Sexual Violence in Conflict: The Bosnian War
This case note is a part of our series of case notes that document the occurrence of sexual violence in violent conflict. The case note contains explicit mentions of different forms of sexual assault. Reader discretion is advised.
Background of the conflict
The Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY) was founded after the Second World War and was led by Marshal Tito. It comprised six republics, namely Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Slovenia. Several ethnic groups lived in the region. In 1974, a new constitution was drafted and adopted, granting autonomous powers to Kosovo and Vojvodina, two regions within the territory. Although the social set up treated Bosnian-Croats, Serbs, and Bosnian-Muslims as distinct ethnic groups within the federation, the divisions were not allowed to be emphasized, as Marshal Tito forbade the expression of nationalism and jailed those who did.
After Marshal Tito’s reign drew to an end in 1980, nationalistic and ethnic allegiances took over. In the years that followed, a broken economy proved an enabling environment for the amplification of prevailing ethnic tensions, and the Republic of Yugoslavia began to crumble. In 1991, Slovenia and Croatia seceded from the SFRY. The Socialist Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina (which at the time comprised 43 percent Bosnian Muslims (often referred to as Bosniaks), 33 percent Bosnian Serbs, 17 percent Bosnian Croats, and roughly 7 percent other nationalities (ICRC, 1999)) passed a referendum seeking independence on February 29, 1992. However, the political representatives of the Bosnian Serbs boycotted the referendum and rejected its outcome (ICRC, 1999).
After Bosnia and Herzegovina declared independence and gained international recognition, Bosnian Serbs led by Radovan Karadžić, backed by the Serbian government under Slobodan Milošević, and the Yugoslav People’s Army, all mobilized within Bosnia and Herzegovina to secure Serb territory. The Croats were also embroiled in a war against Bosnia and Herzegovina. In the war that unfolded thereon, sexual violence, rape, ethnic cleansing, and genocide followed.
The Serbs lost momentum when the Bosniaks and Croats joined hands against the Republika Srpska in 1994, when the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina was formed after the Washington Agreement. The war ended with the NATO intervening in 1995, after the Srebrenica and Markale massacres.
Sexual violence in the Bosnian War
The war in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s witnessed some of the worst forms of conflict-related sexual violence. Alongside the Rwandan genocide, the sexual violence during the Bosnian genocide opened up the conversation around recognizing its prevalence not as a by-product of war, but as a systematic, planned war tactic. In the course of the war, rape camps were created, where women were tortured and violated over and over again (Crow, 2013). Even though much of the violence was carried out by all sides engaged in the war, Bosnian Serbs were responsible for most of the sexual violence, and they mostly targeted Muslim women. Estimates show that as many as 60,000 women were raped (Wood, 2013; Burg and Shoup, 2015). There are several reports suggesting that there were as many as 20,000 to 60,000 rapes, although it is hard to identify a concrete number because of lack of reportage and the politicization of numbers (Burg and Shoup, 2015). A survivor from the Klainovik camp, where approximately 100 women had been detained and subjected to "multiple perpetrator rape," went on record to state that the rapists kept telling their victims, "You are going to have our children. You are going to have our little Chetniks," and that they were raped in order to "plant the seed of Serbs in Bosnia" (Weitsman, 2008). Women from such camps were forced to follow through with the full term of their pregnancies and give birth.
Among the major sites of violence, a town called Foča, located in the south-eastern part of Bosnia, was the epicentre of rape (Allen, 1996). After being declared a safe zone by the United Nations, Srebrenica became the site of a major mass murder and rape under the direction of Ratko Mladić, the Colonel General of the Bosnian Serb Army, and politician Radovan Karadžić. Blame was placed on the Dutch UN army forces which were in charge of protecting the safe zone – and following investigations later, the then Dutch government resigned (Parrot and Cummings, 2008).
The Basis of Sexual Violence in the Bosnian War
Sexual violence was used as a deliberate, planned strategy as part of the larger campaign of ethnic cleansing, where women were targeted for their ethnic backgrounds, raped and impregnated, and forced to have children who would look ethnically different from them. Several women were forced to carry their babies to full term. Sexual violence was also used as a tactic to humiliate and demean women and by extension, communities, and to spread fear in order to force large groups of people to flee the region and perhaps never return. In some instances, rape was also used to torture women into providing information on the whereabouts of their husbands, fathers, or sons, who were hiding in the forest. There are also reports suggesting that rape was carried out in the course of pillage and sometimes under pressure – where some soldiers were forced by their peers or superiors, to commit rape.
Response to Conflict-Related Sexual Violence
The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia became the first international tribunal in Europe to convict people for rape as a crime against humanity (after Akayesu in Rwanda), and the first to “enter convictions for rape as a form of torture and for sexual enslavement as crime against humanity.” Following the war, the Dayton Accords were signed, and emphasized that survivors were to receive property restitution and return home to a safe and dignified life. No rules were put in place to facilitate such restitution. Several women also had to return home to live among those who had committed acts of sexual violence against them or their families and friends (Amnesty International, 2009). Even as the WPS Agenda emerged shortly after, the judgments were – on paper – far reaching, many survivors continue to wait for justice.
Allen, Beverly (1996). Rape Warfare: Hidden Genocide in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia. University of Minnesota Press.
Amnesty International (2009): “Whose Justice? The Women Of Bosnia And Herzegovina Are Still Waiting”. Available at http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/asset/EUR63/006/2009/en/8af5ed43-5094-48c9-bfab-1277b5132faf/eur630062009eng.pdf
Crowe, David M. (2013). War Crimes, Genocide, and Justice: A Global History. Palgrave Macmillan.
ICRC (1999). “Bosnia.” https://www.icrc.org/en/doc/assets/files/other/bosnia.pdf
Wood, Elisabeth J. (2013). Miranda A.H Horvath, Jessica Woodhams (ed.). Handbook on the Study of Multiple Perpetrator Rape: A multidisciplinary response to an international problem. Routledge.
Parrot, Andrea; Cummings, Nina (2008). Sexual Enslavement of Girls and Women Worldwide. Greenwood Publishing Group
Steven L. Burg; Paul S. Shoup (4 March 2015). Ethnic Conflict and International Intervention: Crisis in Bosnia-Herzegovina, 1990-93: Crisis in Bosnia-Herzegovina, 1990-93. Taylor & Francis. pp. 222
Weitsman, Patricia A. (2008). "The Politics of Identity and Sexual Violence: A Review of Bosnia and Rwanda". Human Rights Quarterly. 30 (3): 561–578.
Documented by Kirthi Jayakumar