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Film documents Bosnia rape victims' anguish in absence of retribution

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Fri, 21 Feb 2014 05:14 GMT
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Still from the film “Mission Rape - A Tool of War”. Courtesy of Sfinx Film
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LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - One woman screams at night when she dreams of her time in a concentration camp, where she was raped every Thursday by 11 men. Another describes the torment she went through when soldiers sexually abused her 12-year-old daughter, before raping her as well.

These are two of a catalogue of testimonies given by Balkan war survivors in a documentary that holds no punches and highlights what many perceive as gross injustices that have gone unpunished by Bosnian and international courts - and the lack of support Bosnian authorities have shown war rape victims as they rebuild their lives.

“He broke me and put a stop to my life when I needed most of all to live,” said Meliha, a Bosnian who was only 13 when soldiers raped her. “No politicians or experts or Hague tribunals can prevent me from talking of the things I’ve suffered.”

“Mission Rape - A Tool of War” makes the case that sexual violence was used as a military strategy in the 1992 -1995 Balkan war that broke out between Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia after Yugoslavia’s collapse, in a region scarred by ethnic conflict.

“Rape as a tool of war was practiced by all parties, but the statistics concentrate mostly on the Bosnian women as rape victims,” Annette Mari Olsen, one of the two filmmakers, told Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview. “It began massively from the Serbian side, as is stated in the film, and later spread to all parties, mostly as revenge.”

Twenty years after the violence, thousands of traumatised and displaced women still cannot return to their hometowns where war criminals walk freely or even work now for the police.

“The women don’t have the courage to go back to their hometowns because the rapists haven’t been caught,” Olsen said. “They are permanently displaced and they don’t feel they have victim protection.”

“HUMILIATION A WEAPON”

The filmmakers found that Bosnian authorities have failed to offer enough mental health support to Balkan war rape victims.

“My husband and children were crying… They had raped my daughter,” Bakira Hasečić, a prominent women's rights activist from Bosnia, said on camera.

“They hit her in the head with their weapons. There was panic in the house. My screams could be heard miles away.”

She says she was also raped, under the threat that her entire family would be killed if she did not satisfy the soldier.

“These are traumas you live with, you sleep with and you wake up with. There is no medical eraser that can erase it from your mind,” she said. “The greatest pain we carry is the lack of justice, for without justice we’ll never regain self-esteem and peace in our souls.”

Hasečić heads Women Victims of War, a Sarajevo-based organisation set up in 2003 that helps survivors access healthcare, and legal and financial aid. She is just one of the 25,000 women listed in her NGO’s war rape victims database.

Of these, 1,800 hold civilian victims status in a country where she says rape is a taboo subject. A civilian victim certificate means that the state acknowledges a person’s suffering and grants them a war pension, among other benefits.

Women Victims of War has been handing victim statements to the prosecutors from the Yugoslavian Tribunal for War Crimes (ICTY) in The Hague, established by the U.N. in 1993 to deal with criminals of the Balkan war, and to courts in Sarajevo.

The two Danish filmmakers, who cover and portray wars through women’s lives, used Bosnia as a case study to reflect on war rape and impunity worldwide.

“We decided that we must make this film because you hear all over the world, like in Syria, in Iraq, in Africa, that women are just prey,” Olsen said. “Women are targets. And people say, ‘That’s what happens in war, women do get raped.’ ... There is a lack of justice. The war criminals walk around freely in the towns that women are from. They can’t move back.”

Coproducer Katia Forbert Petersen added: "When generations have passed and it is known that a person's mother or grandmother was a victim of war, the rumour would refer to her as a 'war whore'. That's why legal justice is essential for your self esteem."

Referring to the Bosnian war, she said:  “Twenty years later, the war was still deeply ingrained into the people’s minds. Personal humiliation is a very strong weapon."

ETHNIC CLEANSING TOOL

“Rape is much more effective than shooting somebody because it affects the husband, the children... If the rumour is out that three women got raped, suddenly the whole town flees. It’s a very effective tool of ethnic cleansing,” Olsen said.  

Mirsad Tokaca, director of the Research and Documentation Centre in Sarajevo, has mapped war rape across Bosnia and found that sexual violence targeted areas of strategic military importance.

“Behind this was a specific strategy to remove the population and to occupy this part of the territories,” he said in the film.

The filmmakers’ investigation found that 61 war criminals have been prosecuted for rape in The Hague and Bosnia.

In the film, Hasečić watches the trial in The Hague of Milan Lukić, former head of a Serbian paramilitary group. Although Hasečić and other women testified that Lukić had raped them, Hasečić tells the filmmakers that the word “rape” was not mentioned in the indictment.

“Maybe when 50 women say they have been raped by this man, (it) should be sufficient enough for the prosecutor,” Olsen said. “I’m not a lawyer, but maybe there’s something wrong with the system if this man gets away.”

The first time an international court qualified rape as a form of torture was the 1998 judgment by the ICTY, which found deputy camp commander Hazim Delić guilty of raping two women during interrogations and sentenced him to 18 years in prison.

The first ICTY trial to focus exclusively on sexual violence charges was the 2000 prosecution of Anto Furundžija, the commander of a special unit of the Croatian Defence Council unit, called the Jokers.

An ICTY summary of the case describes Furundžija’s subordinate raping a woman “in front of a laughing audience of other soldiers”. As the unit’s commander, Furundžija was found guilty as a coperpetrator, aider and abettor, and sentenced to 10 years in prison.

“The ambition and the hope is that the public will pressure the war rapes to be treated seriously in court, because it has this long-term effect on generations to come. It is just as important as shooting a man. Many of these women are dead inside,” Olsen said.

The film is scheduled for release in Denmark on March 12, and on public television in Bosnia and Herzegovina in late March.

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