Last week was a week without enough sleep hours to keep my tank full or enough free daytime hours to take breaths as needed. When Friday night came, it felt like mercy. All I wanted was to turn off my phone and eat the dumplings that Jon had pan-fried for us, smearing them through a savory pool of chili crunch and teriyaki sauce.
We watched a scary movie under fleecy blankets. Most people prefer comedies to escape the world. For some reason, I find catharsis in the battling of zombies and haunted basements, possessed objects and supernatural forces that can be defeated; or at least imagined away after the credits stop rolling.
I changed into a sweatshirt and instinctively reached for my Bosnia socks.
They remain as soft and cozy as they were more than 20 years ago when I stood in that workshop in Sarajevo with my mother and reluctantly accepted them as a gift from the women who made them.
We were in a small, safe community space run by Women for Women International to support the refugees of the war that had ended just a few years earlier.
The women showed up each day to connect, to keep busy, to learn a trade or start a business and to earn money for their work. They came to learn about economic empowerment. They came to smoke cigarettes and drink coffee together, which kept them from needing much to eat before dinner.
They also came for talk therapy; a daily healing circle within the safety, warmth and compassion of other women.
My mom had been supporting an incredible family since the start of the war and we went to Sarajevo to meet them in person; and at the same time, work with the group of refugees and offer whatever help we could. We could teach them how to brand and market their handicrafts, we could identify which of their carefully embroidered handkerchiefs and colorful knit scarves would sell best in the west, we could explain which yarns were preferred over the thick scratchy woolens, even if the latter were cheaper and more accessible.
We did do all those things, but we were wrong about why we were there.
We were there to hear their stories. We were there to bear witness.
They were the teachers.
The women still lived with the consequences of the siege on Sarajevo, a four-year genocidal war against a peaceful ethnic minority, with particularly vicious consequences for the women who survived.
We sat in folding chairs in a circle, each woman taking a turn openly, generously sharing her story with us—sometimes in English, and sometimes in Bosnian through a translator.
They talked of living peacefully in a diverse, cosmopolitan, city before neighbors turned on them. Mourning sons, brothers, cousins, uncles all murdered for the crime of being born Bosniak Muslims. Running serpentine to dodge sniper bullets from rooftops any time they dared step outside in search of food or fresh water for four entire years. Grappling with husbands who came home from war changed, traumatized, abusive, and sometimes wondering if it would have been better if their husbands hadn’t come home at all. Learning to live in a new city miles from home, but at least it was still (mostly) standing. Learning to live as refugees—to be called refugees—even in their own homeland.
And now, here they were, figuring out how to recover. How to support themselves single-handedly. How to hold themselves together so they could hold their families together. How to bring some semblance of normalcy back to their lives. How to teach their younger children how to run and play.
Children had to learn how to run.
I think about that all the time.
When you spend your entire early childhood underground, sheltered inside walls that determine whether you will live to be six years old or not, it turns out that having the space to run can’t be a top priority.
One of the woman around my age in the circle was already a mother in her mid-20s. Her eyes were so big, so beautiful, so quick to water as she shared her own story with me. We talked a lot afterwards, just the two of us. I noticed how much her hands trembled, a nervous disorder and one of the physical consequences of PTSD.
At one point, she took my hand in hers, slowly pressing my palm against her neck. I felt the shrapnel embedded just under her skin beneath her jaw, like sharp, tiny pebbles. A sadistic souvenir of the wars of men.
Hardly a soul among the women, we were told by those who ran the center, hadn’t been violently raped by soldiers.
My mind immediately went to the scene from the miniseries Holocaust that had haunted me since I was ten, in which a Jewish girl was cornered and raped by drunken SS soldiers in an alley. This once feisty, fiery girl ended up highly traumatized, nearly comatose and was sent away to an institution to address her extreme trauma but was instead gassed to death.
(Since then I’ve thought a lot about that scene; why the filmmakers needed for the soldiers to be drunk. Rape has been used to deliberately terrorize and dehumanize women in every war, in every part of the world since the beginning of time; it’s not an error in judgment one makes after a few too many shots. Like what, if the Nazi soldiers had been sober the scene wouldn’t have worked? GTFO.)
Indignity upon indignity, atrocity upon atrocity — how do the innocent victims of war find it in them to go forth and live wholly again?
What untold stories of war do millions of women around the world carry still carry with them? In their hearts? In their cells?
And above all, will this cycle ever fucking end?
I refuse to accept that this is just the way things are, with women always expected to bear the pain of it all.
And other story that has stayed with me, as related by a friend who fought for the Bosnian army, is that while Serb forces dropped a half-million bombs on Sarajevo—deliberately targeting civilian at funerals, watching neighborhood soccer matches, in crowded markets filled with women waiting to buy bread—they made sure to keep the cigarette factory open.
Tobacco > Humans.
I’m trying to put into words why my Bosnia socks have comforted me all these years.
The best I can say is not because they tell me a story about war, but a story about resilience. About women of different religions and nationalities and backgrounds, continents apart, seeing that we needed each other.
They make me think fondly of some of the friends I made from my trip, and the joy of getting to see their families flourish today.
They remind me of a really special and deeply personal connection with my mom, and the trips that inarguably changed the direction our relationship and of my own commitment to activism.
I think it’s also fair to say that sliding my feet into those soft socks helps me think about my extreme privilege to be able to lie under a blanket with my family, watching a movie, eating dumplings, feeling warm and loved and relatively safe.
(And here I will admit, I don’t feel entirely safe right now. But I don’t expect to wake up to the sound of sniper fire either, goddess forbid.)
I think right now I’m just looking for any evidence of our shared humanity, because I believe with all my heart that it’s exactly what’s needed to create a more just world. If we only allow ourselves to access it.
Liz Gumbinner is a Brooklyn-based writer, award-winning ad agency creative director, and OG mom blogger who was called “funny some of the time” by an enthusiastic anonymous commenter. This was originally posted on her Substack “I’m Walking Here!,” where she covers culture, media, politics, and parenting.
Photos by the author.