our wishes and the things we strive for would have simply remained words on paper," Avramovic said.

Sarajlic said she and Avramovic have received threats from people in the country who oppose their collective efforts, but that support for their efforts is growing. While resistance to reconciliation efforts still remains in the Serbian part of Bosnia, Sarajlic said yesterday's award motivates her to work even harder.

"We have two governments in Bosnia: the government of the [Muslim-Croat] Federation and the government of Republika Srpska. The leaders of Republika Srpska are the ones who actually started the war. This is why my friend Stanojka and I are not welcome there, because we are working toward other ends. It's difficult to express what I'm feeling right now [at the awards presentation in New York], but I am very happy. It is a recognition of our efforts," Sarajlic said.

The Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children was established in 1989 and has presented its Voices of Courage award annually since 1992. In addition to Sarajlic and Avramovic, this year's recipients include Bushra Jawabri, a Palestinian, and Julia Resnitsky, a Russian-Israeli, for their work in the Middle East.