BOSNIA’S RAPE BABIES: ABANDONED BY THEIR FAMILIES, FORGOTTEN BY THE STATE
By Kate Holt in Sarajevo and Sarah Hughes
Published: 13 December 2005
Suzanna is 12 years old. In the eyes of the law she does not exist. She has no family, no birth certificate. The place that she calls home is the state-run orphanage in Zenica in Bosnia, a run-down building with broken windows.
The orphanage is home to just over 150 children. Some of them have lost their families to war and sickness, others, like Suzanna, were abandoned as “rape babies” – children born during the war to women who had been raped – and left unacknowledged by families and state alike.
“She is a very loving child sometimes has problem socialising,” says Enisa Herzeg, a social worker at the orphanage. “We have had money donated for her care but we can’t open a bank account in her name because she has no birth certificate, because the Croatian authorities refused to register when she was born.” Suzanna’s mother abandoned her when she was born and has never visited. “We have no way of finding her,” Herzeg says. “There are many children here with equally sad stories .”
Ten years after the war in Bosnia ended we have come back with Channel 4 news to meet the forgotten victims of sexual violence. Despite the widespread publicity concerning the atrocities committed during that time little has been done to help the thousands of women who suffered extreme sexual violence and torture, or the children born as a consequence of this abuse.
Abandoned by the state, many of these women are not only traumatised by their horrific experiences but also impoverished. Cast out from their communities, often abandoned by their husbands, few of them can hold down jobs. Only a handful have received compensation for their suffering, which continues in the form of nightmares, physical injury and mental ill-health.
“I was raped for over a year by Serbian soldiers,” says Mirella, a softly spoken woman of 33.
“They kept me prisoner in my house and raped me day and night in front of my children. When I became pregnant I had an abortion – I never told my husband about it or about the other terrible things that happened, although I’m sure he knows.” Once the war had ended Mirella and her family, unable to return to their home town of Brcko, found their way to Sarejevo. Life is hard here. Mirella suffers from severe gynaecological problems as a result of her rape and has been diagnosed with depression.
“I have tried to take my life three times,” she admits. “I get 36km (£10) from the government every month and each child gets 26km. My husband gets 56km because he was in a war camp. I have to spend most of my money on medicines to stay calm and to help with the pain. I feel as though no one cares what has happened to our family. I only keep going because of my children.” Mirella’s experience is not unusual. In 1998 the International War Crimes Tribunal condemned rape as a crime against humanity, yet there is still no formal international or state response to sexual violence, the related trauma caused by rape or to what happens to the children born of it. In July this year, Unicef in Bosnia commissioned a report on the children born as a result of war rape. It is the first time any organisation has focused on these children. The report, however, remains unpublished.
Marijana Senjak, a psychologist working for the NGO Medica in Zenica, which assists women who have been abused, says ‘ A lot of politicians have taken advantage of the women’s plight and used the issues of war rape for their own ends. The state has done nothing to organise a unified response to women’s needs.
“It has used war rape as a political tool and a means to get money, nothing else.’
Amma was raped during the war when only 16 years old and became pregnant. Without the financial means to keep her child she was forced to place her in care. A frail woman now at 29 years old, tormented by her past and suffering from mental and physical health problems, Amma’s eyes fill with tears as she recalls the few precious years she had with her daughter.
“I remember celebrating her first birthday and the naming ceremony we had,” she says. “I kept her with me till she was five years old. I loved her. I had another child a few years later and that was hard – two young children, no job and the war going on which made everything very expensive. Nobody in the community wanted to help me because they knew where the first child had come from and hated me for it. I couldn’t work because no one wanted to look after the child. I went to the centre for support but they gave me nothing and took away my children.”
For women such as Amma the situation is made worse by the Bosnian government’s reluctance to recognise women as civilian victims of war. In October it agreed to pay compensation, but this has led to further problems as many within the government claim that women are falsifying claims of rape to receive money.
“In a traditional society with a huge stigma attached to rape it is unusual for women to report it, and at a later stage it is difficult to establish it medically,” says Slobodan Nagradic, Deputy Minister for Human Rights and Refugees. “So now women are coming forward and we have no way of knowing if they have really been raped or not. There are no living eyewitnesses and 10 to 12 years later it is difficult to establish the authenticity of these women’s claims. Many are very poor and may just be doing it for the money.”
Nagradic opposes publication of the Unicef report: “The children born of war rape are in a very vulnerable position compared to other children,” he says. “It is the obligation of our society to ensure that these children are not discriminated against and that is why we are being very careful about drawing attention to them. Women do not traditionally talk about rape here, he says, and those that do are using rape for political manipulation.”
It is not a line of argument with which Sanella would agree. Now 32, she was raped repeatedly by Serbian soldiers in her home town of Visegrad, became pregnant and then miscarried. She now works for a woman’s organisation in Bosnia, supporting fellow rape victims and says that she lives in fear that the soldiers who raped her will find her and refuses to testify in The Hague.
“I don’t believe that this war has stopped,” she says. “The war criminals are still around and we still have to see them. The police in charge know who they are and do nothing. We women, the victims of the war, have become its policemen. We have photographs of those who raped us and killed our men but there has been no care or help for women like me who have experience sexual violence on this level. “
Nadia made the difficult choice to keep her son, now aged 10. She became pregnant after being repeatedly raped by soldiers while interned in a concentration camp. She says that she wanted an abortion, but by the time she had escaped to Sarajevo it was too late. Her husband does not know that the child is not his.
“My husband and son were taken away during the war and I was put in a camp,” she says. “The soldiers would taunt me, calling me a Turkish whore. Then they began to rape me. I would cry every time and when I passed out I would wake up with a different soldier in the room and they would keep going until I didn’t come round any more. When they found out I was pregnant they put me on a truck and I arrived in Sarejevo. I had to take medicines to calm me down and I think this is why my son is so nervous and has to have therapy.”Nadia will not abandon her son as so many women have done with their children born of rape. “I love my son,” she says. “Sometimes I look at him and feel very angry though – I see him as a focus for what has gone wrong with my family and our lives.”
The full report: ‘Bosnian Rape Babies’ will be broadcast by Channel 4 news tonight from 7pm
keywords: Srebrenica Genocide, Srebrenica Massacre, Rapes, Mass Rapes of Women, Bosnia Rapes, Raped Women, Raped Girls, Bosniaks, Bosnian Muslims, Bosnia-Herzegovina