Bosnian Muslim knitters now see retail future in their craft

TUZLA, Bosnia – Sajma Alic took up knitting in 1995 to keep her mind off the fate of her husband, who stayed in besieged Srebrenica while she fled with their baby, two of hundreds of thousands made refugees by Bosnia’s 1992-95 war. Alic and some 50 other refugee Muslim women joined a pilot work therapy project run by a Norwegian aid agency in the northern town of Tuzla. Starting with a donation of yarn and needles, they made sweaters, hats and gloves for their children. «It helped us not to think about the situation we were in,» said the 35-year-old. «It still does.» Her husband is still missing and presumed dead since Bosnian-Serb forces overran Srebrenica in July 1995, killing 8,000 Muslim men. What started as a distraction is now the livelihood of Alic and the other women, most of whom are widows with children. Bosanske Rukotvorine (Bosnian Handicrafts) is now a successful business making woolen clothing and accessories for children and adults as well as carpets and home decor items that combine traditional Bosnian motifs with modern design. Under the motto «Shopping With Purpose,« it exports to Europe, the United States and Japan, with prices ranging from $35 (-27) for a pair of black-and-white socks with a jacquard design to some $200 (-154) for a handknit cardigan that takes a week to make. Alic, who is one of the most productive women, earns more than the average monthly salary of 600 Bosnian marka (-308). Combining that with the pension for her husband and help from her in-laws, she has built a house, learned to drive and is determined to provide a better future for her teenage daughter. «I will do this as long as there’s work and they want me,» she said with a shy smile as she sewed decorations on a multicolored handbag in the Tuzla office of the cooperative. Word of mouth The idea originated with Lejla Radoncic, a former Sarajevo tourist guide who was trapped in Tuzla by the war and started working for Norwegian People’s Aid (NPA) resettling refugees. Radoncic thought that engaging the mostly rural refugee women in a familiar childhood activity would help them bond and overcome their pain together. «They did a good job and that’s how it all started,» said the energetic 46-year-old, now manager of Bosanske Rukotvorine. NATO peacekeepers in nearby bases were the first customers who bought sweaters, gloves, hats and scarves. A fashion show and sale at the nearby Eagle Base in late 1995 hinted at great potential, when 15,000 marka worth of goods sold for three times that amount. More orders followed and by 1997 the cooperative was making a profit. In 1999 it set up a trading arm and started with modest exports to several European countries. The pivotal moment came with the involvement of Peggy Barry, the wife of a top US diplomat in Bosnia, who became so fascinated with the project she took knitwear to the United States to sell to family and friends at parties. «This struck me as one fine way in which life can be made easier and better for the women of Bosnia,» she told Reuters by telephone from her home in Washington DC. The handicrafts were a hit among Barry’s friends, and word started to spread. In 2002, the women linked up with the Sundance Catalogue company, which ordered 1,300 Christmas stockings that sold out immediately. In 2004, the cooperative sold goods worth $150,000 (-115,000) through Sundance. US sales, also through the National Geographic catalog and sales in boutiques, hit $500,000 (-385,000) at the end of 2006. Rukotvorine now sells over 60 percent of its products overseas, among others to Italy, Great Britain, France, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Japan. «This is a reward for our hard work and dedication,» Radoncic said. «But we are not stopping here, we want to sell at the most exclusive places because our products deserve to be there. Our goal is Saks Fifth Avenue.»