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Bosnian-Muslim-Rape-Victim-Traumatized woman, Bosnian Muslim rape victim. Photo taken by Anthony LLoyd, noted war correspondent and former British Army officer. Image used for Fair Use Only. Source: Srebrenica Genocide Blog

By Ena Keco, Safe World Student Writer

April 2012

April 2012 marked the 20th anniversary of the Bosnian war. A war that claimed over two hundred thousand lives, left over two million people externally displaced, and a war in which over fifty thousand people have fallen victim to rape, seen as a deliberate military tactic in an attempt to speed up the process of  ethnic cleansing.

The Bosnian war manifested the start of the longest siege in modern warfare history, committed on European soil after WWII – the siege of Sarajevo. One thousand four hundred and seventy nine days without water, food, electricity, and access to basic medical attention. The Srebrenica massacre paved its way as the single, worst atrocity in Europe since the Nazi era – murdering over eight thousand teenage boys and men.

Currently, the different ethnic groups of Bosnia & Herzegovina include – Bosniaks (Bosnian-Muslims) consisting of: 48.3%, Serbs: 34.0%, Croats: 15.4%, and others: 2.3%.  

Unresolved Issues

After twenty years of war, Bosnia is left in pieces of division. The lingering problems prevailing post-war Bosnia is that unity will not be achieved for another couple of decades, due to its indecisive political condition. The people of Bosnian are left with three different identities, each learning their own adaptation of history, and language- Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian.

“The past is unresolved, unforgotten and unforgiven”. Alec Russell, journalist.

Bosnia has been turned into a decentralized state with two autonomous entities; the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Republika Srpska (RS), and there are ten cantons in the federation with strong municipal governments. This was the result of the Dayton peace agreement signed in 1995.

What the Dayton peace agreement ultimately did was create a ceasefire firstly, and secondly, it rewarded Serbia with more Bosnian territory. This territory is further shared with the Croats via a centrally linked government. Bosnia’s future as a fully sovereign state as such, is not permitted to exist because no distinct decision making capacity exists, as to whether the state should be divided, or remain unified.

Different ethnic groups are growing isolated from each other, and together with the rise of nationalism, and the fact that Bosnia is governed by a dysfunctional tripartite coalition government, these are the central problems of the agreement. There is one governing body for each ethnic group, Bosniak, Croat and Serb, and it has come to be known as one of the most 'over-governed' countries in the world. With thirteen administrations, and one hundred and sixty ministers, this costs the state 50 percent of its annual GDP, in a country where the unemployment rate is as steep as 41 percent.

The Women of Bosnia

During the war and as in most conflicts, women bore the brunt of the siege. They fed the men and children first, and losing on average 20 kg (3st2lb) in weight. This is called the Karadzic diet.

Bosnian-women-in-warMeliha Varesanovic in the dangerous suburb of Dobrinja during the Siege of Sarajevo, 1995 - "you will never defeat us." Photo source: Tom Stoddart/Getty ImagesBosnian women however, preserved their pride & beauty throughout the war. They would draw lines up the back of their legs, creating the illusion as if they were wearing stockings. They would also use rose petals for perfume, and would never leave their house without perfectly styled hair, sending out the message of, ‘you will never defeat us’.

Rape was a tool and strategy used in the siege of Bosnia, and it is due to this, that rape was first properly recognised as a weapon of war after the conflict in Bosnia.

Most of the rape victims were Bosnian Muslims assaulted by Serbs. Muslim women were herded into “rape camps” where they were raped repeatedly, usually by groups of men. The full horrors of these camps emerged in hearings at the war-crimes tribunal on ex-Yugoslavia in The Hague; victims gave evidence in writing or anonymously. After the war, some perpetrators said that they had been ordered to rape—either to ensure that non-Serbs would flee certain areas, or to impregnate women so that they bore Serb children. In 1995, when Croatian forces over-ran Serb-held areas, there were well-attested cases of sexual violence against both women and men.

This further marked the birth of the first ever all women’s court, ‘The Court of Women’ in The Hague. This is in hope that empowerment, peace, and justice is accorded to the rape survivors.

According to the World Health Organization, eighteen cases were pending for prosecution, of the fifty thousand rape victims, but only twelve cases received convictions. Additionally, out of all rape-victims, only four thousand receive minimal financial help. Justice still remains largely out of reach based on the number of convictions however, it is a step in the right direction.

The Healing Process of Women

The Srebrenica massacre has affected many, and many more have lost loved ones during the week long massacre, but in particular, the mothers and widows are most affected. Widows who have lost husbands face immense hardship, and some mothers still await the identification of children they had lost during the war. The trial of Ratko Mladic may have brought a sense of justice, and for the grieving widows and mothers, the trial is seen as the start of a closing chapter, ushering in a process of healing after twenty long years.

"Having him (Mladic) behind bars brings some comfort, but the true relief will come only once I find the body of my 18-year-old son who was sent to death by Mladic". Munira Subasic, a member of the Mothers of Srebrenica group.

"All women not matter their tradition. In this war went through the same things. We suffered the same way, and we were brave in the same way". -- Valentina, Croat rural homemaker

"Every single mother cries in the same way, all mothers shed the same tears. Croats, Serb and Muslim mothers equally, they feel the same pain". -- Alma, Bosniak lawyer

"What happened here was never about ethnicity or religion. That’s an artificial element used by politicians who started the war". -- Alenka, Serb/Slovene engineer

"Women never would have started this war, and if they had, they would have completed it much less painfully and faster". -- Maja, Croat physician

Women Standing for Each Other

All the women of former Yugoslavia, are all fighters and survivors, and the women of Bosnia have found a way to turn their hardship into friendship.

A global NGO called the National Democratic Institution (NDI) has successfully managed to unite Bosniak, Croat and Serbian women, and bringing them together to build bonds, work, communicate and find ways in tackling issues, and urging the government to better secure women's rights, and provide economic rights to women contributing to the economy.

“Building Bridges,” about the Mostar Women’s Citizen Initiative

Maternity leave is now a law, greatly helping young families and mothers financially. This female partnership consequently sends out a message of hope, healing and putting differences aside in order for a better future ready for change amongst the multi-ethnic women of Bosnia.

The healing process of Bosnian women is further fostered by another NGO, Women for Women International, which came to life because of the Bosnian war. It brings female victims of the war together in order to aid communication, helping the women to reach out to other women within their communities, who have experienced the same pain during the war. The programmes are hosted in small community based groups and there they are able to share stories of the past, that helps to enable them to overcome their loss, whilst in the same time, counselling, financial aid, and learning new skills for trade are also available.  NGO’s like these carry with them the spirit of overcoming the war, bringing about positive change.

The NGO, Mercy Corps, was another pioneer of uniting female victims of post-war Bosnia. Its goal still to this day remains to help whole families gain sustainable economic growth through sponsorship, in the hope of them returning to their destroyed homes. Its members consist of women of all ex-Yugoslav nationalities, working in secret right after the war, in order of promoting peaceful co-existence amongst ethnicities. This was achieved through productive commitment and social activism and at present live in a fruitful community with one another again.

 ‘Even though it's hard, I won't leave. I will stay and fight’. -- Stanojka Avramovic, winner of the ‘Voices of Courage’ award from the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children.

Supporting Women War Victims Through Enterprise

BIH Handicrafts started their work in Bosnia in 1995. It is one of most successful export-orientated enterprises created for female war victims, selling handmade Bosnian handicrafts. Their sophisticated marketing scheme permits them to employ over five hundred multi-ethnic women, and paying them a living wage, resulting in female financial stability.

Promoting Harmonic Dialogue to End Violence and Discrimination

In Belgrade, Žene u crnom (women in black) have set up an anti-military peace organisation built upon harmonic dialogue against violence, political suppression, discrimination, and sexism directed towards women. They are strong supporters of the Srebrenica massacre, and continue their work visibly through campaigning, peaceful protesting, as well as publishing several books. Their message is further delivered through their confrontation, and the need for accountability for the Bosnian war & war crimes. The 'women in black' have further extended their mission through global seminars and workshops, and have been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize numerous times.

Women, War, and Peace

What needs to be further implemented is reaching women in rural areas, as these remain to be perceived - by urban-women -as less educated, marrying early and therefore, with less knowledge of women’s rights. What is clear however, is that for both the urban and rural woman of Bosnia, further outside stimuli in leadership training and political participation within their communities is needed in order to achieve financial stability.

 ‘Women have to be willing to speak up and say NOT 60 men. We want 30 men and 30 women’. Swanee Hunt

The healing process of any victim of any war, is a difficult one Moving on, forgiveness, and building a new future when one has lost family members, homes, suffered years of abuse, or has been displaced, is a hardship no one should ever have to go through. However, the women of Bosnia have proven themselves to be the bearers of hope, standing together in the need for mutual respect and hope, whilst at the same time having carried their families through war. Those who survived, fought, and suffered together share a survival mentality that enables them to overcome the deep-rooted cliché of ethnic fighting that brought Milosevic to power.

‘Women were not the makers of the war and were not at the negotiating table when the conflict stopped. But they were the first ones to cross imaginary and imposed borders and began working on rebuilding the country inside out.'  Swanee Hunt

The story of the ex-Yugoslav woman in Bosnia, speaks on a wider scale of the need for Bosnia to grow stronger, as a fully independent and sovereign state. This is still hard to achieve, given its political tripartite coalition government, and Bosnia has been left without a central government from 2010-2011, portraying that this tripartite government does not deliver positive and progressive results, and this emphasies the need for political reform. It is further compounded by unemployment, which stands at 41 percent nationally, and it is crippling the state.  More needs to be done in terms of economic development, especially in terms of healthcare for mothers. 

To speak of Bosnian women, and not mention the political situation is inevitable, to speak of the state of Bosnia, and all its citizens without again examining political institutions is the central problem. A peaceful reunification of all Yugoslav people within Bosnia is only possible, if and when all three ruling entities from the tripartite government are willing to compromise and work together for the good of people.

This sadly remains an impossibility if greed, corruption and the lack of respect for the rule of law, and consequently, a lack of respect for Bosnians - are allowed to exist.   

Organisations and Initiatives



Ena-KecoEna Keco is a Safeworld Student Writer, and is completing her second year of a law degree.

"I am originally from Bosnia, and when the war started in 1992, my mom, sister and myself, left our hometown for good...

Having grown up in Russia, I came to realize that the rule of law and human rights were, and are, non-existent. What rules Russia is money, which equals power to the extent that life itself remains far less important.

My biggest aspiration is to lend my voice to the woman who is oppressed, to the individuals who cannot fight for themselves...

Sexual harassment in the workplace in Bosnia remains poorly understood by the population due to lack of awareness and education; this is exactly what I hope to change."