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Women in Serb-controlled region of Bosnia still await compensation for wartime abuse

Semka Agic holds the notice demanding she pay the legal fees for a suit she lost against the government of Republika Srpska requesting compensation for wartime damages, in Tuzla, northeastern Bosnia and Herzegovina, on March 3, 2018. (Mainichi)

TUZLA, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- The third collection letter demanding that 64-year-old Semka Agic pay 3,000 convertible marks (roughly 200,000 yen) in legal fees was delivered to her home here in February. Agic filed for compensation from the government for wartime damages -- but lost.

"I don't want to pay because I was detained for 13 months. I worked for them, I was raped, I lost my son. I'm not going to pay," she said, her voice shaking with anger. "Will they send me to jail? But I have already been there during the war."

After the Bosnian War (1992-1995), Bosnia and Herzegovina split mainly into two autonomous governments, the Bosniak and Croat-led Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Serbian-led Republika Srpska. The region handles foreign affairs and other matters as the sovereign nation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, but practical governing tasks like finance and war damage compensation are handled separately by the two entities. On the issue of providing damages to the victims of wartime sexual assault, opinion is polarized between the two.

A large number of those who were subject to sexual violence during the conflict were Bosniaks. Because of this, the Bosniak-majority Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina recognized sexual assault as a war crime in 2006 at the urging of NGOs and other organizations, and passed a law to award benefits to the victims. Meanwhile, the government of Republika Srpska did not recognize rape -- as it often leaves behind no physical scars -- as a war crime.

The fact that Serbs systematically carried out the killing and rape of Bosniaks in the name of "ethnic cleansing" during the war is widely known. As for Srpska's stance on the issue, NGOs and other organizations suspect that the government is hesitant to recognize the issue because it expects it would be inundated with requests for large sums of money.

Bosniak Agic lived in a small village on the Srpska's side of the region in 1993 when Serbian soldiers attacked her home. They shot her 19-year-old son dead on the spot and raped her. Around 2012, Agic filed a lawsuit for compensation from Republika Srpska, but the government dismissed the claim and instead demanded that she pay the legal fees.

But Agic is not alone. Serb women are also starting to push back against Srpska's stance. They were the victims of sexual violence at the hands of Bosniaks. Because the Serbs are seen as the "perpetrators" by the international community, the pain suffered by Serbian women has been largely forgotten.

In 2012, Bozica Zivkovic Railic, 60, sought to change that and began to gather the testimonies of Serbian women who had been sexually assaulted and refused to remain invisible. Thanks to her efforts, the Srpska parliament finally moved on the issue, adopting a bill to provide sexual assault victims with compensation in February this year. Still, not only is the amount of the subsidies offered under the law lower than in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, it has prompted criticism from human rights groups that "the conditions stipulate that 'those that served under opposing forces are not eligible for compensation,' and there is a possibility it will only provide aid to Serbian victims" and other complaints. The date for when the law will go into effect has yet to be decided.

In a region divided along ethnic lines, disparities in how victims of wartime sexual violence are compensated have emerged. The ethnically driven civil war a half century ago still casts a dark shadow on Bosnia and Herzegovina.

(Japanese original by Koji Miki, Vienna Bureau)

This is part two of a four-part series.

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