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

Ten Years of Pain

By Amra Kebo in Sarajevo (TU 306, 24-28 March 2003)

The Bosnian Muslim woman - who prefers not to be named - speaks for many when she describes the past ten years of her life as a living hell.

Her ordeal began when she was captured by Bosnian Serb forces in the Sarajevo suburb of Grbavica in 1992, and imprisoned in an apartment.

From that point until the summer of 1993 - when she was eventually set free via a prisoner exchange - she lost count of how many times she was raped by Serb soldiers.

"I was under constant threat of death. Pistols and machine guns would be pointed at my head, and then they would change their minds, and say, 'I won't kill you now, I will use you'," she said.

The woman, now in her 50s, was sexually abused along with other Bosnian Muslim women and girls by soldiers coming off the front line. The violence did not stop at rape - beatings were also very common.

And as time passed, the conditions became much worse. She was put into a so-called work platoon, forced to dig holes in the earth with her bare hands, and bury garbage.

Following her release through a prisoner exchange programme, she struggled to re-adapt to life in besieged Sarajevo.

Her husband had died before the war, and when she was reunited with her two children, they did not recognise her at first, as she looked so old and gaunt.

And that was just the start. The daily beatings had damaged her spinal chord in two places, causing her great pain, and she was later diagnosed as having a malignant growth in one breast, which subsequently had to be removed. Other more recent ailments have included a kidney cyst and a blood disorder.

"I was always a healthy woman who had a wonderful life," she told IWPR. "But war and torture changed everything. Now I have very high blood pressure, nightmares, insomnia, constant headaches and aches everywhere in my body."

The problems are exacerbated by the fear and shame which prevent her from telling anyone of her ordeal - causing further stress as she bottles her pain up inside. "God forbid that my children should find out. I told no one but the psychiatrist of what has happened to me," she said.

"It would kill me if my children found out. This way, I am the only one to suffer. If they knew, it would cause them pain too."

One might imagine that the men who raped her had no idea of the cycle of shame and agony they were setting in motion - but they did, and tormented her with that knowledge. "They told us, 'You will stay alive, but you will be permanently dead'," she told IWPR.

"That is true torture. I begged them to kill me but they always refused. They called me a whore, and said that I would always know who they were and what they had done."

This knowledge may yet bring her some small crumbs of comfort. She can name several men - some of them senior Serb officers - who assaulted her, never realising that a war crimes system would later be set up to bring people like them to justice.

But justice, if and when it comes, will not dull the pain or stop her nightmares, she said, adding, "I am haunted by the horrible scenes of rape."

Her post-war recovery has not been helped by the fact that many of her attackers are still in the area. She was forced to leave her first peacetime job as a public office clerk when it brought her face to face with some of the rapists.

The late Nineties were a time of relative stability for her, and she become engrossed in her new work - but a company restructuring later cost her her job.

Now unemployed, she is suffering from low self-esteem, and has little to fill her days except introspection and the depression that brings.

To add insult to injury, she says that she has received no compensation from the Bosnian government - in spite of the fact that it is a signatory to the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel and Inhuman and Degrading Acts or Punishment.

The convention, which came into force in 1989, demands that all 128 signatory states make legal provision to ensure that victims receive money to pay for treatment and some living expenses.

In spite of her trauma, she still has time to consider the suffering of others. "I constantly think about the young girls who were also raped - because if I was so destroyed by this as a mature woman, imagine how it must be for them."

Amra Kebo is a commentator for the Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje.

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