Rape in the Bosnian War

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The war-torn neighborhood Grbavica in 1996, a site of rape camps[1] during the Bosnian War and subject of the award-winning film Grbavica

Rape in the Bosnian War pertains to the widespread perpetration of war rape during the Bosnian War fought by the country's three main ethnic groups; Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats. While on a lesser scale, women of all ethnic groups were affected, more specifically, rape was used as a systematized instrument of war by the Bosnian Serb forces of the Army of the Republika Srpska (VRS) predominantly targeting women and girls of the Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) ethnic group for physical and moral destruction.[2][3][4][5][6][7][8][9][10] Estimates of the total number of women raped during the war range from 20,000 to 50,000.[11][12] This has been commonly termed "mass rape",[13][14][15][16][17] and occasionally "Genocidal rape",[18][19][20][21][22] particularly with regard to the coordinated use of rape as a weapon of war.[14][15][16][17][23] The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) declared that "systematic rape", and "sexual enslavement" in time of war was a crime against humanity, second only to the war crime of genocide. The Kunarac case was the first time in judicial history anyone had been found guilty of these crimes.[14]

According to Margot Wallström, U.N. Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, only 12 cases out of an estimated 50,000 to 60,000 have been prosecuted as of 2010.[24]

Systematic rape by armed forces[edit]

Excavation of a mass grave in eastern Bosnia. Civilian men from Foča were executed whilst women were detained and repeatedly raped by members of the Bosnian Serb armed forces.[25]

Judges from the ICTY ruled that rape was used by the Bosnian Serb armed forces as an "instrument of terror". They declared that a "hellish orgy of persecution" occurred in various camps across Bosnia.[2] Current research puts the estimated number of women raped between 20,000 and 50,000, overwhelmingly Bosniak.[5][6][7][9][10][26][27][28]

Early stages[edit]

Before the Bosnian war started, Bosniaks (commonly known as Bosnian Muslims) in Eastern Bosnia had already begun to be removed from their employment, to be ostracised and to have their freedom of movement curtailed. At the outset of the war, Serb forces also began to target the Bosniak civilian population. Once towns and villages were secured, the military, the police, the paramilitaries and, sometimes, even Serb villagers continued these attacks. Bosniak houses and apartments were systematically ransacked or burnt down while civilians were rounded up, sometimes being beaten or killed in the process. Men and women were separated and detained - many of the men in local camps.[25][29]

Many reports stated that the perpetrators said they were ordered to rape. Others said that the aim was to ensure the victims and their families would never return to the area. Perpetrators told the female victims that they would bear children of the perpetrator's ethnicity. That they would become pregnant and then be held in custody until it was too late to get an abortion. Victims were threatened that if they told anyone they would be hunted down and killed.[30]

During the early investigations by the United Nations, in 1992, it became apparent that rape was not random, but systematic and had the support of commanders and local authorities.[30]

Some of the reported rape and sexual assault cases committed by Serbs, mostly against Muslims, are clearly the result of individual or small group conduct without evidence of command direction or an overall policy. However, many more seem to be a part of an overall pattern whose characteristics include: similarities among practices in non-contiguous geographic areas; simultaneous commission of other international humanitarian law violations; simultaneous military activity; simultaneous activity to displace civilian populations; common elements in the commission of rape, maximizing shame and humiliation to not only the victim, by also the victim's community; and the timing of the rapes. One factor in particular that leads to this conclusion is the large number of rapes which occurred in places of detention. These rape in detention do not appear to be random, and they indicate at least a policy of encouraging rape supported by the deliberate failure of camp commanders and local authorities to exercise command and control over the personnel under their authority.

— United Nations Commission on Breaches of Geneva Law in Former Yugoslavia, First Interim Report 1992 (S/25274)

Characteristics of locations and procedures[edit]

"Karaman's House", a location where women were tortured and raped near Foča, Bosnia and Herzegovina. (Photograph provided courtesy of the ICTY)

Numerous rape camps were set up across the Serb-controlled town of Foča which to date has remained a particularly well-studied case in judicial terms. While kept at one of the town's most notable rape locations, "Karaman’s house", Muslim females, including minors as young as 12, were repeatedly raped.[25][31] In the findings of the related Kunarac trial, the appalling conditions of the detention centers being used for mass rape were described.[25]

Women were kept in various detention centres where they had to live in intolerably unhygienic conditions, where they were mistreated in many ways including, for many of them, being raped repeatedly. Serb soldiers or policemen would come to these detention centres, select one or more women, take them out and rape them …. All this was done in full view, in complete knowledge and sometimes with the direct involvement of the local authorities, particularly the police forces. The head of Foča police forces, Dragan Gagović, was personally identified as one of the men who came to these detention centres to take women out and rape them.

— International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, Kunarac trial (V. Findings of the trial chamber)

Women and girls selected by the convicted Dragoljub Kunarac, or by his men, were systematically taken to the soldiers’ base and raped. At other times, girls were removed from detention centers and kept in various locations for prolonged periods of time under sexual slavery.[25] Radomir Kovač, who was also convicted by the ICTY, personally kept four girls in his apartment, abusing and raping three of them many times, while also allowing acquaintances to rape one of the girls. Prior to selling three of the girls, Kovač appointed two of them to other Serb soldiers who abused them for more than three weeks.[25]

Rape and sexual abuse was also rife in large-scale concentration camps, such as Omarska, where about 5,000-7,000 Bosniaks and Croats were held in appalling conditions for about five months in the spring and summer of 1992. Murder, torture, rape, and abuse of prisoners was common.[32]

A smaller number of camps were also operated by Bosniaks and Croats. At the Čelebići prison camp, Serb civilians were subjected to various forms of torture and cruel and inhuman treatment, including rape.[33][34] In 1992 at the Dretelj camp Croat forces detained mostly Serb civilians, who were held in inhumane conditions, while female detainees were raped.[35] Both Serb and Bosniak civilians were held at the Heliodrom camp, and detainees reportedly suffered sexual assaults.[36]

Ethnic dimension[edit]

Early United Nations investigations concluded that "Rape has been reported to have been committed by all sides to the conflict. However, the largest number of reported victims have been Bosnian Muslims, and the largest number of alleged perpetrators have been Bosnian Serbs. There are few reports of rape and sexual assault between members of the same ethnic group."[30] It has been claimed that "For the Serbs, the desire to degrade, humiliate, and impregnate Bosnian Muslim women with ‘little Chetniks’ was paramount."[37] Women were forced to go full term with their pregnancies and give birth.[37] Many of the reports of the abuses illustrated the ethnic dimension of the rapes.

The women knew the rapes would begin when 'Marš na Drinu' was played over the loudspeaker of the main mosque. ('Marš na Drinu,' or 'March on the Drina', is reportedly a former Chetnik fighting song that was banned during the Tito years.)

While 'Marš na Drinu' was playing, the women were ordered to strip and soldiers entered the homes taking the ones they wanted. The age of women taken ranged from 12 to 60. Frequently the soldiers would seek out mother and daughter combinations. Many of the women were severely beaten during the rapes.

— Seventh Report on War Crimes in the Former Yugoslavia: Part II , US submission of information to the United Nations Security Council[38]

Major conclusions[edit]

In the study entitled "Mass Rape: The War Against Women in Bosnia-Herzegovina", Alexandra Stiglmayer et al. conclude:

In Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia, rape has been an instrument of ‘ethnic cleansing’. The UN Commission of experts that investigated the rapes in former Yugoslavia has concluded. ‘Rape cannot be seen as incidental to the main purpose of the aggression but as serving a strategic purpose in itself,’ reports the European Community mission concerned especially with the situation of Muslim women.The report of the humanitarian organization Amnesty International states: ‘Instances that have included sexual infringements against women are apparently part of an inclusive pattern of war conduct characterized by massive intimidation and infringements against Bosniaks and Croats.’ The American human rights organization Helsinki Watch believes that rape is being used as a ‘weapon of war’ in Bosnia-Herzegovina: ‘ Whether a woman is raped by soldiers in her home or is held in a house with other women and raped over and over again, she is raped with a political purpose – to intimidate, humiliate, and degrade her and others affected by her suffering. The effect of rape is often to ensure that women and their families will flee and never return.’ Against this background, it is obvious that rapes in Bosnia-Herzegovina are taking place ‘on a large scale’ (UN and EC), that they are acquiring a systematic character, and that ‘in by far the most instances Muslim (Bosniak) women are the victims of the Serbian forces ‘ (Amnesty International). Estimates of the number of rape victims range from 20,000 (EC) to 50,000 (Bosnian Ministry of the Interior).”[23]

Psychological and physical effects[edit]

A medical study of 68 Croatian and Bosniak victims of rape during the 1992-1995 war found that many suffered psychological problems as a result. None had any psychiatric history prior to the rapes. After the rapes 25 had suicidal thoughts, 58 suffered depression immediately after and 52 were still suffering from depression at the time of the study, one year later. Of the women 44 had been raped more than once and 21 of them had been raped daily throughout their captivity. Twenty nine of them had become pregnant and 17 had an abortion. The study reached the conclusion that the rapes had "deep immediate and long-term consequences on the mental-health" of the women.[39]


Following the end of hostilities with the 1995 Dayton Agreement, there have been sustained efforts to reconcile the opposing factions.[40] Much attention has been paid to the need to understand the reality of what happened, dispel myths, and for responsible leaders to be brought to justice and be encouraged to accept their guilt for the mass rapes and other atrocities.[41][42][43] Historians such as Niall Ferguson have assessed a key factor behind the high-level decision to use mass rape for ethnic cleansing as being misguided nationalism.[44] Prior to 1980, Croatian and Serbian nationalism had been effectively repressed by Marshal Josip Broz Tito, though his suppression of any talk about nationalist issues had failed to diminish the intensity with which they were felt. Slobodan Milošević had inflamed Serbian feelings with a speech referring to the Battle of Kosovo. Feelings of victimhood and aggression towards Bosniaks were further stirred up with exaggerated tales about the role played by a small fraction of Bosnian Muslims in the Ustaše genocide of Serbs in the 1940s. Other myths invoked included suggestions that Bosnian Muslims were racially different, typically that they were actually of largely Turkish blood, when in fact DNA tests have shown both groups to share the same gene pool typical of South Slavs.[44] Despite the government-led hate campaigns, some Serbs tried to defend Bosnians from the atrocities and had to be threatened, including instances when troops would announce by loud speaker that "every Serb who protects a Muslim will be killed immediately".[44]

In the aftermath of the conflict, ethnic identity is now of much greater social importance in Bosnia than it was prior to 1992. From the 1960s to the war, the percentage of mixed marriages between communities has been close to 12% and young citizens would often refer to themselves as Bosnians rather than identifying their ethnicity.[45] After the conflict it has been effectively mandatory to be identified as either Bosniak, Serb or Croat and this has been a problem for the children of rape victims as they come of age.[45]

Individuals convicted of related war crimes[edit]

Convicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia:

Convicted by the Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina:

  • Radovan Stanković (20 years in prison; escaped from prison in May 2007) Committed, incited, aided and abetted; enslavement, torture, rape and killing as part of a widespread attack against the non-Serbian population.[58][59]
  • Neđo Samardžić (13 years in prison)[60][61]
  • Gojko Janković (34 years in prison) Indicted for ordering, committing and inciting the rape of a Bosniak woman and found guilty of raping, murdering and torturing Bosniak and Croat civilians between 1992 and 1993.[50]
  • Dragan Damjanović (20 years in prison) Convicted of war crimes including murder, torture and rape.[62]
  • Momir Savić (18 years in prison) "For the killing, rape and torture of Muslims in eastern Bosnia early in the 1992-95 war."[63]
  • Željko Lelek (13 years in prison) "For the persecution and torture of Bosnian Muslims and the rape of Muslim women in the early 1990s."[64]
  • Miodrag Nikačević (8 years in prison) "For the rape and illegal detention of Muslims in the eastern town of Foca early in the country's 1992-95 war."[65]
  • Ante Kovač (9 years in prison), former Commander of the Croat Military Police in Vitez, has been sentenced under a second instance verdict for crimes against Bosniak civilians in Vitez including rape.[66]
  • Veselin Vlahović (45 years in prison), also known as "Batko" or the "Monster of Grbavica", found guilty on more than 60 counts, including the murder, rape and torture of Bosniak and Croat civilians during the Siege of Sarajevo.[67]

See also[edit]


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