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  Europe
"I Just Want Justice"
Plea of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s War Crime Victim
By Shane Clarke
London Correspondent
The Plea of One of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s War Crime Victims

From 1992 to 1995, Bosnia-Herzegovina was torn apart by war. It followed the international recognition of Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina as independent states in 1991. Nationalist cries and calls of ethnic supremacy plunged the area into bloody conflict and the committal of some of the worst atrocities since the Holocaust.

Arguably one of the worst of these was the officially-endorsed policy of genocidal rape by Serb forces. This was a planned war strategy aimed at women, and while all sides – including the United Nations peacekeeping forces – committed these atrocities, it would appear that only the Serbs deliberately organised and committed them as a part of their war strategy.

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe has estimated the number of victims at 20,000. Most of them were Muslim, the majority were women, but there were also men and children who were subjected to this horror.

Fifteen years later, most of the people who committed these war crimes are still free. Their victims, however, are imprisoned by the memories of the evil that befell them during those dark times.

Nicola Duckworth, director of Amnesty International’s Europe and Central Asia Programme, said, “During the war, thousands of women and children were raped, often with extreme brutality. Many were held in prison camps, hotels, private houses where they were sexually exploited. Many women and girls were killed.”

One victim who survived is 55-year-old Semka Agic, from Zivinice, in north-eastern Bosnia. She was one of four women forced onto a bus and taken to a house in Zasavica, where she was repeatedly raped until she was freed in a prisoner exchange in 1993.

Bosnia’s State Investigation and Protection Agency has begun gathering evidence to indict one of the men suspected of raping Semka. However, although this started three years ago, the case is yet to go to trial. In fact, to date only 30 men have been convicted of these war-crimes.

“I just want justice,” Semka said.

Recounting the start of her ordeal, she said, “The main thing that I remember is that it was very hot. I couldn’t stand the heat.

“In the middle of the street there was a man in uniform. He was drunk. He was a Serb.

“He took me into a nearby house, took me into a bedroom and put his gun on the bed, saying, ‘Do I have to use the gun?”

This was just the start of a nightmare which Semka, like so many others, still lives with today. They are the forgotten victims of a war that still makes the headlines today with the ongoing trial of Radovan Karadzic for war crimes.

“This nation forgets everything,” said Sabiha, another victim, in an interview with Amnesty International in March 2009. “They forget about us victims, but I will never forget about what happened to me.

“What was I guilty of when I was only 14 years old? What did I do to anybody? I was at the point of his knife and I prayed to God for him to kill me. The worst was when I was taken away from my father. I thought I would never come back alive. I saw how they bound my father’s hands with wire and how he could not help me. His tears remained in my memory forever and I will never forget this.”

International law imposes an obligation on Bosnia to bring the perpetrators to justice and to make reparations to the victims. Unfortunately, it is failing on both counts, leading to despair and self-marginalisation of those still living with what happened.

Bakira, another victim, told Amnesty International, “I do not know if it is possible to punish this crime. If justice exists at all? Maybe somewhere, but not here in Bosnia.”

So, she waits for justice, like so many other women, stigmatized when they should be supported, and often living in the same communities as their rapists. While these men go about their daily lives with impunity, these women can’t even sleep at night because their dreams are haunted by the memories of gang rapes, beatings, the cold touch of a knifepoint against their throat, and the despairing cries of another victim.

Many suffer from post-traumatic stress and other psychological and physical disorders. Their lives have been shattered and they are forced to live on charity and meagre disability benefits because they can no longer cope with everyday life.

“Many women who have survived sexual violence during the war cannot get any compensation due to the complex structures of the judicial and social welfare systems in the country,” said Nicola Duckworth. “In comparison to other war victims, they suffer discrimination in access to social benefits.”

With authorities in Bosnia failing to provide adequate healthcare or psychological support to victims, the task is left to non-governmental organisations (NGOs), who themselves are struggling with the problems of limited resources. Many feel that the Bosnian government should do more to help these organisations.

“The authorities must work with NGOs in developing a comprehensive strategy to ensure that survivors receive reparations, including adequate pensions, assistance with access to work and the highest achievable standard of healthcare,” said Ms Duckworth. “The government should support survivors of war crimes of sexual violence, to give them a voice to demand their rights and combat the discrimination and stigmatisation they face in everyday life.”

Amnesty International has called upon Bosnia-Herzegovina’s Parliament to extend the mandate of the international judges and prosecutors who have helped to build the country’s judiciary with their expertise, impartiality and experience. In the meantime, women like Semka, Sabiha and Bakira go on waiting – for the nightmares to cease, for the help that they so desperately need, but most importantly for justice to be done.



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Shane Clarke serves as London Correspondent for The Seoul Times. He has been involved in humanitarian work for numerous years. He’s also a freelance management consultant. Having completed an honors degree in Law at Wolverhampton University, he then moved on to an MBA at Warwick Business School. He’s heavily involved in the fight against international parental child abduction to Japan.

 

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