Los Angeles Times
19 January 1993.
The 9-month-old attempt to force “ethnic cleansing” on the population of Bosnia-Herzegovina has produced waves of shocking images. First, the photographs of skeletal Bosniak men behind barbed wire in Serbian-held camps and the ruined, besieged city of Sarajevo, where the onset of winter has made the battle even more deadly. And then reports on the fate of women and children, who compose three-quarters of the estimated 2.5 million people who have been forced from their homes in the conflict. From refugee camps in Croatia, women’s groups and human rights workers have gathered stories of the systematic beatings and rapes of young Bosniak girls and women, who tell of being separated from families and then enduring numbing levels of violence. Though rapes by Bosniak and Croatian soldiers have also been described, the Serbs’ use of rape as a weapon of war, say relief workers, is of a different order of magnitude: An estimated 16 Serbian “rape camps” are reportedly scattered through former Yugoslavia, and a report issued early this month by European Community investigators put the number of rape victims at 20,000.
The three interviews that follow are blunt, uncensored accounts, which came to us through United Nations human-rights workers. They were conducted by a Croatian women’s group called Tresnjevka and also appear, in part, in the current issue of Ms. magazine.
AZRA [Bosniak girl], AGE 15
July 23, 1992
The sirens went off. We all took cover in our basements and bomb shelters. The shelters were packed with women and children. There was nothing we could do, in the enclosed space, to alleviate the children’s fear and crying. We were trapped for two days. On Sunday, they started shelling Kozarac — first the adjacent villages and then the town itself. The shelling lasted 48 hours. The evacuation of the town started on Monday morning. Riding in cars and trucks, we started heading toward the forest. We reached Debeli Brijeg near Brdjani as shells fell around us. We went deeper and deeper into the forest. We spent the night in Vidovici, a Serbian village. The villagers received us kindly, providing food and lodging. They said, “We are all in this together.”
The Chetniks (Serbian paramilitary troops), bearded and wearing their typical White Eagle insignia, arrived in the morning. They ordered us to surrender, threatening us with death if we continued our march into the forest. The villagers were silent. They went on with their daily chores, as if nothing had happened.
We started retreating toward Kozarac. At Brdjani, near the mosque, they ordered us to surrender our weapons. They fired shots over our heads, threatened to slaughter us. A detachment of the Yugo Army, accompanied by some Chetniks, led us through the marketplace. They pulled several well-respected people out of the columns. I haven’t seen them since.
Kozarac was destroyed. The Chetniks were plundering the homes, firing shots over our heads. One of them, a young man, warned the others: “You are not allowed to fire while these people are being led.”
There were signs on the wall–”Free the Autonomous Region of Krajina,” “This is Serbia,” the four S’s (an acronym of a saying that glorifies Serbian cooperation), and so on. They led us to Zika’s Inn in Suici; there were corpses on the road. There were corpses, covered with swarms of flies, in ditches near the houses. The odor of death, horror and hopelessness.
The tanks that passed us were transporting the property plundered from our homes. It seemed as if they were taking our whole lives away. They jeered, “Eat shit, Turks. Some Turkish warriors you are.” They would stop to search us, confiscating any sharp objects. Whoever had Croatian money, a pistol, ammunition, was beaten, forced to eat the money.
Then they separated the men from the women and children. They took my father away. He was 43. He cried as we were saying goodby. I had never seen him cry before. The rest of my family were Mother, who’s 39, my sister, who’s 10, and my mentally retarded brother, who’s 18. There are no words to describe it. They made us board some buses and transported us to (a prison camp at) Trnopolje. Some of the men stayed with us. The rest were taken to (prison camps at) Omarska and Keraterm. My father was in that group. They didn’t take my retarded brother. He was incapable of military service, so he remained with us.
On the third day after we arrived in Trnopolje, it was my turn to fetch some water. My mother had been doing it. The men were not allowed near the well outside the entrance gate, so we provided them with water, too. The men and the women were separated; the camp was divided by barbed wire. We were able to sneak some water to the men through the barrier.
They allowed us to go to the well in groups. They allowed the women to return, but they held back six of us young girls. Then they found four more. They took us to someone’s home, a new house, neat. I don’t know who it belonged to. There was a large yard. Soon a tank crew and a few Chetniks arrived. The group numbered about 30–butchers from the Croatian front. “Such fine cunts you are,” they mocked us. “Too bad you’re Turkish!” We were all crying. We felt great fear.
They ordered us to take off our clothes. If we refused, they said, they would rip our clothes off our bodies. Three of us refused; their clothes were ripped with knives.
We stood in a circle, naked. They just sat, drinking and smoking. They ordered us to walk in a circle. We did for about 15 minutes while they drank and feasted their eyes. Then it started.
Strangely enough, instead of each taking his pick, they all approached one girl and started raping her. This took place on a rock in the yard. The other girls just watched, cried, begged. But the men were deaf and mute.
I was third in a row. They approached me, and I started begging them not to touch me. “Hold it!” said one of them. He looked at me and asked, “Young lady, do we know each other from somewhere?”
“No,” I answered. I had never seen him before.
“How can that be?” he said. “Your boyfriend is a member of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s Territorial Defense!”
I looked at him and said quietly, “My boyfriend is not a member of TD!”
Then he screamed, “You’re lying, Turkish whore!” and pulled a photograph out of his pocket. It was a picture of me with Dado, in front of the school that housed the TD headquarters. They must have taken the picture from a car.
The man who stood to my left hit me on the back twice with the butt of his rifle, and then both men started beating me. I fell. Then the worst started.
I was first raped by the one with the photograph. I fought, screamed, pulled his hair. He hit me on the mouth, and my lower lip started bleeding. I fainted. When I came to, I was raped again. I can’t describe it. The pain was horrible. While I was still conscious, I was raped by eight of them, and I don’t know what happened afterward.
It was about 11 o’clock. I screamed, implored, cried. One of them, he was around 35, lay on me, pressing the barrel of his automatic weapon against my temple, looking into my eyes a long time. A young fellow approached us — I used to see him in Prijedor. We went to the same school. He’s four years older than me. He didn’t rape me. He grabbed the older man’s shoulder and told him to shove off. The older man looked at him, got up and left. The young man didn’t take part in the gang rape. He just appeared, gave me his hand, helped me to get up. And I got up, naked as I was.
While the last one was still on me, another man was running the blade of a knife over my breasts. He seemed to be playing, but he left deep scratches. Since I was a virgin, I bled terribly.
The young man who saved my life — his name is Mladen R. — was a guard in Trnopolje. I think he’s still alive. He helped me gather my belongings. I put on my clothes. The maniacs looked at us but didn’t stop us. As we were leaving, he told them, “Remember, you will be accountable for this!” They just gave him dirty looks and said, “Like hell!”
The other girls stayed, and I haven’t seen them since. The girls who were taken from camp to that house never returned. I don’t know if they are alive. Mladen took me back to the camp. I had a hard time walking. We talked. He is from Gomjenica. He wanted to help me to escape, but I didn’t want to leave my mother and sister behind. Fifteen days later, we were led from the camp toward Maglaj, where we were handed to the Armed Forces of the Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina in exchange for Serbian prisoners.
(Azra’s boyfriend, Dado, 19, executed by a firing squad, was a member of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s Territorial Defense.)
ENISA [Bosniak girl], AGE 16
The massacre following the attack on my village had been the greatest tragedy of my life. I did not know then that destiny had something even worse in store for me. My sister Edisa gave birth in the basement of the house where we hid during the shelling. After the village of Rizvanovici fell, I saw, not far from the house, murdered children, ages 3 to 8. The mosque was in ruins, and they were taking the men away. Some of the better-known men were taken out of the column. They would execute these men nearby (a bullet in the head), leaving the grotesque-looking corpses.
Chaos, panic and death ruled. They accused my 76-year-old grandfather of killing a Serb. They shot him at the threshold of our home in front of the family. A number of women and children stayed in the village. We hid in the basements of destroyed houses. Our house was intact.
That day, several Chetniks arrived. They were looking for valuables and asking questions about the men who were hiding in the forest. One of them, a man around the age of 30, ordered me to follow him into the house. I had to go. I was terribly afraid, although I had no idea what was going to happen to me. I only knew that any resistance would jeopardize my relatives’ lives.
When we entered, he started looking for money, jewelry and other valuable objects. He could take anything he wanted. He wanted to know where the men were. I didn’t answer. Then he ordered me to undress. I was terribly afraid.
I took off my clothes, feeling that I was falling apart. The feeling seemed under my skin. I was dying, my entire being was murdered. I closed my eyes. I couldn’t look at him. He hit me. I fell. Then he lay on me. He did it to me. I cried, twisted my body convulsively, bled. I had been a virgin.
He ordered me to get up. I wanted to collect my things so I could cover my body. He told me to be careful because my family’s destiny depended on me. He went out. First he looked around to make sure nobody was looking, and then he invited two Chetniks to come in. I cried. The two repeated what the first one had done to me. I felt lost. I didn’t even know when they left.
I don’t know how long I stayed there, lying on the floor alone, in a pool of blood. It seemed as if the past, the present and the future had blended, as if one were nowhere and everywhere, living in a state of nonexistence, simultaneously dead and alive. A twilight zone between the known and unknown.
My mother found me. I couldn’t imagine anything worse — my mother finding me under such humiliating circumstances. The truth slapped me on the face. I had been raped, destroyed and terribly hurt. But for my mother, who all the time had an idea of what had been going on, this was the greatest sorrow of our lives. We both cried and screamed. She dressed me. Then we returned to the basement.
Afterward, everything seemed foggy and dreamlike: being transported to Trnopolje, then 30 kilometers to Travnik over Mt. Vlasic. Only then did I come out of a dreamlike state. Why did this happen? Why did it have to happen to me?
My mother helped me immensely. I, too, would like to be a mother someday. But how? In my world, men represent terrible violence and pain. That feeling is stronger than me. I cannot control that feeling.
MIRSADA [Bosniak girl], AGE 17
March 3, 1992
That morning the Chetniks arrived in our village. They wore masks. I didn’t know any of them. They spoke pure Serbian, colloquialisms and all. They wore White Eagle insignia on their uniforms. I was terribly afraid.
We were not allowed to leave our homes; non-Serbs were not allowed in the streets. We were not able to buy anything, so we lived off the supplies we had at home. Those who ventured outside never returned.
Some of the men hid in the forest, and those who could afford it went abroad. My father and brother managed to join the Bosnia-Herzegovina Territorial Defense. They are somewhere at the front.
I could see from my window how they rounded up people. They dragged my neighbor (a Serb) and his entire family out of the house. As he was not a member of the Serbian militia and refused to kill Bosniaks and Croats, they took his 21-year-old sister to the camp.
Three Chetniks entered our house. They were drunk. One of them hit my mother, cursing and speaking in a threatening manner. He said that we would remember who they are and that we will regret the day we were born. I trembled. My sister Sanela clung to me, crying. When we went out, I realized that she had wet herself.
That day they rounded up all the women and young girls. As we passed through the village, I saw corpses, people dead in their own yards. Some of the houses were burning — the Chetniks had set them on fire. It was pandemonium. They looted the houses. They smashed the windows of the food market, fighting among themselves for the few bottles of booze.
We hiked for more than five hours. They were leading us into the forest, I didn’t know where. We reached a clearing. It was very crowded. Only old men, women and children.
It looked like some kind of forest motel. The cabins were used as sentry boxes, and the whole area was fenced off with barbed wire and divided into two sections. This is where they separated me from my mother and sister. They told us that we would later be together, but I never saw them again. I stayed with the girls and the younger women.
The White Eagles would come to get us every night. They would bring us back in the morning. There were nights when more than 20 of them came. That seemed to be some kind of honor. They did all kinds of things to us. It cannot be described, and I don’t want to remember. We had to cook for them, and serve them, naked. They raped and slaughtered some girls right in front of us. Those who resisted had their breasts cut.
There were women from various towns and villages. There were more than 1,000 of us. I spent more than four months in that camp. It is a nightmare that cannot be talked about, or described, or understood.
One night, our Serbian neighbor’s brother helped 12 of us escape. They caught two of us. We spent days hiding in the forest, in improvised underground shelters, and we managed to get away. If it hadn’t been for him, I wouldn’t have survived. I would have killed myself, because death is not as horrible as the treatment I suffered. I cannot talk about that.
Sometimes I think that I will go crazy and that the nightmare will never end. Every night in my dreams I see the face of Stojan, the camp guard. He was the most ruthless among them. He even raped 10-year-old girls, as a delicacy. Most of those girls didn’t survive. They murdered many girls, slaughtered them like cattle.
I want to forget everything. I cannot live with these memories. I will go insane.