Zenica | Bosnia’s Deepest Wound

Fifteen years after the end of the Bosnian war, rape survivors wait for justice and struggle for a normal life

Emina Rahmanovic was 16 when Croat soldiers raped her during the war in the Balkans. She has struggled for a normal life since the attack. © RAJESHREE SISODIA FOR THE CARAVAN
01 April, 2010

EMINA RAHMANOVIC RARELY LEAVES her tiny apartment on the fourth floor of a non-descript block. She spends most of her days in bed. “Yesterday was the first time in seven years that I stepped on snow,” says the 33-year-old from her home in the central Bosnian city of Zenica. “I have this enormous sense of fear.” She takes around 18 pills a day. The medication helps mitigate her depression and chronic back pain.

Like an estimated 20,000 men, women and girls, Rahmanovic was raped during the Bosnian civil war. The war lasted from 1992 to 1995. Though the war was fought along ethnic lines—when Bosnian Muslims (Bosniaks), Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Croats all took up arms—the systematic sexual violence overwhelmingly affected Bosniak women like Rahmanovic.

Her ordeal began when she was separated from her family near the Bosnian-Croat border in late 1992. Stranded at a military barracks in the city of Travnik, Rahmanovic was raped by Croat soldiers in early 1993. She was 16.

Months later, the troops released her and she sought refuge in Zenica. By this time she was pregnant. She is now the mother of a teenage girl and a 12-year-old boy. Like an unknown number of women, Rahmanovic became pregnant after being raped. Her children are among the few positive things in her life. She looks forward to the times when she sees them at the orphanage they live in.

Most of the time, though, she feels imprisoned by her past. “I can’t get over what happened,” she admits.

“There are people who lost their children and family members [in the war]. They somehow continue living, but I just cannot.”

Her health problems mean she has been unable to find regular work. She survives on a disability allowance of 240 marks (7,607 rupees) a month from her local government. During the war, more than 100,000 people were killed and organised mass sexual violence was wielded as a weapon.

Most victims have not seen the men who raped them stand trial and have not been given economic or psychological support by the Bosnian government. Amnesty International highlighted the gap in justice and state support services for war rape victims in a September 2009 report that accuses the Bosnian government of ‘failing’ victims. Amnesty finds that “those responsible for [sexual violence] still manage to evade justice and impunity prevails.”

The lack of help for war rape survivors can be partly blamed on Bosnia’s complicated power-sharing system, a product of the US-led Dayton Peace Agreement (DPA), which helped end the war. The DPA carved the country into two semi-autonomous entities: the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (FBiH) and Republika Srpska (RS), with special status given to Brcko District. The FBiH and RS have their own parallel judiciaries and governments, while Brcko District also has its own justice system. Though the state government passes legislation and allocates funding at the national level, implementation is left to the individual entities. Consequently, victims receive different levels of support depending on where they live.

Esma Palic, an advisor at the FBiH Department for the Protection for Persons with Disabilities, which provides counselling and compensation to civilian war victims, says only 612 war rape survivors in FBiH each received monthly state compensation of 507 marks (16,000 rupees) last year, despite the state government providing the department 40 million marks (1,275 million rupees) to fund compensation for around 12,000 civilian victims of war. At the RS Ministry of Labour and Protection of War Veterans and Persons with Disabilities, spokesman Slavko Peric says in a statement that the amount of compensation war rape victims are given depends on each individual’s level of ‘impairment’ and adds that RS also provides extra compensation if survivors are unable to work or are single parents.

Progress is equally slow in the criminal courts. Like many victims, the men who raped Rahmanovic have not been brought to justice. She doubts they ever will. Saliha Duderija, Bosnia’s Assistant Minister for Human Rights and Refugees, concedes that the lack of psychological support and compensation given to rape survivors is partly political. She says: “Even though the war has stopped, it’s still going in people’s heads and in their words. Politicians use the issue [of redress for war crimes victims] at election time to get votes, regardless of ethnic group.”

Prosecutors at the Special Department for War Crimes are swimming against this tide of political apathy and are currently looking into more than 50 cases in which allegations of war rape and/or sexual violence are involved. The office, part of Bosnia’s Chief Prosecutor’s Office (CPO) in the capital, Sarajevo, has so far filed charges against 20 people for sexual war crimes. But the state court has only delivered final verdicts in 12 of these cases against 15 defendants. Twelve of the men were convicted and three acquitted, Amnesty research shows.

The reasons behind this low number of prosecutions are complicated. The stigma associated with rape makes it difficult for many victims to come forward. Gathering reliable witness testimony and medical evidence 15 years after the end of the war along with limited state resources mean prosecutions are fraught with difficulty. David Schwendiman, former Head of the Special Department for War Crimes, believes the Bosnian government has failed to support the CPO and state court. The resulting lack of money has forced the office to focus its efforts primarily on mass murder cases, he adds.

A concurrent stream of justice is being meted out at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) at The Hague. But there have only been 18 trials that include charges of rape and/or sexual violence at the ICTY since it was created in 1993, according to Amnesty. An ICTY spokeswoman refused to comment on the Amnesty figure, but says that 70 people had been indicted for war rape and/or sexual violence at the tribunal, which acquitted only three defendants.

Whether or not justice will help survivors like Rahmanovic remains to be seen. The men who raped her stole her faith in humanity.

“[In the war], I became numb to the feeling of grief,” she says. “When someone died, it was not a big deal anymore. Today, it is the same. When someone in my family dies, I cannot feel that sadness. The feeling when [someone] needs help or needs something, I would gladly help them out, whatever they ask for. But when it comes to love, I can’t.”