VOZUCA, Bosnia-Herzegovina — The tiled-roof homes that are scattered on verdant hillsides around this village conceal the emerging demographics of Bosnia: Most are households of women, women alone raising children, their men--husbands, fathers, sons, brothers--killed in the massacres of war.
Wars mostly claim male victims. But in Bosnia-Herzegovina, where warriors bent on eradicating an enemy ethnic group decimated the male populations of entire communities, the plight of man-less women is especially acute. And in a patriarchal society where everything from identity to economic standing depends on men, the ability of these women to recover is limited.
Fadila Mehmedovic, 37, is one of more than 15,000 Muslim women who survived the Bosnian Serb takeover of Srebrenica, in eastern Bosnia, last summer. Her husband and two brothers are among the estimated 8,000 Muslim men who are missing. She labors to rebuild a life for herself and her six daughters, whose ages range from 2 to 18.
"Imagine losing everything you have--your husband, your home," she said. "Life is not interesting anymore. . . . With only female children left, the line ends here."
Mehmedovic and her daughters were resettled in Vozuca by the Bosnian government, which seems woefully ill-equipped to deal with the problems of female war victims. Government forces retook this central village from the Serbs just a few months ago; it has no electricity or health services and receives only occasional shipments of humanitarian aid.
"It would have been better if the men had lived and not us," said Ibrisa Omerovic, a 40-year-old Muslim who lost her husband and two sons but survived the fall of Srebrenica with two daughters. "It is easier for men to start a new life."
Omerovic and Mehmedovic are among the 1,700 families placed in Vozuca, in homes abandoned by Serbs. Here the women must haul kindling, draw water and till the fields. The Red Cross gave each family some hens.
In Bosnia, rural women, especially, have few marketable skills and little education. Many are illiterate--though most can count--and few have had to confront authority figures, be they police or bankers.
"They were housewives, they cultivated the land to support their husbands, they raised the children," said Nejira Nalic, who runs a program for female refugees under the nongovernmental Bosnian Committee for Health in the northeastern city of Tuzla, where many Srebrenica survivors ended up.
"For them it is suddenly a quite different situation. It is quite difficult for them to understand what happens next," Nalic said.
That sense of helplessness is only compounded by the keen emotional longing and loneliness from missing one's partner, and the pain of not knowing what happened to him. In many cases Nalic has seen, a teenage child ends up managing the family because of his or her relative education and access to information.
Humanitarian and mental health workers say female refugees must confront layer upon layer of trauma. They have lost every element of their world, from husbands to homes to income, and often have witnessed atrocities--from the slaying of relatives to the shelling of their villages. In losing their men, most have lost their protection, their helpers, their anchors.
Dropped into a world with so little support, where both government agencies and aid organizations are overburdened, the women find their personal crises compounded, experts say.
Chances are slim that they will ever learn what happened to their men--or see someone pay for it. Finally, the experts say, intense depression can rob these women of the ability to mother. Some are so grief-stricken that they are unable to nurture or give care.
"Their cultural and social structures are gone, the fabric of their whole community is obliterated," said Marcia Jacobs, a mental health advisor working with women in Bosnia for the U.S.-based International Rescue Committee. "Their ability to trust, their ability to connect to a new community, is destroyed. Reconnecting with a community is extremely crucial."
To help prevent both physical and emotional isolation, counselors working with the widowed try to re-create social settings and encourage a healing form of communication and sharing. Many of the Srebrenica women have been placed in the local equivalent of therapy--put in groups, given coffee and knitting needles and encouraged to talk about what happened. Talking, Jacobs and others said, reduces trauma and other long-term psychological problems such as nightmares or sleeping disorders.
There are no reliable, nationwide statistics on the number of female victims here, but it is generally thought that the 3 1/2-year war in Bosnia claimed more than 200,000 lives and displaced almost 3 million people.
Bosnia still has men, of course; in fact, the plight of demobilized soldiers poses yet another challenge to the government, which must find jobs for tens of thousands of often poorly trained, traumatized 20- to 40-year-olds.