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'Voices of Victims' at Durban Racism Conference - 2001-09-05


The U.N. anti-racism conference in South Africa has been dominated by the Middle East issue. But other issues also are being discussed. One of the most compelling panels is called simply "Voices of Victims." And that is exactly what it is, victims of racism, xenophobia, and other forms of discrimination get a chance to tell their stories.

Nusreta Sivac used to be a judge in the city of Prijedor, in northwestern Bosnia-Herzegovina. She remembers vividly the day the war first touched her life. "That morning, as usual, I went to my work, to the court where I used to work at that time. But I was prevented to enter the building by some armed people who were standing in front of it. They said they had a list, and my name was on the list, and that I didn't work there anymore," she said.

Not long afterward, she was taken to the concentration camp at Omarska. Her only crime, she says, was not being an ethnic-Serb. Ms. Sivac is Muslim.

She was one of 36 women imprisoned at Omarska, along with thousands of men. They ate one meal a day, just bread and a few beans. Beatings and torture became a way of life. "So in the evening, the women went to the rooms. Eighteen women in one room, and 18 in the other one. Before we lay on the floor, we had first to clean the floor from the blood. Because during the day those rooms were used for questioning and torturing people," she said.

Ms. Sivac says every night, the guards would take the women one by one and rape them. She thought she might be spared because there were younger women in the camp. But she was not.

From time to time, her former colleagues from the court would come through the prison camp. She hoped one of them would help her. But she says they pretended not to recognize her. "So being there, I started thinking about my profession and about what I had at school. No international convention, nothing that they used to teach me at the university existed. In the camp, my best friends, my relatives, my colleagues were being killed," she said.

By the time Ms. Sivac finishes her story, the audience is in tears. She thanks them for listening.

Officials at the World Conference Against Racism regularly repeat that this conference is about the victims of racism and ethnic intolerance. The Voices of Victims forum is one of the few places where delegates actually hear from the victims themselves. Every day, four people tell their stories.

The conference rhetoric also says every nation on Earth has to deal with racism, xenophobia, or some other form of intolerance within its borders. Voices of Victims shows how true that is.

The victims come from all over the world, indigenous people in Chile, Brazil, Indonesia, China; Asians in Britain; Dalits, or so-called "untouchables" in India; Kurds in Turkey; Arabs in Israel; people of African descent in Brazil and the United States.

The forum has heard from a victim of the genocide in Rwanda. It has heard tales of growing anti-Semitism in Austria. One compelling story came from a young Tuareg woman from Niger, who grew up as a slave.

Another voice came from right here in the host country, South Africa. The story of Lorraine Nesane shows that racism still plagues this country, seven years after the death of apartheid.

Last year, a shopkeeper accused 15-year-old Lorraine of shoplifting. The manager ordered one of her employees to strip the young girl's clothes off and paint her white. She still has flashbacks. And the humiliation has not ended.

"That has not treated me well, because I feel like an animal. I know that people are not supposed to be painted, but walls. And whenever I have quarrels with other students at school, I cannot respond because they always tell me I have been painted," she said. "When I am walking down the streets, people point fingers at me,[and say] that I was painted."

A South African human rights commissioner says she hopes Lorraine's story will go a long way toward healing the racial division that continues to plague this country, and toward building reconciliation.

Conference organizers hope Voices of Victims will do the same for societies around the world.