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Women: Weapons of War - Systematic Rape of Bosnian Muslim Women during the Bosnian Genocide 1992-95

Institute for the Research of Genocide Canada
Published: December 17, 2010  

In Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serb leaders’ policy of “ethnic cleansing” has allowed - or commanded - Serb troops to terrorize, slaughter and rape. Rape required neither gasoline nor bullets and made a powerful weapon, according to local war-crimes investigators.

By George Rodrigue
Dallas Morning News
9 May 1993.

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina — First Serb prison guards branded Aziza Osmanovic with iron rods. Then they raped her, along with her 12-year-old daughter.

At one of the Bosnian war’s many peace conferences she finally met the guards’ leader, “Serbian Republic” President Radovan Karadzic.

She revealed the angry purple scars on her thighs, tokens of her torture at the Serbs’ Manjaca prison camp. She asked Karadzic, “Why?”

“This has happened on all sides, and your side started it,” he told her.

According to all available evidence, the Bosnian Serb leader was either deluding himself or lying.

Muslim [Bosniak] and Croatian men undoubtedly have attacked Serb women. During the brutal 14-month war, everyone has attacked everyone else. But reports from diplomats, journalists and human-rights workers indicate that only Karadzic’s Serb nationalists made rape a national policy. Since war swept Bosnia-Herzegovina the week of April 4, 1992, Serbs have used rape as a weapon in their drive to “cleanse” large regions of Bosnia of Muslims.

They raped as they invaded villages. And again as they pillaged and “ethnically cleansed” entire cities, attacking the women after killing or caging the men.

They raped in concentration camps built to warehouse and torture their former Muslim neighbors.

They raped in bordellos created for the convenience of their soldiers, police and local leaders. For troops too busy to patronize those rape centers, they dispatched busloads of teen-age Muslim girls to the front lines.

Serb soldiers say they raped for many of the same reasons armies do in all wars: They were strong and the women were weak. Rape was convenient. It was a sport.

But they were driven also by uniquely Balkan demons.

Televised propaganda deliberately played upon myths about Serbia’s suffering for centuries at the hands of the Ottoman Turks. A tidal wave of lies drove young men to despise their fellow Slavs as “Turks” or “Islamic fundamentalists.”

Cvijetan Maksimovic, a Serbian soldier captured last year by Croatians near Brcko, said his superiors ordered him to prove that he was a “real Serb” by killing more than 80 men and sexually assaulting 12 girls.

“We did it to scare people off… and make it clear there was no return for them,” he said at a Croatian prisoner of war camp.

In patriarchal Yugoslavia, perhaps the best way to show contempt for a man — or to cause him to flee his home without looking back — is to degrade his wife or daughter. Or better yet, to make her pregnant.

Sending a message

“These women served as a message from man to man. It represents the total degradation of women to merchandise,” said Nihada Kadic, a feminist and anti-war activist in Zagreb.

“Massive rapes” expressed “a systematic desire to humiliate a community and force it to leave,” said Anne-Marie Lizin, a member of a European Community team. “It was a political weapon, accepted and encouraged by military or paramilitary hierarchies.”

The European Community commission estimated this winter that Serb soldiers had raped 20,000 Muslim women. The Bosnian government estimates 50,000. Karadzic says 13. The true number remains unknowable.

Uncounted numbers of women simply disappeared. They were abducted by blood-stained paramilitary “Tigers,” or “White Eagles,” or by Serbian boys with thom they had gone to high school, who suddenly wore ski masks and carried assault rifles.

“They sit in the corner and cry quietly,” said Melisa Zerin, a nurse at a refugee center in Zenica. “And if you ask them whether they want to go back, they say: ‘Oh, no. Something terrible happened to me. But I cannot talk about it.’”

Cultural traditions contribute to the women’s silence, and to their misery.

“When a man knows that a woman has been raped, he treats her badly,” said Dr. Muhamed Sestic at Zenica’s main hospital. “People think she must have given the man occasion to rape her. Her life could be ruined by that.”

Even so, hundreds of women have talked. Their statements allowed Croatian and Bosnian investigators to name more than 36 camps or bordellos where Serbs allegedly raped Muslim and Croatian women. Some camps still function, investigators say.

The Dallas Morning News, in several months of travel and interviews, found multiple witnesses to systematic rapes in 11 villages or towns, plus 13 prison camps or bordellos.

Those victims told strikingly consistent tales. They recited the same dates, named the same names and drew the same pictures, even though they were interviewed in cities as far apart as Zagreb, Sarajevo, Zenica, Travnik and Tuzla.

Even so, Serb nationalists mock charges of widespread rape.

“If that were true, we would have to be sexual maniacs, with our names in the ‘Guinness Book of World Records,’” said Gen. RatkoMladic, commander of teh Bosnian Serb forces. Like Karadzic, General Mladic stands accused by the U.S. government of committing war crimes.

Violence on both sides

Without doubt, Serb women suffered at the hands of Muslim or Croatian paramilitary groups, too.

Western diplomats theorize that Muslims and Croatians have raped out of desire for revenge, and because the war has made brutality banal. In Capljina, a Croat prison camp warded offhandedly told a foreign journalist last year: “We have two Serb women prisoners. We rape them, of course.”

But both government and private human-rights investigators have concluded that the huge majority of victims were Muslims.

To the extent that attacks against Serb women did occur, the U.S. government concluded that they were opposed by the Muslim-led Bosnian government.

No outside agency gives such credit to Karadzic or his government.

Giving birth to Serbs

The patriarchal culture of Orthodox Christian Serbia gave the rapes an extra dimension, says Vera Folnegovic, a Zagreb psychiatrist.

“Serbs say that a child’s nationality comes from its father. Its mother does not matter at all,” she said. “So if they could make these women pregnant, the message would be: It does not matter who is giving birth. A Serb is being born.”

Without doubt, she said, the rapes served the Serbian goal of setting Muslims to flight. Knowing that their wives or daughters would be raped if they were captured, even a committed Muslim fighter might try to run.

The rapes began as soon as Serbs entered a village and disarmed or drove away its Muslim defenders. Entire towns became prison camps for women, children and the elderly. Serbs, from drunken Belgrade-based “volunteers” to the Muslims’ former neighbors, could take who and what they wanted.

Last May, that meant virtually every Muslim woman among the 400 villagers of Liplje, just outside Zvornik [very close to Srebrenica].

“Chetniks,” the Serbian radicals, some from Serbia and some from a nearby village, entered and drafted lists of Muslim residents. Going name by name, they interrogated the villages. They beat them and demanded their gold, jewelry and money. With pliers, they pulled the gold teeth from one elderly woman’s mouth.

They herded the village’s teen-age girls into an abandoned Muslim home. There, they raped the young women every night - sometimes in front of their parents.

Day and night, also, they raped the older women, in a room smeared with blood and littered with women’s underwear.

Muslim forces drove the Serbs away within a week, but not before the Serbs had attacked almost every woman in the village, according to gynecologists who later examined the women in Tuzla.

The Serbs raped according to a list kept by their commander, said one victim who was forced to make coffee at the Chetnik headquarters. “He would say: ‘Go get this one. Bring that one here.’”

Some of the men clearly acted under orders, but many raped with hatred — spawned largely by their leaders.

Concentration camps formed

The next stage of “ethnic cleansing” was to empty the villages and move their occupants to schools, auditoriums, mines or other impromptu concentration camps.

Beatings and executions were normal for the men at such camps. Castrations were not unheard of. For the women, rape became the norm.

Vasija Fisovic, 12, was raped nine of the 10 nights she was imprisoned.

“Sometimes one of them raped me, sometimes two,” she said.

Once, she and her mother said, Serbs raped the pair side by side. Several times they ran knives over the girl’s body, cutting her. She still bears a small scar on her neck.

Nationalists created the Trnopolje camp to house women and children they had “ethnically cleansed” from the Prijedor area. Former inmates said it became a magnet for rapists.

Two Muslim doctors who worked at the camp said that at least 50 women sought help after they had been raped. “But many of them were too ashamed (to speak about it), and many were taken away in the night and never returned,” said one of those physicians.

The rapes at Trnopolje began in earnest after one Serb soldier raped a young Muslim girl and local Serb authorities ignored a complaint filed by the Muslim doctors.

“From then on, it was open season,” one doctor said.

But he also blamed the attacks on a pattern of horrifying lies told by Serb-controlled Banja Luka television. Among other things, it claimed that local Muslims had drawn up lists of Serb children whose throats would be cut.

“What is goingn on? We thought these people were our neighbors and friends,” one Serb asked the Muslim doctor, just before the region exploded.

Some women never made it to camps like Trnopolje. By their accounts, they were singled out for special treatment at camps set aside specifically for rape. Doboj’s central high school was one of those places, according to three former inmates.

In late spring, Serbs occupied the nearby village of Grabska. They brought along buses to speed its “cleansing” and allegedly lined the women up for selection.

Some were packed off for immediate deportation. Others, such as Besima, a 40-year-old nurse, found their names on a special list. They were put on another bus.

Besima was married to the leader of the local SDA [Party for Democratic Action], a Muslim political party. She and her neighbors were driven to Doboj’s central high school and shoved into a darkened sports halls, among at least 1,000 other women.

They ate a few dry slices of bread every day or two. They drank from buckets and relieved themselves into other buckets. They waited for men with flashlights to come, day or night, and haul them to the filthy classrooms where they were raped.

Besima said she was raped every day, sometimes by former neighbors — including the local police chief — and sometimes by strangers in bloody uniforms.

“The camp was like a fruit stand for them. Or, better to say, a cattle market,” said another former inmate who was attacked every other night by groups of men. “Each could come and take what he wanted, do what he wanted. The Serbs had the power.”

Institute for the Research of Genocide Canada