Psychology student discovers common ground with survivors of war in former Yugoslavia

For a very brief moment, Mia Sisic’s eyes well up ever so slightly when asked what she recalls about growing up in a small town in what was still Yugoslavia in the early 1990s during a bitter war that would eventually divide her home country along ethnic and religious lines.

“I remember a lot but I don’t want to talk about it,” she replies with a quick, smiling recovery. “My parents and I still talk about it, but we try to leave that in the past. I do remember being a very happy kid, playing with kids who were Serbian, Muslim and Croatian. It didn’t matter then.”

In that regard, Sisic has much in common with the women she spent her summer interviewing. A second-year master’s student in applied social psychology who works with professor Charlene Senn, she spent five weeks in her home country, conducting a research project in which she studied the lives of women affected by a conflict characterized by war crimes, mass ethnic cleansing and the lost lives of at least 130,000 people.

“They didn’t want to talk about what happened to them during the war and I didn’t want to pry, but they talked a lot about their lives before the war and the sense of unity that was there,” she said of her participants.

Sisic used a somewhat unorthodox technique called Photovoice, which combines photography with grassroots social action. Participants are given cameras, asked to capture images that represent their community and develop narratives to go with them. It’s a method often used with marginalized groups in the hope their stories will influence policy for positive change.

Her participants were found through Women for Women International, an organization that helps women survivors of war rebuild their lives. Sisic discovered the director of the group’s chapter in Bosnia and Herzegovina was her mother’s best friend’s sister. Since she had found a contact and was already planning to go there for a vacation, she volunteered to do a Photovoice project when the research method came up at a meeting of the university’s Health Research Centre for the Study of Violence Against Women.

“So it turned in to a working vacation,” said Sisic, who grew up in Bosanska Krupa, an hour from the Croatian border, but moved to nearby Ridgetown with her sister and parents in 1996 when she was still in Grade 3.

Sisic did her research in Sarajevo, where her participants were given 11 days to shoot their material. Many came back with haunting images. One shot pictures of a dog to suggest that animals had more rights than she did. Another took photos of a brand new building erected in the shadow of a bombed-out but never demolished structure intended to be a senior’s home, but never used for that purpose. After it was all done, she met with them to discuss their work.

“A lot of them had similar things to say,” said Sisic, who will present her project to the Health Research Centre for the Study of Violence Against Women in the near future. “They all had a lot of pride in their city, but felt that they didn’t have power, and therefore couldn’t do the things they’d like to change it. They love their city, but there was a certain amount of disappointment too. They really want to change their city, but they feel oppressed. There was a real sense of helplessness.”

Sisic said the project was a life-changing experience that she hopes to write about in both conference papers and academic journals. She plans to go on to pursue a PhD.

Editor's note: this is one of a series of articles about students who were engaged in cool research projects and other scholarly activities during the summer.