Mass Rape in Bosnia -

Breaking the Wall of Silence

an interview with Seada Vranic

Instead of a blindfold, the Serb soldiers bound Enisa's eyes with their socks. The stench made her throw up, so they hit her until she learned that 'Serb socks don't smell'. Seven 'heroes of the nation' raped her and beat her for days. At first she resisted, so they brought her to her senses by knocking her teeth out with a rifle-butt and breaking her jaw. When she lost consciousness they would 'give her a bath', i.e. douse her in cold water. Terrified that she would be driven mad, she suddenly liked the idea and saw madness as a way out. She began singing Serb songs louder and louder, then dancing with the chetnik who had presumably butchered her husband. The soldiers were dumbfounded. They threatened her, held a knife to her throat, but she only sang louder. Believing she had gone off her head entirely, the soldiers paid less attention to her and she managed to escape, by hiding in a potato sack. When the journalist Seada Vranic spoke with Enisa a few months later, in July 1992, she saw before her a hunched, grey-haired old woman with a contorted face. That was just one month before Enisa's twenty-eighth birthday.

This is just one example of the devastating testimony presented by Seada in Pred zidom sutnje (recently produced by the Zagreb publishing house 'Antibarbarus' and forthcoming in an English version, Breaking the Wall of Silence), a work recording and analysing the experiences of rape victims from Bosnia- Herzegovina. The terrible statements of the half-demented victims so shook the author, that she had the greatest difficulty in maintaining her own psychological stability.

Seada has collected the statements of young children who watched from hiding as chetniks raped their mothers and sisters, or forced men to rape their own family members. Children saw chetniks impale men on stakes after raping them, leaving them alive with the stake in their entrails. Women, impregnated after hundreds of rapes and unable to abort, showed Seada their breasts disfigured by cigarette burns. She recorded all their statements verbatim. She just left out the names, and sometimes shortened the statements when the victims recounted their ghastly experiences in too great detail.

When she began collecting this direct testimony, she believed that rape and the victims of rape were simply part of the madness of war - a chaos without rules or system. After a certain time, however, for all her her caution she came to the unambiguous conclusion that rapes were part of the Greater- Serbian expansionist policy, planned at the top levels of the state. After the first wave of information about this almost unbelievable phenomenon, world public opinion was shocked. But other tragedies in the world soon pushed this terrible dimension of the war into the background, leaving it to sociologists, psychologists and other such experts. Yet the truth was far more terrible than even the greatest pessimists expected. The atrocities were even more numerous and brutal than was initially apparent, given the difficulty of collecting the testimony of rape victims - women, men and also children - many of whom were killed after being raped.

Seada Vranic finds some relief today in devoting herself to her family, who live not far from Geneva on the French side of the border. Her husband, a Croat physicist, works in an institute for research into sub-atomic particles, her two daughters attend primary school. She was born in 1949 to Bosniak parents in Travnik, where she completed her primary and secondary education. She then studied political science at Zagreb University, after which she worked for many years as Zagreb correspondent of the Belgrade daily newspaper Borba. When she first met war victims of rape, she decided to investigate the phenomenon in depth. We spoke over several days. Although today Seada is quite composed, when she speaks of the worst atrocities she has to struggle to maintain a calm appearance.

SV I began to write on this subject almost by chance. My colleagues from Monitor (the independent Montegrin weekly), with whom I had been working for a year already, asked me to write on some Bosnian theme. I told them that my only connection with Bosnia was the refugees. That was at the beginning of the war in Bosnia, in March 1992.

Were your articles censored?

No

Could you write about Vukovar, for example?

Yes, and very emotionally, since there was no other way to write about Vukovar at the time. The Monitor staff journalists too were writing about the shameful war Montenegrins were then waging round Dubrovnik. I am proud of my collaboration with that paper. I don't know what it's like today, since I can't get hold of it. While writing in Monitor about Bosnian refugees, I wrote up the case of a woman with two children who had fled from Bijeljina. I realized that she had been raped.

How did you realize that?

I asked her what was going on in Bosnia. She replied: 'They're cutting throats, killing, burning...' and then, when she continued '... and raping', the word stuck in her throat. Tears ran down her cheeks. At the time I barely knew what rape meant, what kind of a crime it was, what kind of social phenomenon. I paid no special attention to her testimony. I was speaking with these first refugees at the Islamic centre in the Folnegovic settlement near Zagreb. It was only when I began to write my article that I realized how many women had been raped. I wasn't able to send the article in, since all international links with Montenegro were cut off. While waiting, I started wondering if I couldn't fill out the article with new details. I went on talking to refugees and constantly encountered rape victims. After those first stories, however, my view on the nature of the crimes was different from what it later became.

In what sense different?

At the time I couldn't accept the idea that rapes were part of the Serbian expansionist war strategy. I thought: rape is a bio-psychological act that cannot be carried out to order. Strategy implies subordination, submission to a superior. I had no doubt that Karadzic was a sufficiently monstrous being to be able to devise and initiate such atrocities; nor did I doubt that the hordes who'd arrived from Serbia to slaughter and kill were capable also of rape. It wasn't that I thought any morality would restrain them from it, but I felt sure erection couldn't be achieved to order. However, after four months the 'mosaic' took shape for me. I noticed the congruences in events in wholly different localities and I began to enter them on the map. I had victims from everywhere except eastern Herzegovina.

So then you changed your opinion about the nature of the violence?

Talking with the victims had already begun to open my eyes. I became aware that rape in such circumstances is not the same as violent sex. It is aggression carried out by sexual means. I became convinced that in this war rape is closer to Thanatos than to Eros. I realized how I too was misled by certain notions about the 'violent nature of the male', and by the fact that I too live in an environment where males dominate. Even serious people sometimes say: 'he couldn't restrain himself, so he raped'. It's a matter of his instincts, in other words. But this time everything came from the head. Rape cannot be committed in self-defence. No one can say: the woman attacked me, so I raped her. In parallel with my investigations I was reading a wide range of literature on the whole phenomenon.

You were looking for a historical dimension to the events?

I wanted to know everything relevant, to analyse various aspects: for example, how the victims react and how the perpetrators react after rape.

Your book says that victims have the feeling they have been permanently altered; that 'someone else has moved into their skins'.

According to Professor Kulenovic, the effects remain in the victim at a far deeper level and for far longer than the victim herself is able to express. Those around her are often unaware how deep these effects are. The victims are alive, their wounds are mostly unseen, to look at they're not invalids - yet they are. Therapies help, but most rape victims in this war haven't been subjected to any therapy. Most of them will never admit to anyone that they have been raped.

You mention certain ratios between the total number of rape victims and those who speak out about the crime.

Other people have collected these data. One sociologist, writing about rapes in the province of Zenica in the nineteen seventies, was astounded when she realized that in the surrounding villages only every twenty-fourth rape was reported. In the city the ratio was somewhat less, but still horrifying. Some other studies speak of less drastic ratios, but still conclude that, out of every ten rapes, only one is reported to the competent institutions. It is difficult to take in this knowledge about the wall of silence, against which I myself ran up: a mother and daughter, for example, may know about a rape, the father not.

The claims in the book about the overall number of rape victims are truly terrifying.

Nobody has exact statistics for this and the final figure will be only an estimate. There are many 'blanks' in the research. In the USA one rape is reported every six minutes. No one knows how many actually occur. In Bosnia during this war there were tens of thousands of rape victims, that's beyond any doubt, perhaps as many as a hundred thousand. Three estimates are often quoted: the Bosnian government speaks of 50,000, the Investigating Commission of the European Union of 20,000, and the victimologist Dr Zvonimir Separovic of 30,000 rape victims, with the comment that these are not the final figures, which will doubtless be larger. Personally I don't like haggling with these figures. The crime will not be any greater if a few more thousand victims are attached to it. But in my opinion even the number spoken of by the Bosnian government will eventually be surpassed.

Is a systematic effort still being made to establish the definitive number of victims?

In Sarajevo there exists a commission and an institute for collecting data about war crimes.

Do you believe that they approach their work in a serious and objective manner?

The fact that they haven't made any bombastic pronouncements is very significant. From the commission I obtained five statements by rape victims, all of which my experience tells me were authentic. At the end of each of these statements the victim confirms that she is ready to repeat her testimony in front of any court or expert commission. Out of all the rape victims whose experiences those Sarajevo bodies have collected, 1,300 have signed similar declarations. Altogether, a lot of work has gone into this.

Did the victims usually insist on full anonymity?

Yes, normally. When writing my book, I had to take care no real names crept in. I was writing under a heavy load. Just before the book was printed, after reading it through I don't know how many times, I was horrified to discover that I'd written one real forename and surname. I tried to maintain an emotional distance from the book, thinking I'd stand the strain more easily in that way. All that testimony really crushed me, I was on the brink of physical and psychological collapse.

When did you have your most critical moment?

At one point I stopped work on the book.

Why?

One victim attacked me. The case involved a family whose war experiences are detailed in my files, and was centred on the testimony of a woman from Rogatica, a village in eastern Bosnia: her two daughters, four granddaughters and four daughters-in-law had been raped, and the rest of the family burnt alive in their house. The old woman agreed to talk to me, but her granddaughter attacked me physically. She broke my spectacles. I didn't blame the girl, of course, but for a long time I couldn't compose myself.

How old was the girl?

She was twelve. As soon as she heard that her granny intended to tell a reporter what had happened to them, she attacked me.

Presumably you wondered then what you were doing, what kind of assignment you had taken on, when even the victims you sympathized with didn't understand you?

While writing this book, I've wondered many times what I was doing. So many victims begged me: 'Please, don't write about that.' But people need to know the truth. If I hadn't realized that a planned crime was involved, I wouldn't have written the book at all; but as things were, I felt I had to do so.

In discussing that criminal conception, is the number of psychiatrists on the Serbian side in this war significant?

We do not have the crucial evidence, in the shape of a document like Nazi Germany's Law on Concentration Camps, which proved that certain crimes were not just incidental, but an essential part of a policy. In the case of the Greater-Serbian aggression, we do not have any such document. It does not exist in written form, but the conception is clear. Look, for example, at what happened with the camps. Even civilians entered the camps, along with entire military units: the males would be given, say, half an hour to 'do the job'. They didn't have to ask what job they had to do, everybody knew. That couldn't happen in the army without the knowledge and approval of the top military and political authorities. When later the conspiracy of silence was broken, when people began talking about rapes, the Serb authorities knew perfectly well what it was all about. They never called anyone to account. They merely denied the accusations. And the pattern was repeated. In Foca, in Bijeljina...

What pattern are you referring to?

The basic pattern was developed in a number of variants, depending on the context. The task was performed in one way in Banja Luka, in another in the villages. But behind it all lay just one idea: to expel the population of other nationalities from a given territory. Rape is a very effective means for that purpose: if three or four raped women arrived in a village, all the villagers would quickly take flight. They couldn't kill everybody, you see: Banja Luka was too large a town for them to be able to kill all the Bosniaks and Croats there. Nor could they send all of them to camps, or to the front. So they dreamed up a monstrous plan: they went into the houses of non- Serbs and raped them. At Banja Luka rapes took place on a particularly massive scale, even though the town was outside the war zone the whole time. One rape victim from Banja Luka for a long while couldn't believe something like this could happen at all. She knew about this kind of mass terror only from films about Nazism. But then, as she says, she 'felt the fear'.

What are the other variants of the basic pattern?

The assault on Foca and its surroundings provides another example. This involved lightning terror: bombardment, burning, killing, raping... The aim was achieved very fast: within a few days, even a few hours in the case of the villages, the territory was 'clean'. They took some people off to the camps, they killed some on the spot, and others they raped.

What happened to non-Serb women married to Serbs?

One experience has stuck in my memory. The woman was divorced from a Serb husband: for years she had consulted doctors, but she had been unable to conceive. They raped her and she conceived. I didn't manage to verify whether Bosniak or Croat women married to Serbs were protected from that kind of terror. I think there was no rule about it. I know there were Serbs who tried to protect victims.

When people today discuss German resistance to Nazism, they usually conclude that it was very minimal, and that almost the entire nation fell victim to the Nazi psychosis. Isn't it the case that a similar conclusion imposes itself with regard to Serbs in the present war, and that only very rare Serbs opposed this kind of terror by their co-nationals?

At the beginning I was astounded, then shocked, by the reactions of Serbs to the aggression of their army. Some didn't react even though no explicit danger of reprisal could threaten them - I have in mind here especially Serbs living abroad. Few of them condemned the crimes, even fewer protested about them. That makes the achievement of those who did find enough civic courage to oppose the terror all the greater - I'm thinking here about Bogdan Bogdanovic, Mirko Kovac and a few others. But this was just a drop in the ocean of silence.

Taken as a whole, there really was a consensus to lie. With present-day communications, satellite programmes, world radio stations, they could not help knowing the truth. Moreover, lots of them followed the troops like vultures and looted. The majority defend themselves by saying they never saw anything with their own eyes, but then neither do they have any desire to know anything about it all. It's like walking past a starving beggar and turning your head away in order to avoid being aware of his hunger.

Perhaps people in Serbia didn't know the details of the terror their co-citizens were inflicting, but in principle they all knew what was happening. Perhaps at the beginning there were some naive souls who believed Vukovar was being destroyed by its own inhabitants, but after a few months everyone knew who was destroying Vukovar. They knew Sarajevo was under siege, with shells raining down on it.

It was only after the great shock of Germany's defeat that the Germans experienced a catharsis. The Serbs haven't...

The Serb nation too will come to its senses. But the success Milosevic is having at acting the role of peacemaker makes it clear this will not happen very soon.

Your book catalogues appalling crimes and appalling sufferings. The case of raped women who then became pregnant must be among the most dreadful traumas of this war.

Out of all the rape victims I spoke to, only eleven admitted to having become pregnant. Nine of these terminated the pregnancy, but two reached a late stage of pregnancy while still in prison, so that it was too late to terminate by the time of their release. They reached Zagreb and gave birth. This was at the time when a campaign was under way in Croatia to limit abortion rights, which added to the victims' sufferings. The number of eleven raped women who became pregnant doesn't even come close to representing the true state of affairs. Almost 80% of rape victims were between 15 and 35 years old, i.e. at the age of maximum fertility. Many victims were in prisons and camps, where they were subjected to mass rape. Some of these women were raped by soldiers and civilians literally hundreds of times. I spoke, for example, with one victim immediately after she left the Petrova Street hospital in Zagreb. When I asked her if she had become pregnant, she answered: 'No, I certainly didn't!' That kind of attitude was typical.

You have paid special attention to the strange reaction of certain feminists, who have explained the entire phenomenon as a gender conflict rather than as aggression by one nation against another.

Unfortunately many individuals have compromised themselves with such views, including one wing of the feminist movement. I am not a feminist myself, but I consider that the feminist movement has an important place in the civilized world and great merits for improving the position of women in society, so I am intentionally expressing myself with great caution here. Perhaps the feminists I mentioned had no hidden political agenda, but they spoke as though rape victims were always women. So rape becomes a result of male nature and has always existed: even Zeus changed into a bull and raped Europa. And that's how things still are today, in war and in peace. Many women still think this theory is correct.

But the victims are not just women. In the war in Bosnia- Herzegovina and Croatia, men and children were raped too. All those victims have forenames and surnames. If more than 80% of victims were of one nationality, then that is no accident. There were no rapes where perpetrator and victim belonged to the same nation, or if there were any the number was statistically insignificant. Yet certain feminists still spoke in terms of gender war.

In reality, it is quite clear in this case that certain men raped specific

Don't you pay special attention, at one point in the book, to the question of rapists among the HVO forces?

International sources and various commissions have concluded that soldiers of the HVO committed many rapes at the time of the Croat-Bosniak conflict. There were indications that rapes in this conflict too served the purpose of ethnic cleansing. But there was no evidence that what was involved here was a military strategy devised by the HVO's military and political command. I didn't come across a single source pointing to that.

Out of 202 rape victims with whom I spoke, there was just one Serb woman and one Ukrainian. Serb rape victims suffer no less than those of other nations, nor are Bosniak rapists in any sense justified by the fact that their nation has been the victim of Serbian aggression. But no balance exists among the different nations in this case - neither among the victims nor among the perpetrators - however much international politicians may have disseminated the notion of a civil war of all against all. Yet some feminists were against any counting of rape victims. Not to look at the figures, however, would mean ignoring the problem.

But don't you mention in your book how American feminists were responsible for warning about rapes at the time of the aggression against Croatia?

Certain American women spoke out very early on about rapes and the policy of ethnic cleansing in occupied areas of Croatia. Very little was said or written about this in Croatia during the war of independence. Even today I don't know why it was hushed up.

The problem of rape is a universal civilizational problem, about which all the world's citizens should know much more than they do. In Croatia this problem has long been ignored. That's why I'd like as many people to read this book as possible. I didn't write it to provoke intolerance between nations. I tried to be cool, but that wasn't entirely possible. I wasn't a cold observer, I was on the victim's side. I presented the raw facts, irrespective of whom they might upset. If the facts I uncovered had indicted my own nation, I would still have written them down. My book wasn't the result of any search for proof of given theses. And I checked all the statements in it several times over.

The publisher of your book is working with you on a series of events to promote the book in Croatia and throughout the world. It would be very useful for public opinion in Serbia too to be informed about the book. If some courageous organizer were to be found for a promotional meeting in Belgrade, would you accept an invitation?

I would go there. I'm ready to hear uncomfortable accusations. My book tells how several tens of thousands, perhaps even a hundred thousand, rapes have been committed in the name of one nation. This is a terrible accusation for that nation. If someone says such a thing and then presents solid evidence, the reactions cannot but be stormy. Despite the evidence, many people will claim that the book is anti-Serb. It will be hard for me to prove I haven't written a book of hatred, nor will I attempt it.

A crime has been committed that in numerical terms is not the greatest in the history of warfare. But for the first time in the history of warfare rape has become a part of military strategy. For the first time human sexuality has been used for the purpose of what has euphemistically been termed ethnic cleansing, but which is in fact classic genocide.