Le Monde Diplomatique
As his trial resumed, Radovan Karadzic denied committing war crimes at Srebenica and Sarajevo. Yet almost 20 years after the war that destroyed former Yugoslavia, those whose lives were wrecked by rape still hope that their rapists will be tried and convicted
Emina Rahmanovic (1) rarely leaves her tiny apartment in Zenica, a city in central Bosnia. Her neighbourhood is pretty in the fresh snow, but Rahmanovic, 33, doesn’t see it. She spends most of her days in bed. “Yesterday was the first time in seven years that I stepped on snow. I had not been outside in winter in seven years. [At other times of the year] I would always go outside with two people with me, but now one person is enough. I have this enormous sense of fear.” Rahmanovic takes as many as 18 doses of medication a day to help deal with insomnia, back pain and depression, an everyday part of her life since she was raped during the 1992-5 war (2).
Late in 1992, when she was 15, she was separated from her family near the Bosnian-Croatian border. Her family, among the thousands of refugees fleeing the fighting, managed to bribe their way to safety in Croatia. But Croat soldiers stopped her from crossing. She was stranded at a barracks used by Croat troops in Travnik, and then raped by Croat soldiers in early 1993.
Months later, the soldiers released her and she found refuge in Zenica, alone and pregnant. She now has two teenage children, a girl and a boy, whom she says are among the few good things in her life. Her children were placed in orphanages and she looks forward to visiting them. But most of the time she is a prisoner in her home: “I feel trapped in my own head. I can’t get over what happened. There are people who lost their children and family members [in the war]. They somehow continue living, but I just cannot. Maybe it was because I was really young. I constantly question why it had to happen to me. I can’t break free from these feelings.”
Health problems prevent her from keeping a job and she survives on $170 a month disability allowance from her local government, mostly spent on medication. But she was able to get psychological support and advice from Medica Zenica, an NGO that has provided victims with counselling and legal advice since 1993.
It is estimated that 20,000 people, including men, were raped during the war. In many cases the violence was planned and used as a deliberate weapon to terrorise civilians; but few rapists have been tried, and many victims have failed to receive economic and psychological support from the Bosnian government. Amnesty International (AI) highlighted this in a recent report (3) and accused the Bosnian government and the international community of failing victims. “The government of Bosnia and Herzegovina has failed to ensure justice and reparation for thousands of women who were raped during the 1992-5 war. A continuing failure to comprehensively investigate and prosecute crimes of sexual violence before international and national courts means those responsible for justice still manage to evade justice and impunity prevails.” The report says state compensation programmes and psychological healthcare services are scarce. NGOs, including Medica Zenica, have been left to pick up the pieces with little or no funding from the state government.
The scant level of state support is partly the result of Bosnia’s confusing governmental structure. It has a complicated power-sharing system brokered by the US-led Dayton Peace Agreement (DPA), which helped end the war in 1995 (4). While it was designed to devolve power among all ethnic groups equally, the DPA turned the country into a decentralised patchwork. Two semi-autonomous entities were created: the Federation of BiH (FBiH) and Republika Srpska (RS) (5) with special status given to Brcko District. The FBiH and RS have their own parallel judiciaries, governments and parliaments, and Brcko District also has its own justice system. Though the state government passes legislation and allocates funding, how laws are implemented is left to the individual entities, cantons and districts according to budget. There are big differences in the level of support victims get depending on where they live.
A second betrayal
Teufika Ibrahimefendic has been a leading psychotherapist for victims since 1994, giving individual and group therapy to hundreds at Vive Zene Tuzla, the largest NGO in this field in Bosnia. The services it provides are vital to help survivors with post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, insomnia, depression and aggression. She says rape destroys the foundations of individual, familial and societal relationships. And some of the rape victims say that the government’s inability to provide adequate psychological support and financial compensation amounts to a second betrayal.
Officials at the FBiH ministry of labour and social affairs recognise this. According to ministry figures, only 612 victims received monthly compensation of $350 each in FBiH last year; they have to supply a certificate from an accredited NGO or documentation from a government agency or hospital to prove they were raped. Esma Palic, an adviser in the ministry’s department for the protection for the disabled, is responsible for overseeing support, but says the complicated administrative system and a lack of money hinder help. In 2009 the Bosnian government gave the FBiH labour ministry a budget of more than $500m, of which $28m was compensation for around 12,000 civilian victims of war. The RS ministry of labour spokesman, Slavko Peric, said his ministry was pleased with the amount of compensation victims are given, assessed individually; the republic also provides extra compensation if survivors are unable to work or are single parents.
Saliha Duderija, Bosnia’s assistant minister for human rights, heads the state department responsible for drafting related national laws. There is no national strategy to outline exactly what help victims are entitled to. The department is drafting new legislation that would stipulate equal rights for victims but the proposals are being blocked by political agendas. “The approach the government agencies take towards the victims depends on the political party currently in charge,” said Duderija. “The situation only gets worse when the election period comes as there’s more room for political manipulation... Political support is the key. Even though the war has stopped, it’s still going in people’s heads and in their words. Politicians use the issue at election time to get votes, regardless of ethnic group.” The situation, she added, does not look likely to improve as Bosnia prepares for parliamentary and presidential elections this October.
Some prominent Serb politicians, including the RS prime minister, Milorad Dodik, have claimed that war crimes committed against Serbs are not prosecuted, while denying that other war crimes happened. Bosnian Muslim politicians have also accused RS of not prosecuting war crimes. Semka Agic, 55, is bearing the brunt of this lack of political consensus. She lives in the small town of Zivinice in northeastern Bosnia. She said: “I had to take a pill to calm down before you came. I have these fits and sweating when I have to talk about these things.” Serb paramilitaries forced her to move from Samac, in northern Bosnia, to Zasavica in the early days of the war in July 1992. Days earlier her 19-year-old son Dzevad, a civilian, had been killed by gunfire between Croat, Muslim and Serb forces. She was bundled on to a bus to Zasavica with three other women. “I was still shocked about my son’s death. I wasn’t really thinking about what might happen... I didn’t imagine that there were worse things than being killed.”
‘I just want justice’
The women were taken to an empty house to stay. One day, as she was walking to the house, Agic was stopped by a Serb paramilitary. “The main thing that I remember is that it was very hot. I couldn’t stand the heat. In the middle of the street, there was a man in a uniform. He was drunk... He was a Serb. All my attention was focused on his eyes, because I saw he was very angry. I stood in front of him, looking straight into his eyes. He took me to a nearby house... took me into the bedroom and put his gun on the bed and asked me ‘Do I have to use the gun?’.” She was repeatedly raped until she was freed in a prisoner exchange in May 1993. She returned to Zivinice, the town of her birth, and tried to rebuild her life, helped by Vive Zene Tuzla, which has given her counselling for the last three years.
Investigators from Bosnia’s State Investigation and Protection Agency began gathering evidence three years ago to indict a man suspected of raping Agic. The case has yet to go to trial. “I just want justice,” said Agic. But her case is just one of dozens being investigated at the Special Department for War Crimes, part of BiH’s Chief Prosecutor’s Office (CPO) in the capital Sarajevo. The department has the authority to transfer cases to lower-level courts throughout Bosnia.
Vesna Budimir heads it, and is aware that the future for women like Agic depends on the work of herself and her 16 prosecutors. She believes it is not true that accusations that war crimes committed by Bosnian Muslims against non-Muslims do not lead to prosecution: “We do not prioritise one ethnic group over the others.” Research appears to support her claims. A Bosnian Muslim prison guard, Veiz Bjelic, was jailed for six years in 2008 after the state court convicted him of war crimes including repeatedly raping a Serb woman between 1992 and 1993. Since it was formed in March 2005, the CPO has issued 20 indictments for sexual war crimes. But according to AI, the state court has only delivered final verdicts in 12 indictments against 15 defendants; 12 of the men were convicted and three acquitted.
The taboo associated with rape makes it hard for many victims to come forward. Gathering reliable witness testimony and medical evidence 15 years after the end of the war, limited resources, and a lack of political will to support the state court and CPO, make prosecutions harder still. David Schwendiman, former head of the Special Department for War Crimes, believes the Bosnian government has failed to support the prosecutor’s office and state court. Lack of money has forced the department to focus its efforts primarily on mass murder cases.
Judges at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) at The Hague have presided over the first ever convictions for rape as a crime against humanity, setting a major legal precedent. But research by AI shows there have only been 18 trials that include charges of rape and/or sexual violence at the ICTY since it was created in 1993. A spokeswoman for the tribunal would not comment on the AI figure but said that 70 people had been indicted for war rape and/or sexual violence at the ICTY, and only three had been acquitted.
Pressure from outside
The international community could apply diplomatic pressure on Bosnia to improve its record on support services for victims and successful prosecutions. Bosnia wants EU membership, which means Brussels has leverage, while the US created the DPA and Bosnia’s Peace Implementation Council (the international body that implements the DPA) so Washington could also flex its diplomatic muscle.
Marko Prelec, Balkans project director at the International Crisis Group, said Bosnia’s government should not be allowed to squander the $60m the international community has so far donated to help establish the state court and state prosecutor’s office. “The international community should pressure Bosnia’s state government to fully staff and support its war crime office, which it has not done. A lot of international funds went into this. Bosnia must not be allowed to waste it through neglect of the institutions this international effort has built.”
The conflict has ended but Bosnia remains traumatised, struggling to deal with economic instability, including high unemployment, as well as its recent past. Victims and abusers continue to live side-by-side. Without justice and state support, the fault lines between ethnic groups may deepen as distrust and fear grow. Ethnic divisions in Bosnia seem to be widening. In many towns and cities, life is segregated; Serb families live in different areas to Bosnian Muslims and Croats. Many Serb children are taught a Serb curriculum and history, while Muslim children are taught a Bosnian Muslim version. Human rights groups stress that failing to provide redress to the victims of the last war may jeopardise Bosnia’s future stability.
Marek Marczyski, AI researcher for Bosnia, said: “Bosnia is very fragile. It’s the worst [now] since the end of the war.” He says that people in the former Yugoslavia were forced to deal with a history of ethnic conflict – including widespread atrocities committed in the 1940s by the Croat Ustase, Serb Chetniks and multi-ethnic Partisans, many of whom were never prosecuted. The crimes, particularly those of the Partisans, were not to be mentioned after the second world war. “You did not talk about the past. But people did talk about it, in their families, within their ethnic groups, yet there was no political mechanism by which these feelings could be expressed. The [last] war was a result of that: people wanted revenge. I don’t want to witness another revenge in 20 years’ time for what happened in the 1990s.”
Even if there is no further armed conflict, war crimes must be prosecuted if the trust between ethnic communities in Bosnia is to have any chance of being rebuilt. But for Emina Rahmanovic it is already too late. Her rapists took away her faith in humanity. “I became numb to the feeling of grief. When someone died, it was not a big deal anymore. Today, it is the same. When someone in my family dies, I cannot feel that sadness. It has never been the same afterwards. When someone needs help or needs something, I would gladly help them out, whatever they ask for. But when it comes to love, I can’t.”