War rape: letters from ex-Yugoslavia

Rape has always been a part of war - every war - but only during the past couple of months has rape been recognized as awar crieme being practiced on a massive scale in the former Yugoslavia. Now our mailbox is full of articles dealing with this topic. Here are portions of the letters and email we received in January

From Vreme, the leading opposition news magazine in Serbia, January 4:

Depending on the source, the number of Moslem women who have been raped varies from "several thousand" to 30,000 and 100,000. Data given by the West European and U.S. media come mostly from (official) Zagrev, and were sent there by the Bosnian government.

There are no independent sources of information. Members of peace organizations in Zabreb claim that their colleagues in Sarajevo have documents for 3,000 recorded cases of rape. All peace organizations claim that the number is probably several times higher. ...

Both sides grasped the propaganda value of women's suffering when it became necessary to use all means in forcing a military intervention, or rather, in proving one's "innocence" and in "justifying the struggle for freedom." Director of the Islamic humanitarian organization Merhamet in Zagreb, Faruk Redzepagic, told the German magazine Der Spiegel: "If Europe wishes to help women in Bosnia, then it must send arms to their men." ...

In spite of the unreliability of various sources, two things need not be doubted: rape is a mass occurrence in Bosnia-Herzogovina and it is more frequently practiced by the Serbian side, which is militarily superior to the other two and also holds more territory. ... All are aware that rape is an "ideal" method of ethnic cleansing. A (patriarchal) family might return one day even though its house has been burned down, but not to a village where its women have been dishonored.

From Vesna Bozic, of Insight Features: "The 'Post TV News' Syndrome"

Something like this scene is a normal one for many families here:

It's half past eight in the evening. Dinner is on the table. The children are snickering and picking at their food. The evening TV news brings the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina into their homes. Dead, mutilated bodies fill the screen, while the reporter explains how "Utase," Croatian, or "Muhajadin-Islamic fanatics" want to kill the Serbian people. In some homes women are lucky if they get through the news unharmed. Those who aren't so lucky have become victims of what is now being called "Post TV Syndrome." To put it bluntly, Serbian women are being verbally abused, beaten, or even raped by the men in their homes after the evening news.

The syndrome has been identified by women volunteers at the local SOS Hotline here in Belgrade, which was organized to help abused women even before the war in Bosnia. The number of calls SOS receives has tripled in the last year, SOS volunteers say. Before, they would get three to four calls a day. Now it's up to 12 a day. In most cases, the woman says she was never abused before, and adds that her partner became violent after watching the evening news.

The problem is not different nationalities between husband and wife. "The family doesn't have to be mixed ethnically," says Lepa Mladinovic, a hotline volunteer. "It's simply the propaganda on the news makes the husband want to hurt someone. That someone is usually the first less powerful person around, his wife." Verbal death threats to wives and children have also increased a hundred percent, according to Hotline figures.

The 'Post-TV syndrome' is a new kind of violence for us," said Gordana Sevo, a social worker and Hotline volunteer. "The men coming back from the war are violent, and those who watch the war on the evening news are often just as violent."

Before the war in Bosnia broke out, the local police in Belgrade were eager to respond to calls forwarded to them by the Hotline. But today, the ... local sergeants aren't as interested. "When you see how our soldiers have been tortured in the war, it is difficult to get excited about domestic violence," said Sergeant Sinisa Rankovic. "There is nothing we can do for them in their homes."

From Lepa Mladjenovic and Vera Litricin, Belgrade:

Some women feel guilt for what the government has done in their names. Others feel guilt for the fact that innocent women die and are being raped, and they can do little or nothing about it. We came to the conclusion that some of this guilt can be stimulating but too much of it can overwhelm you and make you feel helpless. Moreover, the absence of guilt does not mean the absence of responsibility. ...

Many women in Belgrade have no ethnic identity problems. They always felt Serb. Others are able to feel "positively Serb" as pacifists and feminists. Some of us, though a small group, cannot identify with the "Serbian nation." Before, we were "Yugoslavs" and therefore never really identified with Serbs at all. At this point when we are forced to take a Serbian nationality as our own, we see that there is nothing, but nothing at all, that can attract feminists to accept it as their own national identity. The "Serbian Nation," as the present government creates it, certainly has nothing in common with "Women's Nation."

In addition, some of us believed in some of the socialist ideas that were legitimated by former Communist governments: relative social equality, free education, free health care and access to abortion, inexpensive housing and cultural events. However, we are facing the fact that the realization of our beliefs has come to an end. So for those of us who are not Serbians yet, who are not Yugoslavs anymore, and feel the loss of women's rights with the fall of Communism, there is a lot of identity work to be done. ...

We know that to overthrow the present government we have to vote for another one that will be against us, and we must take that responsibility. We know that if we are to manifest our disobedience towards the war and be noticed, we have to stand in the opposition's street crowds and feel awful among sexist, royalist speeches and songs. ... If we are to deny the concept of national identity there is nothing else they'll allow us to stand for in exchange. While men are urged to die courageously for their nation, raped murdered women will never be considered brave, except by us.

Since October, 1991, "Women in Black Against War" have stood in the streets of Belgrade every Wednesday during the rush hour, where they often are verbally abused by nationalistic men. The rise of nationalism has introduced new population policy; Croatia has already restricted abortion and Serbia will soon do so. Women in Black from Venice, Verona, Bologna, and other Italian groups have been actively working with the Belgrade group. The following is excerpted from their joint statement with the SOS Hotline and other Belgrade pacifists:

Rape is a military tactic used by all armies against women of the enemy side or, if they are not available, against women of the soldiers' own side as well, both on the battlefield and at home. Because of this, we demand:

  1. That the women raped in war in Bosnia should not be divided nor valued differently on the basis of their nationality. The suffering of Bosnian, Croatian, Serbian, and women of any other nationality has the same value for us.
  2. That rape in war be established as a war crime, and that all soldiers/rapists in all armies in the world be brought to trial for committing this crime.
  3. That an international court be established immediately to prosecute perpetrators of rape in war, and that this court be staffed only by women.
  4. That women who are pregnant as a consequence of war rape be given the right to choose whether to carry the pregnancy to term or to abort it. The right to make this choice is the right of the individual woman, not that of her nation, political party, government, or church.
  5. That the governments of the international community provide political asylum to women raped in war.
  6. That the international community pressure the governments to release women from all concentration camps, private prisons, military whore houses, and other institutions in which female sexual slavery is perpetrated.

We wish to turn the international public campaign about women raped in war in Bosnia from an argument for aggression to an argument for the protection of women's rights. At the same time, we want to join the network of women's groups that share our political views so that international women's solidarity will replace the patriarchal voice of public opinion with the voice of women.

Peace Magazine Mar-Apr 1993

Peace Magazine Mar-Apr 1993, page 24. Some rights reserved.

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