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Bosnia: Struggle to Overcome Male Rape Taboo

Fifteen years after Bosnian war, fight goes on for victims’ recognition and justice.
By Dženana Karabegović
  • The Hague tribunal has heard testimony about victims being sexually assaulted with glass bottles, guns and truncheons. (Photo: Courtesy of the ICTY)
    The Hague tribunal has heard testimony about victims being sexually assaulted with glass bottles, guns and truncheons. (Photo: Courtesy of the ICTY)

“I still remember the terrible screams. I had never heard anything like that before. They were the screams of people who were in excruciating pain, and who knew they were dying.”
This is how a survivor of the infamous Bosnian Serb-run Omarska detention camp in Prijedor described the terrifying scene he said he witnessed there on June 20, 1992, when several Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) detainees were allegedly tortured to death.
At one point, a Bosniak prisoner is said to have been forced to bite another prisoner’s testicles off. It’s alleged that the latter died as a result, together with several other detainees who were also tortured that day.  


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Bosnia: Struggle to Overcome Male Rape Taboo

Dženana Karabegović 21 Sep 10
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Testifying in March 2007 under the pseudonym K017 at the Sarajevo trial of Bosnian Serbs Zeljko Mejakic, Momcilo Gruban, Dusan Fustar and Dusko Knezevic, the witness was giving evidence of torture and sexual abuse suffered by male inmates of the Omarska camp.
Fifteen years have passed since the end of the 1992-95 Bosnian war, but wartime rapes remain taboo in the patriarchal Bosnian society. That gets in the way of providing the social, psychological and legal help that victims need.
It is estimated that some 20,000 women were raped at that time, while the number of men who were subjected to such ordeals in prison camps throughout Bosnia is still unknown.
Human rights activists in Bosnia say that at least several hundred men were victims of this crime, but not a single trial, either at the Hague war crimes tribunal or in local courts, has focused solely on the rape or sexual abuse of men.
Experts say the main reason for this is the unwillingness of most of these men to speak about their experiences in public, or to testify in court. This, in turn, makes the prosecution of these crimes more difficult.
The spokesman of the Bosnian prosecutor’s office, Boris Grubesic, said several current investigations are related to wartime rapes, but he could not provide any details because the prosecutor “makes no distinction between rapes of men and women. They are all treated equally”.   
According to the research and documentation centre in Sarajevo, around 400 prison camps existed in Bosnia during the war, and Bosnian Serb-run Omarska and Keraterm camps near Prijedor, in northwestern Bosnia, were the ones where most cases of rape and sexual abuse of men took place.
Many eyewitnesses have testified at trials at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, ICTY, in The Hague and in local courts that these crimes took place at Omarska and Keraterm, and a few victims have given evidence in person, with their identity hidden.
According to these testimonies, victims were sexually assaulted with glass bottles, guns and truncheons. Also, castrations were allegedly performed by crude means - such as forcing other detainees to bite off a prisoner's testicles.  
The witnesses also said that prisoners had been forced to commit other types of abuse on each other, and several men made statements that fathers and sons had been coerced into performing sexual acts upon each other.
In past years, rape during armed conflict has been overshadowed by other war crimes. Before the establishment of the ICTY and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, ICTR, in 1993 and 1994 respectively, rape was never considered or prosecuted as a crime against humanity under international humanitarian law.
The Bosnian court still has not prosecuted a case that would focus solely on wartime rapes of men. However, this crime was included in charges against some indictees tried at this court.
In April 2008, the War Crimes Chamber of the Bosnian state court sentenced Bosniak Zijad Kurtovic to 11 years in prison for crimes he committed in 1993 against dozens of male Croat detainees. The charges included sexual abuse of these men, for which he was found guilty. The verdict was confirmed by the appeals chamber of the same court in May 2009.
Experts say that male rape, in time of war, is predominantly an assertion of power and aggression, rather than an attempt on the part of the perpetrator to satisfy sexual desire. The main aim of such an attack is to damage the victim psychologically, rob him of his pride, and intimidate him.
During the wars in Bosnia and Croatia in the early Nineties, male rape and sexual torture were used as a weapon of war with serious consequences for the victims’ mental, physical, and sexual health, Balkan experts say.
Despite the fact that hundreds of Bosnian men are believed to be victims of wartime rapes and sexual abuse, only two non-governmental organisations in Bosnia with limited resources provide them with psychological help. Their status has not been properly regulated by law either.
One of them, the Union of Former Prisoners of War of Bosnia and Hercegovina, claims to have documented many cases of male rape, but says it is difficult to speak about this sensitive issue because of the country’s patriarchal society.  
Sudbin Music, the secretary of the Prijedor 92 Union, a war victims association, said he often hears stories of men who were sexually abused in prison camps during the war, “It is easier for these men to talk about their ordeal only in the circle of people who also went through horrors of prison camps.
"Men were forced to have sexual intercourse in front of the other inmates. This, of course, caused them great physical and psychological pain.”
Members of the Izvor NGO from Prijedor, the second NGO providing help for men subjected to sexual abuse, are well aware of the problems the latter face, but the organisation, too, claims that victims refuse to speak openly about their ordeals.
"Unfortunately, up to now very few of those men who survived the sexual abuse were ready to talk about it in public,” said Edin Ramulic, president of Izvor.
“Most abuses took place in room number three at the Keraterm camp. Ninety per cent of the detainees who were held in this room were killed, and those who survived were exposed to sexual abuse, but they don’t want to talk about it in public, or to address this issue with the Bosnian authorities.”
Both the Union of Former Prisoners of War of Bosnia and Hercegovina and Izvor do what they can by talking to the victims and engaging psychologists to provide them with professional help.
“Because of the stigma surrounding this particular crime, most perpetrators may remain unpunished,” Murat Tahirovic, president of the Union of Former Prisoners of War of Bosnia Hercegovina, said.
Senadin Ljubovic, a Sarajevo-based psychiatrist who has treated 37 men who said they were sexually abused during the war, concludes all of them suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, which is reflected in permanent changes of personality and mental health problems.
"Rape in our society is something difficult to accept and it is particularly difficult for male victims to cope with. Very often they find it almost impossible to admit that they were sexually abused,” Ljubovic said.
“However, victims cannot cure themselves. They need professional help, primarily social, psychological and legal. But most of all, they need to see that perpetrators have been punished. Without that, there will be no true rehabilitation of victims.”
Dzenana Karabegovic is an RFE reporter and IWPR contributor in Sarajevo. Merdijana Sadovic is IWPR’s International Justice/ICTY programme manager.

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