Interview 20 Aug 12

Without Therapy Rape Victims Risk Lasting Trauma

Victims of wartime rape need expert support otherwise, they may live emotionless, robot-like lives, says the neuropsychologist Alma Bravo-Mehmedbasic.

Justice Report
Alma Bravo-Mehmedbasic | Photo by Justice Reports

The neuropsychologist Alma Bravo-Mehmedbasic has urged the victims of wartime rape to tell their stories and to come forward to complete their rehabilitation.

 “Rehabilitation is a process which individuals go through on both an emotional and cognitive level. Psychotherapy helps them to explore the trauma they experienced, and the horrible memories that continue to haunt them. After that, the psychic energy that was invested in the trauma is refocused on the positive aspects of living,” says Bravo-Mehmedbasic.

The neuropsychologist, who is also an expert at the Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina, compares an encapsulated trauma to a bomb inside the rape victim, which could explode at any moment, resulting in even more profound consequences, unless that victim went through a complete rehabilitation.

“We have cases where only after 20 years a woman speaks about what happened to her. For all that time, she kept the trauma to herself, and functioned at the level of a robot without emotions”, Bravo-Mehmedbasic told Balkan Insight.

There are sources of help, she said, including numerous mental health centres in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and even a special unit at the Psychiatric Clinic which focuses on individuals who have experienced such severe traumas as rape.

“Victims can receive treatment there that combines medication with psychotherapy. I think that with the comprehensive help of doctors, victims can come closer to living the life they had before the rape,” says Bravo-Mehmedbasic.

However, she added that the full rehabilitation of the victims could not be guaranteed without the perpetrators of the crimes being punished, and that is where the state plays a major role.

“The state is obliged to provide the victim with financial security, to guarantee that torture will not happen again, to protect the victim as a witness in court, and to punish the perpetrator. There is no complete rehabilitation of the victim without punishment of the perpetrators”, says Bravo-Mehmedbasic.

She points out that people who have not gone through proper rehabilitation may experience a so-called explosion of trauma during testimony and be returned home because they are unable to testify.

“I saw so deep a regression that a women-witness spoke in the third person and behaved like a little two- or three-year old girl. And then it just came to amnesia and she could not remember anything. She was not able to testify at the trial,” recalls Bravo-Mehmedbasic.

Alma Bravo-Mehmedbasic | Photo by Justice Report

Bravo-Mehmedbasic explains that quite a number of rape victims say nothing to family members about what happened to them because of their feelings of humiliation, as well as the belief that they will not be understood.

“The identity of the victim has been destroyed and if they say what happened to them, they are afraid of being rejected by their family,” said Bravo-Mehmedbasic.

Bravo-Mehmedbasic said that through working with rape victims, she had cases where victims had come to idealise those who had tortured them out of helplessness and fear for their lives. This phenomenon is a form of so-called  “Stockholm Syndrome”.

The name derives from an event that took place in Stockholm, where robbers detained female employees in a bank. When they released them, they defended the robbers and spoke positively about them.

“A person finds justification for those who torture them, saying that they are relatively good, that they did not beat them so much, that they gave them food or that they were less violent than they could have been”, explains Bravo-Mehmedbasic.

After such events, she explains, the person loses her self-esteem, her confidence, her own identity, as well as her sexual identity, and is ashamed of herself.  The person splits in two, explains Bravo-Mehmedbasic, into the one who observes and the one who suffers, cutting off the cognitive part of the person from the emotional one.

“In practice, we meet individuals who tell us terrible things, but as if it happened to someone else, and as if they were just reporting on the event. We could not see any emotions whatsoever,” says Bravo-Mehmedbasic.

Rape and sexual abuse significantly affects the psyche of the victim, and the fight against what has happened to them continues to be fought at a deep level.

”However, we are working with these people, and we want them to understand that they should not be ashamed because of how their psyche reacted to such terrible phenomena as torture and rape,” says Bravo-Mehmedbasic.

In her work with rape survivors, the neuropsychologist explains that she was touched the most by victims who, along with torture and rape, also experienced the loss of their husbands and children, and with those who were raped several times in front of their family members.

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