Europe, Gender, Headlines, Human Rights

BALKANS: Rape Victims Fight a Mostly Losing Battle

Vesna Peric Zimonjic

SARAJEVO, Nov 12 2010 (IPS) - It takes little to bring out the scars that many women who were raped in Bosnia still carry. Rumours, later shown to be unfounded, that Angelina Jolie would star in a film to be shot in Sarajevo on the war-time love between a Serb man and a Bosniak Muslim girl he raped, had women’s groups lodging strong protests.

The false reports spotlighted the fate of thousands of Bosniak Muslim women believed to have been raped by Serbs mostly in eastern Bosnia in the 1992- 95 war. Many were repeatedly violated for months. Several were killed.

Many children they gave birth to were adopted or sent to orphanages. Hundreds of women terminated pregnancies, even late ones, in hospitals or health care centres after fleeing eastern Bosnia, according to aid organisations such as Women Victims of War and the United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF). Serbs deny that rapes occurred by their forces in eastern Bosnia.

The women say they still live with the trauma, and are fighting for a place in a society where they are stigmatised. Many have been rejected by their families. Almost all of them are still in therapy, and under medication.

“No one can ever film what we saw and went through,” Bakira Hasecic (54), head of the association Women Victims of War (WAW) told IPS. “The whole thing about the movie has revived our pain and suffering.” The association has a database with thousands of names of victims and even violators. The database includes records of girls and women between 12 and 80 years old when they were raped in 1992.

Hasecic, in her 50s, was a victim of repeated rape in eastern Bosnia. Visegrad where she lived was ethnically cleansed of its Bosniak population of 250,000. Only some Serb villages are now inhabited. Few Bosniaks have returned.

Under the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords, eastern Bosnia went to the Republic of Srpska, the Serb entity in the state of Bosnia-Herzegovina. The other entity is the Muslim-Croat Federation.

Hasecic made it her mission to find war crimes perpetrators and bring them to justice. She has helped women who agreed to testify before the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague and before courts in Sarajevo.

“But that is horrifying as well, because victims have to retell their stories in detail, answer the most gruesome questions by judges, even meet family members of the accused in the courts’ halls, going again through unimaginable humiliation,” Hasecic says.

Enisa Salcinovic (58) says her children were the force that carried her through life after she was raped for months in the eastern town Foca in 1992, in front of her parents, children and in-laws.

Salcinovic heads the Association of Concentration Camps Torture Survivors (ACCTS) in Sarajevo. Bosniak Muslims were herded into camps by Serbs, tortured, killed or evicted to territories under Muslim control during the war. Men were also raped in those camps, but none want to speak about it.

“Rape is something people do not want to speak about in our primitive environment,” Salcinovic says. “It is shameful, but the truth has to be told. In my opinion, rape ruins you both physically and mentally, and the feeling is shared by all the victims.

“My therapy is constant work, but as a woman I don’t exist any more, I’m an empty shell. I have fear from men even when they pass me by in the tram,” she says. Salcinovic has had several operations for conditions such as bile abnormalities and cancer.

A number of Bosnian Serbs have been convicted by the ICTY or by local courts for crimes against humanity, rape, and for the forced prostitution of Bosniak women. But many have got away with their crimes.

Bakira Hasecic says justice needs to be done in every case “in order that such things never ever happen again.” Hasecic is not afraid to travel to eastern Bosnia with other victims and help them find men who raped them or killed their families.

Psychiatrist Dubravka Salcic, who has treated rape victims for 15 years now, says it is better to call them “survivors”, as this gives them hope.

“But there is no final healing. With these women, it’s not only rape. There is a succession of traumas among them – all of them have lost at least one family member, many a dozen – husbands, brothers, parents or children, their homes or property. It’s hard to build a positive coping strategy among them,” she tells IPS.

The women say reconciliation is a far-fetched goal the survivors can hardly think about as long as many perpetrators walk free.

The state provides 260 euros to each registered victim. It also partially covers medication and treatment. But even in material terms this is not enough.

Atrocities in Bosnia prompted the groundbreaking UN Security Council Resolution 1325 adopted 10 years ago. The resolution was the first to address the impact of war on women, and called on all parties to take special measures to protect women and girls from sexual violence and rape in conflicts.

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