Working in human rights areas can be challenging and intense. One of the disciplines, that organizations use in their approach to strengthen social justice, is research, which is often concerned with on-site investigations and report writing on human rights conditions.
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Ada Hasanagić has been working as human rights researcher in the post-conflict Bosnia and Herzegovina for several years. She does extensive research about the massive violations of human rights that were committed during the war period. We caught up with Ada to find out what is necessary to become a human rights researcher and what is it like to work in such settings.
- Hello Ada, could you please introduce yourself to our readers. Who are you and what are you doing?
I am a pre-war child. I was born in 1990 which makes me 26 years old now. I was only two years old when the conflict in B&H broke out. My family was forced to leave Grbavica, a part of Sarajevo that was under the control of the Serbian army during the entire war. We became refugees in our own hometown finding a shelter in our extended family’s homes throughout the city. Being a child in war was not easy, simply because you were not able to understand what was actually going on and no one would answer simple questions such as ‘how come I cannot go out and play?’ or ‘why the TV is not working?’. Luckily, we all survived the siege and were able to go back to our home in Grbavica.
During my years of education I was fortunate to be able to study at one of the most prestigious private universities in the country. I received my degrees in Political Science and International Relations from the Sarajevo School of Science and Technology and the University of Buckingham in 2013. The same year I was offered a scholarship to study at the European Regional Masters in Democracy and Human Rights in South-East Europe, which I completed in 2014.
I have been actively working as human rights violations researcher at Association Transitional Justice, Accountability and Remembrance (TJAR) in Sarajevo since September 2015. My job concerns recording human rights violations of the ex-detainees in detention camps that existed in the country in the period from 1992 to 1995. I travel across B&H in order to interview the former war victims who were abused, tortured and deprived of their basic liberties during the war. Once I collect enough information about each detention camp I compile it in the form of a narrative report in which I describe the ways human rights of each victim were violated. The job is very challenging sometimes; however, I am proud to be given the opportunity to provide the society with objective facts so that these terrible human rights violations would never occur again.
- How did you get this job? What was the ‘’one thing’’ that set you apart from other applicants?
Actually, I did not get this job in a traditional way-you apply, get invited to the interview, “rock it” and get a job. When I finished my master’s program I started looking actively for work. Unfortunately, the job market in B&H is very bad and it is really hard to find one since the institutions are highly corrupted and you often need to have what we call “štela”-someone to whom you are going to pay in cash or service and who, in return, is going to score you a job. Since the beginning I knew that was not the path I want to follow. I had firmly decided that I wanted to work within the civil society sector since I saw it as the only opportunity to be involved in the human rights area. TJAR was one of the organizations that I contacted asking whether I could volunteer and help them out without requesting to be paid. If you want to work in the human rights area you have to show that earning vast amounts of money is not your ultimate goal.
I started volunteering at TJAR in January 2015. I gave my best to be at their service all the time and learn from more experienced people. Ultimately I was told that “once the first donation comes in” the job is mine since they saw me as someone who is devoted to work. It took me around 8 months to score a contract and become one of the researchers. So once I formally started I was already an independent researcher and have been one since then.
- Do you have any tips for job seekers who would love to work in a similar field?
If you want to work as human rights researcher or within the human rights area in general you have to set your goals and priorities. You need to decide what area and which vulnerable groups in the society interest you the most. Once you set your goals you should start applying and contacting different civil society and international organizations offering them your expertise and knowledge. Most often you will receive negative answers; therefore, it might be good if you start as an intern or a volunteer. You have to have an open heart to be able to work in these areas and your ultimate goal should be related to helping those in need.
Working in the human rights area can be tough emotionally. You could find yourself interviewing all sorts of people- uneducated, poor, people with physical and mental disabilities, victims of torture and sexual violence etc. Therefore, you need to be prepared, especially in cases where you are going to meet people who live in terrible and poor conditions. As human rights violations researcher you have to treat each victim equally and with the same respect. This is a must!
My ultimate tip is that you should always stay true to yourself. Work hard and be passionate about your goals.
- Can you describe a typical day in your work?
My work consists out of two parts. The first part concerns the typical office work. I work with a team of five human rights researchers. During the time spend in the office I do desk research which mainly consists of reading through the court judgments, various reports of international organizations, books and media articles that relate to detention camps I am currently researching. I usually do this in order to extract as much information about the human rights violations as possible. The time I spent in office I use to contact the ex-detainees and write the narrative reports about detention camps. I am also in charge of checking the work of other researchers in the team and trying to solve any issues that may arise.
The second part of my work is concerned with travelling across the country and interviewing the former ex-detainees. I always make sure to plan the trips in much detail as I can in order to use my time in the best possible way. I spend a lot of time preparing psychologically for interviewing the victims since I never know what type of people I am going to meet. I always strive to interview as many victims as possible in order to get the full picture of what was happening in a certain town or village.
The situation on the field differs from town from town. For example, it is much harder to work within municipalities that territorially belong to the entity of the Republic of Srpska. There are very few Bosniak returnees there and in case we do manage to reach them, they are often afraid to talk since they’re concerned about their existence. It is, however, easier to work within the territory of the Federation of B&H where people seem to be more relaxed to talk about their experiences during the conflict period. Nevertheless, I have encountered numerous situations on the field that range from people telling me to go away to those where they were anxious to tell their stories.
- What are the biggest challenges and highlights in your job?
My job can be described as challenge after challenge. One of the biggest challenges is actually reaching out to the ex-detainees. Today, there are three large Associations of ex detainees in B&H, which gather three groups of former detainees-Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs. These Associations refuse to cooperate with each other since they firmly believe that the number of victims and sufferings that each victim went through cannot be seen as equal. I agree with this, but again I think every victim should be attributed his or her status as such. Therefore, our organization works with all victims irrespective of their ethnic or national affiliation.
Given that the Associations do not communicate with one another, no single database has ever been created to date on how many detention camps existed in the country and how many people were detained. It has been roughly estimated that around 1.500 camps existed and that around 100.000 people were detained. However, the lists of camps that have been released by all three Associations are, in some cases, inaccurate. Also, many people who have been detained have not been registered by these Associations so it is very difficult to reach them. All three Associations refuse to cooperate with our organization since we are working with all victims. This further aggravates the situation in the research, but our ultimate goal is to document all detention camps so we can get a complete view of what really happened.
Reaching out to victims can be frustrating especially because many people have left the country and many of them had been displaced from their homes during the war. Another challenge is also getting victims to talk. Many of them are afraid to talk because the war criminals that abused them and tortured them have never been prosecuted. This especially relates to the victims of sexual abuses. The work is also psychologically draining since I am working with people who often suffer from the post-traumatic stress with visible physical scars from the abuse.
However, the biggest satisfaction I get from this job is when I discover new detention places and record the human rights violations that have never been recorded before. For example, I base the majority of my work in the region of Krajina, which is about five hours drive far from Sarajevo. The first time I visited the Sanski Most municipality, I interviewed Reuf Hadžić, the man whose story fascinated me. Namely, he was detained in three detention camps during 1995. However, from 1992 until the beginning of 1995, he was mobilized by Serb officials in Sanski Most as he was the only man who had been trained to work in the then bookkeeping programs. During the years he was forced to work with Serbs who had taken advantage of him, maltreated him and discriminated him on national basis. He did not receive paycheck and he was not allowed to celebrate holidays as others were. After all, he went through three detention camps, but I will not talk about his torture in that period. At the end of the interview, he told me that I was the first person to record his story and to help hear his voice. This gave me great pleasure in the business I am dealing with.
The fact that I am able to record these types of stories stimulate me to continue working hard because I know that my work will contribute to the prosecution of war criminals one day and that the memory of the victims and their sufferings will be preserved.
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