Analysis 08 Jul 10

Silence and Shame Shield Srebrenica Rapists from Justice

The reluctance of women survivors from the town to talk about their own sufferings – and the stigma that still surrounds rape – has allowed a grave crime to go unpunished.

By Nidzara Ahmetasevic

Among the more than 3,500 body parts buried so far in Potocari, near Srebrenica - victims of the 1995 genocide in the eastern Bosnian town - 30 belong to women.

Some of these women were killed by members of army and police of Republika Srpska after they stormed the UN Safe zone where mostly Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) lived, and proceeded to put to death thousands of men and boys. Others committed suicide. Some died of grief and trauma after seeing their men and children taken away.

Most of the 30,000 civilians expelled from the town after the Serbian takeover were women. Piled onto buses and trucks that took them away from their homes, many left alone, wondering what fate lay in store for their children, fathers, brothers, husbands and cousins.

For the last 15 years these women survivors have been retelling their stories about Srebrenica and about what they lost, fighting for the truth to emerge and for the memory of what the town experienced not to die.  
But while they talk about their lost children and family members, few speak about themselves and about the rape and murder of women in Srebrenica in July 1995.  

The exact number of rapes that occurred in the town in 1995 is hard to establish. “Women were raped and sexually abused during the fall of Srebrenica, although the extent of such abuse remains unclear,” Human Rights Watch concluded in its report from Fall of Srebrenica from October 1995.  

In the judgment of Radoslav Krstic, sentenced in 2004 to 35 years’ prison for complicity in genocide, it was concluded that “sexual assaults were likely” after the fall of Srebrenica – but no figure was given.

Experts who have worked over many years with victims from Srebrenica say it is rare to hear women speaking about rape, mainly because of the stigma that surrounds rape and because even now, they are too overwhelmed by everything else that happened to them and their families to talk about their own personal experiences.

Rape as well as murder:

The United Nations proclaimed Srebrenica and the nearby enclave of Zepa “Safe Areas” in 1993.
After the Army of Republika Srpska, VRS, swept through the Drina valley of eastern Bosnia in 1992, tens of thousands of Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslim) refugees fled to the two enclaves. Surrounded by the VRS they lived in appalling conditions, desperately short of food, water and medicines.

Conditions were overcrowded. Before the war started, Srebrenica was a relatively small town of about 10,000. By the time it was proclaimed a UN Safe Area, the number had more than tripled.

In March 1995, Radovan Karadzic, president and supreme commander of the Republika Srpska issued a chilling directive concerning the long-term strategy of the VRS as regards Srebrenica.

Directive 7 specified that “by planned and well-thought out combat operations”, the VRS was to “create an unbearable situation of total insecurity with no hope of further survival or life for the inhabitants of Srebrenica”.  

On July 11, 1995, the VRS, headed by General Mladic, indicted 15 years ago by the Hague war crimes tribunal, entered Srebrenica. Thousands of men fled towards the woods in the hope of reaching territory under the control of the government in Sarajevo. Thousands of others left towards the UN base at Potocari, expecting protection from the UN Dutch battalion.

They did not get it. Instead, mass killings began on the morning of July 12. In just over seven days, about 8,000 people were killed.

According to the first-instance judgment pronounced in The Hague on June 10, 2010 in the case of seven former high-ranking military and police officers from Republika Srpska, 5,336 bodies have since been identified.

“The final number could be much more that 7,826,” the chamber added, while issuing the second genocide verdict since 1993, the year when International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia, ICTY, was established. The first, in the Krstic case, came six years ago.

But the fate of the women left behind in Srebrenica still contains many unknowns. According to UN Secretary General’s Report on the fall of Srebrenica of November 1995, a UN soldier, on arriving in Zagreb from Srebrenica, told the media there that “the hunting season is in full swing” in Srebrenica, adding that “not only men but also women are targeted.

“Some are shot and wounded, others have had their ears cut off and some women have been raped,” the same soldier said.

Another member of the UN Dutch battalion, who testified during the Krstic trial, said much the same. “We saw two Serb soldiers, one of them was standing guard and the other one was lying on the girl, with his pants off,” he said.

“And we saw a girl lying on the ground on some kind of mattress. There was blood on the mattress and she was covered with blood. She had bruises on her legs. There was even blood coming down her legs. She was in total shock.”

The trial chamber in the Krstic case concluded that many people witnessed rapes in Srebrenica on July 12 but “could do nothing about it because of Serb soldiers standing nearby”.

“Other people heard women screaming, or saw women being dragged away… Throughout the night and early the next morning, stories about the rapes and killings spread through the crowd and the terror in the camp escalated,” the judgment added.

Kadir Habibovic, one of the witnesses at the Krstic trial, said he saw at least one bus full of women “being driven away”. He remembered hearing one of the Serb soldiers complaining that they were not getting a good choice of the women from Srebrenica.

The HRW report about fall of Srebrenica mentions rape, while noticing that women rarely speak about it. However, they registered one case, adding that journalists who met refugees from the town in Tuzla recorded others.

One journalist wrote that the women had said they saw Bosnian Serb soldiers taking two girls, aged 12 and 14, and another woman, away from Potocari. When the girls returned, they were naked, covered with scratches and bruises and bleeding from the assault.  

“Reportedly, there was no water to wash the blood off themselves, so they tried to wipe it off with clothes that people gave them,” wrote the journalist cited in the HRW report.

Another reporter cited in the HRW report wrote about a woman who said she watched with other women in Potocari with “half-closed eyes, pretending to be asleep, and hoping not to be next”, as four Serb soldiers raped a woman nearby.   

Other witnesses recalled observing rapes in silence. They said two soldiers took hold of the woman’s legs, raising them up in the air “while the third [man] began raping her. Four of them were taking turns on her. People were silent, no one moved.  She was screaming and yelling and begging them to stop. They put a rag into her mouth and then we just heard silent sobs coming from her closed lips.”

Few will speak out:

Though rape has been recognized as a factor in Srebrenica by one of the judgments, the ICTY has never actually indicted anybody for rape in Srebrenica.

Recently, however, the Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina indicted three former members of the Republika Srpska police, Dusko Jevic, Nedjo Ikonic and Goran Markovic, for rape in Srebrenica, among other things.

One victim testified at their trial this spring, under the pseudonym “113”, saying that she was raped on July 13 by one soldier, while the others were watching. “I begged them to let me go,” she told the judges.

Witness 113 first told her story to members of the association Women Victims of War in 2007. Asked in court why it had taken her so long to talk about the rape, she answered that she had felt ashamed.

Fadila Memisevic, president of the Society of Endangered People in Bosnia and Herzegovina, told Balkan Insight that few women from Srebrenica are willing to talk about rape.

“We work closely with the associations of women of Srebrenica and the ICTY… and many stories were told to us by women, but I can remember only one woman using explicitly the word ‘rape’,” Memisevic recalled.

“It is one of specifics of Srebrenica that women do not talk about rape,” Teufika Ibrahimefendic, a psychologist from Vive Zene, a women’s organization in Tuzla, told Balkan Insight.

Ibrahimefendic has worked with women victims of the war since the war ended. Many of her patients were and are women from Srebrenica who survived highly traumatic experiences.

“But they did not talk about rape even in 1995, when they arrived in Tuzla,” she said. “They were focused on the family members they had lost and since then they have been focusing on finding them,” she added. “It’s as if their personal traumas are less important, because they survived.”

Bakira Hasecic, director of the Women Victims of War association, agreed that women were reluctant to talk, but said some did talk in the end. “We managed to identify about 20 women from Srebrenica who told us they were raped in July 1995,” Hasecic said.

The first ICTY judgment recognizing rape was in 2001 in a case about Foca, in eastern Bosnia, where thousands of girls and women had been sexually abused during the war. This decision encouraged many to start talking more openly about this crime.

For years, several organizations in Bosnia have been lobbying for the rights of wartime rape victims, encouraging them to not only testify but also to speak out in public and identify those who committed the crime against them.

But Memisevic said that the stigma surrounding this crime still existed and was strong among people from a town like Srebrenica. “Life in that area was different during the war. They were totally separated from the rest of the world and suffered a lot,” she said.

“They do not even talk much among themselves about what happened. That extreme experience… makes people from Srebrenica not that close to each other in many ways,” Memisevic suggested.  

Ibrahimefendic agreed, adding that the trauma suffered by the people of Srebrenica still continued, 15 years on.

“So many people just disappeared in couple of days,” she said. “Now they have to find a way to live without all they left behind and to search for traces of their loved ones.”

Many survivors had also since left the country, becoming physically separated from what remained of their families. “Many of them are living on just to be able to attend the events in Potocari on July 11 when the slaughter is commemorated and mass burial is held for those whose bodies were identified,” she said.

See also:
Srebrenica: Genocide Reconstructed

Srebrenica's Days of Hell

Srebrenica Sentences Total 476 Years

Hague Recognises Propaganda’s Role in Srebrenica Genocide

Only Integrating Bosnia Will Complete the Balkan Mosaic

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Srebrenica: Genocide Reconstructed

In July 1995 Srebrenica was shelled and occupied by the Army of Republic of Srpska,VRS, despite being declared a protected area by the United Nations. More than 7,000 people were killed, the victims of genocide.

Ratko Mladic: The Force Behind the Srebrenica Killings

The Bosnian Serb commander’s role in the genocide committed in Srebrenica is described in detail in many indictments and verdicts pronounced before local and international judicial institutions.

The Indictment Against Ratko Mladic

Indictments in 1995 and 2000, further amended in 2002 and 2010, charge the former commander of the Republika Srpska Army with genocide and other crimes.

Ratko Mladic: From Promising Officer to Bloodstained Warlord

When Mladic ordered his army to bomb the people of Sarajevo until they ‘go insane’, he revealed the murderous intentions that would culminate in the Srebrenica massacre.

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