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Monday, June 6, 1994 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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A Bridge Of Caring -- Local Women Marshal Volunteer Efforts To Help Victims Of The War In Bosnia

How to help To make a tax-deductible contribution to the "I Am Your Witness" campaign to help women and children survivors of organized rape in Bosnia and Croatia, make the check payable to Powerful Choices and write Witness Campaign at the bottom. Send it to Powerful Choices, Box 30918, Seattle, WA 98103. For more information, call 782-5662.

As a child learning about the Holocaust from the safety of her grade-school desk, Kathy Chludzinski always wondered: "Why didn't anybody help?"

But as an adult hearing about the slaughter and organized sexual atrocities in Bosnia-Herzegovina, she found it wasn't so easy. She wanted to do something, but she didn't know what.

Now Chludzinski is part of a bridge to that country, forming an emotional span that essentially says, "I see what's happening to you. It's wrong. I'll do whatever I can to help you heal and bring the perpetrators to trial."

The bridge is called the "I Am Your Witness" campaign. Chludzinski's role so far has been to gather volunteers to help raise money from the Greenwood office of Powerful Choices, a nonprofit women's self-defense group that has taken on this global campaign with no additional staff.

What she and Powerful Choices have found is that people all over the country have felt equally exasperated and grieved. Along with their checks, many sent notes saying, "Thank you for giving me a way to help."

The Seattle group joined forces last January with the Los

Angeles Coalition Against Ethnic Cleansing to send $36,000 to two refugee women's groups in Croatia that are already providing medical, psychological and legal help to survivors of organized rape.

Powerful Choices will make its role more personal this July, sending three representatives to Zagreb, Croatia, to deliver additional funds and to ask what more is needed.

While there, Judith Roth, founder of Powerful Choices, will help teach self-defense skills to women living just outside Serb-occupied areas.

There's not much anyone can do for the Bosnian women and children systematically rounded up by Serb soldiers and taken to rape camps for forced impregnation or slaughter, but there are displaced women in Croatia who are learning martial arts and have asked for more help.

Roth will be accompanied by Cody Sontag and Mary Liz Callan, both therapists specializing in issues related to women's healing.

"I'm not saying we have a cure for people who are being attacked with guns," said Roth.

But they can teach young women on the streets how to watch out for their safety and to handle confrontation in assertive but nonaggressive ways.

The trip is primarily about empowerment. The Seattle women will follow the lead of the two refugee women's groups - Zena BiH (Women in Bosnia-Herzegovina) and Kareta - to help the refugees reclaim at least a part of their lives.

Powerful Choices is based on a philosophy of turning people's feelings of helplessness and vulnerability into a source of strength and control. The basis for it is learning the physical skills to fight off attackers, but also the verbal skills and mind-set to try to defuse an attack before it happens.

Although the program has been criticized for using violence to stop violence, graduates of the 27-hour basic program often come away encouraged that people who abhor violence someday will be the powerful majority.

Holocaust legacy

And that's why Roth couldn't sit idly by and watch sexual atrocity in Bosnia being used as a weapon of war without taking some kind of action.

Her parents were both Holocaust survivors and she has gained strength from seeing that healing is possible for the next generation.

"It's happened before and it's happening again and to say, `Well, there's nothing we can do about it,' is a pretty hopeless stance to take," she said. "At least we can plant the seeds for healing."

The self-defense training will be helpful, said Natalie Nenadic, who will meet the women from Powerful Choices in Zagreb.

Nenadic works with the Rape-Genocide Law Project and has spent time in Bosnia and Croatia since the fall of Communist rule broke up what was Yugoslavia.

Rape has always been a part of war, but not a calculated tool of genocide. The fear is that if soldiers and their leaders are not brought to justice, women and children in strife-torn countries will become even more vulnerable.

Legal reprisal will have an effect, said Nenadic by phone from Michigan, where she was staying before returning to Croatia.

"Fascists respond to swift and serious action of whatever kind," she said.

Still vulnerable

Unlike the Nuremburg war trials, which took place after World War II, gathering information in Bosnia and Croatia is difficult because the victims and their families are still vulnerable.

But their stories are haunting. A 30-year-old woman staying in a refugee camp in Croatia told Zena BiH (one of the two groups Powerful Choices is helping) about being raped by three uniformed Serbian soldiers on her way back from seeing her brother in a detention camp.

The woman, whose husband had also been taken by Serb forces, was too ashamed to tell her mother-in-law.

"Soon after, Serbian military police raided our home. They tried to take my 9-year-old daughter to the barn. I managed to convince them to take our possessions instead of raping my young daughter.

"The same day, my husband's sister and mother were attacked in their home and raped. My sister-in-law was a virgin. After her rape she became silent and would not come out of her room."

Part of the money raised in the "I Am Your Witness" campaign will be used to store criminal evidence where it will be safe through the war and to try to protect the survivors.

The Ministry of the Interior of Bosnia-Herzegovina estimates that more than 50,000 women and children have been raped. Most believe the world knows nothing of their struggles. Nenadic said it's very important for the survivors to feel they've built a bridge with women on the outside.

Sontag, one of the supporters of Powerful Choices who will go to Zagreb in July, said she is going with no preconceived idea of what is needed.

"I'll set up a system to deliver 50,000 washcloths, if that's what they say they need most," she said.

She will take with her brochures that address issues of post-traumatic stress designed by U.S. mental and physical health professionals who have visited Croatia and Bosnia.

People care

The "I Am Your Witness" campaign has shown Sontag that people in the U.S. do care, but that they struggle to handle their own sense of despair, especially if they've experienced trauma themselves.

Having a chance to contribute to the trip or just talk about it "has given people a sense of action that they can take," she said.

Chludzinski agrees. She said she and other volunteers can think of Bosnia now without feeling utter hopelessness and despair. Many of the women and men who sent in $75 or $125 said it matched the cost of a therapy session and would do them equal or more good.

There's a tendency to see the world in black and white, said Roth. If we can't end the war, then let's just forget about it. But there is much that can be done to aid the healing.

"It's going to be a very big, long problem," said Roth, "and we can't turn away from it. But we are reaching survivors and every day we build a greater groundswell of support."

Copyright (c) 1994 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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