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PTSD in Bosnia

Cheryl Nemazie | Bosnia and Herzegovina

The extent of PTSD in the survivors of the Serbian conflict is just coming to light. Renata, the subject of this essay, struggles with panic attacks and agoraphobia — a crippling fear of open spaces and crowds.

PTSD was unrecognized in Bosnia and Herzegovina until recently, despite the severe nature of the Serbian conflict: its violence, ethnic cleansing, and relentless siege over a span of years.

Renata was 13 years old when the war began. She quickly adapted to life under siege: learning places to avoid, how to evade snipers at intersections by school, and coping with death all around her.

After the war, she inexplicably took to her bedroom, fearing literal death awaited outside. Psychiatrists denied any relation to the Serbian war:  it had not affected her then, therefore her new behaviour was unrelated and the cause unknown. 

Over the years, Renata grappled with her severe panic attacks and agoraphobia, searching for answers doctors could not give. She coped with amazing support from loving parents, her steadfast boyfriend, and her faith that she would surmount even this.

Her story continues. She still relies daily on various coping strategies simply to step outside of her front door. Her determination to not just overcome her own obstacles, but free others who've been imprisoned without hope by PTSD, is an inspiration.

Special thanks to Eric Beecroft and the Foundry Photojournalism Workshop, Adriana Zehbrauskas for her guidance and advice during the project, Renata and her mother for their generous and kind hospitality and opening up not just their home, but their stories to me as well.

 When I first met Renata, it was to discuss the possibility of students in the Foundry Photojournalism Workshop to work with her on a story of the stray dogs of Sarajevo — a cause close to Renata's heart. After our meeting, her friend, (and my fixer) who set up the meeting commented on how pleased she was that Renata would come out to meet us. It was then I learned of her struggles with agoraphobia.

A few days later, when my own story hit a final dead end, I called Renata and asked her to meet with me. I was not interested in the stray dog angle of her story, I was fascinated with her overcoming such a seemingly insurmountable obstacle as agoraphobia. And how, with the war being almost 20 years over, it was conceivable that she should still be suffering consequences from that conflict.

During my work on her story, she emerged from her home, and managed to stay in the city a full day all alone. A first for her in the 15 years of dealing with her illness. With careful shadowing by her mother or boyfriend, she completed training as a psychologist, a step closer towards her dream of counseling other peers suffering (often undiagnosed) from PTSD.

I was completely unsure how in the world I would capture her mental illness, her struggles, her triumphs with still images. I just trusted the story would take care of itself if I was faithful in my telling of it.



 Cheryl Nemazie

mobile: 410-430-6105

email: cnemazie@mac.com

web: cherylnemazie.com

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