The Genocide Against Women

The Genocide Against Women


If Senka could have predicted how her night would end, she would have run far from her apartment in Gorazde. Instead, the night seemed to be like any other: spent in the company of her friends, surely laughing and talking about the various trivialities of their day. It was April of 1992, according to Senka’s courtroom testimony, and the nightmare that would consume the lives of Bosnian Muslims was just beginning to take form.

 As Senka and her friends puffed on their cigarettes and chatted amongst themselves, chaos erupted. Ten Serbs exploded into the apartment, shouting anti-Muslim sentiments and cursing the mothers of Senka and her friends. The intruders grabbed Senka and her other female friends and ushered them into Senka’s bedroom where they proceeded to gang rape the women. The ordeal went on for hours and left Senka and her friends incoherent, unstable and destroyed. Senka tried to keep her eyes closed, but still was able to recognize her attackers — men who were formerly her neighbors .

Senka’s horrifying testimony reflects the experiences of approximately 60,000 Muslim women during the Bosnian War from 1992-95. Senka miraculously was able to escape capture through a bathroom window, where she then fled to safe refuge. Most Muslim women were not so lucky. During the war, Serbian troops systematically captured thousands of women and imprisoned them in camps. As prisoners of these camps, the women, who ranged in age from very young to very old, were subjected to brutal sexual violence, perpetrated by Serbian soldiers. The soldiers were acting on Serbian orders to destroy the Muslim population in Bosnia and. Muslim women became victims of this horrendous genocide.

Many of these atrocities against women occurred in southern Bosnia, in the Foča River Valley.

Located in the Foca river valley, "Karaman's House" was one of many rape camps used to control women during the Bosnian War.

In 2012, Angelina Jolie wrote and directed the film, “In the Land of Blood and Honey” which sought to arouse awareness of the fate many Muslim women found themselves facing just a few years prior. Though the film was met with critique, “In the Land of Blood and Honey” seemed to visualize, if to a limited extent, the horrific testimonies Muslim survivors depicted. Words are powerful but often don’t resonate without images; vice versa, images are enlightening but less impactful without context. Prior to the film, the experiences of the Muslim women didn’t seem to resonate with the rest of the world, perhaps because the rest of the world was too detached from the struggles in Bosnia, or perhaps because words can be ignored. “In the Land of Blood and Honey” brought gripping visuals together with their corresponding context into people’s homes and, by doing so, helped the Muslim female memory resonate internationally.

This scene shows the arrival of a group of Muslim women to the rape camp. A Serbian official rapes one of the women abruptly and aggressively, while maintaining eye contact with the shocked and traumatized bystanders. The scene is difficult to watch and even more difficult to stomach, and yet, this was the daily reality of thousands of women for years. What led to such hatred? What was the purpose of isolating women and sexually torturing them?

My research explores the Bosnian War, but particularly focuses on the treatment of women during the conflict. I expand that research by examining rape culture in the context of war. How come wartime rape is punished at the international level as a crime against humanity only if the violence follows certain prerequisites — how come some rape is considered justifiable, and other rape is not? Through my research I have found myself at a troubling conclusion: The women of Bosnia were victims of a genocide that transcends geographical boundaries, generations and race — the ongoing genocide against women.


History of the Bosnian War and Ethnonationalism in the Balkans

The genocide that occurred during the Bosnian War is essential to develop my argument of the ongoing genocide against women because it marked the first time rape was examined as a military tactic, rather than an inevitable byproduct of war.

The Bosnian war was the product of unstable ethnonationalism in the Balkans. Ethnonationalism is the desire of an ethnic community to have its own homogeneous statehood, with absolute power over its politics, economy and social affairs. Ethnonationalism in the Balkans is nothing new, but the homogenous attitudes began to snowball into something dangerous under the leadership of Slobodan Milosevic, who led the Serbs in Bosnia following the death of President Tito (Jones).

Josip Broz, better known as Tito, who was considered a liberal socialist, was the president of former Yugoslavia from 1953 until his death in 1980. His hands were far from the staining red of blood, but Tito was still considered a great leader of Yugoslavia by many because he managed to keep the ethnically diverse country peaceful, despite growing ethnonationalism from each of Yugoslavia’s major ethnic components: Muslims, Croats and Serbians. The ethnonationalism appeared strongest in the latter group, though the Croats also sought  a greater-autonomy Croatia, which Tito denied. The ethnic divisions between the three groups became remarkably distinct during the Second World War.

Josip Broz Tito photographed in 1972.

During World War II, Tito made Yugoslavia available to the allied forces in order to help assist in the allied fight against the axis powers, though Tito’s loyalty to the allies wasn’t shared by every ethnic group in the country. The Croats, who still desired their own homogenous state, assisted Nazi ethnic-cleansing efforts by forming the Utase, which was responsible for murdering the majority of Yugoslav Jews, as well as hundreds of thousands of Croatian Serbs. Bosnian Muslims also assisted the Nazis, “earning them the enduring enmity of the Serb population,” (Jones). Yugoslavia became occupied by the axis forces and under the brutal occupation, Serbian resistance developed: the Partisans, a communist group led by soon-to-be president Tito, and the Chetniks, a Serbian-nationalist group led by Mihailovic. Though both groups sought to free Yugoslavia from axis occupation, the motives of the groups were very different. The Partisans wanted to free Yugoslavia of occupation in order to implement a communist regime, while the Chetniks were loyal to the former royalist regime and sought a homogenous Serbian state.

The lack of any sort of national unity made World War II especially  brutal for Yugoslavia, as it essentially faced war from three sides — the allies, the axis and civil unrest. Eventually, the violence subsided and the Partisans came out on top, with Tito taking his place as president. The Serbs, bitter from defeat and the loss of many of their people, waited for an opportunity to reclaim the country they believed had been wrongfully stolen from them.  Such an opportunity presented itself to the Serbs in 1980, when President Tito died.

When Tito died, the ethnically tolerant Yugoslavia quickly unraveled. The men who came forward as potential replacements to lead the country did not associate with any political party, but instead, with ethnic groups. Slobodan Milosevic, a Serb, “realized sooner than most that rousing nationalist passions was an effective way to exploit Yugoslav upheavals for personal power,” (Jones). Milosevic lacked any sort of notable charisma, but he managed to gain sweeping-Serbian support by exploiting the deep-rooted animosity toward their Croat and Muslim neighbors. The Bosnian War, which followed Milosevic’s rise to power, was the bloodiest conflict since World War II itself.

Slobodan Milosevic

For a timeline of the conflict in the Balkans beginning during World War II, click here.


Rape as a Method of Genocide

When Milosevic took power, many Bosnians remembered World War II as a part of their history, not of their present reality. Unfortunately, the nationalist-Serbian attitudes the war harbored lingered and festered just below the surface. The ancestors of once-repressed Serbs were to be avenged by creating a homogenous society, or so Milosevic implored. Serbs were to accomplish their goal by destroying their Muslim neighbors. The type of gendercide seen in the Second World War recurred in Bosnia as thousands of men were taken out of their homes and driven to extermination sites where they were slaughtered (Jones). Women, such as Senka, weren’t so lucky. The imprisonment, enslavement and rape of women were as much a Serbian tactic of genocide as was killing the men.

Genocide is defined as “the attempt to destroy a racial, ethnic, religious or national group as such, in whole or in part, by committing any of a number of acts against the group’s members; the acts include not only killing, but also causing serious bodily or mental harm, creating conditions of life intended to destroy the group physically, and imposing restrictions intended to prevent births within the group,” (Jones). Genocide often is strictly associated with mass murder, especially following the Holocaust, but that is a gross misconception. Genocide is a destruction of a group of people, but also the destruction of everything related to the people: art, literature, politics, and knowledge — their entire legacy.  In Bosnia, any surviving aspect of the once-inhabiting Muslims was a threat to the homogenous state the Serbs sought. By killing the men, the Serbs eliminated the threat of physical Muslim retaliation or resistance. But destruction doesn’t necessarily require death; by raping the women, the Serbs were able to undermine any remaining will, cohesion or identity in the Bosnian Muslims — a sort of living death.  “The women are those who hold the families and communities together. Their physical and emotional destruction aims at destroying social and cultural stability… in many cultures (the female body) embodies the nation as a whole… the rape of women of a community, culture or nation can be regarded… as symbolic rape of the body of that community,” (MacKinnon).

The Serbs used rape camps, like Foca, pictured earlier, to accomplish this sort of destruction. Women imprisoned in these camps, many of which were former hotels, gymnasiums and other gathering spaces, had their identities ripped from them with each attack. Rape is a form of genocide in and of itself when it’s “…an official policy of war in a genocidal campaign for political control… it is also rape unto death, rape as massacre, rape to kill and rape to make the victims wish they were dead… It is rape to destroy a people,” (MacKinnon).

A Serbian soldier in the village of Gorica in Bosnia, 1992.

The manipulative use of rape is a form of communication which has the power to accomplish  widespread destruction. Rape has the power to communicate a message to an entire group of people, such as the Muslims. “Because of the message that rape communicates, it may not be enough simply to kill. Raping along with killing makes a statement to the victim group even beyond killing itself” (MacKinnon). Rape can communicate superiority and inferiority, it can communicate an impending doom to a particular population and, perhaps most importantly, rape tells a woman she has no control over her sexuality. “Sexual assault may be especially well-suited to creating a kind of self-annihilating shame in its victims, a shame that can focus on one’s group identity,” (MacKinnon). Sexuality is closely tied to personal identity. If a woman feels she has no control of her sexuality, she consequently feels her identity is lost .

The sense of losing one’s identity is to die while continuing to breathe, as described by survivors of sexual violence. One survivor, known in court as Witness 78, described such feelings. The young woman, a Bosnian Muslim, evaded Serbian capture by hiding in her father’s house. She was manipulated out of hiding when Serbian soldiers informed her father the family was to be deported. Instead, she was taken by the soldiers to a house and told she must “testify” to a Serb commander. It didn’t take long for Witness 78 to realize “testify” was a euphemism for rape. The young woman recalled being raped by three Serbs.

After the war, Witness 78 was brave enough to testify, where she was asked to describe what happened to her. Witness 78 could have mentioned how, for almost three years, starvation caused her ribs to protrude sharply against her skin and were covered in bruises from man after man roughly pressing himself against her. She could have described trying to sleep on a gym floor, a fellow Muslim woman on each side of her, while the cries of a 12-year-old virgin girl being gang raped hurled in through the thin walls. She could have given countless accounts of the horrors faced by Muslim women during the Bosnian War but, when asked, “what did they do to you,” Witness 78 kept it short: “They destroyed me.”

Seeking Justice

Rape certainly is not an unusual phenomenon in war. For centuries, women have been sexually attacked at the hands of soldiers. These attacks historically have been justified as “a regrettable byproduct of wartime social breakdown and lack of military discipline.” Sexual violence against women during times of war can be dated back as far as Saint Augustine in the 16th century, who said wartime rape is “an ancient and customary evil.” An evil that many times throughout the course of history has been considered unavoidable: “The conditions of war are often conducive to rape. Young, ill-trained men, fighting far from home, are freed from social and religious constraints. The costs of rape are lower, the potential rewards higher. And for ill-fed, underpaid combatants, rape can be a kind of payment,” (The Economist).

Following the Bosnian War, women like Senka and Witness 78 stepped forward to illuminate the violence committed against them on behalf of Serbian soldiers. The testimonies took place at the International Tribunal for former Yugoslavia, or ICTY, which was established to confront with the crimes that arose out of the Bosnian War. The ICTY was responsible for the first legal recognition of rape as a crime against humanity. According to its website, the ICTY “has irreversibly changed the landscape of international humanitarian law.”

Slobodan Milosevic on trial for crimes at the ICTY following the Bosnian War.

Recognizing rape as a crime against humanity thus deems it punishable in international court. A crime against humanity must include the following elements (Banks):

  • An attack must have occurred
  • The perpetrator must have been a part of that attack
  • The attack must have been directly against a particular population
  • The perpetrator must understand the broader consequences of the attack

This undeniably is a major step in ensuring justice for survivors of the Bosnian War and a potentially good action to prevent similar horrors from occurring in the future. A step in the right direction, yes, but the humanitarian law established by the ICTY isn’t without prerequisites. Rape is considered a crime against humanity if it is committed with genocidal intent, but not all wartime sexual violence falls under the stated qualifications. The law excludes any sexual violence that occurs as a “byproduct” of war. “The judges also must find reasonable grounds… the specific criminal intent to commit genocide through a strategy of mass rape… The genocidal intent can be inferred from the factual circumstances of the crime,” (Simons). So, only a fraction of women can expect legal justice for perpetrators of violence they suffered. What of the other women?

The Serbs weren’t the only perpetrators of sexual violence  against women during the Bosnian War. Women provided accounts of Croat soldiers assaulting women and there is evidence that UN soldiers, who were sent to Bosnia as peacekeeping troops, were customers in local forced-prostitution brothels. However, according to the specifications of crimes against humanity, the law would not apply to the UN soldiers because they were not involved with the initial “attack.” Rather, the UN soldiers were sent to Bosnia  to deliver the Muslim women from the hell they had been trapped in. Unfortunately, rescue was not always the reality.  “Investigators found soldiers were customers in brothels run in Bosnia and Kosovo which relied on women sold into forced prostitution. One recent estimate suggested up to 2,000 women have been coerced into sex slavery in Kosovo,” (Bird).

A French U.N soldier in Sarajevo, 1995.

The ICTY was quick to point an accusatory finger at the Serbs for their crimes against humanity, but other perpetrators of sexual violence against women faced no repercussions. Even with evidence, it took the UN years before any official acknowledgment of the soldiers’ actions. The actions weren’t a one-time thing limited to Bosnia, either.

 In 2005, reports of UN soldiers’ under-the-table actions began to surface, much to the humiliation of the UN. “The embarrassment caused by the misconduct of UN forces in devastated communities around the world – including Haiti, Sierra Leone, Bosnia, Cambodia, East Timor and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC),” (Bird). The actions of some UN soldiers might not have been nearly as widespread as the violence spread across Bosnian by the Serbs, but the acts are still far from justifiable and should be punished.

The Larger Issue and Conclusion

The actions of the ICTY following the Bosnian War, while good-intended,  actually lacked any real preventative power regarding rape of women during times of war. Establishing rape — with the intent to destroy a group — as a crime against humanity is consequential action. While good-intended, why not seek preventative measures? Because rape is an assumed counterpart of war, and history suggests rightfully so. “In both law and practice, women are subordinate and unequal to men. Women are frequently denied their right to equality before the law; their right to substantive equality; their rights to freedom of movement, association, and expression; and equal access to education, work, and health care,” (Human Rights Watch). It is inequality in peacetime that is at the root of sexual violence against women during wartime.

The actions perpetuated against women don’t legally classify as genocide; the definition of genocide, as determined at the U.N. Convention in 1948 includes the destruction in whole or in part of national, ethnical, racial or religious groups (Jones) — gender is not listed. A first step for prevention should be a revised definition to include destruction based on gender.

In Bosnia, there were rifts between the different ethnic groups. Similarly, there are very distinct rifts between men and women which transcend ethnic,  geographical and generational boundaries.  Crimes against women have occurred because of disproportional equality between the sexes. Women so often have been sexually violated, in times of both peace and war, that a collective wound has taken hold of female identity. In other words, men raping women has been so prevalent throughout history that women now seem to feel inherently inferior to men. “This ideology particularly manifests itself during times of war, instilling rape as being a man’s conquest over a woman’s body, a triumph of physical strength and manhood. Taken further, this ideology has the effect of becoming a conscious process of intimidation in which men as a gender group keep women as a whole in a perpetual state of fear” (Gerard). The prevalence of wartime rape has affected the collective female identity, but  the societal response to rape victims has damaged the female identity, as well. Female victims of sexual violence often are shunned by their families and looked at with shame or disgust.The negative response following an attack has led many women to remain silent regarding their experiences, and the memory is unshared and consequently, forgotten. A forgotten memory can do nothing to help prevent  similar atrocities from occurring in the future. And thus, the genocide against women rages on.

As long as the rape of women can in some way be justified as a “byproduct” of war or blamed on “the naturally aggressive male sexuality,”  and as long as women are treated inferior during times of peace, a genocide directed against women remains in full force.

What happened to the Muslim women in Bosnia was such a tragedy it’s hard to imagine it occurring ever again. But the fact we have consequential justice planned and ready shows that, perhaps in the back of our minds, we know there is a good chance something similarly horrible could happen again. For women to feel safe and to have control of their own identity, we need to have consequential action but also dig deeper and face the elephant in the room — women need to be treated with equality in all settings.