Forgetting as False Forgiveness: Bosnia's survivors of wartime sexual violence and the struggle for reparations

Photo by Mel Hattie.

The following piece is a shortened version of 'A Culture of Amnesia? Assessing the National and International Response to Mass Rape in Bosnia-Herzegovina,' written by Olivia Martin for the University of Sussex MA in Human Rights Program.

The break-up of Yugoslavia and the subsequent Bosnian war is described as one of the most violent in modern European history; characterized by aggressive ethnic divisions and resulting in detention camps and mass atrocities reminiscent of those seen in Nazi Germany only fifty years previously. Between 1992 and 1995, this war resulted in the death of around 100,000 people as well as the rape and torture of an estimated 20,000-55,000 women.

While men and women from each ethnic group (Bosniak, Croat, and Serb) were subjected to rape during the Bosnian war, Serb forces perpetrated the greatest number of these crimes. Sexual violence committed by Serb forces was, as evidence suggests, part of an extensive and systematic military tactic to use and dispose of women’s bodies as a means of ethnic cleansing. Women who became pregnant from the rapes were often detained until their pregnancy reached full term and made to give birth. Forced pregnancy in this sense was one tactic within a wider genocide. This military tactic not only reshaped the individual lives of the victims but also the community, the state structure, and international jurisprudence, whereby rape was officially declared a crime against humanity by the ICTY. Regardless of this, however, those who suffered directly from wartime rape have received limited acknowledgment and retribution, and have been left to cope with the traumatic after effects of genocidal rape in a society which already provides few socio-economic rights.

Bosnia and Herzegovina’s stunted retributive justice for survivors of sexual violence during the 1992- 1995 war can produce a false sense of ‘forgiveness’ for the perpetrator. This ‘forgiveness’ is not accomplished in any real sense such as that perhaps experienced with restorative justice, but forgiveness in the form of ‘institutional forgetfulness’ (Minow, 2000:15), which sacrifices justice in a foreshortened effort to move on, while the issue remains very much present within the community. Although recognizing the limitations of retributive justice, especially in a post-war context in which many perpetrators continue to coexist with victims, the significance of retribution in this case must not be underestimated, as it has the ability to dismantle the false message that those who experienced wartime rape are of any less value than other members of society.

A central component of retributive justice around the world is the payment of reparations. According to international norms, if a person’s human rights are violated, reparations, in the form of compensation, rehabilitation, recognition, or support within the community, should be given to aid victims in rebuilding their lives, especially in the context of post-war devastation. In the case of post-war BiH, however, the qualification for reparations was declared, ‘a disability that must be proven, while the amount of money is determined according to the degree of disability’ (Amnesty International: 2012). Those who had experienced the trauma of wartime rape in BiH often received no reparations from the government for the crimes committed against them For example, the current Republika Srpska Law on the Protection of Civilian Victims of War provides welfare only to people who suffered at least 60 percent damage to their bodies as a result of torture, assault, rape, or other crimes committed in the course of the conflict (ibid). Recognition on a basis of ‘physical disability’ however is not justice, as it does not account for the multiple and complex needs of those who have experienced wartime rape, including injuries that aren’t visible such as infertility or psychological trauma.

Not providing holistic social welfare in this sense extends the effects of structural and cultural violence. First of all, those who suffer from PTSD as a result of wartime rape are often unable to find and maintain work, especially in an economic climate of 23.4% unemployment (Amnesty International, 2009:42). Secondly, the bureaucratic system makes it very difficult to actively claim social benefits, as they must provide medical documentation, despite the lack the widespread lack of formal records kept during the and a shortage of qualified medical personnel. Additionally, claims submitted after 31 January 2007 were automatically rejected (ibid), which penalizes those with later occurring symptoms or those unable to claim prior due to lack of support. Unable to work and unable to receive substantial social benefits victims of wartime rape often find themselves in positions of extreme poverty. An Amnesty Report titled ‘Whose Justice? Bosnia and Herzegovina’s women still waiting (2009),’ describes the story of Maya who lives in the Republika Srpska, and who suffers from ‘post-traumatic stress disorder, HPV, chronic anemia, colitis and back pain,’ Maya described her experience of seeking social benefits in her municipality:

“I went to the Social Welfare Centre but they told me they could not help me. They told me I was not disabled and that because my parents were receiving social benefits and I lived with them I was not eligible to get any help.” Maja and her two elderly parents live in a remote part of Republika Srpska trying to survive on social benefits of KM 50 (€ 25) per month in total for three of them.” (ibid)

This discriminatory procedure results in the re-traumatization and ‘second victimization’ of wartime rape victims. A woman named Taida, for instance, told Amnesty International that she was discouraged from applying for the status for the following reasons:

“I wanted to get the civilian victim of war status and I was thinking about registering but I have no courage to go through the trauma again. I am not able to tell anybody what happened to me. It is too painful and dreadful. I am ashamed of myself and I am ashamed to admit it to myself. Not to mention other people” (ibid:45)

Amnesty has reported that as of ‘December 2008 only 500 women in BiH were in receipt of social benefits due to civilian victims of war’ (Amnesty International, 2010:20) status. This number pales in comparison to the number of allegations of sexual violence during the war. Little justification for this discrimination has been provided by the authorities, despite the fact that under Article 21 of the UN Basic Principles, all survivors of wartime violence are eligible for ‘medical and psychological care as well as legal and social services’ (UN:2005).

This sense of abjection that can make a person feel reduced to that of an object within their social world is not as simple as just physical oppression or silencing; rather it encompasses the deeply ingrained, disguised and habitual forms of structural violence within the country's systems. Failing to recognize and tackle these damaging structures within a post war context will not only reshape Bosnian society but will continue to victimize those struggling to move on from their experience of wartime sexual violence.