A pattern of crime: Serbian soldiers repeatedly raped Bosniak women and girls as young as 6 and 7.
January 04, 1993.
About all she has left is her name, which she prefers to keep to herself, and the shocking memories of last July. That’s when Serbian troops stormed the northwest Bosnian village of Rizvanovici, and S., a 20-year-old Bosniak [Bosnian Muslim] woman with a ponytail, was rounded up with 400 other women in the yard of a neighbor’s house. Two soldiers, wearing camouflage uniforms and Serbian crosses around their necks, picked S. and her friend I. out of the crowd.
“They brought us to an empty house and there they did what they wanted to do,” says S. dully. “First we had to excite them and then we had to satisfy them.” Afterward the Serbs traded partners. The girls had been virgins. “They were laughing at us,” S. recalls. “They said we were pretty girls and [that] we saved ourselves for them.”
Her ordeal didn’t end there. After being raped and dumped at the yard, one of the soldiers came back to bring S. to his commander. “He told me to take off my clothes and to lie down on the bed,” she says. “Then he did the same thing. He started to kiss and to caress me. He saw that I didn’t feel anything. I looked into his eyes and asked him if he had a wife. He said no. I asked him if he had a sister. He said he had one. Then I said, ‘How would your sister feel if somebody did the same thing to her that you are doing to me?’ Then he jumped up and told me to get dressed and leave.”
S., who now lives in a refugee center in northern Croatia, is a survivor of what may be the most sadistic violence to haunt Europe since the Nazi campaigns: “ethnic cleansing.” Now, on top of documented cases of systematic torture and murder in Bosnia, come charges of a new Serb atrocity-mass rape. No one knows how many victims there are, though estimates range from 30,000 to 50,000 women, most of them Muslim.
In the last few months, a torrent of wrenching first-person testimonies from refugees has emerged, suggesting widespread sexual abuse by Serb forces. They tell of repeated rapes of girls as young as 6 and 7; violations by neighbors and strangers alike; gang rapes so brutal their victims die; rape camps where Serbs routinely abused and murdered Bosniak and Croat women; rapes of young girls performed in front of fathers, mothers, siblings and children; rapes committed explicitly to impregnate Muslim women and hold them captive until they give birth to wanted Serbian babies.
Many reports are unconfirmed, and some may never be independently corroborated. But as anecdotal evidence piles up, Western media and women’s groups are pressuring their governments to take some kind of action. So far it has resulted in little more than intelligence gathering by the United States and the European Community. The U.N. Security Council, citing “massive, organized and systematic detention and rape,” voted unanimously on Dec. 18 to condemn “atrocities committed against women, particularly Muslim women, in Bosnia and Herzegovina.” In blithe defiance of international outrage, the Serbs continue to attack Bosnian towns.
Do the Serbs have a deliberate policy of’ rape? Have they, as Bosnian Foreign Minister Haris Silajdzic alleges to NEWSWEEK, used rape in the “systematic humiliation and genocide of the Bosnian people”? U.S. government analysts haven’t yet uncovered anything as obvious as a speech or direct order by a Serbian leader calling on troops to violate Bosniak women. But there does seem to be a widespread pattern of on-the-ground commanders encouraging-or even ordering-their men to rape. The testimonies of so many victims and witnesses, and of some captured Serb perpetrators, have a consistency that cannot be accidental. “It’s hard to believe that all these Serbian men, no matter how animalistic you think human nature is, would suddenly get it in their heads to find a 7-year-old girl and rape her,” says the lead State Department researcher. Rape is an integral part of ethnic cleansing, of eradicating entire areas of their historic Muslim populations through brutal intimidation, expulsion and outright murder. In such Bosnian towns as Brcko, Bjeljina, Kljuc, Sanski Most, Prijedor, Kotor Varos, Zvornik, leading citizens-anyone who owned a business, participated in the Party of Democratic Action, held a university degree-were hunted down and liquidated. The rest of the male population was packed off to prison camps. Rape clearly was the coup de grace delivered to tens of mortally wounded towns, a way of ensuring that women would never want to return to their homes.
For 12-year-old Vasvija [Bosnian Muslim girl], the terror began after she was evicted from her village of Jelec in August. During her first night in Partizan Hall, a Serb-run detention camp in the nearby eastern Bosnian town of Foca, two soldiers picked her from among the 70 detainees, all women, children and elderly civilians. “They brought me to a flat, an empty flat,” she says, a single tear running down an otherwise passive face. “They raped me.” Both soldiers? “Both.” Over nine consecutive nights, Vasvija endured the same hideous treatment at the hands of different men. Once she was taken out with her mother and another inmate. They were all raped by the same Serbian soldier. Exchanged on Sept. 17 for Serb prisoners, Vasvija, her siblings and her mother now live in a refugee center near Sarajevo. No one has heard from her father, who was beaten and dragged off to a different prison camp when the Serbs overran Jelec.
How many women are victims of rape? The Bosnian government commission on war crimes in Sarajevo claims that there are 30,000; the Ministry for Interior Affairs goes as high as 50,000 women. When pressed, Bosnian officials concede that their estimates are extrapolations based on a relatively small number of testimonies. There’s no procedure for reporting such crimes and little willingness by victims to come forward. Battered by fear and shame, most survivors keep their stories to themselves. “They have been brought up in the Islamic spirit,” explains Dr. Muhamed Sestic, chief of the neuropsychiatric department at the hospital in Zenica, in central Bosnia. “Sexual intercourse is a very serious act, no matter if it’s done with or against the will of the woman.” Families, he says, often conceal rape to spare a woman from marrying beneath her station-or to keep the knowledge from her husband. Muhamed Sacirbey, leader of the Bosnian Mission to the United Nations, has a grimmer explanation for the relative paucity of confirmed reports: “We believe many of the women who’ve been raped have been murdered. But a thorough search can’t yet be conducted of the victims’ whereabouts.” The Serbian forces, after all, still occupy 70 percent of Bosnia.
Proving mass rape is difficult. No allegation is so emotionally charged-or so susceptible to exaggeration and propaganda. “It will be years before the full picture of what has transpired emerges,” reports a U.S. government specialist. “When we finally can survey the interior of Bosnia, I think we’ll find a mass grave associated with each and every camp and village that was ethnically cleansed. And in every one of them will be women who were raped.”
The attempt to pin down numbers enrages some advocacy groups. “What happens to men is called politics, what happens to women is called culture,” says Gloria Steinem. She has a point: rape has historically been treated as an incidental atrocity of war. Along with groups like the International League for Human Rights and the Center for Reproductive Law & Policy, the Ms. Foundation has labored to place rape in Bosnia at the center of international attention. Many organizations hope to provide psychological support to rape survivors. But a chief aim is to prosecute war criminals. Says Steinem: “These people must be held responsible.”
But sorting out “these people” won’t be easy. In his call for a war-crimes trial, Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger lumped together the chief architects of a Greater Serbia-including Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic and Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, the political and military leaders of the Bosnian Serbs-with low ranking henchmen like Borislav Herak. A 21-year-old Serb laborer from Sarajevo, Herak admits to raping seven Bosniak women and to killing two of his victims in addition to the 18 murders to which he has already confessed. “We were ordered to rape so that our morale would be higher,” he says from a military prison in the Bosnian capital. “We were told we would fight better if we raped the women.” He claims that he and fellow soldiers frequented the Sonja Cafe-one of several alleged “rape camps” outside Sarajevo-which maintained a population of 70 Muslim women and girls; those who were killed were quickly replaced.
Entire villages, such as Miljevina in eastern Bosnia, may have been converted to rape camps. About 100 people, “all young Muslim women and girls, were raped,” says a 20-year-old named Aida. Her attacker was Dragan J., a Serb policeman and neighbor, who excused his behavior, she says, on the ground that “‘It is war, you can’t resist, there is no law and order’.” Rasema, a 33-year-old mother, offers a similar account. She claims that her assailants raped her in front of her two girls. When she resisted, they threatened, “We will cut out your teeth! Do you want us to slaughter your children, to watch us cutting them into pieces, piece after piece?” In his own defense, one attacker told Rasema, “I have to do it, otherwise they will kill me.”
He may have been telling the truth. Two young Serb deserters, Slobodan Panic and Cvijetin Maksimovic, now being held in a prison in Orasje, Bosnia, told NEWSWEEK they were ordered to rape and murder for the amusement of their commander in Brcko, in northeastern Bosnia, last May. Panic says he balked when two battered women, each about 18, were brought to him in a room in a warehouse where 500 to 600 civilians were imprisoned. Serb soldiers “Said they’d kill me if I didn’t” rape them, he recalls, insisting that he “only did a little” to his screaming victims, not consummating the act. Three other women were dragged out for the same humiliating display. During these episodes, Panic says, soldiers stood around in a circle and laughed. Then they hauled two badly beaten Bosniak prisoners before Panic and handed him a gun. “I said, ‘I can’t, they’ve never done anything to me’,” he remembers. “‘You have to or else we’ll kill you’,” Panic says he was told. He shot each man in the chest. Two more male prisoners appeared. A soldier handed Panic a knife. “Butcher them,” he commanded. When Panic protested, the soldier replied, “I’ll show you how it’s done.” Then, holding Panic’s hand around the knife handle, he seized the man by the hair, jerked back his head and cut his throat.
Death, at least, brings an end to suffering. Rape victims who became pregnant relive their horror every day. Sofija, a 30-year-old Muslim, was released from a school turned prison camp in the village of Parzevic in mid-September, after being raped every night for six months by five or six different Serb soldiers. Now she is hiding from her family in a cold Sarajevan hospital, tormented by the thought of the unwanted child growing inside her. “I do not want to see the baby,” the mother of two says without emotion. “I will not feed it. I do not want anything to do with it.” Her roommate says that Sofija talks in her sleep every night, debating whether to kill the baby when it arrives in mid-January. Somewhere in Sarajevo are 12 other pregnant women and girls from the same village as Sofija who were similarly raped and held until long past the time for a safe abortion. Earlier release doesn’t guarantee relief: a 1978 Yugoslav law allows gynecologists to perform abortions only up to the 10th week of pregnancy; thereafter, cases are referred to a hospital ethics commission which, in Roman Catholic Croatia, home to 400,000 Bosnian refugees, may be more inclined to put the babies up for adoption.
Rape is the ultimate act in the Serbs’ program of annihilation. They have robbed countless civilians of their possessions, their land, their lives and their dignity. Bosnia will be haunted by hundreds, if not thousands, of Serbian children forced on unwilling Muslim mothers. The Serbs do seem to be winning their ugly war. But their crimes have guaranteed that Greater Serbia will be an international pariah for years to come.