Coercion and Torture in Former Yugoslavia
Sexual coercion, torture, and rape have occurred as tactics of terror in many wars. Rape was a weapon of terror as the German Hun marched through Belgium in World War I, and gang rape was part of the orchestrated riots of Kristallnacht at the beginning of the Nazi campaign against the Jews. Sexual violation of women was a weapon of revenge as the Russian Army marched to Berlin in World War II, as it was when the Japanese raped women in the city of Nan King, when the Pakistani Army battled Bangladesh, and when American soldiers made rape in Vietnam what Arlene Eisen Bergman has described as a "standard tactic aimed at terrorizing the population into submission." Although a high incidence of rape is commonly associated with conflict situations, mass rape in former Yugoslavia according to the European Community Report is perpetrated with "the conscious intention of demoralizing the power of the invading forces-a form of Serbian expansionist strategy." This article focuses on public violence, especially sexual coercion and torture in the ongoing war in former Yugoslavia. Although the atrocities committed are viewed as the worst crimes against humanity in Europe since World War II, a war crimes tribunal in Hague has yet to begin its hearings. A newly appointed chief prosecutor, Richard Goldstone, stated that the trials will begin in Spring 1995; as of this writing they have yet to be started. The slow process to implement a war crimes tribunal and to bring the war criminals to justice has been hindered by the ineptness of the international community in negotiating "peace" among warring factions in former Yugoslavia. For example, the Serbian leaders that Lawrence Eagelberger, U.S. Secretary of State under George Bush, named as war criminals are the same ones with whom the international community has been negotiating (i.e., Karadzic, Mladic, Milosevic; Eagelberger has referred to Slobodan Milosevic, Serbian President, as the "Butcher of the Balkans").
In order not to jeopardize the "peace talks" (which have been going on since 1991 and have been averaging one in every two weeks), the international community is appeasing the war criminals. But what about the victims? What about the hundreds of thousands of displaced, tortured, wounded and raped people? Is it possible to have peace in former Yugoslavia without justice for the victims? And how are the women, scarred by the war, coping at the present time?
I first became aware of the mass rapes of women during the war in Croatia in the early part of 1992 and right before the war began in Bosnia. A gynecologist at a teaching hospital told me that there was an "ethics committee" in Croatia to discuss the predicament of Croatia women who became pregnant after being raped by Serb forces. The women could not abort their fetuses because they were kept too long in the concentration camps. According to the gynecologist, this information was kept as a "private secret" and away from the press. When the same atrocities occurred in Bosnia, albeit on a greater scale, the matter became a "public secret." The Bosnia, government has openly used the rapes to evoke not only Western sympathy, but to specifically call for outside military intervention in Bosnia. Why the difference in treatment? Is it because the atrocities occurred on a much larger scale and greater proportions in Bosnia than in Croatia? Or is it that Muslin women are more valued in Bosnia than Christian women in Croatia?
War Rapes in Croatia and Bosnia
As already noted, the Croatian government never made a public statement that mass rape of Croation women had occurred during the war. Reasons for keeping the "lid" on sexual atrocities against women are both political and cultural. Admitting that Croatian women were raped by Serb forces would imply defeat of the Croatian forces. It would also imply that the Croatian soldiers could not guard and protect their property. (Throughout the Balkans, women as well as soil are viewed as property and possessions.)
The number of victims is unknown. ACcording to the figures released by the Bosnian government in September of 1992, of a population of approximately 1.5 million, 200,000 individuals have been confined in concentration camps. Men and women were held separately. People may be tortured in these camps, and the torture may include rape and sexual mutilation. In addition, men may be forced to watch as their female relatives are raped. In December of 1992, a report compiled by a fact-finding mission of the European Community stated that 20,000 women have been raped by Bosnian Serb soldiers in recent months as "part of a deliberate pattern of abuse" in which rapes cannot be seen as incidental to the main purposes of the aggression but must be recognized as serving a strategic purpose in itself-in the 1992 European Community Report, war rapes are termed a form of "ethnic cleansing." The same report stated that "the enormity of the suffering being inflicted on the civilian population (especially women and children) in this conflict is beyond expression." Other findings suggest that the number of women who have been raped in Bosnia alone is between 30,000 and 50,000.
My own anthropological research among refugee women in Croatia (informants come form both Croatia and Bosnia) reveals that many of the rapes in Bosnia have occurred in "rape camps" where the conquered women were forcibly held by Serb soldiers. Many women are faced with one of two cruel fates: either to be raped and tortured or to be killed outright. The names and locations of rape camps reflect pre-existing attitudes of sexuality and courtship but in a curl new context. Rape camps are often situated in former coffee houses and restaurants. Their names symbolize both the traditional and the modern. At one end of the spectrum are places called Vilinas Vlas ("Nymph's Hair/Tresses") and Kafana Sonja ("Coffeehouse Sonja"). To a weary traveler in the Balkans, these names symbolize the traditional, quaint poetic corner or respite, a place of pleasure. The implication is that at these rape camps, unlike concentration camps, women willingly satisfy the desires of the flesh. The symbolism ignores the coercive nature of the camps and contributes to the arguments of those who blame the women for their own victimization. On the other end of the spectrum, places with name such as Laser ("Laser") and Fast Food Restaurant ("Fast Food Restaurant") suggest to Serb soldiers the modern, Western promiscuity and sexual permissiveness. Both types suggest sexual license to men who believe that they can do any kind of violently sexual act with impunity. For women these places are pakao na zemlji ("hell on earth"). In many camps, the collected testimonies reveal that the majority of female victims have died from gunshots, from bleeding as a consequence of gang rape or from suicide motivated by shame.
Women and their stories
The stories have predominantly come from women who were forced by their experience to choose isolation. Divorced women, widows or unmarried women do not have to contend with outraged husbands because the women's shame, stigma and guilt is a direct reflection of the husband's inability to protect their wives. This is not surprising for a culture in which female and male honor depend on a woman's chastity. If a man believes that a woman had sex with someone other than her husband, whether by force or not, be must reject her to salvage his own pride. If the woman was fortunate enough not to get pregnant, she would hide her story to spare her family the dishonor. Revealing her story could cause her further tragedy. The following testimony from an unmarried woman reflects the pain of family reactions:
A few days after my release from a concentration camp, I received an affidavit of support from Germany, so I came to Zagreb. I stayed in Zagreb and underwent one medical examination. That was a gynecological exam because only a friend knew all that has happened to me and she gave me a telephone number to which I could call. The lesions on my things were getting worse. They had become infected and I had to see a doctor because of that as well. Because of all the fear I have not told the doctor what was really the matter with me. After one and a half months the lesions on my leg had healed, but even now I have two scars. After a couple of days in Zagreb my uncle came to pick me up. Immediately after greeting the he told me that he would prefer to kill me now. Because of his rudeness I did not tell my family about anything that happened to me. Even so, after twenty days they kicked me out. [Although the uncle did not know about the rape, he automatically suspected that his niece was raped in the concentration camp because she is a woman. This suspicion was enough to throw her out of his house because if she was soiled by the rape, by extension he too would be polluted and stigmatized. This in turn would bring shame to his house.]
Today this woman is on welfare, has psychiatric problems and is looking for a job, and she is afraid of contact with people. She was brought up in a culture in which rape was so shameful that she could not tell even a physician the true cause of her condition. She was brought up in a culture in which she could only talk about her problems with friends who had experienced the same aggression. Her life, and her suffering, are more than just an isolated experience.
Unfortunately, rape is not the only horrific and traumatic event that women in this war are experiencing. The following excerpt from a testimony given by Asija, a Bosnian refugee woman now living in Croatia, illustrates the cruelty and dehumanization of this war:
I was trying to flee my village with my two small children while the bullets were flying around me. My neighbors were yelling, "Asija, come back, there is no where to go, it is not worth it, come back, you can't run." Because of the flying bullets I couldn't return to my own home, so I ran into my neighbor's house. The Serbs came... They yelled at us and said, "Who is in the house? Come out!" As we walked out they told up "Put your arms up!" ...I had my son with me and my daughter who was ten months old. I held her in one hand and held the other hand up for more than twenty minutes. There were other women and children present. They threatened the thirteen-year-old son of my neighbors by taking the knives out and by starting to sharpen them. They were yelling that they would kill him, and then they began to slaughter his rabbits in front of him. They were looking for water and towels and his mother turned around. They told her, "We will rape you. Why are you turning around?! Don't move." None of us dared to look, dared to move-if you do, they kill you immediately. All around me people were moaning and groaning; they were being massacred and to this day I don't know who they were because we held our hands up and could not look around... (After the massacre the women had to bury the dead bodies.)
Coping with the physical, psychological and cultural scars of the war
While I was researching women, violence and war, the hardest part for me as an anthropologist who is at the same time an "insider" (someone born into the culture) and an "outsider" (someone trained and now living in the U.S.), has been being a witness of the war. The women with whom I've worked have become "confesses." Listening to their stories has become synonymous with the need to tell, and more importantly, the need to act. For the victims, giving a testimony is to validate the self. And when the self, and by extension, the family, the community and the nation have been stripped and raped, the fragile rebuilding of self through community becomes crucial. It is precisely because of this that peace for the regions of former Yugoslavia will not be possible without justice. I am continually reminded by the refugees that their lives will start over again only if they return to their place of origin and if they know that the criminals are justly tried.
The psychological trauma is forever imprinted onto the victims' conscious and subconscious. The fact that their neighbors were the ones who committed atrocities against them is still a shock for most survivors. In almost all testimonies the women say, "We were closer than neighbors, we were kumovi (`godparents' to each other)." Godparenthood is a very strong form of fictive kinship. "I couldn't tell you how many coffees we drank or how many breads we broke together." And now these women find themselves not only victims of sexual atrocities and survivors of concentration camps, but also refugees without homes and without hope. All their worldly possessions, their land, and their communities-all which were undeniable parts of their identity-are forever gone. In most cases these cultural markers of identity are not simply destroyed by the enemy; their possessions are being enjoyed by the enemy, by their neighbors. One example will suffice to illustrate this. A refugee women from Vukovar metaphorically asks her Serb Neighbor:
When your child falls from the bike of my son, does it hurt a lot? Does he cry out loud?
In closing, I am not surprised to hear a woman psychiatrist working with the rape victims state:
Soon after the rape stories attracted Western media attention, people from the West started pouring here and they only wanted to help the raped women. At first, we could not understand this. We were asking ourselves, "How could these outside `experts' only focus on the rape without viewing rape in war as a type of violence that is tied to a whole string of atrocities?"
The psychiatrist stressed the need to view rape in war as one atrocity in a whole range of atrocities. Atrocities committed in war are a form of genocide. The suffering and trauma are forever imprinted on individuals and the community and-for the sake of future peace - we need to bring war criminals to trial, ensuring justice for victims. By not having a political solution in sight, the international community is prolonging not only the suffering; it is also furthering conflict throughout the Balkans.
Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.
Our website houses close to five decades of content and publishing. Any content older than 10 years is archival and Cultural Survival does not necessarily agree with the content and word choice today.