In the autumn of 1991 and six months before the three-year long war broke out in the former Yugoslavia, 16-year-old E.B. was living in a city in Croatia, with her Serbian father and Croatian mother. During this time, Serbs in the area were routinely persecuted by the Croatian police, soldiers and paramilitary because of their ethnicity. E.B.’s family were among those singled out by the authorities.
On several occasions, E.B’s family were targeted by the police and military. Armed officers entered their home and made death threats in front of E.B. and her sister. “They told me that they were looking for arms. They threatened me and my children. They did not show me the search warrant. At that time small crosses were put on apartments in which Serbs lived and we were marked and exposed,” recalls E.B.’s mother.
In October 1991, the police came to the house and took E.B.’s father away. Thirteen days later his body was recovered. The pathologist’s report found that he had been tortured and thrown into a river while he was still alive. E.B. was involved in the search and identification of her father. As a result, she lived in a constant state of fear. “I told my mother to stop asking the authorities about my father, they could kill us too,” she says.
Following her father’s death, the police continued to threaten the family, going as far as to subject her mother to interrogation. Growing up in an environment of constant intimidation, combined with the loss of her father and the circumstances under which he died, E.B. developed symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. She received treatment from a child psychiatrist in Zagreb and finished her secondary school education, but dropped out of university because she was unable to cope with the events of her past.
It was 15 years later in 2006, when E.B. and her mother, along with E.B.’s then eight-year-old son, came into contact with the Rehabilitation Center for Stress and Trauma (RCT) in Zagreb.
RCT was contacting people who could potentially serve as witnesses in war criminal trials. After meeting E.B., the care providers quickly realised that she was struggling to cope, dealing with symptoms including restlessness, low levels of confidence and an inability to make decisions. They also diagnosed E.B.’s mother with severe post traumatic stress disorder symptoms.
To ensure E.B. and her family received the support they needed, RCT Zagreb took a group approach. A social worker and psychologist visited the family twice a month and occasionally they were supported financially. The RCT also organised a support network for E.B.’s son and for her mother, and the family began to cope better with daily life.
The centre continues to support the family through a follow-up treatment programme for torture victims that agree to be witnesses in war crime trials. RCT Zagreb also supported the family in seeking compensation for the death of E.B.’s father. Unfortunately, they lost the case and were ordered to pay the trial costs. It is a sad reality that these verdicts are often given to discourage victims to seek justice for crimes committed against them.
The war in the former Yugoslavia turned hundreds of thousands of people into victims of displacement, disappearances, torture and rape. Yet, there is a large number of families like E.B.’s that have not received rehabilitation and compensation for their suffering.
RCT Zagreb works with the populations at risk, emphasising the effects of social reconstruction in post-conflict communities and reducing social exclusion, so that people like E.B. can rebuild the pieces of their lives and begin again.