During the Yugoslav War (1992-1995) I was living in the town of Pécs in southern Hungary, a mere 40 km from the Croatian border. At night we sometimes heard heavy artillery fire in the distance. The war was practically on our doorstep and Hungary was closely guarding its borders.
I was working as a Dutch language teacher at the Janus Pannonius University. In the evenings I gave private English and German lessons and also took on translation work to supplement a meager teacher’s salary. Through a colleague at the university I heard that German doctors working for Medecins sans Frontieres were commissioning translation work. They were running a provisional health care centre in Bosnia for Bosnian women refugees. They needed a request for extended funding translated from German into English. To validate their claim they included vivid descriptions of the atrocities that had been inflicted upon their patients.
To this day, recalling the horrific stories still sends chills down my spine.
Serbian soldiers would surround villages and systematically take all the women folk from their homes. Family members or friends trying to stop the soldiers were shot at point blank. Mothers, daughters and grandmothers were raped in front of family members forced to watch. Some women were taken to so-called rape camps and were continuously gang raped, tortured and humiliated sometimes for months on end. Others were set to work cleaning torture chambers in what once were local school buildings, kindergartens and hospitals turned into detention camps. There the women cleaned during the day and were continuously raped at night. Women and girls who became pregnant were allowed to leave once they were too far into the pregnancy to abort.
All of these Bosnian women were Muslims.
The rapes were a strategic part of the war campaign. The Serbs knew that a raped Muslim woman was likely to be shunned and ostracized by her family and would almost certainly be unmarriageable. The Serbs wanted to shred the intricate cultural fabric that held the Muslim communities together forcing them to leave or flee Bosnia ‘voluntarily’.
Women gave birth to ‘hate babies’ often blindfolded, unwilling to see the product of their horrendous ordeal. Some women did keep their babies, but the majority ended up in orphanages.
Wendy Roberts, a reporter for the BBC World News returned to Bosnia in 2005 and interviewed some of these brave women and spoke to two ‘hate babies’ now teenagers for a radio programme called Heart And Soul, ‘Bosnia’s War Babies’. Sadly, not one of the stories has a happy ending.
These were the women the German doctors, in 1993, were trying to help. The report stated that the majority of them were unable to talk about their ordeal. Some women had clearly been pregnant but flanked by taboos, frightened and humiliated they staunchly denied ever giving birth or having been raped. The psychological damage was colossal and without the help of this centre the woman would have nowhere else to turn.
I never made a copy of the original nor did I keep a copy of the translation. I deleted it from my computer. I wanted to delete it from my mind but the images are engraved in my memory. Nearly twenty years later I feel ashamed that my twenty-six year old self had not had the incentive to do more with the information. I could have written about it, I should have, but I didn’t. Today I know better.
In 2008 the Serbian war criminal Radovan Karadžić was captured and extradited to the Netherlands and today stands trial for his war crimes at the International Criminal Tribunal of the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague. I was jubilant, finally there would be some form of justice for the victims of the man known as The Beast of Bosnia.
This self proclaimed president of the newly found state of Srpska had ordered the genocide at Srebrenica, which at the time was a supposed “safe area” under UN protection, killing 8000 mainly men and boys. Under his command Serbian soldiers committed atrocities to Bosnians placed in detention centers and rape camps. Their aim was to cleanse Bosnia of non-Serbs.
This summer the last Yugoslav war criminal, Goran Hadžić, was finally arrested and is now detained in Scheveningen prison, a mere ten minutes drive from where I live today.
From 1991 till 1993 Hadžić and his rebel forces participated in ethnic cleansing in Croatia. He is accused, amongst other war crimes, of instigating the massacre of 260 people who had sought refuge in the local hospital in Vukovar and expelling 22,000 non-Serbs from their homes. Currently he is in pre-trial but when finally sentence is passed on this former general and self proclaimed president of the Republic of Serbian Krajina, it will be a triumphant feat, a sign to the civilized world that crimes against humanity will not go unpunished.
According to the ICTY official website there are fourteen war criminals currently on trial, three in re-trial, nineteen stand before the appeals chamber and seventy-nine have been tried (or died before sentence could be passed). A number of them have already sat out their jail sentences and have been released. As far as the International community is concerned justice has been served. But it’s cold comfort for the *20,000 rape victims of this atrocious and unnecessary war whose legal rights were brutally violated.
• A UN report stated that the likelihood that women who have been subject to sexual violence will ever receive compensation for their suffering was doubtful.
• Margot Wallström, the U.N. Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, stated that only 12 cases out of an estimated 50,000 to 60,000 have been prosecuted.
*Serb and Croatian women were also raped, however, Bosnian Muslim women were the main victims and according to the Investigating Commission of the European Union 20, o00 reported rapes took place between 1992-1995.
Association of Women Victims of War (Bosnian: Udruzenje Žene-Žrtve Rata)
A non-governmental organization based in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina that campaigns for the rights of woman rape victims during the Bosnian war (1992-1995).
Women for Women
Their programs in Bosnia and Herzegovina include direct financial aid, rights awareness classes, job-skills training and emotional support. The one-year program was developed for Bosnia and Herzegovina’s special challenges and demands, and includes training that helps women earn an income and support themselves.
War Child and the Bosnian war 15 years on
At the height of the Bosnian war, amid a hurricane of killing, rape and ‘ethnic cleansing’, a movement striving in the opposite direction responded in the most powerful way they knew: with rock’n'roll.
A blog dedicated to remembering the war. It is a collection of relevant newspaper articles that were written during and after the war.