BRUSSELS, Belgium — For some victims of the Bosnian War, seeing former Bosnian Serb commander Radovan Karadzic finally on trial on Monday — should he show up this time — may bring some closure.
Justice will at last catch up with a high-ranking perpetrator of unfathomable Balkans brutality in the early 1990s. But for many Bosnian women, the watershed event at the International Criminal Tribunal on the former Yugoslavia may barely register, much less offer relief.
For while Karadzic is charged with masterminding their torture, it’s not his face these women see in the nightmares that continue to torment them 15 years after the end of the war. They are haunted by the faces of their rapists — often neighbors or others known to them, along with complete strangers. And all too often, they see these men in real life, blithely going about their business, seemingly unscathed.
On top of everything, many of these women feel that their own government is continuing the abuse by ignoring their plight. Now, a group that includes a rape victim, a psychotherapist and an NGO director have decided to take their complaints to Brussels. Bosnia wants to become a candidate country for the European Union and these activists believe that EU officials therefore have leverage to put more pressure on the Bosnian government to address what they consider to have been violations of human rights.
Semka Agic was raped by a man she heard called “the Montenegrin” while being detained in a work camp during the war. Pursuing her case, Agic has been told by the female prosecutor that she’s “too busy with mass crimes” to concentrate on the rape of one woman.
|Bosnian rape survivor Semka Agic.
Indeed, the backlog of war-crimes prosecutions in Bosnia is said to number in the tens of thousands. “I’m so angry, but I’m not giving up,” Agic says, with a gleam of humor in her eye remarkable for what she’s been through — including the murder of her son. “I’ve promised myself to slap [the rapist] in the face. I want to make the court bring him there even if I have to drag him by his hair,” she said, gesturing to show how she’d haul in “the Montenegrin” if she knew where he was.
Agic says the support of family and therapy has made her strong enough to continue fighting, even though the system has so far failed her and countless others.
State authorities have done “very little” to help the victims, says Duska Andric-Ruzicic, the director of a women’s-rights NGO, Medica Zenica-Infoteka.
Amnesty International agrees.
Amnesty researchers spent most of 2009 documenting the situation faced by Bosnian victims of rape, whose numbers are thought to be somewhere between 20,000 and 50,000. The resulting report was damning of the Bosnian government.
“A continuing failure to comprehensively investigate and prosecute crimes of sexual violence before international and national courts means that those responsible still manage to evade justice and impunity prevails,” it said. “Without meaningful justice and full and effective reparation, victims continue to suffer the effects of these horrific crimes. Antiquated discriminatory laws and procedures result in survivors not being treated with dignity or given protection and support. In most cases they face stigmatization rather than the recognition and vital assistance they need to help them rebuild their lives ... Many survivors are unemployed and live in poverty and cannot afford even prescribed medicines.”
Andric-Ruzicic says this situation is simply unacceptable and that the EU, such a staunch defender of human rights, should also see it that way. She says that while the EU is giving Sarajevo lists of things that must be accomplished before consideration for accession status, caring for rape victims must not be “something that’s allowed to be neglected."
"OK border controls, OK biometric passports, OK ecological control of food, OK highways,” she said with mild exasperation, referring to standards Bosnia would have to meet to qualify for EU membership. “But this is a country where almost 60 percent of population is traumatized in one way or another and 40 percent has PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder]. So think what the real priority is!”
It should be hard to discount the impact of mass rape on the people of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Though sexual assault has been used as a weapon of war since throughout human history, it was the prevalent and premeditated use in Bosnia, not exclusively but primarily by Bosnian Serbs against Bosnian Muslims, that took the act to a new level of both atrocity and international awareness.
The Amnesty report also criticizes the International Criminal Tribunal on the former Yugoslavia for the relatively small number of rape cases it’s prosecuted — just 18 since 2003. But the tribunal has undoubtedly played a key role in pushing the evolution of international criminal law with respect to acts of sexual violence.
While technically on the books since 1949 in Article 27 of the Fourth Geneva Convention as an “outlawed” tactic of war, rape was not prosecuted with any great interest until the last 15 years. The United Nations’ war-crimes tribunal on Rwanda in 1998 became the first court to decide that rape could be considered genocide if the intent was to destroy the group the victim belonged to.
In 2001, several Bosnian Serb soldiers were convicted at the tribunal of crimes against humanity for using rape as “part of a systematic and widespread campaign,” proving that orders, participation or at least indifference went all the way up the military chain of command.
But whatever convictions are obtained for perpetrators, it is still the victims who suffer a life sentence. Despite the high percentage of the population violated by rape, it is still considered a stigma in Bosnian culture, which keeps women from reporting it, much less testifying against their abusers.
Meriijana Sadovic, head of the International Justice/International Criminal Tribunal on the former Yugoslavia project at the International Center for War and Peace Reporting, says despite the difficulties, women like Semka Agic must continue to demand the system give them justice. “It is their right,” she said. “They have to insist that as many people as possible suspected of wartime rape are put on trial.”
Just as important, she noted, is that the Bosnian state step up and provide the reparations that victims are due and the psychological and social support they need.
Andric-Ruzicic also has a personal reason for wanting these cases seen through to sentencing. As the mother of a young daughter, she said, “I don’t want that we only open this story after 50 years. I want that when my daughter is my age, she knows the truth ... and lives in a society where the truth is known.”
Back in The Hague, the dig for the truth will be getting underway. Karadzic, as Bosnian Serb commander, famously told BBC reporter David Lomax in 1993 that the stories of mass rape were “absolutely shameless” fabrications. “We can prove that it is all lies,” he insisted.
Now he has his chance.