Bosnia and Herzegovina as catalyst for change
The woman in Mostar, in late middle age, moved apprehensively into the windowless room where she had agreed to talk, early in 2010, about a life ruined by war and never repaired. In the complex web of ethnic conflict, her Bosnian Serb husband was shot in 1992 for refusing to wear the uniform of Serb forces. It was only five years ago that she was finally able to confirm her husband’s murder, based on DNA evidence. A Croat, she had been caught between warring Serbs and Bosniaks.
For terrifying days and weeks after her husband was taken away—and she was also threatened with death—she went from office to office, soldier to soldier, in the ever-dimming hope of finding him. She could not eat, although there was food. She could not rest. She had to hide—one night in a neighbor’s coal bin—just in case they came for her.
When she could, she went home. Her face suddenly contorts in anguish: “After a time, we had no running water and I had to go to the cistern,” she said. “On the way back, I was intercepted by three soldiers,” she said. “They told me to put down the water and follow them.” Her story turns to a tale of unremitting horror as she recalls the hours of sexual violence that followed. “They tortured me; they did unimaginable things,” she said. “I begged them to kill me.”
It was atrocities like this in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and then in Rwanda and West Africa in the 1990s that prompted the international community to label such brutal experiences “war crimes,” first in regional tribunals and then in the 1998 Rome Statute that created the International Criminal Court. It was crimes such as these that also led in the first decade of this century—when the world’s focus had turned to the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo and Darfur—to repeated debates in the United Nations Security Council. The brutalities of the 1990s were the starting point on the road that led to resolution 1325 and several other resolutions that followed.
The woman in Mostar was 50 years old at the time she was abused. It was not until 2006, still suffering kidney damage and high blood pressure, that she was able to talk about that day with another rape survivor, who, she said, would understand. “I could not share my story until then,” she said. “I was afraid I would be blamed. The stigma was too great.” Her two sons, living abroad, have never been told. The tragic life of this woman, now in her late sixties and still in psychotherapy, demonstrates how long the scars of war go on in the minds and souls of victims. Her story and many others also show how much remains to be done by the international community, governments and civil society to spare future generations around the world from this brutality.
Nearly two decades have passed since Bosnia and Herzegovina was consumed by the most costly war in Europe, in terms of human life, in more than half a century. The country’s capital, Sarajevo, was under siege for four long years. It has been 15 years since a peace agreement ended the fighting. But in cities as different and scattered as Mostar, Tuzla and Sarajevo, women who survived “rape camps” and sexual assault in their homes and neighborhoods still live in shame and fear, psychologically broken and long denied the dignity and reparations they seek. They come to meet a stranger, confident that they will be able to tell their stories, but mostly they cannot. Control breaks down, cigarettes are lit, trembling begins, voices crack and the sobbing starts.
Though there are occasional stories of neighbors helping neighbors, women in Bosnia and Herzegovina often say that they have been pained by the lack of community support to help them through their most terrible hours. When many returned home, they were abandoned and cursed by relatives and erstwhile friends. They are still shaken to remember that men who had also survived detention, humiliation and torture, or who had narrowly escaped death, somehow could not find in themselves understanding and sympathy for women, who were instead accused of dishonouring their families. Many women began to feel guilty, they say. They sank into secret shame, suppressing their stories, often for years.
The war in Bosnia and Herzegovina killed, it is estimated, at least 100,000 people, and about 12,500 are still missing. There were atrocities on all sides in this war and others that followed the breakup of the former Yugoslavia.
In some Bosniak communities, for example, women were separated from men and detained for periods of time in any place that could be turned into a makeshift detention centre. They were taken out one, or a few, at a time to be sexually abused. Those who escaped imprisonment risked assault by going out on simple errands—to buy cigarettes or to find food or water.
No one may ever be able to determine with certainty how many women in Bosnia were sexually abused—most estimates are in the tens of thousands—or how many children were born of rape. Reporting sexual abuse to authorities was fraught with problems. The social risk of going public was a deterrent. The delicate politics of Bosnia and Herzegovina have not made accounting for war crimes easy. Non-governmental organizations mounted campaigns for compensation and public acknowledgement of the suffering of victims, now in middle age or older. Yet though many of the women were alone and poor, it took until 2008 for those willing to register as victims—a big step in itself—to receive regular government compensation payments.
The Bosniak and Croat women who told their stories for this report cannot be named, except for a few. Enisa Salčinović is president of the Association of Concentration Camp Torture Survivors, which provides psychosocial support to victims and monitors their health. Years of depression or cycles of breakdown and recovery take a toll on the general health of women, who may also not seek regular checkups or cancer screening. Of the 2,000-plus members of her association, a quarter of them were raped, Salčinović said. Most were tortured in some physical or psychological way.
In a period of less than a year after the outbreak of war in 1992, Salčinović had lost her husband to a concentration camp. She was raped repeatedly by Serb troops in Foca, where she lived until she was driven from her home. Deported by her captors, she wandered with her two young children throughout the former Yugoslavia until she found her sister in a displaced persons camp in Skopje. When asked what kind of terror this must have been for her children, Salčinović just shakes her head, unable to talk. Sitting next to her, Esmija Kundo, also from Foca, said that her four children were traumatized after the war; one left school after third grade and never could go back. She gets angry, she said, because she thinks prisoners on trial in The Hague are treated well, while she had to press hard for a small apartment to settle her family and try to live off the social security benefits of her dead husband. She cannot work, is hospitalized every two months to be stabilized by medication and is examined every 15 days by doctors at a torture centre.
 International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia
The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) is a United Nations court of law dealing with war crimes that took place during the conflicts in the Balkans in the 1990s. Since its establishment in 1993, it has irreversibly changed the landscape of international humanitarian law and provided victims an opportunity to voice the horrors they witnessed and experienced.
The key objective of the ICTY is to try those individuals most responsible for appalling acts such as murder, torture, rape, enslavement, destruction of property and other crimes. Its indictments address crimes committed from 1991 to 2001 against members of various ethnic groups in Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Kosovo and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.
While the most significant number of cases heard at the ICTY has dealt with alleged crimes committed by Serbs and Bosnian Serbs, the Tribunal has investigated and brought charges against persons from every ethnic background. Convictions have been secured against Croats as well as both Bosnian Muslims and Kosovo Albanians for crimes committed against Serbs and others. Judges have ruled that rape was used by members of the Bosnian Serb armed forces as an instrument of terror.
Source: International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, www.icty.org
Bakira Hasečić has been the best known and most outspoken advocate for female victims of war. A tireless spokesperson who takes the campaign for recognition and reparations anywhere in the world where she thinks it might do some good, she is the founder and president of Women Victims of War and a victim herself of rape.
Her aggressive campaigns have not been welcomed by all other survivors or by other non-governmental organizations with different approaches. Hasečić, operating out of a small headquarters in a Sarajevo suburb, moved into a social services vacuum and was able to persuade government officials to allow her organization to be the sole conduit of applications for government compensation when money became available, a move that caused dissension among women’s groups.
That informal monopoly has now been ended, said Saliha Ðuderija, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Assistant Minister for Human Rights and Refugees, who said that the issue of compensating abused women had not received the official attention it deserved in the past. She said that victims can now submit applications through social services offices as well as through Women Victims of War or other groups. Ðuderija also said that there is still no agreed definition of victims at the state (federal) level.
When the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina was over, there was no shortage of short-term help for women. The rape camps became an international scandal. Non-governmental organizations, local and international, appeared “like mushrooms after the rain,” said Dubravka Salčić-Dizdarević, a psychiatrist who is also a founder and Medical Director of the Center for Rehabilitation of Torture Victims in Sarajevo. A lot of those who wanted to help were unqualified to work in the Bosnian environment and eventually closed their operations, making barely a dent in the number of cases. When the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia was established, many more women began to tell their stories, she said, and when a government payment of up to about 250 euros a month became available two years ago, more were willing to speak openly. “But not all of them,” she said. “So we have a very huge problem with them. That’s why it’s very important that many non-governmental organizations still working on this programme have to be supported by our government.” And as for the international community, she said, “It gave up too early on Bosnia-Herzegovina.” Too much was left to politicians unwilling or unable to take on controversial tasks. The monthly payment for victims of rape is now about 280 euros, still less than that provided to most war veterans.
Jasna Zečević runs a model counselling centre for trauma victims in Tuzla—Vive Žene, which means “long live women.” A fluid, multidimensional system has been developed, Zečević, said. “Every year we change the concept as the situation changes.” The centre started as a residential facility before the end of the war. It is now an outpatient psychosocial clinic with a few bedrooms to be used as needed in emergencies. Patients come to the centre from a wide area around Tuzla, including from camps for displaced people, of which eight remain open, Zečević said, “We are psychologists, social workers, teachers, doctors, nurses, administrators, lawyers.”
Vive Žene is distinguished by the thoroughness of its approach and its independent, experience-driven projects. “We are working on a few levels,” she said. “The first is psychotherapy. We call that inner healing. Women need individual treatment. At the second level, we do social reconnecting in the community wherever they go. We continue an after-care programme. And the third level, developed three years ago, is advocacy and lobbying for their rights. So we are involved in all that is going on about torture victims and domestic violence also, because we don’t divide the victims of violence in the war and after the war. We combine them because we find they are linked. Here you always can find in the background of a victim of domestic violence the issue of the war.”
The centre helps women to prepare for testimony in tribunals handling war crimes cases if they are willing and able to take that step. There is a pervasive sense in Bosnia and Herzegovina however, that no distant court will make a difference in the lives of most victims. Many women have been disappointed that all the international attention they received when the war was over never translated into significant changes. Moreover, Amnesty International said in a 2009 report, Whose Justice? The Women of Bosnia and Herzegovina Are Still Waiting, that victims are not adequately compensated even for their appearances at international courts, including the Balkans tribunal.
Zečević had invited some of her clients to talk with the writer of this report about their lives. In individual conversations, one or two women, well-dressed and apparently at ease, were able to talk with some detachment about their private hells. One frail, thin woman had told Zečević that she would “crawl to the meeting” if that were necessary to tell her story. But, trembling, she did not get very far. At the point when she had to say, “And then he told me to take off my clothes,” she crumbled, shaking and weeping, and had to be led away in the arms of Zečević.
Another woman chose to focus on the present and future, but complained that reparations payments ordered in 2008 had not reached her in months. She went to Belgrade to give evidence in a regional war crimes trial and said she endured vilification from Serb neighbors when she returned. She thought about forming a new organization of victims but learned how complicated that is. “Women are not interested in organizing, fighting,” she said. “They are isolated and poor. They want to know if there is money in it. They are afraid of having their families harassed.” All this blunt analysis from a woman who had lost her home, her health, her husband—and then turned down for resettlement in the United States because she could not be found in a Red Cross data bank. “My ship sank,” she said. But she shifted gears somehow and looked for other ways to put meaning into her life. Three years of help from Vive Žene had finally begun to turn her life around.
 A mother’s priceless gift
She cannot be named. The story she has never told her 17-year-old son is about violent rape and an unwanted pregnancy that brought him into a fatherless life. It is a story drawn from a shameful legacy of the 1992-1995 war in Bosnia and Herzegovina that has never been fully explored.
One can ask: How many children of sexual assault are there in this country? The answer is that nobody really knows because the subject is too troubling to document—for the children themselves first of all, and for the mothers still afraid of the social consequences, even now, of talking about what happened to them. Rape committed as an act of war is an international crime. That the victim should be made to feel guilty is a societal disgrace, say counsellors who have worked with women like her and so many unnamed others.
Her story has a satisfactory—almost happy—ending because this strong woman, with rough hands from years of hard work, has made a life for herself and her child by her sheer strength of will and enormous love for the son she nearly abandoned as a baby. After some persuasion by the woman who gave her a job and made her life bearable, she agreed to tell her story and talk about herself: how she defied social convention, and the wrath of her family to save and nurture a young life.
At the age of 29, driven from her home in a village in eastern Bosnia by advancing ethnic Serb fighters, she was rounded up with more than 450 other Bosniaks. The women were separated from the men (some of whom were never seen again) and imprisoned in what became a “rape house.” The women were freed nine days later by Bosnian forces, but not before she had been abused by a soldier she is sure was not a Bosnian Serb but a fighter from the present-day Republic of Serbia who shouted a racial epithet and roughed up her body before raping her and leaving her unconscious. Months later, she was captured again and raped by six men who left her, bloodied, on a riverbank. Bosniak villagers found her and gave her clothes and shelter. She gave birth to a boy the next spring.
“I told the social worker I did not want the child,” she said, through an interpreter. “But I was happy to hear it was a boy,” she said. “Had it been a girl she might have had to go through the same thing.” She had no contact with the child for seven months, when she was overcome by the desire to see him, and went to look for him in orphanages, not knowing what name he had been given. When she finally found him he was in a hospital, ill and undernourished.
“There was not much food that year,” she said. “He would put his whole little hand, up to his wrist, into his mouth to suck on it. When I saw him sucking his fist I decided to take him, regardless of the situation.” The baby was moved to an orphanage and registered under her name so that he could not be adopted. From then on, he became the centre and purpose of her life. She could not take him home to the house where she lived with her father and brother, who wanted no contact with the child. Once, her father beat her when he found a pair of little boots under her bed, waiting to be taken to the orphanage where she regularly visited the boy to bring him food and clothing. He knew she was his mother and clung to her desperately as she tried to leave after every visit. “Ever since, I have been fighting for him,” she said.
In 1994 she got a job as an office cleaner, and by 1998 she had bought a small plot of land and started to build a house—by herself—with some donated materials. In 1999, the house was finished. “I moved there in July and took him home. He has been there ever since,” she said.
Her past still traumatizes her when she is alone. “I have flashbacks. It is like a huge screen showing what happened and I am living through it again. In a month, I sleep maybe five nights.” Her son has never asked her about the past, although together they have watched the film Grbavica—a fictional account of a life not unlike hers. She doesn’t know what he may already suspect. In the village where they now live there are fatherless boys from Srebrenica, where thousands of male members of the community were massacred in 1995. School administrators have been sympathetic to all of them.
Her son is a good boy, she said, “humble and undemanding.” And though he was not strong academically and is now in a technical school, she said, “What is most important is that he is healthy and eager to work. Work has saved me. It has provided me with the ability to build a house and survive.”
“Sometimes I ask myself what gave me that energy,” she said, looking back on her life. “I came from a village family of six children—a farming family. I was brought up to enjoy the fruits of my work.” Religion was important to her, she added. “If you don’t have faith, you don’t have character. Don’t just get blown away by the wind. Have direction.”