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Bosnia: Questions About Rape

Marija, a twenty-five-year-old Croatian woman living in Bosnia-Hercegovina, set out one evening to visit a friend. She had been warned not to go out after dark: there were Serbian soldiers in the nearby villages and the war was not very far away. But she took a chance. Six soldiers dressed in camouflage emerged suddenly from the darkness and seized her; they were heavily armed, with socks pulled over their faces. “I knew at once what would happen,” Marija told me. “It had happened to others.”

When I first met Marija in the Petrova Gynecological Hospital in Zagreb, she was almost two months pregnant and was about to have an abortion. Her blond, permed hair looked uncombed, her face was sallow and thin. Her mouth was pinched with anger, her expression softening only when she began to cry. She was wearing a drab gray corduroy bathrobe and small gold earrings. She had been released by the Serbs just four days before, as part of a prisoner exchange, after two months in captivity. This was the first time she had discussed her ordeal with anyone, and she did so only on condition that her name would not be used. She wanted to protect her parents, brothers, and sisters, who are still in Bosnia.

The Serbian soldiers who seized Marija had been drinking heavily—they smelled of alcohol and they laughed and cursed drunkenly, calling her a “Croatian Ustasha who should be raped, killed, and destroyed.” They beat her and raped her on the spot, then took her to a house in the nearby Serbian village of Obudovac where she was held under guard. She was gang-raped repeatedly by many different men, usually at night. There were other women, both Muslim and Croatian, who were held in the same house and raped—she doesn’t know how many, but some were very young, fourteen or fifteen years old. “The aim of the rapists was to make babies,” Marija told me. “They said that directly, looking into your eyes…. I never saw such men: they had no mercy, just a desire for revenge. They were mercenaries, foreigners, Montenegrins. They didn’t know me. They seemed without soul or heart.”

Fatima, a forty-year-old Muslim nurse, knew some of the men who had abused her when she was imprisoned in abandoned high school in Doboj, Bosnia, for almost a month beginning May. One of them was J., a Serbian doctor who was the first to rape her, after he called out her name from a list. “Now you know how strong we are,” he told her afterward, “and you will remember it forever. Where is your Izetbegovic now?”

He was a doctor,” Fatima said. “I would have expected him to be different from the others…. I knew him for ten years. We were in the same hospital circle. I saw him every day in the restaurant for hospital personnel. We talked, we were acquaintances, I never sensed any hostility. He was a golden guy, refined, polite.”

Fatima and I talked one evening in her sister-in-law’s Zagreb apartment, while rock-and-roll music blared from an adjoining room. Her reddish hair was freshly coiffed, her makeup expertly applied. She volunteered to tell me, “I went to the hairdresser today because I was so tense.” She did not mention it, but I later learned that she had been interviewed about her rape experiences by a Western television crew earlier that day.

We were rich, on both sides of the family…. We had an apartment in Doboj and a family house in Grabska which we inherited…. The war began the night of May 1…. They occupied Doboj [a multi-ethnic, half Muslim city] and began taking over the Muslims’ homes. We went to Grabska, the only completely Muslim village in the region; ten days later they began to shell us there. We sent our son away with my sister’s family, but I decided to stay with my husband; we were founders of the [predominantly Muslim] Party of Democratic Action. How could I face my fellow Muslims if I left?”

Early in May, Fatima told me, she was separated from her husband by Serbian troops and taken to a high school building where she was held for twenty-eight days in a dark gymnasium packed with what she estimates to have been a thousand women. She was forced to sit for almost the entire time with her knees pulled up to her chest and her head down; she never spoke to anyone or dared to look around. At night she was raped in a classroom, sometimes by as many as ten men. There were occasional respites of two or three days when the Serbian paramilitaries went off to fight, leaving the women under the guard of local Serbs. “The worst was when they lost and came back angry and drunk. They would beat us hard; they had no sense of their own strength…. I was raped with a gun by one of those men, along with another woman and her daughter, while the others watched. Some of them spat on us; they did so many ugly things to us…. There was no passion in this, it was done only to destroy us…. if they couldn’t rape me, they would urinate on me.” Fatima started to cry: “They kept pigs, they came down from the mountains, they stank…and now they are treating us this way!”

Fatima’s family paid 1,000 DM for her release, and she arrived in Zagreb on June 23. She is waiting to join her husband, who was recently released from a detention camp and is being resettled in Germany. The only time she smiled during our two-hour interview was when I asked about him.

Ljubica, a thirty-seven-year-old Serbian woman with a pretty, freckled face and short dark hair, is one of seven rape victims who have been testifying in Belgrade on behalf of the Serbian government’s War Crimes Commission. After her village, near Odzak in Bosnia, came under Croatian shelling on April 18, she moved from one village to another, trying to escape the war. “The Croats came for me at 12:30 AM on June 5,” she told me. “They broke down the door of the house and picked me out, made me walk some twenty meters away and said ‘now you’re going to tell us where the Cetniks are.’ There were fifteen of them, I knew them all, they were neighbors. They call themselves the Fire Horses brigade.”

Ljubica and a number of other women were brought to two houses near Croatian paramilitary headquarters in Posavska Mahala. She was raped there by at least seven men before she passed out. “One man, Marijan Brnic, ripped my clothes off and raped me; he didn’t spare my mouth or my anus. He put a gun in my mouth and threatened to kill me. At 5:30 in the morning he let me go, kicking me from behind and telling me to walk home. I was naked…. A Croatian soldier came by in a car and offered to help me, but I was afraid…. My nine-year-old niece Mirjana was raped…. They were our neighbors, the ones who raped us.”

In response to my question, Ljubica said angrily, “I’ve told this story to the press, to everyone. I want to prove the truth…that the Serbs are not the guilty ones. My family is embarrassed to see me on TV, but I have to do it…. Everything we owned was burned. We have nothing now.”

Their names have been altered, but not their ethnic identities: Croat, Muslim, and Serb, these women rape victims together represent the three major ethnic groups involved in the brutal war that has ravaged Bosnia-Hercegovina. Each is coping in her own way with one of the worst things that can happen to a woman: the humiliating, degrading, and terrorizing experience of rape. Marija’s testimony was the most straightforward: we were, and may still be, the only people to whom she told her ghastly story. Fatima is fast becoming practiced in telling her story to journalists and television crews. The attention of the press apparently provides her with a kind of catharsis but may also be encouraging her to embellish the facts.* Ljubica seems driven in part by patriotism; she wants to “undemonize” the Serbian forces by showing that Serbian women are also victims of rape.

I met these women, and other victims of rape, during a two-week mission to Serbia and Croatia in January on behalf of Helsinki Watch and the Women’s Rights Project of Human Rights Watch. I was accompanied by Regan Ralph, a lawyer with the project. We went to the former Yugoslavia specifically to investigate reports of widepread, systematic rapes in Bosnia. These reports had filled the pages of the Western press for several months, and we had often been asked to verify their accuracy.

Helsinki Watch has been documenting crimes against humanity in the Yugoslav armed conflicts since they began—in Croatia in the summer of 1991 and in Bosnia in April 1992. Crimes have been committed by all sides, but the chief offenders have been the Serbian military and paramilitary forces: as the aggressors, they are in a position to do the most damage to civilians, and their vicious policy of “ethnic cleansing” has provided them with a pretext for their actions. Sometimes incorrectly described as a “civil war,” the war in Bosnia is in fact a war against civilians who have been subjected to primitive and barbarous practices solely because of their nationality. The aim is to terrorize, and the methods follow a formula that has been repeated in a number of different regions of the former Yugoslavia: cold-blooded killings of men, women, and children; bodies dumped in hastily bulldozed communal graves: apartments, homes, and villages looted and burned; forced deportations; torture and abuse of detainees; rape.

Much of Bosnia is unreachable because of the warfare raging there and because of its mountainous terrain. There is no way of determining how many people have perished or the number of women who have been raped. But it is already clear that a great many terrible crimes have been committed during the war and that rape is prominent among them. Estimates of the number of rape victims continue to escalate. The Bosnian government says that as many as 50,000 or even 60,000 women have been raped and claims to have partially documented 13,000 cases of Muslim women violated by Serbs. At the other extreme, Radovan Karadzic, the leader of the Bosnian Serbs, declared on the Today Show on February 4 that he had “heard only about eighteen single cases.” The Serbian government’s War Crimes Commission, based in Belgrade, claims that about 800 Serbian women have been subjected to rape in Muslim camps.

Both sides have obvious reasons to manipulate the figures. The European Community, in a highly publicized report released on January 8, warned of “possible exaggeration,” but then came up with a figure of 20,000 Muslim women who had been raped by Serbian forces. The report did not give the basis for the figure or any sources.

  1. *

    Fatima may not have been held for as long as twenty-eight days, as she told me; in an interview with a German journalist a week before we met, she said that she had been detained for eighteen days.

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