Tue, 06 Mar 2001

Yugoslavia tribunal deters impunity for sexual violence

By Solita Sarwono

WASENAAR, The Netherlands (JP): A small ray of hope for the multitude of victims of sexual violence in armed conflicts may have emerged with last month's conviction of three war criminals from the war in Bosnia. Advocates hope many more women will be willing to provide their testimonies.

After an arduous 11-month judicial process the Yugoslavia tribunal in The Hague convicted three Bosnian Serbs who were commanders of a paramilitary unit. Defendants Dragoljub Kunarac, 40, Radomir Kovac, 39 and Zoran Vukovic, 39, received 28, 20 and 12 years of imprisonment, respectively.

They were proven guilty of systematic rape and sexual enslavement of more than 70 Muslim women in Foca during the Bosnian war.

Since it was established in 1993, the Yugoslavia tribunal has completed nine cases convicting war criminals. With the above conviction Judge Florence Mumba of Zambia made a historic verdict.

This was the first time in the international court of justice that sexual assault and enslavement in wartime were treated as a crime against humanity -- rather than merely an intrinsic atrocity of warfare.

"It (the decision) will make it substantially more difficult for perpetrators to act with impunity", said an official of Amnesty International.

Since World War II the prohibition of rape has already been institutionalized in international laws.

Yet systematic campaigns of rape have been conducted on several occasions as a strategy to facilitate ethnic cleansing. The Italian public prosecutor serving on the case, Carla del Ponte, is relieved to see that her long years of hard work collecting evidence and witnesses has paid off.

The Canadian prosecutor Dirk Ryneveld, who demanded 15 to 35 years of imprisonment for the defendants, is also satisfied with this verdict, although he believes that no verdict can compensate for the misery, trauma and loss these women have experienced.

The women testifying in the tribunal were not happy. The three accused, they said, had ruined their lives and future, and hence these men deserved to be put behind bars for the rest of their lives.

Out of thousands of Muslim women raped during the Bosnian war in 1992-1995, only 16 were willing to testify at the tribunal in The Hague. To protect their identities, each witness was identified by a number, their voices were scrambled by a special device and they were hidden from public view, although they could see the faces of their attackers.

The tribunal only tried the case in Foca, a town southeast of Sarajevo, because it was the best-documented case. In 1992 over 70 women were held captive for months in a sports hall, repeatedly raped and treated as sex slaves by the Serbian military.

Girls aged 12 to 13 were brutally assaulted by six to eight men in a row, after which they were told that they would bring Serb babies into the world.

One witness testified that on the first night she was raped repeatedly for three hours by 15 men. She was only 13 at the time. Sometimes they were threatened with a knife during the rape, or verbally threatened, usually told that their families would be killed if they resisted.

Many girls and women fainted from the pain. Some of the women were taken to hotels or homes to serve other officers.

These women were forced to cook, wash and clean. They slept on the floor and got very little food. Some were sold to other soldiers for 200 German marks.

Those who could survive and escape the ordeal sought abortions.

The court ruled that what happened in Foca was premeditated. As the commander of a paramilitary unit, Kunarac instructed his troops to capture Muslim women and to rape them.

He set an example by imprisoning a 15-year-old girl in his living quarters, together with eight other young girls, raping them daily for two months and giving away a 12-year-old girl to his colleague Kovac after abusing her for six months.

These girls were reportedly around the same age as his daughter. Kunarac also allowed men from Montenegro to join the group and enjoy the sexual abuse. The women were treated as cattle at the disposal of these men.

Like in Bosnia, during the Kosovo war which ended in June 1999, a large number of female refugees, young and old, became the targets of sexual violence and torture. They eventually stayed in camps guarded by the UN -- but their fear remained because most of the UN troops were men in uniform, very much like their rapists.

The women could not share their stories, even if they had wanted to. Their families forbade them from making the shame known to others. Husbands refused to discuss the matters or to touch their wives, considering them dirty. The trauma, pain, shame and distress have led to suicidal symptoms among many of these women.

The Medica Mondiale, a German-based support group for women suffering from war traumas, formed support teams with local women, non-governmental organizations and the Albanian Bar Association. The teams comprised gynecologists, nurses, psychologists, social workers and lawyers.

These all-women teams provided medical examinations, abortions upon request, psychological counseling and documentation of alleged rapes.

Many victims among the women have lost the desire to live, as they have lost families, homes, properties and, they feel, their self-worth. They were even forced to move to another country to avoid the shame and trauma. Many still follow counseling sessions. For these women life will never be the same again.

One victim, a Muslim Kosovar, Arielta, has undergone psychotherapy for several years.

Her laughter and optimism has returned, although at times she still sobs quietly. In her late 20s Arielta is now trying hard to rebuild a relationship with a man she loves very much. With the guidance of her therapist, she learned to overcome her hatred and fear of men. Not many men have the patience to build relationship slowly and gradually.

Nevertheless, Arielta has continued to lead an active life, professionally and socially. Being very much aware of the problems rape victims face, she decided to set up a support group in Pristina, Kosovo, in 2000.

This group provides counseling for the individual as well as the family and significant others, strengthening self-confidence, and finding jobs or opportunities to promote participation in community life.

In her work Arielta is continuously confronted with traumatic experiences similar to her own. This distresses her, but at the same time it also gives her more strength.

And as she herself has shared the trauma, her clients find her advice more realistic and easier to accept than other counselors.

The writer is a psychologist and public health educator residing in Wasenaar, The Netherlands.