Bosnia: Struggle to Overcome Male Rape Taboo

Bosnia: Struggle to Overcome Male Rape Taboo

The images of death camps were imprinted on my mind forever when, as a high-school student, I watched foreign documentaries on Nazi camps from the Second World War.

Who would have thought back then, a few years before the 1992-95 war in Bosnia started, that I would see such terrifying images again - pale and emaciated men and women who looked more like living skeletons than human beings. 

But I did see them, in mid-1992. The war in Bosnia had already started and I lived in the town of Tuzla. Like in most other cities in Bosnia at that time, the power supply in Tuzla was scarce. 

In those rare moments when we had electricity in our homes, we were watching television, eager to find out what was going on in the rest of the country. That’s when I first saw the footage from prison camps in Bosanska Krajina, made by a group of British journalists who discovered the Omarska, Trnopolje and Keraterm camps. 

The images they captured there shocked the world, and me. Even now, 18 years later, I still cannot forget those faces.

I remember well one young man. I don’t think he was over 25. You could count every single bone in his chest. He was stretching his arm towards a journalist on the other side of the fence and you could clearly see fear in his eyes.

Although I might have assumed that he had been beaten and had not eaten properly for months, at that time I did not know what horrors he and numerous other men held in those camps were actually going through.

When the war stopped, stories of rape started to emerge, but in most cases the victims were women. No one mentioned male victims, at least not in the media. It was clear that the stigma surrounding male rape was too strong. That prompted me to do some research on my own. I have to admit that convincing former detention camp prisoners to talk was not easy. I think they were surprised when I asked whether men too were subjected to sexual abuse in those camps.

None of them wanted to tell me whether this had happened to them – they only talked about “others” who had been raped. Of course, no names were mentioned. But the details of those abuses which they revealed were shocking.

Over 400 detention centres were established during the war in Bosnia. Most of them were located in eastern Bosnia, but the most notorious ones were in the wider Prijedor area – Omarska, Keraterm and Trnopolje – in the north-west of the country. Both men and women are said to have been raped there.

Bosnian society is patriarchal, so to this day male rape remains a taboo. Even 15 years after the war, there’s silence when this subject is mentioned. Molested men only rarely admit this happened to them, always asking for their identity not to be disclosed.

Unfortunately, these men do not get adequate support from the state and only two non-governmental organisations in the country offer psychological help to victims of this form of abuse.

While I was talking to former detainees – some of whom are likely to have been subjected to sexual abuse themselves – I wondered how hard it had to be to hide a secret like this; to live with it every day and not to look for help because of the stigma surrounding this issue.

Talking to representatives of associations of former camp prisoners, I found out that prisoners were forced to have sexual intercourse with each other.

Psychologists say that former detention camp prisoners live with trauma for the rest of their lives. Unemployment, lack of proper housing, and inadequate support from the state only add to their suffering. Some of them have not even told their wives what happened to them in those camps.

And, worst of all, most perpetrators of these crimes will never be punished, mainly because the victims refuse to talk openly about the abuse they were subjected to, or to testify in court. 

Very few former detainees have returned to the places they lived in before the war. Those who have say that every day they meet guards and commanders from the camps they were held in during the war. Some are holding leading positions in their municipalities.

In order for this to change, Bosnian society has to address the stigma attached to this issue. The victims need to see the perpetrators punished, but they also need society to understand them. They will never be able to heal properly if that doesn’t happen. 

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