Self-defense in Sarajevo

By Ramsey Brown

Ramsey Brown in self-defense training class, 2019

My heartbeat quickens. I tune out every other sound and listen for footsteps behind me. “Stay loose,” I remind myself. “Breathe.” The hair on my neck stands up. Whoosh. I feel the rush of someone charging me from behind and in an instant, my feet are off the ground. My body hits the floor sideways, my attacker directly behind me, pinning me down. My arm shoots back like a machine. Boom! My elbow lands in his face and makes the most satisfying thud.

I slide forward and land a kick to his head. But he’s up on his knees, lunging and swinging wildly. I kick again and he falls sideways. I can’t risk him getting back up. I plant my shin against his body to keep him in place, raise my foot directly above his head and bring it down like a hammer. 

It was my first day at a self-defense teacher training workshop in New York, designed to empower women.   As I hobbled off the mat that day, I knew that I could defend myself if my life depended on it and that I could help others do the same.

After class, I went home to Vermont–to the house my parents built, the house I was born and raised in, with the same phone number and the same books on the shelves and paintings on the walls. It is home in every way possible. It is safe and warm and familiar and knowing it exists allows me to be brave and travel far.  

Out of the blue my mom asked, ”Do you want to come to Bosnia?” She was going there in a few weeks to help a woman write a memoir about raising her daughters during the war. “Yes!” I shouted, surprising us both.

The first time I went to Bosnia, in 1999, I was 17 years old and was excited to chill out with my friends and work at the local video store.  But the next thing I knew I was on my way to Sarajevo to volunteer for Save the Children.

Ramsey working for Save the Children in Bosnia, 1999
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Houses destsroyed in Sarajevo, 1999

When I first saw the rubble from bombed-out houses and heard women cry over loved ones in mass graves, I had to find a way to help.  I started with the children, teaching dance and theater classes in refugee camps.  We painted murals on the sides of government-issued trailers. We were told not to touch the children because they could have bugs or diseases, but I would scoop one up after the other, hugging them tight until I could feel their little bodies relax and see their worn faces start to look childlike once again.

We lived with our boss in his home in the mountains outside Sarajevo. It was in Serb territory so there were fewer landmines.  One night he asked me, “What is one thing you would like to do for the children?”

“I would give them shoes,” I replied. It seemed like a reasonable request.

“But their parents would take them off their feet,” he said, “and sell them on the black market for cigarettes and booze.”

The world became complicated in that moment. I was mad. I was mad that I was so young, mad that I had no idea how to help.

Now, 20 years later, I was back in Sarajevo. A friend picked us up at the airport and drove us into town.

“Do you recognize the city?” he asked.  

“It used to be so dark.  I don’t remember any of this.”

“Oh, right,” he sighed. “There was no electricity then.  This neighborhood was completely destroyed, and much of it has been rebuilt.” I stared out the window mesmerized by the lights in the new houses.

That week, I was asked to teach self-defense to the volunteers who worked at a local community center. Fights were common between overburdened migrants and refugees and a few women voiced concerns for their safety. My friend said. “You can do something that matters.  That’s why you’re back, right? To finish what you started?”

After a while, I began to teach self-defense to women in the refugee camp too.  The night before my first class, I wondered, would I be doing more harm than good by teaching Muslim women how to kick ass?  I didn’t think their husbands would appreciate it very much. And I also didn’t want to re-traumatize the women.  There is no fight move that will protect a woman from being raped as an act of war. Or from a culture that punishes women for being women.

By surviving, they were already winning battles I couldn’t fathom.

Refugee camps in Bosnia, 1999
Bosnian woman and her family, 1999

My friend Samra, a lawyer who prosecutes war criminals, said rape has always been used as a tactic to demoralize the people.  The enemy knows that women are the backbone of a community, that they represent home in the deepest sense.   If you break the women and take them out of the equation, an entire nation may crumble.  

But men constantly underestimate women’s ability to survive. The Balkan women were strong; even though they had been repeatedly and systematically attacked.  When the war ended, they found themselves living in the same communities as their rapists and would sometimes run into them at the grocery store.

Samra reminded me that sometimes the greatest gift we can offer is to carry a woman’s story, so her burden isn’t so heavy. 

A refugee camp smells like vomit, mixed in with sewage and a lot of disinfectant. It’s the smell of a makeshift home, a temporary solution for human beings who have nowhere else to go. It also smells like fear, uncertainty, and desperation.  

I set up a room for women only, which meant I lost my male translator. First I covered the windows and door with fabric so we could have privacy. Then I dragged a cafeteria table into the center of the room and lit incense and laid out plastic cups on it for tea, along with a set of my sparring pads. I waited.  And no one came.

The next day, I saw a young woman was sitting on the steps outside, but she ran away.  I played soccer with the kids for a while and when I looked up, she was walking towards me with another older woman. They led me through a maze of tents and trailers where I met their sisters and daughters and grandmothers.  Every afternoon more women were waiting outside for me. They took their scarves off once they came into the tent. They cut each other’s hair.  They laughed and told stories and drank endless cups of tea.

They held my face tenderly in their rough hands and kissed my cheeks. I kissed theirs back. They were curious about the sparring pads on the table. I explained how they were used.  They passed them around the table slapping at them playfully. I was making progress!

As I held a newborn baby, the mother asked if I had children. “No,” I said.

The woman shook her head.

“But you are married right?” another woman asked.

“No,” I said again.

They all gasped, and then a shy girl asked, “Are you Muslim?”

When I said no, the women started praying for me.

They might be homeless refugees, but it could be worse. They could be me.

Outdoor "sparring area" in Refugee Training Camp 2019.

One day, they began to use those sparring pads.  One by one they stood up and slapped at a target I held out for them. By the second day, they had the hang of it. After a few rounds,  we were making such a commotion a couple of men stuck their heads in to see if we were all right, but the women swatted them away with their scarves.  They yelled “NO!” just like we practiced.  And then they laughed at the sound of their strong voices.

Next, I showed them how to hold the pads so they could practice with each other. They hit the pads again and again until their arms were tired and their children demanded their attention.  

As much as I’d like to take credit, these women found strength through their camaraderie and friendship with each other. They had arrived in this place as strangers, some even coming from different countries, but by being vulnerable and open with each other they were able to bond quickly. In a short time, they had created a community that made this temporary shelter feel a bit like home.

Empowerment looks different for every woman. One woman whispers the word “no” for the first time and says it a little louder the next time. Another woman explodes and charges into a fight like a wild animal. By giving free rein to their emotion, they are each transformed.

At the end of  one self-defense class, the women ask, ”What if someone has a weapon or what if I am tied up or thrown in the trunk of a car?” I say. “You fight anyway.  In fact, you fight long before you’re in the trunk of a car. It’s simple, you fight for your lives no matter what.”

I tell them they are superheroes who greet each day with a fighting spirit as they raise children and wash their dishes.  As they survive war and violence.  As they grieve for their relatives.   Their bravery is limitless.

Women have to be aware of their personal safety every minute of every day, no matter where they are, for their whole lives, so my work will continue.

Ramsey Brown is an activist, writer, actress and monologist.  She has lived in Vermont, New York, Los Angeles, Wyoming, and Sarajevo.  She now teaches classes in the arts, and in self-defense, at the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.  

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