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.

Still more recently, a team of experts that visited the former Yugoslavia in January on behalf of the UN Human Rights Commission identified 119 pregnancies caused by rape in 1992 at six major medical centers, in Zagreb, Sarajevo, Zenica, and Belgrade. The team concluded that rape has occurred “on a large scale,” but was prudent in saying it was “not in a position to make an estimate of the total number of rape victims.”

Governments, journalists, and organizations that have used numbers arbitrarily in discussing cases of rape may be doing a great disservice to the victims. It would be unfortunate if the irresponsible use of figures led to a backlash, raising doubts about the credibility of many of the claims that have been made. Organizations working in the field, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, do not specifically seek information about rapes and point out that there are many reasons why such information is not forthcoming.

Most rape victims are not eager to discuss their experience. Some feel ashamed and degraded, and are embarrassed to talk in intimate detail about attacks on their bodies. Those who report rape are often treated disparagingly by authorities and sometimes by members of their own families. Some women cope with the experience by repressing their own recollections; it may be emotionally destructive for them to talk about what happened. Several of the women we met, for example, talked in the third person about friends who were raped, although we suspected that they themselves had also been victims. Others were reluctant to talk because they were fearful of the consequences for their relatives who were still in Bosnia. Some had witnessed other atrocities besides their own rape, including the brutal killing of a husband or a child.

Our mission to collect credible testimony of rape was complicated by the presence, especially in Zagreb, of local and international women’s and human rights groups, as well as journalists and television crews—all looking for rape victims to interview. Some victims have refused to be interviewed, feeling that they will be exploited yet again, this time by foreigners and the press. The plucky few who have been willing to talk have been interviewed over and over again, and some of them, aware of what the press is seeking, have been embroidering the facts for maximum effect.

The interviews that we conducted and other information that we gathered point to several different patterns of rape in Bosnia. There are rapes that are intrinsic to the “cleansing” process; they occur during the initial stages of an invasion and are used to terrorize civilians into leaving their homes, and sometimes into signing papers that say that they are doing so willingly. There are rapes that are committed in detention camps where guards have license to do as they please. And there are rapes that take place in temporarily commandeered houses, schools, or hotels where women are kept for many weeks expressly, it seems, for that purpose. More often than not the rapes take place in public or are committed in front of witnesses, and they include a variety of sadistic acts intended to degrade and humiliate the victim still further. Women are raped without regard for their age or appearance and are threatened with the traumatic prospect of bearing “Serbian babies.” All too frequently the aggressors are known to the victim: “They were our neighbors” is a common refrain.

Although rapes have been attributed to all sides in the war, the Serbian forces appear to be using rape on the largest scale and with impunity. Whether or not the order to rape comes from the highest authorities, the practice appears to be tacitly condoned, and even encouraged, at the local levels of command. The fact that the rapes often occur before witnesses indicates that the rapists have nothing to fear. To our knowledge, no one on any side has been officially charged or prosecuted for committing rape.

Rape always occurs during war, but it has traditionally been underplayed or glossed over. It did not, for example, figure significantly in the Nuremberg trials, not because the Germans were not guilty of rape, but because the Allied forces, especially the Russians and the Moroccan forces under French control, were also guilty of many rapes. In the past, rape has been considered by some as part of the spoils of war, an unfortunate but common byproduct of conflict. Such attitudes derive from a long discredited assumption that rape is the expression of pent-up sexual desire and thus is apolitical in nature, a “private crime.” It fails to recognize rape for what it is, a brutal show of power and aggression, not only toward women but also toward the vanquished men. “See how weak you are. We’ve conquered your women, and we’ll do with them whatever we want to do.”

In the Bosnian war, unlike other wars, rape has been widely reported and condemned, in part because it represents yet another unchecked horror in an endless, brutalizing war. This unprecedented attention to rape may also reflect a change in the public perception of rape, thanks to an international women’s movement that has mobilized around the issue.

Under the 1949 Geneva Conventions, rape, as a form of “systematic torture” and of “cruel and unusual punishment,” is a violation of basic human rights and a war crime. The rapes in Bosnia have heightened public awareness of this crime and may help to ensure that rape in the future will be prosecuted with the same vigor as other war crimes. Ambassador Kenneth Blackwell, the US representative to the UN Human Rights Commission, recently called for the appointment of a special UN rapporteur on gender discrimination and violence against women.

When Bosnia proclaimed its independence in 1992, it was open, vulnerable, and unarmed, susceptible to attack from its warring and heavily armed neighbors. Just a few months after the shaky truce that ended the first stage of the Serbian-Croatian conflict, Bosnia became the ground on which the Serbs and Croats continued their separate quests for territory. Although the Croats have sided with the Muslims, their alliance remains fragile, as each side jockeys for control of territory and armaments.

The heartland and geographic center of the former Yugoslavia, Bosnia was a microcosm of the country, combining ethnic groups who lived together in ostensible harmony in a region known for its lovely cities and great natural beauty. Misha Glenny in his recent book The Fall of Yugoslavia describes Bosnia as “an artificial yet eminently durable political unit.” A Yugoslav philosopher once told me: “There can be no Bosnia without Yugoslavia, and there can be no Yugoslavia without Bosnia.”

There were 2 million Muslims, 1.3 million Serbs, and 750,000 Croats in Bosnia before hostilities broke out. They look alike, speak the same language, and are indistinguishable from one another except by their religion. The Bosnian Muslims are distinguished as an “ethnic group” only by their religion. And religion up to now has not played an important part in their political life, despite recent efforts to portray the Bosnian Muslims as fundamentalists. Like the Jews—and the resemblances cannot be ignored these days—many are urban and most are secular; their religion is less a matter of worship than a means of self-definition.

In Sarajevo and some other cities, the Muslims were an elite, more sophisticated and more affluent than their rural Serbian neighbors. The class antagonism of the Serbian peasants in Bosnia was easily converted into ethnic hostility by anti-Muslim propaganda from Belgrade. Every society has its smoldering “have-nots”; the Milosevic propaganda machine successfully pitted them against the “haves.” Bosnian Serbs readily joined the, by then, mainly Serbian Yugoslav army when it invaded in April 1992 and continued the fight when the Yugoslav army was officially withdrawn in June, leaving behind its weapons and a considerable number of Serbian soldiers.

“These are people who had everything,” a Red Cross worker at a refugee camp in Croatia told me, describing the Muslims. “VCRs, modern appliances. Now they haven’t even clothes. They have dropped very far. They were professors, lawyers, people like us. Now they’re living with rats…. How can these three groups live together again after what has happened? They’ve lost everything—even their future.”

Few well-to-do Muslims and intellectuals remain in Bosnia. “Either they left early on,” a Croatian friend explained, “or they were the first ones to be killed. They were sorted out from the rest during ‘ethnic cleansing’ and executed, sometimes on the spot. The Muslims who are left are simple people, not good at expressing anger. They are so obedient. It’s just the way they are. They’ve lived so long between two powers. They didn’t resist the Serbs. They left their women and children behind in the villages, never dreaming that anything would happen to them. Of course,” she added, “there are all kinds, I shouldn’t generalize.”

How can there be such barbarity today, in the heart of Europe, in a civilized country, among neighbors and friends? This is a question that hangs over every conversation in Bosnia.

“How was it before the war?” I asked everyone I met, hoping for an explanation.

“Before the war it was super,” a thirty-five-year-old Serbian woman, a refugee from Vares, told me without hesitation. “My neighbors were Muslims, Croats. We celebrated all the holidays together. A few months before war broke out, people started separating. It was after Bosnia’s independence was recognized. Our neighbors avoided us. They were blaming the Serbs for the war in Croatia.”

“Yesterday we were friends,” said a Muslim, a young man of twenty-four, describing how his wife was raped before his eyes by a Serb whom he knew. “I shake when I think of it. I can’t believe it happened…. We knew these people; we knew them all. Overnight we became enemies. I don’t know why.”

In search of some explanation. I made my way to Palmoticeva Street in Belgrade where I was received by the ailing Milovan Djilas, now eighty-one years old, a man who has not only watched history unfold but has helped to shape it. First Tito’s colleague, and then his enemy, Djilas was a lone voice in 1957 when he predicted the demise of communism in his major work. The New Class.

Djilas’s words to me were not necessarily comforting ones, but they rang true: “The Serbs are no better or worse than other people,” he said. “They just had more opportunities. For me this is a human phenomenon, not a national one. There are elements of evil in every person, but the majority are able to control themselves.”

But why did these “elements of evil” fly out of control in the Bosnian conflict? Djilas blamed the Communists during the Tito years, and later, for not allowing ethnic and other antagonisms to be democratically expressed. He also blamed the West for its indifference to the war in Yugoslavia and its unwillingness to intervene at an early stage. He could have added other reasons as well—a troubled history of ethnic conflicts, the vacuum left by a defunct Marxist ideology, the growth of nationalist sentiment, and the “conversion” of former Communist officials into equally ruthless nationalists.

The war in Bosnia is not a puzzling Balkan aberration. It is predominantly the work of one man—Slobodan Milosevic, Serbia’s Communist-turned-nationalist president. Unwilling to allow Yugoslavia to break apart, he unleashed a vicious, manipulative propaganda campaign that led to hysteria among Serbian minorities, first in Kosovo, then in Croatia, and finally in Bosnia-Hercegovina. He led the Serbs to believe that they were about to be slaughtered, using photographs from World War Two to reinforce this impression. Growing nationalism among Croats and Muslims in both Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina played into Serbian fears as well. Milosevic sent the Yugoslav army first into Kosovo, then into Croatia, and finally into Bosnia; it seized land, claiming that it was doing so to “protect” local Serbs. These Serbs were encouraged to take up arms and form paramilitary groups whose brutality was condoned by the authorities in Belgrade. Violence led to more violence.

Innocent people are being killed and abused in Bosnia-Hercegovina. Those responsible should be brought to justice before an international war crimes tribunal. But now, before such a tribunal is convened, the United States, the European Community, and the United Nations must take whatever steps are necessary to end the carnage—immediately, before any political settlement. We should do so on moral grounds. There are still many lives that could be saved and abuses that could be prevented.

This Issue

March 25, 1993