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For women raped during Bosnian War, still no end to pain 25 years later

Amela Mectuseyac, right, speaks about support for women who were the victims of sexual assault during the Bosnian War in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, on March 9, 2018. (Mainichi)
(Mainichi)

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- While nearly 20 years has passed since the end of the Bosnian War following the breakup of Yugoslavia, for the women who experienced traumatic violence and sexual assault in the name of "ethnic cleansing," the battle continues.

In March 1992, the Socialist Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina declared its independence from the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, ushering in a civil war between Bosniaks and Croats versus the Serbs who were against the decision. While all three groups are Slavic, the Bosniaks are mainly Muslim, while the Serbs are Orthodox and the Croats Catholic. A peace agreement was reached in 1995, but the region was left with over 200,000 casualties and some 2.5 million refugees and evacuees.

Last year, the curtain closed on the International Tribunal for the Prosecution of Persons Responsible for Serious Violations of International Humanitarian Law Committed in the Territory of the Former Yugoslavia since 1991, set up in 1993 in The Hague, Netherlands, by the United Nations to try war crimes committed during the fighting in the region. The end to the tribunal can be seen on one hand as the end of one segment of the postwar process. However, the women there still carry the deep emotional wounds of their sexual assault a quarter of a century later.

It's April 1992, in the town of Visegrad in eastern Bosnia-Herzegovina. The town with a population of over 60 percent Muslim Bosniaks is being overrun by a large number of Serbian soldiers. The militants steal any valuables from the households and kill any man who resists. The women are raped. This is the face of ethnic cleansing -- the thorough eradication of another ethnic group through violence.

The house of Amela Mectuseyac, now 45, was surrounded by some 20 Serb soldiers. Amela, her mother and younger sister were the only ones inside. Amela was struck in the head before being raped in front of her family. Afterwards, she and her sister were able to escape to the house of an acquaintance in a nearby town, but their mother who was left behind endured being raped innumerable times.

Bosniak women have come to be the target of sexual violence during conflicts, including World War II, but in the conservative nature of the local society, women who have been raped are divorced by their husbands and left with nowhere to go. Because of this, the women here have kept their suffering a tight-lipped secret.

"This is revenge against war criminals," said Amela's now 64-year-old mother Bakira Hasecic. In 2003, eight years after the peace agreement was signed, she started the very first civil group devoted to providing support for the women who had been raped during the conflict. Amela was also involved.

At first, only a few women came forward. They were labeled as "women who had been raped" and drew criticism from the public. Amela and the other women held lectures, and used local media appearances to convey the horrors of their experiences. Slowly, other victims started to gather. By 2006, a total of 2,707 women had come forward, and they requested that the government recognize rape as a war crime.

After the war, Bosnia and Herzegovina was divided into two constitutional and legal entities within the country, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, led by Bosniaks and Croats, and the Serb-led Republika Srpska (Serb Republic). The government of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina recognized the violence against the women as war crimes, and came to provide them with roughly 500 convertible marks (about 33,000 yen) a month in subsidies.

But the women's testimonies have also made a difference in another way. With more and more stories being told by the women, the atrocities carried out by war criminals during the conflict have come under the spotlight. So far, the testimonies of roughly 6,250 women have been gathered, and used to prosecute the perpetrators of war crimes.

However, this had led to problems as well. The women who speak as witnesses in court have to relive the terror of their attack, and in many cases it exacerbates their post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Psychological support for the women before and after their testimonies is imperative, but government support is not reaching them. On top of that, of the several dozen thousand estimated rape victims in the country, only about 800 are receiving government aid. That's because requesting the compensation automatically outs a woman as a victim publicly.

Adila Suljevic, 52, was held captive in her home in the northern city of Brcko in 1992 by Serb soldiers. At the time, she was four months pregnant, but while being transferred to other locations and raped over and over again, she miscarried. "Unfortunately, I was thinking of committing suicide. I was looking for a reason not to live anymore," she said, only recovering from her ordeal after over 10 years of psychiatric treatment.

Wanting to help other women like her, Adila started an NGO in 2015 to support women who had been the victims of sexual assault. Even now, she says that local women visit her residence practically every day to open up about what happened to them "for the first time."

"(The women) are basically suffering alone from the trauma that they had in the past. That's why I decided to open this association," Adila explained. "The main mission of the association is to empower women in different sectors, such as economically, to provide psychological help, to provide social healthcare."

For these women, the "war" still has no end.

(Japanese original by Koji Miki, Vienna Bureau)

This is part one of a four-part series.

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