NEW YORK (TrustLaw) - Nearly two decades after war ended in Bosnia and Herzegovina, hundreds of women who survived rape and torture in the conflict are still seeking reparations and justice, with only 40 cases of sexual violence having been prosecuted so far, an Amnesty International report says.
“Justice is not only about seeing the perpetrators punished, but it’s also being able to function in everyday life,” Elena Wasylew, the campaigner for Amnesty’s Balkan team, told TrustLaw in a telephone interview from Sarajevo, where the report is being released on Thursday.
“When you ask the women, what does justice mean to you, they say justice means ‘I can access healthcare, that my children can access healthcare, that I can go to work and I don’t have to be ashamed about what happened to me,’” said Wasylew, who has worked closely with women survivors in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) over the last several years.
Despite a commitment by the BiH federal government in 2010 to develop and implement a “national programme for women victims of sexual violence in conflict and beyond,” the programme has yet to be finalised and implemented.
As a result, “hundreds of women continue to live with the effects of rape and other forms of torture without proper access to the medical, psychological and financial assistance they need to rebuild their shattered lives,” said Jezerca Tigani, Amnesty’s Europe and Central Asia deputy programme director, in a statement.
Those effects include: post-traumatic stress disorder; anxiety; colitis; headaches; sexually transmitted diseases; diabetes; hypertension and insomnia. The report also notes that, although they all are supposed to be eligible for health coverage, few women have the health insurance to access the services and medicines they need and are primarily relying on help from non-governmental organisations.
Amnesty estimates that roughly between 20,000 and 50,000 women experienced war-related violence during the conflict, Wasylew said. She cautioned that the true number may never be known because many women are too fearful or ashamed to come forward.
The briefing, “Old Crimes, Same Suffering: No justice for survivors of wartime rape in north-east Bosnia and Herzegovina,” focuses on women survivors living in Tuzla.
“LIVES IN LIMBO”
Many women, primarily Bosnian Muslims, fled to this northeastern city, which was considered a “safe haven” during the 1992-1995 war. Many remain there as internally displaced persons (IDPS) because of fear or inability to return to homes in what is now the Serb-dominated Republika Srpska.
“Their lives are still in limbo,” Wasylew said.
“There is still strong denial by politicians that these crimes took place in the Republika Srpska,” Wasylew added, noting that victims of wartime sexual violence, whether Bosnian Serbs or Bosnian Muslims, are not recognised as such there.
Further complicating any cohesive approach to reparations is the complex administrative and judicial composition of the country. The country of BiH is divided into two primary entities: the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (FBiH), which is further divided into 10 cantons, and the Republika Srpska (RS).
Some parts of the country still use the former Yugoslav criminal code, while others adhere to more recent international criminal codes. All of the judiciary is under-resourced and “there is little guidance and training for investigators and prosecutors dealing with cases of wartime sexual violence,” the report found.
As many women lost spouses and other family members during the war, there is also a high percentage of women as single heads of households. Women living in Tuzla and other parts of the FBiH may quality as “civilian victims of war” and receive a stipend of about 255 euros monthly. No such stipend exists in the RS.
There are many reasons for the slowness in providing women with assistance after all these years, Wasylew told TrustLaw, but the primary one is “lack of political will.”
“You can see that everybody is extremely tired to talk about the war and war crimes. There is a very dangerous trend among the authorities saying: ‘Let’s focus on the future. Let’s wrap it up.’”
But, she added, “you really can’t go forward without dealing with the past and the present.”
The report, which includes testimonies from survivors, concludes with a series of recommendations that Amnesty is offering to the authorities in BiH.
Wasylew said the most pressing one to adopt is that concerning access to health insurance and medical care. “That is what the women said is most important to them…Health is the most urgent issue. If you’re not healthy, you can’t deal with the rest.”
On a broader scale, she said she has hope that the promised national programme of reparations for women will go forward in all parts of the country, spurred by pressure from the international community.
“Really, the most important thing is going to be what is going to happen with the women,” said Wasylew, who is based in London. “I really hope in a year, when I come back, they will say, ‘Elena, at least now we have health insurance,’” she said.
(Editing by Rebekah Curtis)