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Bosnian Victims of Sexual Abuse Seek Justice

Victims of Sexual Abuse
In the Bosnian conflict that began in 1992 after Bosnia claimed independence, more than 100,000 people died, according to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY). The United Nations stated that the women victims of sexual abuse during the Bosnian War are between 20,000 and 50,000. Despite some development in the country, there are still barriers that are restricting survivors from obtaining their justice. 

The Abuse

Various assailants, who for many women were neighbors, raped women multiple times every day. The abusers were Serbian military, civilians or Muslim soldiers, who were often drunk and under the influence of drugs. The location of the rape was either a woman’s residence or another house. The victims of sexual abuse experienced a variety of physical symptoms in the immediate aftermath of the trauma, such as nausea, vomiting, headaches, palpitations, sweating and muscle pain. In addition, the most common psychological effects were depression, suicidal thoughts self-blame and women often denied trauma and avoided conversations related to the rape. 

Sometimes these rapes occur in connection with other crimes, such as amputation, burns and murder. Girls and women were additionally held captive in structures such as hotels, schools and hospitals, called “rape” or “death” camps where they were repeatedly raped and subjected to other forms of torture for weeks or months.

The Successes in Addressing Sexual Abuse So Far and the Challenges

The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), deals with war crimes committed during the war. It has fundamentally altered the field of international humanitarian law since its founding in 1993 and given victims the chance to speak out about the atrocities they experienced.

According to a report by Amnesty International in 2009, Bosnia and Herzegovina authorities have disregarded their duty to deliver justice and compensation to victims of sexual assault committed during the conflict. Many of those who commit war crimes or sexual abuse do not receive punishment and reside in the same neighborhoods as their victims. Victims of sexual abuse living in rural regions of the nation often experience restrictions in accessing health care and psychological assistance. Many survivors remain jobless, frequently due to factors connected to the psychological and physical harm they have experienced, additionally, they frequently do not have access to health care due to poverty.

Beyond prosecuting suspects, the ICTY’s Statute and Rules do not do enough to implement the rights of victims and survivors of crimes. One of the main problems that survivors have with the system is that the ICTY has failed to address the long-term psychological, social and economic needs of survivors of war crimes involving sexual abuse.

Unsolved Criminal Cases

Despite recent attempts, impunity persists, and the vast majority of those involved have yet to face justice. There are 160,000 unsolved criminal cases in this backlog, including an estimated 6,000 to 16,000 unresolved war crimes cases at various levels of prosecution, recorded in all 13 jurisdictions of the nation.

The former Yugoslav Criminal Court, which disbanded in 2017, worked for 24 years in The Hague, the Netherlands. During this time, the court heard 161 cases, convicted 84 individuals, 56 of whom were serving their sentences, acquitted 19 and seven people died before the trial ended.

The Struggle Continues

Victims of sexual abuse have high rates of unemployment and poverty, making them one of Bosnia’s most vulnerable economic categories. Despite this, only about 800 survivors have received some monthly allowances and other basic benefits.

Initiatives to proclaim December 8 as the official Day of Remembrance of Women in the War in Bosnia and Herzegovina were submitted to parliament twice, in 2014 and 2016, but institutional support has been weak. 

According to Gauri van Gulik from Amnesty International, “Recent years have seen important improvements but there is still a great distance to travel. Whilst the trauma of the past can never be unlived, it is not too late to ensure that the future of these women is one where their rights and their dignity can finally be reclaimed.”

Nowadays, many organizations and movements are helping women victims of sexual abuse during the war. A well-known organization is Women in Black, which organizes projects to give awareness to people about the massacres and rapes that happened during the Bosnian War. Since 1991, it has organized 700 activities such as protests. 

From 2016, abused women received free legal defense and compensation is possible, often after a large amount of time. However, a victim reported how important it is to still wait for justice and how relieved she felt when they imprisoned her rapist. 

Looking Ahead 

All things considered, it has been more than 20 years since the end of the Bosnian war and not every woman received justice. Nevertheless, there have been some developments, creating hope for a better future.

– Elena Luisetto
Photo: Wikipedia Commons