Europe, Gender, Headlines, Human Rights

INT’L WOMEN’S DAY: Bosnia Rape Victims Forgotten

Vesna Peric Zimonjic

BELGRADE, Mar 7 2006 (IPS) - “When I gave birth to her, I didn’t want to see her…but on the second day, when I took her to my breast, I realised that she was the only beauty remaining in this world and so I kept her.”

With these words Esma, a Bosniak waitress, explains what made her keep her rebellious daughter Sara, 13, in the emotional award-winning movie ‘Grbavica’ made by the young Sarajevo author Jasmila Zbanic (31).

Esma, former medical student, becomes pregnant in war-torn Sarajevo in 1992 after being raped by Serb soldiers in her Grbavica home. But she tells Sara that her father, a Bosniak Muslim, died as a ‘shaheed’, a martyr, in defence of Sarajevo.

The horrifying truth surfaces when Sara needs a certificate of her father’s death to obtain a free field trip with her school. Mother and daughter are devastated, and fight, but make up again, despite the dark secret.

But this happy ending is far from what is really happening in Bosnia. As Zbanic told the audience in Berlin after receiving the Golden Bear award for the best movie two weeks ago, “the ordeal of rape victims of Bosnia is far from over.”

Victims of mass rapes are being shunned by family and friends. Most of them are stigmatised and excluded from society if people around them come to know the truth.

The children conceived in rapes were mostly pushed into orphanages in Bosnia or neighbouring Croatia, and in rare cases given for adoption. They grow up knowing nothing about their parents.

Officials at orphanages in Tuzla and Zenica in Bosnia and Vladimir Nazor and Goljak in Croatia do not keep track of the children’s origin or whereabouts.

“I hope that this screening in Belgrade is the beginning of the closing of a circle,” Zbanic told a Belgrade audience as the film was shown at the local film festival Monday night. “This is because the foundation of this scenario was practically written here.”

Belgrade-backed Serbian forces in Bosnia have been accused of a systematic rape campaign against Muslim women in the three-year war where Serb forces resisted an independence move by Bosnians, many of them Muslims. The issue remains taboo in Serbia, where denial prevails that such events could ever happen.

“The subject remains a controversy that needs honest clarification in order to learn the truth of war in Bosnia,” human rights activist Natasa Kandic told IPS. “Manipulation with numbers does not serve the truth on either side.”

Documents submitted by the wartime Bosnian government in 1993 put the number of rape victims at 20,000 to 50,000.

The rapes were described as “the most shameful form of human degradation, humiliating violence and Serb aggression policy.”

International reports such as a European Union-led commission and a United Nations (UN) report came to vastly different numbers of rape victims. In 1993, the EU put the number at 20,000, while a UN report in 1994 thought the number less than 150.

This last number is often quoted by Serb nationalists who deny any atrocities in the Bosnian war.

The International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) has sentenced three men, Dragoljub Kunarac, Radomir Kovac and Zoran Vukovic to a total of 60 years in prison for rapes they committed in the eastern Bosnian town Foca in 1992, where they held a camp for Muslim women.

As years went by the issue was put aside, with numbers quoted selectively, but with victims completely neglected.

A book was published on the horrors of rape victims’ lives, ‘Breaking the Walls of Silence’ by Seada Vranic. She came to the conclusion that only one out of ten rapes was reported.

Medica Zenica, a non-governmental organisation from central Bosnia, said in a study in May 1997 that one to four percent of rape victims became pregnant.

“Those women were victims twice – when they were raped, and afterwards when they were forgotten,” head of the Sarajevo Society for Endangered People Fadila Memisevic told local media.

Bosniak media took on the subject only after ‘Grbavica’ won the Berlin film festival award.

“The issue will explode now (after the movie),” Memisevic said in an interview with Croatian newspaper Vecernji List. “I meet dozens of rape victims and their children on a daily basis, but no mother has told her child the truth. This is where society should play a role, but Bosniak society is obviously not ready for this.”

Memisevic said there are no teams of psychologists who could advise mothers how to deal with this issue.

“The local work and social care ministry has no idea how many children there are of such origin, and they consider neither them nor their mothers as subjects for social care,” Memisevic said. “Last year they tried to make a list of those children but gave up.”

Reliable sources in Sarajevo told IPS that in July last year the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) commissioned a report on children born as a result of war rape in Bosnia. It was the first time any organisation has focused on these children. The report, however, was never published for reasons not known.

In the end, the victims of sexual violence are mostly left to themselves, despite the widespread publicity over the atrocities committed during the war. Abandoned by the state, many of these women are not only traumatised by their experience, but also impoverished.

Cast out from their communities, often abandoned by their husbands, few of them can hold down jobs either. Only a handful have received compensation for their suffering, which continues in the form of nightmares, physical injury and mental ill-health.

“In real life, there is no happy ending like in ‘Grbavica’,” Memisevic said.

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