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Jeanne Parr's Women Without Borders

An article from Washington International, written by Patricia Keegan

"Welcome to hell on earth," were the first words Jeanne Parr heard as she raised her head and realigned her six foot frame, stepping out into the cold darkness just before dawn in Sarajevo. She and her "Hazelwooders," 37 women from 12 nations, had walked in ankle-deep water with heads bent on the two and one half-mile trek through the tunnel. The famous tunnel used only for safe passage of the U.N. and Red Cross became the lifeline between a handful of courageous women and their sisters in Sarajevo who were calling for help.

It was May, 1995, at the height of the war, when Parr and the Hazelwood group entered the besieged city after a long journey that began with 60 women meeting in London. They subsequently drove across France, Italy, Slovenia and Croatia, continuing on to Split and Mostar. They passed Medjugorje where apparitions of Mary have occurred over the past 10 years. They confronted their worst fears, facing the reality of war in the devastation of Mostar--a once beautiful and historic city. As the intensity of the war increased, some women, especially those with children back home, dropped out.

From Mostar they headed to the base of Serb controlled Mount Igman. On an unlighted bus, they quietly navigated dirt roads up the mountain to the top where the bus pulled into the brush. The women were met by two Bosnian soldiers. Peering through the trees into the valley of Sarajevo, they could see the flash and hear the concussion of artillery shells destined for the city. The soldiers guided their steps down the slippery slope until they reached the entrance of the tunnel. Startled by a bullet whistling close to her face, one woman slipped and fell over a steep incline. (She was later rescued with a broken leg.) Exiting the tunnel, they boarded a darkened bus and were instructed to sit on the floor with heads down until they stopped in front of a bombed out kindergarten. It was 5 a.m.

The war news had been very bad, and after waiting all day, the Sarajevo women had given up hope, says Parr. But we were finally there.

Tall and attractive, with an air of competence, this former CBS news correspondent is the image of a person who acts on her convictions.

"The first woman we encountered was sleeping," said Parr. "She had covered the welcoming food with a tablecloth. When she awoke to see us arriving, she started crying and calling for the others to come. As people came out of their houses to meet us, we embraced, crying and hugging one another. They hadn't seen anyone come to that town to visit in two or three years. They thought the world had forgotten them. I had come to do a documentary, but every time I looked through the lens it was blurred by tears."

While in Sarajevo they joined their sisters in dedicating the bombed out National Theater as the new International Center for Women. Each visitor had brought a contribution of $1000, along with medicines, to help families. But their most poignant experiences were in witnessing how those affected most by war, those facing it every day, are reaching out with their hearts to a world which has forgotten them. One such way is through a peace initiative called "Screm Do Mira," translated as "Through Heart to Peace."

The initiative was inspired by Ema Miocinovic, a Croatian who has been working with refugee children, Emsuda Mujagic, a bosnian who survived the destruction and subsequent killing of all the Muslims in her village, and Serifa Halilobic, a gifted teacher. They were convinced that it is women of the world who must put an end to war. Zenabih women have started centers in Zagreb, Mostar and Sarajevo and are now joined by international women from Germany, France, Canada and Australia. These centers promote small businesses, support and counsel depressed women and children, counsel the old, disabled, badly traumatized and help rape victims. All the women believe that peace begins with the individual who takes action.

In 1993 the Bosnian women received strong support from a group of British women, founders of Hazelwood House in Devon, England. These British women agreed to accept refugee children from all sides in the conflict, at their expense, to come to Hazelwood to recover from the trauma imposed on them. It wasn't lolng before the women were totally immersed in the project, making 24 trips by car to Bosnia. Realizing the enormity of the problem and the need for help from other women, they began sending faxes all over the world saying, "We are going into Sarajevo in May. We can't promise safety, but please come if you can help." In England attending the annual conference of Women Of the World, Jeanne Parr heard of the effort and decided to go and do a documentary.

Parr describes a particular profile of the women who joined, whether American or European. They are women from all nations of the same mind set--women who are spiritual, intelligent, who believe that love without action is only an idea. They are women not waiting for governments, the military, organizations, churches, the UN or NATO to fix things. They are forging ahead, designing their own world, and the world they envision is a world without borders.

They are women who wish to go beyond gender, race, religion, nationality--beyond boundaries and divisions of any kind. They are women awakening from a long sleep to ask questions. "Why do we agree to have our sons and daughters sent off to war? Why do we welcome them back from the killing fields with open arms? How much longer will we swallow our contempt as politicans talk about morality and religion?"

Through her experience, Parr sees a growing urgency among women to have a voice in how the world is run. But these women don't blame men; if they blame anyone, it is themselves for their passivity. Alone after the early death of her husband, Parr is forgiving. "The good men are as burdened by this patriarchal society as we are, and it doesn't look like it's going to change unless we do something."

The Through Heart to Peace organization is an underground network working quietly to change our perception of the world. Much of the response is coming from college students who saw her documentary on the trip to Sarajevo entitled "Sarajevo Journey," and from women outside the system.

Jeanne Parr, willing to risk her life for the sake of an idea, has put her love into action. She is planning to return to Sarajevo with many more women in May to complete her documentary, "Women Without Borders," which she hopes will raise world consciousness about the destruction and futility of war from a woman's perspective.