War rape in the former Yugoslavia

Woman in a refugee camp in Tuzla, Bosnia
Woman in a refugee camp in Tuzla, Bosnia (©Flickr/Alessandro Bosseli)

In the former Yugoslavia, crimes are being committed that defy the imagination. What makes the crimes so heinous is that civilians – mostly women and innocent children – are being singled out. In fact, there’s mounting evidence that the aggressors – mostly Serbian militiamen, though Croats and Muslims aren’t free of blame – have devised a strategy to terrorise the civilian population. The war strategy includes the raping of women and girls, some as young as 10 years old.

Producer: Eric Beauchemin

Broadcast: December 10, 1992

The programme won a silver medal at the New York Radio Festivals in 1993.


December the 10th is International Human Rights Day. Respect for human rights is far from universal and seems to disappear in times of war. That is the lesson of events now unfolding in the Balkans. On the occasion of Human Rights Day, Eric Beauchemin has prepared a special Newsline report on war rape in the former Yugoslavia. We’d like you to note that some listeners may find the brutal and graphic nature of some of the testimony in this program difficult to listen to.

In the former Yugoslavia, crimes are being committed that defy the imagination. What makes the crimes so heinous is that civilians – mostly women and innocent children – are being singled out. In fact, there’s mounting evidence that the aggressors – mostly Serb militiamen, though Croats and Muslims aren’t free of blame – have devised a strategy to terrorize the civilian population. The war strategy includes the raping of women and girls as young as 10 years old. I spoke with one of these war rape victims and her husband in a refugee camp on the outskirts of Zagreb. Three months after the event, the couple – in their 60s – were still petrified and numb, unwilling to give their names or the place they came from out of sheer terror of possible reprisals.

It was in October this year, one Friday. It was by night. I was already in bed with my family. He said he was woken up by the gunfire, and they were already around his house. They did not even wait for the door to be opened. They have broken in through the window. They grabbed all the people inside. They have been swearing most horrible swear words to their Muslim mothers and they have grabbed them all together in one room.

They have ordered us to get in our night clothes out of the house, and we had to stand there waiting for them to say what they will do with us. He says there were six women between them, two families together. While they were standing there, they ordered his wife to enter inside the house to look for the gold and money. They have put a knife under his chin, on his throat, and they told women: “you had better find Deutsch marks and money and gold because if you do not bring absolutely everything you own, we are going to cut his head off.” He said while they were holding a knife under my throat, I imagined that women are inside searching for what they said: money and gold, while actually they have been raped most viciously over and over and over again – his wife and all the other women.

She was raped by three men behind the house. Then they said: “and now we are going to cut you open unless you give us absolutely every penny that you have in the house”. So they entered the bedroom, and she gave them absolutely every single penny that they had in the house because she was feeling that she’s buying not only her life but her husband who is outside with the knife under his throat. And then the fourth man came. Then he said…he raped her, the fourth man. And after that, he said “and now we are going to play doctor, and we are going to have an examination”.

Well, she’s describing what happened to her after that because he has asked her to open her legs, that he’s going to play a doctor and he put his hand inside her. She was screaming with pain and he told her, “now after that, you better lick every of my fingers off”. She says she was bleeding extremely heavily  and she was begging for mercy because she said:  “I had operation two years ago and I can be your mother. And please stop it.” Another woman of her family had the skin on her throat slit because she didn’t do it as quickly as they wanted. Well, after that, the other man came and he said: “well, we had our fun with you Muslims, and I hope you will never, ever be able to bear little Muslims again”.

They came back for other women, one by one they were taken inside. Only his old mother, who is 87, was not taken in, but they also told her to get the money or they are going to kill her son.  She said “I have absolutely nothing to give you”. On the end, they have asked him to enter the house, and he was standing in the narrow corridor. Still his wife did not come around.

He said when I was in this corridor, I have heard my wife screaming: “for goodness sake. Leave me alone. Are you an animal or are you a human being?” Then I realized what was going on, but it was at the end of three hours of this horrible ordeal. He has seen his wife when she came out, and she looked – as he said – like broken into pieces. She was obviously in a terrible pain and disorder. Anyway, they have told them to stand in this corridor, and they said: “do you want to bring what you still did not give us or are we now starting to slaughtering?”

He said on the end, one of those men put his automatic weapon inside his mouth, and he said: “well, you better understand that you Muslims have nothing to look in this area anymore. You will have to disappear from this country. It is ours to do what we please with. He said, ‘do you realise I am going to kill you now?’ So the man obviously was left without anything to say. He said I was quite certain that he was going to kill me. And he said the other man who was next to him, he pulled him by the sleeve and he said “they have had enough”. They are not going to be of any danger for us.”

The lady is saying that other women from the same village were raped repeatedly and killed on most horrible manner afterwards. And they consider themselves lucky or perhaps, as she says, unlucky that they were not killed. They have to live with the memory.

Unbelievable as it seems, the experiences of many other women are even worse, their memories even more horrific. For outsiders, the stories they have to tell are so monstrous that they are hard to believe. But the accounts are too graphic, too numerous, too similar to be discounted as war hysteria. No one knows how many women have been through similar ordeals. The victims are often too afraid to speak out. Months after the rapes, they still can’t really fathom what has happened to them. They’re unable to trust anyone with their story. But what is now clear, beyond a shadow of a doubt, according to Gordana Letica, a sociologist at the University of Zagreb, is that many, many women have undergone similar experiences.

What we know is the tip of the iceberg. The figures about rapes are always hidden. The figures about rapes in the war are hidden too because women are not ready to speak publicly and loudly about that. They feel ashamed because of their men and their children and all that. But you can’t say that there are just few of them because I’ve met at least ten women being raped during three or five months while they have been in the concentration camps and being raped about a thousand times.

And according to Mirjana Trupic of the feminist organization Women Aid Now, who herself has interviewed many victims, these multiple rapes are no coincidence. They are part of an organized, military strategy by the Serbs, often carried out in what she calls “rape death camps”.

In a territory where the Serbs and chetniks came and organized rape-death camps, where they put women, all kinds of women – from girls, women and old women as well – and they were raped, systematically raped and tortured…torture and rape at the same time. They do this every day: 10, 20, hundreds of them. What they wanted to do is also to those women is to get pregnant. They don’t give the chance to do abortion or something like that. They leave them to stay for a few months. And then they exchange them for soldiers or something like this.

Mariana’s colleague, Zorica Spoljar, of the radical feminist group Kareta, has been at the forefront of investigating the war rapes and providing counseling for the victims. She’s interviewed hundreds of raped women. The experiences will leave the victims with psychological scars for the rest of their lives, she says. But for the survivors, the physical injuries can be just as serious.

In this war, women aren’t being raped by one man, but by 10, 20 or 30 men. The injuries often cause irreversible damage, and many, many, many women don’t survive the rapes. A lot of the rapes involve girls who are 10, 11, 12 years old, and they simply aren’t developed enough sexually to survive these rapes. The entire lower part of their body gets ripped apart, and they die 8 to 10 hours later. There are no doctors. There’s no help. There’s no one there. They bleed to death.

The military strategy seems to be carried out in two ways:  many of the women who are raped are also tortured and ultimately killed. But others are allowed to live, to have babies. Zareza Spoljar again.

Some women can and do have an abortion. But others don’t have a chance. They must, yes, they must give birth. And then what happens to the baby afterwards is the big question. I too am asking myself that very question. What happens to these children? What happens to these women? It’s an awful dilemma.

For the mothers, many of whom are Muslim from Bosnia-Herzegovina, the experience – if it becomes known – can lead to ostracism from a community already severely strained and driven apart by the war. But the huge numbers of women being raped have prompted religious leaders to call on the Muslim community to change its attitudes towards the war rape victims. There’s also a growing awareness that these women are in acute need of help if they are ever to find a way back from hell.

The women who are raped go through three phases: the first is euphoria that they have survived. The second is depression. The third is the woman breaks down or attempts suicide. Some take alcohol or drugs. But what happens to them afterwards, I don’t know. These women need help immediately. That’s my plea to the world. And the world must understand this. I alone can’t help all these women.

Several international organizations, including the World Health Organisation, are setting up or have already established projects to document war rape and to help the victims. But as long as the war lasts, relief workers will continue to be overburdened by the sheer enormity of the refugee crisis in the Balkans. The war rape victims will go untreated, and they won’t be able to try and piece their lives back together again. We thought that crimes, such as genocide, were relegated to history. It’s back again, under another name: ethnic cleansing. And, as diabolical as any Nazi plan, is the strategy of war rape. But so far, these crimes don’t seem to be haunting us. The European powers and the United Nations aren’t acting. Muslim countries have expressed alarm and set deadlines. But so far, people haven’t reacted. There have been no mass expressions of outrage that governments can’t ignore. And meanwhile, the crimes continue.

He said: I don’t have power and strength to speak about these things, and I don’t know how. I only want Europe and the people of the world to know what kind of genocide is going on in Bosnia against Muslim and Croat population. I want them to ask themselves: how long are you going to allow this to happen? When are you going to raise your voices and stop it? And how long do we have to suffer it?

And that concludes this special edition of Newsline. I’m Eric Beauchemin.