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Institute for the Research of Genocide Canada

Suzana Vukic, columnist and writer - Sweet justice

Institute for the Research of Genocide Canada
Published: June 7, 2011  

Sweet justice

There are days in our lives that are filled with endless beauty and serenity, even if at times fraught with difficult and tearful moments. This is how I’d describe recent days when I had the tremendous joy of meeting Bakira Hasecic, president of the Sarajevo-based association Women Victims of War and a survivor of mass and systematic rape during the Bosnian war.

I’ve written about Bakira in the past, most recently in a book published in May, 2011 by The Learning Centre of Vanier College entitled In Her Name: Inspirational Women 2011, registered with Library and archives, Canada. This book is the result of a writing competition hosted in honour of International Women’s Day and includes 40 short entries on inspirational women.

In mid-May, I e-mailed Bakira to inform her of the book. To my surprise, Bakira replied that she’d be coming to Canada - to Montebello, Quebec, from May 23-25, for an international three-day conference hosted by the Nobel Women’s Initiative - “Women Forging a New Security: Ending Sexual Violence in Conflict.”

Destiny’s hand was at work. I was excited at the thought of finally meeting Bakira in person and possibly attending what promised to be an amazing conference.

I soon discovered the conference was already booked beyond capacity; attending would be impossible. Nevertheless, I decided to find a way to meet Bakira face-to-face.

A series of problems arose regarding Bakira’s trip and attendance at the conference, including a flight delay. Just two days before her arrival, I was contacted by Esad Krcic of New York’s Bosniak community, who asked me to assist with Bakira’s arrival in Canada and attendance at the conference.

In the end, I took time off work to help out. I picked up Bakira on Monday, May 23rd at Pierre Elliott Trudeau airport at Dorval (Montreal) and drove her to Montebello. I returned Wednesday afternoon to replace Bakira’s interpreter, Zeljko Milicevic, at the conference. The following morning, I accompanied Bakira to a breakfast meeting and panel discussion in Ottawa hosted by the Nobel Women’s Initiative, a wrap-up of the conference. Afterwards, Bakira and I returned to Montreal for a few hours of intense power-shopping before I took her back to the airport for her return flight to Sarajevo.

It’s impossible to meet this incredible woman for the first time and not shed a tear, knowing everything she’s been through and what she’s accomplished. But Bakira is a strong woman and makes it clear she doesn’t want anyone’s tears. What she wants is justice - for herself and other victims of wartime rape and aggression.

“My one reason for making the effort to go abroad and attend these events is to achieve justice for victims, and to do everything in my power to bring as many war criminals as possible to justice”, Bakira told me more than once in the course of those days.

The organization that delivered this extraordinary event, the Nobel Women’s Initiative, was spearheaded by six Nobel peace laureates in 2006. Their intention was to promote women’s groups and causes on a global scale, with the goal of working towards peace, justice, and equality. Three of these incredible women - Jody Williams, Mairead Corrigan Maguire, and Shirin Ebadi, were at the conference. The others - Betty Williams, Wangari Maathai, and Rigoberta Menchu, could not be present.

The purpose of this conference was to come up with solutions for putting an end to sexual violence in armed conflict - “the war that is being waged on women’s bodies”, as put by Nobel laureate and conference chairperson, Jody Williams. Over 120 women from thirty countries were present. Amongst them were survivors of the most brutal forms of wartime rape and sexual aggression. A few of them, like Bakira, shared their stories. Other guests included women from various government and non-governmental organizations, along with the media. Those present had an opportunity to offer their input and share ideas on strategies towards finding a solution to end this horror.

Through smaller group discussions and brainstorming sessions, participants had opportunities to discuss possible methods of combating this problem. One of the most important amongst these is finding a way to offer adequate support to survivors - and more specifically, creating a victim-centred approach. This is crucial considering that after a sexual aggression during warfare, victims are often shamed, isolated and marginalized. Very little is normally available to them in the way of resources or support.

It’s disturbing to learn that sexual violence is being used increasingly throughout the world as an effective war strategy. I once thought that the world learned absolutely nothing following the Bosnian and Rwandan genocides of the 1990’s. Now I realize this isn’t so; rather, the wrong people have learned the wrong lessons. Would-be dictators, demagogues and war lords the world over have learned that: a) rape is an extremely effective way of destroying an enemy tribe or ethnic group, and b) it’s possible to commit mass and systematic wartime rape, as well as other crimes against humanity, and get away with it.

We hear about rape taking place right now in the Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). But did you know that everyday an average of 1100 women are raped in the DRC? I was surprised to hear one guest speak of women in the North-East Indian province of Manipur (a region in conflict) being raped by government soldiers. Why don’t we ever hear about this in the news?

Justice was discussed . On May 25th, Bakira delivered a speech focused on Bosnian Serb war criminal, Ratko Mladic - one of the leaders of the Bosnian genocide who remained at large (at that point). She asked for everyone‘s help in getting him arrested.

At a group discussion on justice that we attended together, participants brought forth a number of ideas. Adequate and appropriate reparations to victims was a focal point. However, achieving this isn’t easy. For a victim who has been sexually violated, had her home destroyed, and saw members of her family killed, it may not be possible to provide her with reparations that can ever compensate for all of her loss and suffering.

So how do we achieve justice? How do we help the victims of wartime sexual violence? How can we remove the impunity that protects war criminals?

There were no easy answers. But it was recognized that governments, especially ones that fail to uphold human rights, need to be pressured to follow international human rights laws. They must be held accountable when human rights abuses take place within their borders. With the current status quo, it’s difficult to see how victims can expect to find justice. Today in Libya, for example, it would be absurd for a rape victim to look to Gaddafi’s government for justice and reparations considering that this is the regime responsible for her suffering. Likewise, as Bakira noted, in Republika Srpska (the Serb Republic entity of Bosnia-Herzegovina), the regime absolutely refuses to acknowledge war victims and their rights.

Justice is often elusive. Nevertheless, it can prevail. On Thursday, May 26, the morning after the conference ended, Bakira and I drove to Ottawa to attend a breakfast meeting and panel discussion that was set up to get the message of the conference out to journalists, parliamentarians and stakeholders. Just minutes away from our destination, I got a call from Esad Krcic informing me that Ratko Mladic had been arrested the previous evening.

It seemed surreal. I was in stunned disbelief as I told Bakira the news. Her very vocal joy helped me snap out of it as I passed the phone to her. It slowly dawned on me that I’d never expected to be in those circumstances and to have the honour of announcing to Bakira, of all people, the news of Mladic’s arrest.

Towards the end of the meeting, Bakira had the opportunity to announce the news of Mladic’s arrest to everyone present. I felt honoured to be by her side, interpreting for her. First, Bakira introduced herself and described some of the horrors that she and her family lived through during the war:

“My next door neighbour - a police officer at the time - Veljko Planincic, forced his way into our home, accompanied by about 20-30 individuals - members of the JNA (Yugoslav National Army)… of these men…raped my older daughter (18) in a bedroom in front of my husband, myself, and my younger daughter (15). After this, they busted her head with the butt of a rifle….”, recounted Bakira with great difficulty.
“…I was taken (and raped) from May 21st, 1992 onwards - the first time at the local police station, the second time at a local high school, and the third time at an institute for women and children with intellectual deficiencies. I survived Golgotha. I witnessed slaughter, killings. I was raped and sexually violated numerous times….”

Bakira’s courage in disclosing the horrors of her wartime rape had an enormous impact on everyone present. When Bakira announced Mladic’s arrest, the tremendous applause that came forth seemed heartfelt.

We hear about rapes in armed conflict but can’t grasp the full of horror of it . When you have a real live person standing in front of you bravely describing these monstrosities, you get a true sense of the injustice being committed on a global scale. Because of Bakira’s words and presence, every single person in that room understood why it’s important for vermin like Mladic to be hunted down and brought to justice.

It’s important to remember there are many more of them out there. Bakira ended by asking for everyone’s help in bringing Bosnian Serb war criminal Lazar Mutlak (residing in Canada) to justice. She also reminded everyone that retired Canadian general Lewis Mackenzie has been indicted by the Bosnian Court of Justice for war crimes (the rape of two women), which allegedly occurred during the time he led a peace-keeping mission in war-torn Bosnia. Mackenzie has never had to face these charges because of his diplomatic immunity.

Bakira was extremely grateful for the warm welcome she received while in Canada. I know that it made her uncomfortable to bring up this sordid detail regarding Mackenzie to a Canadian audience. But it was necessary. How can we judge other governments for their wrongdoing (for example, the actions of the Indian government in Manipur) if we Canadians can’t keep our own house in order?

Justice is often elusive. There’s already tons of speculation as to why Serbia finally “discovered” the whereabouts of Ratko Mladic at this late date. But for a brief moment, justice felt real and palpable, and it was sweet. I’m hoping we’ll all get to experience more of these sweet moments in the future.

Suzana Vukic, columnist and writer

Written for the IRGC

June 7, 2021

Institute for the Research of Genocide Canada