Ivo Skoric on Wed, 20 Nov 2002 20:47:01 +0100 (CET)

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[Nettime-bold] What happened to the children?

Ten years after the systematic rape of Bosnian women - many of 
them became pregnant and gave births - what happened to all 
those children? Here is the saddest story of the 21st century 
Europe so far:

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Bosnia's raped women are being shunned by a society that refuses to see
them as victims.

By Belma Becirbasic and Dzenana Secic in Sarajevo

Nine-year-old Edin is one of thousands of children in Bosnia growing up
without a father. But while others have a grave to visit, or photographs
to treasure, Edin has neither. His mother Safeta has one single, terrible
memory of his father. "He lit a candle or a lighter and made his choice,"
she said. "He was a Serb from Zemun. Even 20 years from now I'd recognise

Safeta is a "raped woman", to use a label which became commonplace for
women who fell victim to systematic sexual abuse in the first year of
the Bosnian war.  Edin's father is the man who raped her.

Today, these women are the invisible casualties of the war, overlooked
and often shunned. The fate of their children is even more tragic. Edin
is one of a tiny minority who live with their birth mothers - many of
the other women abandoned their babies, or even murdered them.

In the summer of 1992, chilling reports of mass deportations from
eastern Bosnia and detention camps in north-west Bosnia, were
accompanied by accounts of mass rape. There were even rumours of a plan
to impregnate thousands of non-Serb women to fuel ethnic hatred. The
exact numbers of women raped will never be known, not least since some
of the victims were later murdered.  The highest estimate, delivered to
a European Union commission in Brussels in February 1993, was 50,000.

Behind the statistics were women like Safeta, detained for three days
in an abandoned house outside Zvornik, north-east Bosnia.  There, she
was raped by a one of group of soldiers and volunteers from Serbia.
Two seventeen-year-old girls were detained with her. "One of them, Amra,
was raped by 13 men," she said. Safeta, then 29, was luckier - she was
raped only once.

Today, Safeta and Edin live together in a small house in Zivince,
outside Tuzla. The former works at the Vive Zena womens' centre in Tuzla,
which provides counselling for rape victims and includes some raped women
among its staff. Now 40, she talks openly about her experiences, turning
away only occasionally. But she is unusual. Shame and ostracisim drive
many women to conceal their ordeals, another reason a definitive estimate
has been so difficult to establish. Safeta's story has an uplifting
ending, but it sheds light on the tragic experiences of the many women.

Many raped women were deliberately kept in detention until it was too late
for them to get an abortion.  Safeta was six months pregnant by the time
she arrived in Tuzla, and no one would perform the operation at that late
stage.  Edin was born on April 14, 1993.  Unable to prevent his birth,
his mother refused to even look at him, claiming she would strangle him.
Edin was deposited in a Tuzla orphanage, and Safeta began her life as
a refugee in Zivince.

Teufika Ibrahimefendic, a clinical psychologist at the Vive Zena centre,
where Safeta works, said, "It is the women who have kept their ordeal
a secret for the last ten years who concern psychiatrists the most. They
conceal it to try and protect themselves, but this creates an intolerable
pressure.  I once heard a woman describe how every time she remembers
being raped, she stands under a cold shower until she freezes."

The Hague tribunal has recognised that rape was used as a systematic
weapon of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, making it indictable as a war crime.
Rape formed part of the case against the three-member Foca group,
sentenced to a total of 60 years in prison for crimes against humanity
committed in eastern Bosnia in the early Nineties.  Ante Furundzija,
the commander of a special Bosnian Croat unit in central Bosnia was
charged with watching the rape of a Bosnian woman, not intervening and
not punishing the rapists. Proceedings against Hazim Delic in connection
with the Celebici prison camp also confirmed rape as a war crime.

But regardless of international law, raped women are still not
recognised as victims within Bosnia.  At best, they are regarded
as tarnished, at worst as "fallen women" who somehow invited their
own misfortune.  For years, Safeta says she endured the whispers
and pointing fingers of other women in Zivince. The taboo around rape
even extended to her family. Her mother, sister and brother-in-law
were supportive, but not her father or younger brother. "My father
never asked me what had happened or where my child was," she said.

Safeta remained in Bosnia throughout her pregnancy, but many women
who had been raped in prison camps in north-west Bosnia were evacuated
to third countries via Croatia. Director of the Zagreb Centre for Women
Victims of War, CWVW, Nela Pamukovic, recalled two pregnant raped women
who took refuge with her organisation, "One of them kept her baby and left
for the US with her parents. The other threw her newly-born child into the
Sava river.  She was charged with infanticide, but did not stand trial
after doctors diagnosed diminished responsibility."

Like Safeta, many women rejected their babies immediately after giving
birth. In Zagreb, most deliveries took place at the Petrovo maternity
hospital. From there, according to CWVW and the Zagreb Caritas office,
unwanted babies were taken to the Vladimir Nazor orphanage or the
Goljak centre for children with special needs. At this point, it becomes
difficult to keep track of the babies. Records were kept of all children
admitted, but staff had no way of knowing which babies were the offspring
of raped mothers, not least because some women didn't tell anyone they
had been raped.

Moreover, the aftermath of war in Croatia and the raging conflict in
Bosnia made tracking the children even harder "We didn't keep track of
any of the children who came to us in that period," said a hospital source
who did not want to be named. "Our priority was to provide them with care,
regardless of where they came from."

Zagreb Caritas received around 150 raped women, of whom around 60 per cent
were pregnant.  Director Jelena Brajsa remembers the first 15 pregnant
women who arrived in 1993. All had been repeatedly raped.  After delivery,
four babies were transferred to Obrenovo for medical treatment, two
mothers kept their babies and the remaining nine were collected by
the Bosnian embassy and Red Cross and later returned to Bosnia. There,
two were taken by their families, two were adopted and the remainder
placed in institutions.

In general, the babies suffered from the stigma of the crime which
had created them. "I once attended a meeting of the Association of
Bosnian Women in Zagreb, which is now defunct," said Brajsa. "They
discussed the fate of babies of raped women and there was a general
consensus that these children should be taken as far away from Bosnia
as possible."

A doctor at the Goljak centre for children with special needs recalls
how nine children of raped women were admitted to the centre in 1995.
He even considered adopting one of the children.  "One little boy was
very sweet and I spent a lot of time with him.  However, my wife,
who is Bosnian herself, wouldn't even consider adoption. People have
something against these children, even though they are not to blame
for any of this."  He does not know where the children went after
they left the centre.

Six months after leaving her son in a Tuzla orphanage, Safeta set out
to find him.  Thoughts of the baby had been haunting her.  "I couldn't
sleep for four months. After six months it became unbearable. If I hadn't
found him when I did, I probably wouldn't be alive now," she said.

A social worker told Safeta that her son had been admitted to hospital.
Edin was suffering from malnutrition and had chewed his fingers to
the bone.  When she found him, she held him silently for 20 minutes.
"I could see that he looked like me and that he was healthy. I don't
know how I made it home that day," she recalled.

Although neither she nor Edin ever left Bosnia, Safeta was still
fortunate to find her son. Orphanages and hospitals were overloaded
and other women who underwent a change of heart may not have been
so lucky. "In 1993 alone, we admitted 700 children and the capacity of
the orphanage was only 110," said Advija Hercegovac of the Vojo Peric
orphanage in Tuzla. "It is possible that many of those were the babies
of raped women, but there was chaos at the time and we had more important
tasks than keeping detailed records." Children who were later adopted
were subject to the usual rules protecting their identities and those of
their adoptive parents.

Finding Edin was not the end of the story for Safeta.  He remained in
the orphanage for another seven years, while his mother summoned up
the courage and the means to bring him home.  Raped women who kept
their babies are a tiny minority, according to Fadila Memisevic of
the Association for Threatened Peoples of Bosnia. Many more may have
wanted to do so, but the pressures they were placed under were

Mirha Pojskic of Medica, an NGO in Zenica which focuses on helping
traumatised women, recalls the case of one woman who was raped close to
the border with Serbia.  Even though she was a Bosniak, the woman fled
to Serbia where she adopted a Serbian name.  Unable to tell even her
closest family about her rape and pregnancy, the woman gave birth and
kept her child for a year. Finally, with no money or family support, she
left him in a Serbian orphanage. The orphanage discovered that the baby
was a Bosnian citizen and insisted that she remove him.

She then took her son to her own parents in Sarajevo, but they refused
to accept him.  He, in turn, developed a constant fear that his mother
would abandon him.  After some months, Pojskic received a letter from
the Sarajevo social services saying the woman wanted Medica to take in
her baby, because she could no longer feed him.  "I begged the welfare
people in Sarajevo to find the woman a job so she could her support
her child, but they did nothing," she said.

Another woman approached Medica after being raped in Brcko.  She
was accompanied by her mother, who kept insisting the pregnancy was
her daughter's own fault. In the end, this woman did manage to keep
her child.

After a period of living alone and drinking heavily, Safeta began to
stitch her life back together. She found a job, bought a piece of land
and started building a house.  She visited her son regularly and was
driven by a vision of living with him under the same roof. "That was
what I lived for, the moment when darkness would turn into light. And
if people disapproved, I couldn't care less," she said.

At the beginning of this year, Pojskic launched a campaign to obtain
civilian war victim status for women who were raped. This status,
granted by the ministry for human rights and refugees, has a number
of benefits attached.  "By entitling them to health insurance and
other benefits granted to victims of war, by helping them to find jobs,
we hope that women will finally come forward and admit they were raped.
We may then find out how many women were victims of this crime," she

Currently, only former camp detainees are recognised as civilian victims.
It is hoped that by extending this status to raped women, they will be
de-stigmatised. Official recognition of their trauma may finally dispel
the notion - most prevalent in small towns and villages - that they
were in some way responsible for what happened to them.

Today, Safeta proudly shows off photos of her son. With blue eyes
and light brown hair, he takes after her. Traces of the ordeal mother
and son have endured can be seen in a certain reserve between them.
"Sometimes I feel an urge to hug him, to kiss him all over, but I only
ever kiss him at night, while he is asleep," she said.  Edin too is
discreet. Hidden behind a curtain, he likes to stand at the window
and wait for his mother to arrive home from work. He has never asked
about his father.

Belma Becirbasic and Dzenana Secic are journalists with Start magazine
in Sarajevo.

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