A group of feminist women came together in January 1993 to discuss tens of thousands of rape assults by Serbian soldiers in various regions of Bosnia.
The six republics that made up the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia were Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Slovenia. Following the declaration of independence by Slovenia and Croatia on 25 June 1991, the federation was dissolved. When Macedonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina declared their independence in 1992, only Serbia and Montenegro remained the republics of the Federation.
Bosnia and Herzegovina’s population consisted of 43% Bosnian Muslims, 33% Bosnian Serbs, 17% Bosnian Croats, and 7% other ethnic groups. In March 1992, 60% of Bosnian citizens casted vote for independence in the referendum which was boycotted by Bosnian Serbs. Immediately after, Bosnian Serbs, supported by Yugoslavia People’s Army and the Republic of Serbia, started the Bosnian War.
During the Bosnian War, which started in 1992 and continued until 14 December 1995, the annexation policy of Serbian forces went hand in hand with looting and rape; rape was used as a military motivation and an offensive strategy. During the war, 100-110 thousand people were killed according to some sources while for some other sources the war casualty was 300 thousand people. Millions of people became refugees, civilians were starved to death and massacred in concentration camps, and tens of thousands of women were raped. Although some Roma people and other minorities were among those who were raped and some Croat and Serbian women were also raped in retaliation; in Bosnia it was predominantly non-Serbian and especially Muslim women who were subjected to mass rape. In August 1992 it was identified that there was a total of 105 concentration camps controlled by Serbian forces (94 in Bosnia and 11 in Serbia and Montenegro) as well as 17 brothels where captive women were forced into prostitution.
Feminist women in Istanbul launched a campaign arguing that rape by Serbian forces of Bosnian Muslim women in rape camps, concentration camps, private homes, and brothels is not a coincidence and is integral to wars. The group which called themselves “Feminist group against rape” prepared a manifesto and a wall newspaper to disseminate this information. Stating, “we know that Kurdish women, who are very near to us, are also exposed to this aggression that men have been using in many wars,” the manifesto invited all women who witnessed or were subjected to rape to not remain silent and to stand in solidarity with the struggle to expose rape. Within the scope of the campaign, a petition was started, and a 900-number hotline was opened for women who wanted to support the campaign to leave messages. On 8 March 1993, the “Feminist group against rape” handed out the manifesto and collected signatures for the petition.
The call for the campaign expressed the following statements: “A current example of mass rape is happening in Bosnia today. The rape of women in the war between the Serbian and Bosniak nationalists is neither an unexpected nor an unprecedented event. We learn from the testimonies that Serbian soldiers systematically raped 30.000-50.000 Croatian and Bosniak women in rape camps in Bosnia. We hear that hundreds of women died, were killed, or committed suicide during these rapes and that the pregnant women among the survivors could not find a doctor for abortion and died while performing abortion for each other. In this war, sexism is put in the service of racism. Rape is used as a way of making one’s race dominant and of assimilating, if not annihilating, other races. The victims of this racist attack are, once again, women… Women who got pregnant and who were forced to give birth.”
Demands listed in the petition were as follows:
“We, the undersigned women,
Demand that rape camps be immediately shut down and evacuated.
Urgent action should be taken for the mental and physical treatment of the survivor women, and to heal their bodily and spiritual wounds.
The soldiers, their commanding officers and the responsible governments who commit this crime which is perpetrated by men in the wars in our region and all over the world must be tried and punished by an International Independent Women’s Court consisting of female jurists.
Rape must be considered a war crime and this article and necessary sanctions must be added to the Geneva Convention Part 4.”
Pursuant to the UN Security Resolution 827 dated 25 May 1993, “the International Tribunal for the Prosecution of Persons Responsible for Serious Violations of International Humanitarian Law Committed in the Territory of Former Yugoslavia since 1991”, also known as International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), was established in Lahey. In the ICTY hearings, the leader of the Serbian Party Radovan Karadzic, commanders of the Serbian Army Ratko Mladic and Vujadin Popovic, and the General Chief of Staff Ljubisa Beara were tried and found guilty of the murder of more than 8000 civilians in Srebrenica. Also in 2001, ICTY found three Serbian soldiers guilty of war rape. Thus, war rape was for the first time defined as a crime against humanity like torture and murder. Although this development was important in terms of attracting the attention of international community and making public the cases of war rape internationally, it cannot be said that it brought about an effective trial of systematic rapes. After the ICTY was closed at the end of 2017, cases of war crimes were left to the national courts of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, and Croatia.
According to the report published by Amnesty International on 12 September 2017, justice was not served for more than 20.000 survivors of sexual violence in Bosnia-Herzegovina, even 25 years after the beginning of the conflicts. It is estimated that since 2004, when the war crime trials started in Bosnia, less than 1% of people who were subjected to sexual violence applied to the courts. Courts in the country concluded only 123 cases on sexual violence charges.
Translator: İpek Tabur
Proof-reader: Müge Karahan