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Balkan Wartime Rape Victims Continue to Face Hardships Decades After Conflict

The Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s were notorious for the use of sexual violence as a war tactic, but years later, women in countries like Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo struggle to seek justice against the men who raped them.

by Arijeta Lajka
Apr 23 2015, 8:40pm

Photo by Amel Emric/AP

Update: For the first time, a Bosnian court has awarded compensation to a war crimes victim who was raped as a teenager by two Bosnian Serb soldiers during the Balkan country's 1992-95 ethnically-charged war.

The former soldiers, Bosiljko Markovic and Ostoja Markovic, each received 10 year prison sentences on Wednesday for raping a Croat teenage girl in the northwestern Bosnian town of Kotor Varoš in June of 1992. The perpetrators were ordered to pay 13,520 euros ($15,160), the Associated Press reported.

According to Bosnian law, individuals who were raped during the war are entitled to seek compensation from their perpetrators during criminal proceedings. To date, however, no one has obtained compensation through criminal proceedings, making Wednesday's case a major win for wartime victims.

The Croat woman at the center of today's ruling turned to police officials shortly after she was raped more than two decades ago. Although she was able to identify her rapists, the local police district did not initiate a criminal proceeding. The woman turned to Track Impunity Always (TRIAL), a Geneva-based organization focused on war crimes in 2012, which provided her with legal and psychological support, while urging legal institutions to carry out justice.

"Money will not erase the pain caused by the perpetrators, but it is nevertheless a very important day for the victim," TRIAL's legal advisor Adrijana Hanusic said in a statement, emphasizing that victims in Bosnia and the region can "now hope for adjustments in legal practice that would compensate them while bringing criminals to justice."

In April, VICE News reported on the hardships wartime rape victims throughout the Balkans and the obstacles many women face in receiving compensation or prosecuting the soldiers who raped them.

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At the age of 15, Edina fled with her family to escape the violent ethnic conflicts flaring up in Bosnia during the spring of 1992. But the teenager's attempt was thwarted after she was captured by Bosnian Serb soldiers. She was separated from her family and held in a mine near the eastern town of Srebrenica, along with several other Bosnian Muslims.

Within days, soldiers began calling out the names of dozens of people, forcefully loading them onto trucks and taking them just 30 miles away to the Zvornik district, which would eventually become one of the first towns taken by Serbian paramilitaries during the war that lasted until 1995.

Edina realized something was horribly wrong as the scene grew chaotic and children were separated from parents. She and two other young girls were forced into a truck with several other soldiers, eventually taken to an abandoned home near the Serbian border. The soldiers discussed which one they would take, before allegedly proceeding to rape all three girls.

There are no exact figures on how many men and women were raped during the ethnic conflicts that tore through former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, but Edina is one of an estimated 60,000 reported rape victims from the wars — notorious for the widespread use of rape, by all sides, as a tactic of war and ethnic cleansing.

As early as December 1992, the United Nations found evidence that women in Bosnia experienced "massive, organized and systematic detention and rape." Children as young as 12, were subjected to gang rape, torture, and assault. The number of male victims is still widely unknown.

Related: Bosnia-Herzegovina court orders end to ethnic segregation of schoolchildren.

Edina told VICE News that a soldier raped her repeatedly throughout the night, while her hands were tied. He held a gun in his hand, telling her that he would kill her if she screamed. The next day, Edina claims she was brutally gang raped by several Bosnian Serb soldiers, losing count of the men after she passed out.

"The pain was so great. I was crying so much that when they gagged me to stop my screaming I couldn't breathe and went unconscious. I woke up my hair was a mess and I was drenched in sweat. I didn't know what happened," she said, referring to the perpetrators as "my neighbors in uniform."

Decades later, Edina is committed to seeking justice against her abusers, as Bosnia — along with countries like Kosovo and Croatia — works to reconcile these crimes of war through legislation and reparations. 

After the Rwandan genocide in 1994, during which an estimated 250,000 to 500,000 people were raped, the UN established the International Criminal Tribunal for the conflict (ICTR) and classified rape as a war crime. The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court — which oversees the ICTR and a similar tribunal established for Yugoslavia known by the acronym ICTY — criminalized crimes against humanity, including acts of rape, sexual slavery, and other forms of sexual violence.

"The silence lasted more than 20 years... They are carrying the burden of the trauma by themselves."

Some Balkan countries have since enacted their own legislation to provide monetary reparations and legal assistance to wartime rape victims in order to prosecute the perpetrators. 

Croatia has made the most recent attempt in the region at addressing the issue, after the government agreed in April to draft a legislation that will compensate victims of sexual violence from the ethnic conflict there. Marija Sliskovic, the president of the Women in Homeland War Association, based in the capital Zagreb, told VICE News she is confident that parliament will pass the law, but said she is convinced very few will come forward since Croatia has neglected wartime victims of sexual violence for so many years.

"I'm sure that the number of those who will report [wartime sexual violence] will be very small. So many years have passed," Sliskovic said. "Many victims are already dead. Many of them have their families, children, and they don't want them to know what they have been through."

"The silence lasted more than 20 years. The victims accepted that society neglected them and they are carrying the burden of the trauma by themselves," she added.

Despite progress like this, however, the number of prosecuted cases involving sexual violence in the former Yugoslavia, both in domestic and international courts, remains significantly lower than the estimated number of victims. In Bosnia, where wartime sexual violence legislation has been on the books the longest, there have been just 76 completed war crime cases with elements of sexual violence in the country.

Edina was one of the few victims to come forward in Bosnia, and more than two decades later her case is still unresolved. After she was sexually assaulted in the spring of 1992, she was transferred to a sports center across the border in Serbia, where she met her future husband, also Bosnian. Edina said when she confided in her husband about the violence she endured, he was initially supportive. Following the war, they married and moved to Tuzla, Bosnia, where she resides today with her two children. As she began reporting the assaults, she said her husband became incredibly jealous and both physically and mentally abusive. She divorced him in 1999.

Related: After the flood: mines and mass graves in Bosnia.

Shortly after her divorce, Edina actively sought justice from the men that violated her, but justice has yet to come. While she told authorities about the incident, legislation was not in place at the time to help her pursue legal action was taken. Dozens of people taken away in trucks in Zvornik remain missing. Edina's rapists have also never been prosecuted, she claims she has even located one of the perpetrators on Facebook. According to her, many of those who committed crimes in Bosnia throughout the conflict fled to Serbia and other parts of the world.

The situation becomes even more complex if wartime rape victims testify against perpetrators that have the same nationality. Take Kosovo for example, selective justice is anticipated for victims that may have been raped by Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) officials. Pursuing cases against the KLA has been a challenge, as they are typically honored as war heroes. A 2013 European Union case involving two women reportedly gang raped by a group of KLA soldiers during the war brought hundreds of people out in the streets after over the alleged perpetrators detainment.

In 2006, Bosnia attempted to offer justice to the country's wartime rape victims through an act allowing monetary reparations. While Bosnia gives monthly compensation to these victims, if they come forward and meet qualifications, there are still several obstacles. During the criminal proceeding initiated with the aim of finding the perpetrator guilty, the victim has the opportunity to file a compensation claim. However according to an report released this month by Track Impunity Always (TRIAL), a Geneva-based organization focused on war crimes, there have been no cases where a victim actually received financial reparations from the person that harmed them. The report states that victims are subjected to "continued victimization and re-traumatization" as a result.

Selma Korjenic, Sexual Violence Coordinator at TRIAL, told VICE News that while it was "revolutionary" for Bosnia to recognize the rights of wartime victims of sexual violence back in 2006, the policy has not been fully implemented.

"Recognizing their suffering in that moment [in 2006] was a really great solution to try to deal with this problem in general. Later on it showed us that what the law is describing on paper is not something that is being totally implemented," Korjenic said. "When we are talking about solutions for compensation, Bosnia achieved that by covering the basics, but according to the needs of the victims that is not enough."

According to TRIAL's report, victims often lack the financial means to pursue compensation, criminal proceedings, or civil lawsuit against their perpetrators. Bosnia does not currently offer free legal aid to women pursuing these cases. TRIAL's legal advisor, Adrijana Hanusic, stressed that on top of providing a sense of justice, compensation can significantly aid victims, many of whom come from a poverty stricken background.

"While adequate compensation can also cover some important socio-economic needs of the victim, it is for many survivors above all a mean of symbolic recognition of the harm they suffered, of the importance that this harm is being redressed," Hanusic told VICE News. 

In addition to financial obstacles, Hanusic said these cases can take years to resolve. In Edina's criminal and compensation cases, officially filed more than a year ago, she gave several testimonies, along with names and detailed accounts of the event. When she followed up on the process over a year ago, she was told the case would be completed before 2015.

"I still am fighting and will continue to fight until those men that did that to me are put to justice."

"Now we're halfway through 2015, and there still hasn't been any sense of closure," Edina added. "I'll be surprised if I [get] anything in my lifetime."

Edina said that although she has was fortunate enough to land a job at a hospital, she spent years in and out of jobs. The monthly compensation she receives from the state for being a victim of sexual violence is not enough to live on, even with her minimum wage salary. She is a single mother, both of her children are unemployed, and she described her living space as a shabby "two-bedroom shack." If she was to receive compensation from her perpetrator, she said it would be a big help.

"I earn money, but I can't earn enough to even get an apartment or to improve my life," she explained.

As her court saga drags on, Edina's optimism that Bosnia will increase its efforts to address war crimes continues to dwindle. She hopes to leave Bosnia in the next few years, and the only aspect holding her back are her perpetrators that have continued to live their lives, roaming freely and actively posting on social media. Edina said she does not see herself staying in the country after her court cases are over.

"The worse things that happened to me in my life were here. I still am fighting and will continue to fight until those men that did that to me are put to justice," she said. "Even if they got the absolute minimum sentence or punishment. I don't know how I will feel when that happens. I don't know if I should be happy or sad. I don't know what I will feel."

Related: War Crimes Trial Ends as Divisive Election Nears in Bosnia and Herzegovina.