Bosnian war rape victims suffer in silence, wait for justice

Reuters News

12/19/2012 8:55:36 AM - Reuters News

By Maja Zuvela

TUZLA, Bosnia (Reuters) - Fika was 15 years old, and her sister 17, when they were captured and repeatedly raped by Bosnian Serb soldiers who swept through eastern Bosnia early in the country's 1992-95 war.

"We were forced to watch each other being raped, and I still feel my pain and the pain of my sister," she said. "They wanted us to admit we were spies, so they beat us till they knocked out our teeth."

Twenty years on, Fika is among thousands of Bosnian Muslim women whose search for recognition and support from the Bosnian state is being blocked by Bosnian Serb leaders who fear a wave of compensation claims. Her sister died at the hands of their torturers.

Rights groups are losing patience, warning that the psychological toll is only getting worse with time.

"The silence surrounding the wartime rape of women in the Serb Republic ... is deafening," Amnesty International wrote in October.

Fewer than 40 rape cases have been prosecuted in the 17 years since the war ended, and legislation at the state level to extend compensation and rehabilitation rights to rape victims of the war is gathering dust, hostage to ethnic politicking.

The lesson of Bosnia has spurred a push by Britain to raise awareness of sexual violence in war when it takes over the chairmanship of the G8 group of industrialized nations next year.

Under the Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative, the British government plans to send police officers, lawyers, psychologists and forensic experts to Bosnia and other conflict and post-conflict countries to work with local authorities on the issue.

"Bosnia and Herzegovina is seen as a priority country," Ann Hannah, a spokeswoman for the initiative, told Reuters. She said a team would arrive in Bosnia early in 2013.

"We have a very strong feeling there is a window of opportunity to make a significant breakthrough on this issue," Hannah said. "Without its resolution, any peace process is incomplete."

A delicate balance of Muslims, Serbs and Croats, Bosnia was torn apart as federal Yugoslavia dissolved. An estimated 100,000 people died, most of them Muslims. Some estimates put the number of women raped at up to 35,000, again the majority of them Muslims.

"MY HEART IS ROTTEN"

With peace, the country was split into two autonomous regions - the Serb Republic and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, home to mainly Muslims and Croats. The country is ruled by a system of ethnic quotas, with each region enjoying a high level of autonomy and the central state often left powerless to legislate over the entire territory.

The story of Fika, as she asked to be called, is indicative. She declined to give her real name, fearing the stigma attached to many wartime rape victims in Bosnia. Reuters reached her through a non-governmental organization that helps rape victims.

Caught up in a wave of ethnic cleansing of Muslims from eastern Bosnia, Fika was captured and held at a Serb-run detention camp in the town of Vlasenica. She says she lost count of how many times she was raped by her captors.

Finally released, Fika fled to the northern town of Tuzla, now part of the Federation, dropped out of school and struggled to support her mother, who was widowed during the war, and younger sister.

Now 34 and a mother, she has not told her three children what happened to her, nor will she return to her home in Vlasenica, which is now part of the Serb Republic and where she believes her rapists still live.

Three years ago, spurred by recurring nightmares, she raised the courage to report two of them, whom she recognized as locals of Vlasenica, to police in the region, but charges were never brought.

She has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and receives 250 euros ($330) per month from the Muslim-Croat Federation as compensation for her war trauma.

Those like her who live in the Serb Republic receive nothing, however, because the law there only recognizes those who can prove damage to at least 60 percent of their body as civilian victims of war, disregarding psychological trauma.

Fika told her husband what happened to her, but says she regrets doing so because of the toll it has taken on their marriage.

"I have no idea what keeps me going," Fika said. "My heart is rotten."

At least three separate bids have been made in recent years to enshrine the rights of wartime rape victims in state law, so far without success. Bosnian Muslims accuse the Serb Republic of blocking their efforts.

"We have created a nation-wide strategy designed to ensure reparation for the victims of wartime rape but from the very beginning we knew the government of the Serb Republic was hardly likely to accept it," said Saliha Djuderija, assistant minister for human rights and refugees in the Bosnian central government.

PERPETRATORS STILL FREE

Amnesty International said the Serb Republic "is still failing to acknowledge the needs of wartime rape survivors - indeed, the existence of a problem at all."

Authorities there, it said, "have never made a meaningful attempt to collect data on this population, to understand and quantify their problems or to develop policies that would address their specific needs."

Bosnian Serb War Invalids Minister Petar Djokic denied this, saying his government was exploring ways to resolve the issue while safeguarding against the possibility of false claims.

"We have already discussed this with some non-governmental organizations dealing with this problem to see how we can resolve this institutionally in the best way," Djokic told Reuters, "without creating another problem for ourselves through any attempted abuse of the social support system.

"We want to protect the victims of sexual violence in a just manner, but all such victims will have to prove exposure to sexual violence, though not necessarily medical confirmation of the level of bodily damage," Djokic said.

As time passes and victims are left to deal with their trauma alone, the psychological scars deepen, psychologists say, worsened often by the knowledge that the perpetrators are still walking among their victims.

"It only aggravates the condition and their experience of trauma reaches the level of psychological terror," said Teufika Ibrahimefendic, head of the ViveZene NGO and a psychologist who has worked with rape survivors for years.

"The community must recognize the rape as a war crime and each victim must be recognized."

Fika agreed: "For me, the war never ended. And it never will."

(Additional reporting by Gordana Katana in Banja Luka; Editing by Matt Robinson and Sonya Hepinstall)