Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

A Teenage Victim Remembers

By Chris Stephen in The Hague (TU 306, 24-28 March 2003)
By IWPR

I interviewed the girl - who I won't name - in the town of Zenica. She told me how she had been among the first Bosnian Muslims to feel the force of the campaign later to be christened "ethnic cleansing".


Driven from her village by the paramilitary units of Zeljko Raznatovac - better known as Arkan - she joined thousands of Bosnian Muslims herded first to one village, then to another.


While memories of the cleansing campaign are of a ruthless, well-organised movement, her memories are of chaos - and of the Bosnian Serb forces being unsure what to do with the tens of thousands of refugees their attacks had created.


After several days herded together, the men and teenage boys were separated from the women and the very old men. Later, they would be sent to the notorious concentration camps taking shape across northern Bosnia.


The women were put aboard buses, which were then driven away by Serb soldiers. But, lacking a plan, the vehicles were parked near some woods, well away from any towns, with instructions to wait.


For several days they waited, and then the rapes began.


Soldiers would stroll onto the buses, picking women - usually teenagers - and taking them into the woods to be assaulted.


Fearing for her daughter, the girl's mother covered her fresh face with dirt from the floor, and an old woman sitting nearby gave her a headscarf. And when the soldiers came on the bus searching for girls, she would hunch over, hoping to put them off.


The ruse worked - though she was forced to endure days with no food and only a little water in the rising heat.


Finally the buses were driven away, moving across country until, at dusk, they stopped in a deserted Bosnian Muslim village, where the houses had already been looted and their doors left open.


At that stage, there was nowhere left to hide. The soldiers lined the women up along the sides of each bus - and there was no further hope of disguising the young and pretty ones.


The girl was picked out from the line and taken to one of the houses. "I remember that other women went too, they would take one girl to one house, someone else to another," she said, speaking through a translator.


A bearded soldier of around her father's age led her to a bedroom. He told her to undress and said he was going to rape her, and that she would be beaten if she resisted.


She did as she was told. When he had finished, he left the room, but told her to stay. A few minutes later another soldier arrived, and the process was the same. Then came another. Finally, the first man returned. After raping her once more the man began to talk to her.


"He told me the reason for raping me was that his own wife and daughter had been raped by Muslims," she said. "It was not true - the war had only just started. When could this have happened?"


In fact, reports suggest such rapes were common in Bosnia during that long summer of 1992. While journalists' reports of "rape camps" turned out to be false, sexual assault was widespread and systematic.


Commanders did not order it, but as successive trials have shown, it was accepted that the kind of men who filled out the various paramilitary units tearing through the countryside would want to indulge.


For the average paramilitary soldier - many of them from Serbia rather than Bosnia - war was the perfect excuse to have some fun, fire guns, destroy things, grow rich on plunder - and have sex with the kind of women who, given the choice, would reject them in normal situations.


When she had been raped for the last time, the bearded soldier ordered her to dress and follow him out of the house. In the darkness, she could see the silent shapes of other raped women being taken back to the buses.


She was reunited with her mother, and the women were put back on the buses and then driven away.


It was past dawn when the buses again stopped. This time they were in strange countryside, surrounded by hills and trees, but with no signs of life. "They ordered us off the buses, pointed in one direction, and told us to go," she remembered.


And so began the final part of her ordeal. The women formed a column and started to march along a road that passed through hills. The weather was baking, and they were starving and thirsty. But they feared turning back or even delaying. "We just kept walking. People were thirsty. Old people were falling down," she said.


The following day, exhausted and desperate, she was walking with her mother near the front of the column when in the distance they spotted a lone soldier.


"He was running towards us," she said. " I did not understand until I saw that he had a green bandana around his head."


These were early days, before the Bosnian government army had proper uniforms. The green bandana indicated that the man was a Muslim, and that the women had reached government lines.


"When he saw us, he was in shock," she remembered. "He did not know what to do. He was running from one woman to another, trying to help, but there were so many of us."


Thankfully, for this victim the story had a happy ending. Her mother survived the war, and they were later reunited with her father.


She also received psychological treatment at a rape centre in Zenica run by a German charity.


Workers at the centre said that they believed that the soldiers raped out of a conviction that sexual assault was a penalty worse than death for their enemies - and that the brutalised victims would be rejected by society.


In fact, few were. Husbands and boyfriends remained loyal, even agreeing to requests from the Zenica charity to stay away from the centre for many months, so as not to frighten some of the women who remained traumatised.


This girl had no boyfriend to visit her. But she has a loving family. Hopefully that will be enough.


Chris Stephen is IWPR's project manager in The Hague.


More IWPR's Global Voices