A cradle of inhumanity

Author: Christine Toomey
Uploaded: Wednesday, 12 November, 2003

Moving report published in The Sunday Times Magazine on the children of Bosnia's rape victims and the terrible difficulties faced by them, their mothers and those who care for them

These little girls believe their fathers were good men. They may never know the truth. One pictures a nice home, the other rocks for comfort. What future is there for the children of Bosnian rape victims?

 

 

The moments when Jasmina feels greatest tenderness towards her child are when her daughter whispers: "Close the door, Mama. I want to rock a little." Alone then with her mother, 10-year-old Elma will sit silently rocking herself for comfort. "She feels as if this is something that no one else should see," Jasmina explains. "She has rocked herself like this since she was a baby. Maybe it is strange. But it makes me love her more than any mother should probably love their child." Such fierce love has not come easily to Jasmina When her daughter was an infant crying to be fed, she would pretend she did not hear the baby's distress. "I used to block out the sound and just leave her, walk away... I had to work very hard to love my child." This sounds like the admission of a reluctant young mother. But Jasmina's complex relationship with her child has far darker roots.

Elma is one of the many children born as a result of their mothers being subjected to what is now recognised in international law as mass genocidal rape by soldiers, paramilitaries and police - most of them Serbs - during the savage conflict that gripped the Balkans throughout the first half of the 1990s. No record exists of how many such children were born - though the figure is believed to run into thousands - since many women never spoke of what had happened to them during the war, having abandoned their babies immediately after birth.

More than 10 years after the start of the conflict, the number of those subjected to sexual torture is still unclear. Official estimates range from 12,000 to 50,000. "For those of us who worked with these women, such statistics have little meaning," says Dr Ante Klobucar of the Sveti Duh Hospital in Zagreb, the Croatian capital where many of those who had been raped secured abortions or gave birth to unwanted babies after fleeing as refugees. "How can the ordeal of a woman held prisoner for months, and raped three or four times a day by a group of six or more soldiers, be measured? Does what she went through count as one rape or several hundred?" questions the doctor, recalling how women, after delivering their babies, begged that the rape-induced pregnancy not be entered in their medical records, so great was their sense of shame and fear of being abandoned by their families.

After years of prevarication over intervening in the conflict that cost more than 200,000 lives, the international outcry at reports of mass atrocities committed against women in Bosnia was one of the key factors responsible for eventually pushing world leaders to take action to end the war. The image of a young Muslim woman who hanged herself from a tree with a piece of torn blanket, in despair at the brutality, remains one of the most haunting of the conflict and has been cited as one of the catalysts prompting President Bill Clinton to eventually change US policy in the region.

But once all political capital had been wrung from the atrocities to which these women were subjected, their suffering was quickly forgotten: their plight no longer constituted a fashionable cause. While those who were left physically disabled by the fighting - such as amputees and paraplegics - receive modest monthly payments, rape victims, who are more psychologically than physically scarred, are entitled to nothing.

Many of these women now live in miserable circumstances, often in "collective centres"little better than refugee camps, after being ostracised by their families or left homeless after being forced to flee homes to which they are still afraid to return. Though a key provision of the Dayton accords - which brought an end to open hostilities in November 1995 - stated that every displaced person had the right to return to their pre-war home, few can contemplate going back to communities where their tormentors still hold positions of power.

In the eastern half of the country known as the Republika Srpska - the vast swathe of territory ceded to the Serbs for the sake of peace - many of those responsible for mass murder, ethnic cleansing and mass rape continue to hold public office and work in the police force. Together with the paramilitary groups that still hold sway in this quasi-closed sector of society, they fight any attempt to extradite war criminals to the Hague.

Over the past three years a steady stream of women and girls - some as young as 12 - have made legal history by testifying at the war-crimes tribunal to the operation of a network of rape camps around the country during the conflict, which has led to war rape being recognised for the first time ever as a "crime against humanity". But some of those who have either already given evidence before the tribunal or are due to do so are incensed at the way that what happened to them has been used for political and legal ends, while the way they have been stigmatised since is ignored - both within their own country and by the international community.

Yet if the problems these women face have deepened since the fighting stopped, those of the children born as a result of rape are only just beginning. In a society where the issue of war rape is still taboo, they barely receive a mention. Few even acknowledge their existence. While the right to have their identities protected is beyond dispute, hiding their problems and denying they exist will, mental-health experts fear, only add to their burden in the long

Jasmina is one of the very few of these women who chose to keep the child she bore after being raped. For years she suffered taunts from those who knew, or suspected, what had happened to her during the war, and who would openly deride her daughter as "that bastard child". Sometimes, when she took Elma out for a walk, they would shout after her: "There goes that whore - and look, she's given birth to another whore."

But the softly spoken 28-year-old has agreed to speak out about her experience from a deeply held conviction that honesty is ultimately in the best interests of her child. Jasmina also considers herself lucky. A few months ago she got married - a step rarely taken by those who have been through such wartime experiences - and recently she has moved away from her home town to a village where her husband's family have welcomed her and protect her privacy.

"They are good people and he is a good man," she says. "He knows what happened to me. He was a prisoner too. He understands."

In other ways Jasmina's experience is not typical of that suffered by other women during the war. Her ordeal lasted only one night. Her attacker was a Croat soldier rather than a Serb, and he was the only one who tortured her, though he did not act alone. Jasmina, a Muslim, believes a group of Catholic girls she was at school with betrayed her by leading her to her attacker and then leaving her to her fate. Jasmina, who had just finished high school, was unprepared for how quickly the ethnic hatred that was tearing her country apart coul

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