The 1990s war in the former Yugoslavia was marked by intense sexualized violence that ruined the lives of old women and young girls alike. One hallmark of the terror was the creation of “rape camps” in which women were tortured and violated repeatedly. The fractured history of the Balkans led to three years of war from which the region is still recovering today.
After World War II, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was declared, with Marshal Tito as its leader. Yugoslavia was composed of six republics: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Slovenia, within which various ethnic groups lived. A new constitution in 1974, which helped to decentralize government powers, also gave autonomous power to the regions of Kosovo and Vojvodina. Bosnian-Croats, Serbs, and Bosnian-Muslims were considered separate ethnic groups within the federation, but those divisions were not to be emphasized. Tito’s totalitarian government forbid the expression of "nationalism,” jailing activists who tried to foment nationalist movements.
When Tito’s reign ended in 1980, Yugoslavia’s popular communist sentiment was supplanted by various nationalistic and ethnic allegiances. In the 1980s and 1990s, as a result of a difficult economy that magnified ethnic tensions and scapegoating, the union of republics within Yugoslavia began to break down. According to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), the early-1990s population of Bosnia-Herzegovina was about 43 percent Bosnian Muslims (often referred to as Bosniaks), 33 percent Bosnian Serbs, 17 percent Bosnian Croats, and roughly 7 percent other nationalities. Despite the numbers, Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Croats had greater access to power due in part to the region’s location between the republics of Serbia and Croatia.
In March of 1992, a majority of Bosnian citizens voted for independence, but were met with violence from the more politically powerful Serbs. Bosnian Serbs, with the help of Serbia and the Yugoslav People’s Army, began to assert control through violence. Bosnian Croats also attempted to declare power with Croatia’s help. War, including massacres and large-scale, systematic rape, officially lasted until November 1995. Although all sides/ethnic populations committed violent acts, Bosnian Serbs were responsible for the majority of sexualized attacks, aimed mostly at Muslim women. It is estimated that as many as 60,000 women were raped.
A major site of gang rape during the beginning of the war, from April to July 1992, was the town of Foča in southeastern Bosnia. Later, in 1995, a small town called Srebrenica was declared a U.N. “safe zone” but became the site of mass murder and rape, largely under the direction of Ratko Mladić, colonel general of the Bosnian Serb Army, and politician Radovan Karadžić. Because Dutch Blue Helmets were supposed to be protecting the safe zone at the time, blame is often placed upon the Dutch U.N. army in particular for allowing the devastation at Srebrenica on its watch. The BBC reports that after a 2002 investigation held Dutch officials responsible for giving their troops such a difficult area to defend without enough arms and resources, the entire Dutch government resigned.
Accusations of rape of Serbian women by Bosniaks were leveraged as propaganda by Serbia, though it was the Serbs who were mostly responsible for rapes during the conflict.
How Sexualized Violence Is Used as a Weapon of War
For ethnic cleansing: There are testimonies from women who had soldiers tell them, while raping them, that they wanted to get them pregnant or force them to have children who would look ethnically different from their mother, or that they were raping them to punish them for being Muslim (or Croatian). There were also women who became pregnant and were forced to carry their babies to term.
The U.N. defines ethnic cleansing as “a purposeful policy designed by one ethnic or religious group to remove by violent and terror-inspiring means the civilian population of another ethnic or religious group from certain geographic areas.” We are using the term here because ethnic cleansing not only makes women subject to outright murder, but also controls the threat of their bodies as the means of reproduction. For instance, women have been raped in order to occupy “inferior” wombs with “superior” sperm; in other conflicts, women are forced to have abortions or sterilizations (as have men of “inferior” groups) in order to end future reproduction. As in the case of Bosnia, women are also subject to the sex-specific political torture of forcing them to bear the child of their torturer in order to break their will.
To humiliate: Many women were raped in front of their children and husbands, who were forced to watch at gunpoint; there are also a fair number of accounts of elderly women who were raped (in those cases, it was clearly not about impregnating them but about demeaning them and their families). Thousands of males were forced to engage in sexual acts with other males, including, according to some accounts, their own father or son.
To instill fear: Public rape was used to prompt the “flight or expulsion of entire Muslim communities,” according to a 2006 U.N. Population Fund briefing paper. Many women were raped, sometimes repeatedly, in front of family members in their homes. Others were raped in public, outdoors, in broad daylight.
To gain information: Women have testified that before being raped they were asked for the whereabouts of men hiding in the forests. One said that soldiers waved a photograph of her boyfriend at her before raping her.
As part of looting: Rape often occurred alongside theft of private property, the U.N. Commission of Experts found in their final report on sexualized violence in the former Yugoslavia: “…[P]eople would break into homes, steal property, and torture and sexually assault the inhabitants, oftentimes in front of other family members or the public.” Some testimonies refer to men rifling through houses in search of money or jewelry.
Peer pressure: Some Serbian soldiers said their peers forced them to rape when they did not wish to participate. There is at least one account of a soldier who said he felt extreme regret but had been “made to rape” by other soldiers.
Patterns of Violence
- Rape was committed by all sides but overwhelmingly by Serbs against Muslim (Bosniak) women.
- Some women were detained and raped repeatedly by many different soldiers over longer periods of time; some died of repeated rape. Rape camps were set up in restaurants, motels, schools, and other large buildings. One of the most well-known rape camps was Partizan Sports Hall, where more than 70 women were held captive and tortured for months on end.
- Apartments kept by soldiers were often sites of violence. Women and young girls were captured and transported to these homes in order to be raped and abused. Sometimes, women and girls were taken by force from a larger rape camp, such as Partizan Sports Hall, brought to a particular soldier’s home, and attacked, only to be returned to the Sports Hall to suffer more sexualized violence.
- Families were also locked in their own homes and raped repeatedly alongside family members (see “Testimonies”).
- Young girls, adults, and elderly women were all raped. Testimonies of elders show that these women often thought themselves to be safe due to their age and therefore did not flee, only to find that they were attacked along with the younger women.
Reports range from 20,000 to 60,000 rapes; unfortunately, most sources state that the numbers are too hard to determine. According to one source, the U.N.’s Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Margot Wallström, estimates there to be 50,000 to 60,000 cases. An Amnesty report states:
“There are no reliable statistics on the number of women and men who were raped or were subjected to other forms of sexual violence. Early estimates by the BiH [Bosnia and Herzegovina] government suggested the number of 50,000 victims although this estimate was questioned as unreliable and politicized. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe estimated that 20,000 women were subjected to rape and other forms of sexual violence. The real number of those who were raped during the 1992-1995 armed conflict will probably never be established.”
A U.N. report from 1994 states: “According to the State Commission in Bosnia and Herzegovina, approximately 25,000 victims had been registered,” but does not explain this registration process. In addition, the report’s numbers would seem to pre-date the mass rape at Srebrenica, which didn’t occur until 1995. Some experts believe that the emphasis in the early 1990s on figuring out a more accurate estimate was harmful in that it allowed journalists and leaders to speculate that the issue didn’t “count” as much if the numbers were lower.
Cultural Gender Attitudes
After the rapes occurred, married women were often shunned by their husbands for religious or cultural reasons. However, there was a very strong and unique movement in the region: Imams and other male Muslim community leaders encouraged husbands to set aside religious sentiments regarding raped women and take their wives back and support them more as war survivors than as irrevocably marred. It was rather specific to this conflict that rape was seen as a community problem. In addition, Indira Kajosevic, a Bosnian expert, survivor, and founder of some of the first trauma centers and feminist groups in Bosnia, says that women in the region were able to gain status through organizing in a way that was unique to this conflict.
Mirsada, aged 17, spoke to a women’s group of her extreme abuse in a rape camp. Her story was printed in a 1993 Los Angeles Times article:
The White Eagles would come to get us every night. They would bring us back in the morning. There were nights when more than 20 of them came. That seemed to be some kind of honor. They did all kinds of things to us. It cannot be described, and I don't want to remember. We had to cook for them, and serve them, naked. They raped and slaughtered some girls right in front of us. Those who resisted had their breasts cut.
There were women from various towns and villages. There were more than 1,000 of us. I spent more than four months in that camp. It is a nightmare that cannot be talked about, or described, or understood.
One night, our Serbian neighbor's brother helped 12 of us escape. They caught two of us. We spent days hiding in the forest, in improvised underground shelters, and we managed to get away. If it hadn't been for him, I wouldn't have survived. I would have killed myself, because death is not as horrible as the treatment I suffered. I cannot talk about that.
Sometimes I think that I will go crazy and that the nightmare will never end. Every night in my dreams I see the face of Stojan, the camp guard. He was the most ruthless among them. He even raped 10-year-old girls, as a delicacy. Most of those girls didn't survive. They murdered many girls, slaughtered them like cattle.
I want to forget everything. I cannot live with these memories. I will go insane.
Witness 50, a teenage survivor from Foča, testified at the ICTY in 2000 about how war crimes convict Zoran Vuković raped her. She was raped repeatedly by a host of different men in various buildings around town. One of the first times she was attacked was in her own high school:
Shortly after the first time she was raped, Witness 50 stated that she was taken to the Foča High School, where she had been a student in 1992. The day after she arrived, a group of soldiers came into the classroom and picked out about eight girls, including her. One of these soldiers took Witness 50 to a room and ordered her to lie down and take off her trousers. He raped her vaginally. Witness 50 stated in her testimony that she did not remember exactly what he said to her, but that he and all of the men who would later rape her said the same things: "You Muslim women, you Bule [derogatory term], we’ll show you." When asked in court how she felt, Witness 50 stated: "There are no words in this world that could describe my feelings. It is the worst thing that was happening to me."
Later, she was taken to a sports venue and was held captive with about 60 others, many of whom were repeatedly sought out by Serbs, taken elsewhere, and raped, before being returned to the sports hall:
Witness 50 told the court how a man called Gica took her out of the Partizan Sports Hall to an apartment in the neighborhood of Brod, which she thinks was his own. On the second day she was there, an acquaintance of Witness 50’s raped her. Witness 50 stated that he knew her very well. They took the same bus every day: he to go to work and she to go to school. Witness 50 stated that he was certainly 30 years older than her, and was a married man. She said that he laughed while he was raping her. "I had the feeling that he was doing this precisely because he knew me, to inflict even more evil on me."
CNN interviewed a survivor named Jasmina in 2008. She was 19 when the war broke out, and was raped and tortured in her own home alongside family members:
"Every day we were raped. … The men from my family were beaten up the first day. ... My mother just disappeared. I never found out what happened. Then they started torturing me. I lost consciousness. When I woke up, I was totally naked and covered in blood, and my sister-in-law was also naked and covered in blood. ... I knew I had been raped, and my sister-in-law, too.” In a corner, she saw her mother-in-law, holding her children and crying.
“That same day we were locked in our house. That was the worst, the worst period of my whole life. That's when it started.
“Every day we were raped. Not only in the house—they would also take us to the front line for the soldiers to torture us. Then again in the house, in front of the children.
“I was in such a bad condition that sometimes I couldn't even recognize my own children. Even though I was in a very bad physical condition they had no mercy at all. They raped me every day. They took me to the soldiers and back to that house.
“The only conversation we had was when I was begging them to kill me. That's when they laughed. Their response was ‘we don't need you dead.’
“It lasted for a year. Every day. ... Not all the women survived.”
CNN reported that Jasmina was “rescued by a family friend who bought her as a prostitute with the secret intention of setting her free.”
Survivors of sexualized violence were supposed to receive property restitution and return to their former homes as long as the return would be “safe and dignified,” according to the peace agreement known as the Dayton Accords that was signed after the war. However, no rules have been put in place to provide alternatives for the many women whose former homes are the site of extreme trauma and sometimes months of repeated rape, Amnesty International reported in 2009. In some cases, they are forced to return to communities full of the very neighbors who committed abuses against them and their families. In 2006, Bosnia-Herzegovina instituted a law that included a section saying that “homes should be provided for victims of sexual torture during the war,” CNN reported. But the Ministry for Human Rights and Refugees also told CNN that it is “not clear who should implement the act, and there is no agency making sure the law is enforced.”
The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia was the first international tribunal in Europe to convict for rape as a crime against humanity (following Akayesu in Rwanda). According to the ICTY website, it was also “the first international criminal tribunal to enter convictions for rape as a form of torture and for sexual enslavement as crime against humanity.”
(Michele Lent Hirsch/published on February 8, 2012)