By Marianne McCarthy
Few people can say they were on the front lines of societal change, especially if it dealt with a cultural taboo. Yet, humanitarian Indira K. Skoric (HOS ’12) proudly witnessed the alteration of a long-standing sentiment about women subjected to sexual violence during the Yugoslav Wars and a system that tolerated such abuses. A victim of sexual violence herself, she has consistently advocated for those subjected to systematic rape and torture during the war. It took over a decade, and the work of countless other advocates, but finally women survivors were legally labeled “civilian victims of war in Bosnia and Herzegovina.”
Indira was living and studying in Belgrade during the Yugoslav National Movement when she first became involved with feminist groups. In 1991, she helped establish the Belgrade Women in Black, an antimilitarist peace movement protesting the war in Serbia and all forms of hatred, discrimination, and violence. According to the group’s website, it has organized more than 500 protests throughout the former Yugoslavia since its founding.
After the war started, Indira joined the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies as an information officer.
“I wanted to do something tangible for people who were survivors and victims of the war,” she said.
Many of these victims were the unacknowledged sufferers of sexual violence. Years later, Indira would write in her dissertation that post war reports estimated that 10,000 to 60,000 women had been submitted to sexual violence during the war, although the European Commission settled on a figure 20,000.
While one part of her felt devoted to working with people who were minorities like herself or those who were working on gender issues, another wanted to escape the violence and the intense political climate of ethnical and territorial conflict.
In 1994, Indira found her way out of Yugoslavia after winning a fellowship at the New School for Social Research in New York. She continued her activism with the American Friends Service Committee and a New York branch of Women in Black. But pressure was building from the war in Kosovo, and she received threats to her life. Many of her Women in Black colleagues had been forced into hiding. Eventually, she was granted political asylum and was able to complete her master’s degree in International Relations, writing her thesis on “Understanding War Rapes.” It was a topic she would continue to explore during her time at Fielding.
In the meantime, Indira focused on survivors of sexual violence and refugees of the former Yugoslavia. She consulted on the documentary film, Calling the Ghosts. The Emmy-award winning documentary reveals the torture and humiliation of women in concentration camps in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Directed by Mandy Jacobson in 1996, it also won the Human Rights Watch Int'l Film Fest and Nestor Almendros Award for best documentary.
Indira also co-founded the Reconciliation and Culture Cooperative Network (RACOON, Inc.), an organization she would eventually direct until 2011, raising over $1.5 million to assist in community-building programs for an estimated 250,000 Western Balkan refugees and exiles in the New York and tri-state area.
“We were mostly political activists,” said Indira, “but early on, we realized that these refugee populations not only needed a conflict resolution program, but they also needed someone to help them navigate complexities in the system and advocate for them.”
Indira describes how things became especially difficult for immigrants after 9/11. “People couldn’t get social security numbers, and so they would end up in the category of aliens, or illegals,” even if they were awaiting a “legal” status.
Her organization began working on issues such as advocating for health care and ensuring her constituents could get the care they needed in their native language. In 2004, RACOON, Inc. received the Union Square Award for grassroots activism that strengthens local communities.
“The organization that started as a conflict transformation group, thinking how do we reconcile in exile, ended up providing advocacy and networking,” said Indira. “As part of the leadership, I was pushed in a place that I needed to learn how to navigate, not only practically but also strategically. Fielding provided that place for my own learning and growth, to be able to lead this small organization.”
Intrigued by women, like herself, who used their experiences to “transform their lives and even emancipate themselves from the horror that haunts them,” her Human and Organizational Systems research focused on the life stories of nine women survivors of and advocates against sexual violence. In a way, it was her way to seek greater understanding of her own growth.
Then, in 2007, the Law on the Protection of Civilian Victims of War in Bosnia and Herzegovina was amended to include victims of rape. By essentially garnering women who had been raped during the war status of civilian war victims, they became eligible for disability, health care, and professional rehabilitation. It was a “huge” moment for Indira.
According to her dissertation committee chair, Richard Appelbaum, "Indira's life and work bear witness to Fielding's concern with social justice—with putting theory into practice. Her dissertation was a powerful exploration into the lives of women who were severely traumatized, yet who used their pain and sorrow to devote their energies to helping other women similarly afflicted.”
A recipient of multiple Fielding scholarships, Indira’s research contributes to the literature on “emancipatory learning by revealing how these women created the conditions for their own survival, and adds to the literature of feminist studies.” Indira has organized and presented at numerous international seminars, conferences and United Nations meetings. During her doctoral studies, she was a fellow in Fielding’s Institute for Social Innovation and was named Revson Fellow by Columbia University. Her article “Advocacy and Survivors of Sexual Violence” is set for publication in Canadian Oral History in the spring of 2014.
In addition to being assistant professor at Kingsborough Community College, Indira currently sits on the board of the Women’s Refugee Commission, a research and advocacy group that accomplishes life-changing improvements for vulnerable displaced populations.