issue 244 - June 1993
Rape: weapon of war
The traditional human-rights image is of a male prisoner of conscience.
Yet the Serbian rape camps in Bosnia show that it’s often women
who suffer most.Angela Robson reports.
The black-and-white poster near the Sarajevo courtroom said it all: ‘Borislav Herak – War Criminal’. Inside, the 22-year-old former textile worker stood charged with 32 murders and 16 rapes, including the murder of 12 of his 16 rape victims. The date was Friday, 12 March 1993 and Herak was the first Serb to be put on trial for war crimes in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
No-one will ever know the exact number of women and girls raped during the conflict in former Yugoslavia. But Herak’s accounts of his forced participation in rapes of Bosnian Muslim women – his commander had told him it was ‘good for morale’ – accord with evidence recounted to human-rights observers and journalists throughout the region. Though all figures must be treated with caution in a war so plagued by propaganda, these witnesses tell of the organized and systematic rape of at least 20,000 women and girls by the Serbian military and the murder of many of the victims. Muslim and Croatian – as well as some Serbian – women are being raped in their homes, in schools, police stations and camps all over the country.
The sexual abuse of women in war is nothing new. Rape has long been tolerated as one of the spoils of war, an inevitable feature of military conflict like pillage and looting. What is new about the situation in Bosnia is the attention it is receiving – and the recognition that it is being used as a deliberate military tactic to speed up the process of ‘ethnic cleansing’. According to a recent report by European Community investigators, rapes are being committed in ‘particularly sadistic ways to inflict maximum humiliation on victims, their families, and on the whole community’.1 In many cases the intention is ‘deliberately to make women pregnant and to detain them until pregnancy is far enough advanced to make termination impossible’. Women and girls aged anything between 6 and 70 are being held in camps throughout the country and raped repeatedly by gangs of soldiers. Often brothers or fathers of these women are forced to rape them as well. If they refuse, they are killed.
For 28-year-old Senka, the horror began late one night in April 1992 when 10 Chetniks (Serbs) barged into her apartment in Gorazde as she was sitting talking to some friends. ‘At the moment they entered,’ she recounts, ‘they began to curse our “Muslim mothers”, saying “You sent your husbands to fight but you will see, we will do to you everything we know and we will take you to concentration camps after that”.’
She and another young woman were dragged to a bedroom and repeatedly raped: ‘They ripped off all my clothes till I was naked. Two of the Chetniks held me and two of them had intercourse with me. After those two had raped me, the others did the same. My friend was raped in the same room by the same soldiers. I recognized two of the Chetniks as my former neighbours from Gorazde.’
In the morning at about three o’clock, Senka came to her senses. She heard noises from the sitting room and realized that the soldiers were raping her other friends. She ran into the bathroom and managed to escape through the window. Shortly after the rape she realized she was pregnant and had to go to Sarajevo for an abortion. She is now living in a hostel for refugees there.
‘Any rape is monstrously unacceptable,’says Semra Turkovic, who works with survivors of rape in Zagreb. ‘But what is happening at this very moment in these rape/death camps is even more horrific. This can only be considered as genocide.’ She believes that the number of women raped in Bosnia exceeds even the highest estimates recorded by human-rights investigators. ‘Sometimes women can never bring themselves to admit what has happened and so the crime is never reported. They feel humiliated and defiled. Their lives have been completely shattered.’
To Mubera Zdralovic, who is developing a programme of assistance in Zagreb for women left pregnant by rape, the torment endured by the thought of giving birth to a child of mass rape is often too much to bear. ‘The foetus growing inside the woman is a living reminder of the horror she has suffered, like a wound that keeps on growing.’ Speaking of the Pope’s recent warning to these women that they must not seek abortions, but learn to ‘accept the enemy into them’, she has only quiet disbelief. ‘These children have been conceived out of revenge, not love,’ she asserts. ‘How can any woman or girl forgive a rapist that?’
Amnesty International has no firm evidence on whether rape is being used as a strategic weapon but is clear that local leaders must have condoned it.2 Catherine MacKinnon, Professor of Law at the University of Michigan, claims that rape is being used to help make Bosnia a Serbian state by implanting Serb babies in Muslim mothers. The international community, she says, is refusing to face up to the true nature of the conflict there – that this is not just a campaign of Serbia against non-Serbia but is a form of genocide directed specifically against women. ‘The fact that these rapes are part of an ethnic war of aggression being represented as a civil war means that Muslim and Croatian woman are facing twice as many rapists with twice as many excuses and two layers of impunity serving to justify the rapes. This is ethnic rape by official policy of war – rape as ethnic liquidation.’ 3
Yet these violations are not unique to Bosnia. In March this year Nobel Peace Prize winners Mairead Maguire and Betty Williams testified to the UN Human Rights Commission about the repeated rape of Karen women by government soldiers in Burma. One young Karen writes of the women she represents, who have been forced to act as slaves to government troops, carrying heavy materials on daytime marches. And during the night: ‘every woman must confront the same problem. My ladies have been raped brutally by at least eight soldiers of the SLORC (the ruling junta) every night. Some women couldn’t continue to walk because of the hurtful raping and torture so they were shot and died. Those who were able to walk have to face the same thing every day and night until they’ve been raped to death.’ She adds with poignant understatement: ‘These are abuses of their human rights.4
To Zainab Jama, the Somali writer and former BBC broadcaster, the silence surrounding such violence is a measure of its effectiveness. Her research on her own country indicates that acts of unspeakable brutality are being carried out against women in the civil war raging there. ‘Who knows how many victims of rape there are in Somalia? No-one can estimate the number though one can speak in terms of many thousands. All we do know is that the victims of war rape are being ignored in Somalia. The West simply does not wish to know what is happening there.’
Rape is unlawful in both international conflicts and civil war. But, according to Amnesty International, many governments do not uphold these norms and are often complacent in the face of such abuses. On a visit to Peru’s Ayacucho department in 1986, for example, Amnesty was told by legal officers that rape by government troops conducting counter-insurgency operations ‘was to be expected’ and that prosecutions for such assaults were unlikely to happen. Women raped by soldiers in emergency zones were warned not to report it lest they suffer reprisals.
What can be done to protect women from such violations? According to Françoise Hampson, lecturer in international law at the UK’s Essex University, what is lacking is the will to prosecute. ‘The act, rape, must be punished. Nothing should be allowed to jeopardize the prosecution of those alleged to have committed rape.’
To Catherine MacKinnon the issue goes even deeper than this. ‘Human-rights principles are based on experience, but the experiences have not been those of women,’ she says. ‘What most often happens to women escapes the human-rights net. Whether in war or in peacetime, at home or abroad, in private or in public, by our side or by the other side, man’s inhumanity to woman is ignored.’
Governments must face up to the fact that rape in war can no longer be tolerated. Women’s groups from all over the world are campaigning vigorously for the prosecution of rape as a war crime and, as the World Conference approaches, petitioning the UN to recognize women’s rights as human rights. If human rights are to be universally respected and protected, they say, then they must apply to the lives of over half the human race – women.
Angela Robson is a London-based freelance journalist specializing in human-rights issues.
1 The Warburton Report, European Community 1993.
2 Bosnia Herzegovina, Rape & Sexual Abuse by Armed Forces, Amnesty International Jan 1993.
3 Catherine MacKinnon, `Crimes of War, Crimes of Peace`, to appear in Of Human Rights (Basic Books 1993).
4 Account supplied by Women’s Education for Advancement and Empowerment, PO Box 58, Chiang Mai, Thailand.