Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
VIEWPOINT: Foca's Everyday Rapists
Thursday, February 22 of this year, looked like any ordinary day, with a dull, fine rain falling slowly. The streets were almost empty when a car with tinted windows pulled into an underground garage in The Hague's Churchill Square.
During their short journey from the seaside prison at Scheveningen, Dragoljub Kunarac, Radomir Kovac and Zoran Vukovic could not have seen much of the city. Having passed this particular route twice a day, every day, for the past eight months, they would have known its contours by heart, must have felt a familiarity with the almost identical brownstone houses.
What they could hardly have realised, as they entered the by then familiar courtroom, was that they were going to make history. They were about to become the first men convicted of torture, slavery, insults upon dignity and the mass rape of Bosnian women .
It was not possible to judge from their faces whether the accused had any special care about the notoriety they were about to acquire. infamy they were about to garner. But then, by just looking at them - if you ran into them in a tram, say, or at the supermarket - there would be no way to tell if they were particularly violent. They look no different from the next man, just like three guys who like to hang out in the bars.
But then the war occurred, and here they were, in a courtroom in The Hague.
Questioned by a prosecutor, Witness FWS-50 described Kunarac as so ugly she could never look at him properly. He is a rather short man in his forties, with two strong vertical lines marking his deeply sunk cheeks. His face is hard, as if carved out of wood. He looks dried out, a type of skinny but tough man one often finds in mountain villages. His curly dark hair is receding at the top and looks untidy, as though it doesn't get washed too often.
Kovac is about the same age, but looks younger. He is tall and slender, with a long face and short hair. On first appearance, he seems well-intentioned, at least better than the other two. Except for his face: a small, cynical smile, almost permanently attached to his mouth, makes him look impudent, superior.
Dressed in a dark grey suit, probably otherwise worn only at weddings and funerals, he leans back in his chair, appearing relaxed - unlike Kunarac, who eagerly leans forward and watches the judges with a frown. Perhaps it is this manner, and his neat appearance, that makes him look like someone to whom you would entrust your daughter. Before the war, that is.
During the war he would probably have raped her, even if she were only a child of 12. He would have enslaved her, together with other girls aged 15 to 20. Finally, he would have sold her to a Montenegrin soldier for 200 German marks, and she would never be heard from again.
This is exactly what he did with 12-year-old A.B. Her mother came to the tribunal to testify against him. The last time she saw her child was when she was boarding a bus transporting people out of Foca.
The prosecutor showed her a photo of her daughter, and asked how old she was at the time. Instead of an answer, her mother cried. But this was not really a cry. It sounded rather as if there were a microphone inside her body, amplifying the sobs that were tearing her flesh apart. It lasted half a minute, a long, deep, whining sound of somebody, a human being or an animal, so deadly wounded that it can make no other sound but a howl.
As for Zoran Vukovic, one might expect him to look dangerous. But he is small and seemingly weak, especially in comparison to Kovac, with fair hair and greyish, pasty skin. He is distinguished by the absence of a chin, which merges with his neck. He used to compensate for this with a short beard at the early stages of the trial. On that Thursday, his chin was visible again, together with a face that revealed no emotions. Or perhaps he didn't have any?
He is the oldest of the three, but instead of exercising authority, he preferred to be led by others. After raping a 15-year-old girl, he told her he could have been more brutal but held back only because he has a daughter of the same age. One witness described how Vukovic told her about his intentions to kill her uncle. He was explaining that he had to, as if asking for her approval. At no point during the process did he express any remorse.
Those who killed or ordered killings often tell the court they were forced to do so in order not to be killed themselves. But how do the rapists explain themselves? Rape was generally encouraged as a highly efficient method of achieving one key aim of the Bosnian Serb army: frightening and humiliating civilian Muslims. But there appears to have been no specific order to rape.
The likelihood is that, required by the court to declare themselves guilty or innocent, they chose the latter because they truly believe there is nothing to feel guilty about. Even though they were "a bit rough with the girls", they didn't actually kill them, or have them killed.
Compared to Goran Jelisic, for example, who actually killed people with his own hands, the three men from Foca probably do not feel they committed any crimes at all. In their part of the world, men often treat their wives like cattle anyway. It is not strange for a man to beat his wife in order to remind her of her place.
And what is rape? To take a woman when you want and where you want - that is a man's right. For raping other women before the war, one would walk out of court with just a one or two year's sentence. So the three men wonder, What was so wrong about just wanting to have a little fun during the war?
Sometimes they were drunk and oblivious to what they were doing. They did not mean any harm. In answer to how she felt after being gang-raped, witness FWS-50 said, "I felt dead". But she was not dead and, most probably, according to Kunarac, Kovac or Vukovic, she should have been grateful to them for that. Perhaps by keeping them locked up as slaves, they even believe they saved the girls' lives?
In their own "country", Republika Srpska, the three men from Foca would be hailed as heroes. Or at least they would not be in prison. For who would testify against them? Victims came to testify in The Hague, but they would hardly dare do the same in Foca, or anywhere else in Bosnia, for that matter - from embarrassment of being recognised by their own people, if not outright fear.
Kunarac , Kovac and Vukovic never imagined they would be confronted by their own victims in the courtroom. They knew that women don't usually speak of their "shame", especially not if they're Muslim. But they were wrong.
Bosnian women, around 20 of them, decided not only to speak up but to also testify against them in front of the war crimes tribunal. They often cried, but they still managed to describe in gruesome details what happened to them while being detained by the defendants.
Sometimes they were forced to "entertain" Kunarac and his palls before they would rape them. Witness FWS-87 recalls several incidents when she and some other girls were ordered to strip and do naked table-dancing at gun point, or when they were raped to music from "Swan's Lake". " They were also at times forced, with a knife under their throat, to walk naked through the streets of Foca up to the river.
Great care was taken to protect the women., Much was done to protect their identity They were referred to only as s FWS-87, FWS-191, FWS-50 or D.B. Almost all of them were hidden from the public. A court usher would roll down a yellow plastic curtain over part of the glass wall separating the public from the court. On the TV screen their faces were blurred and their voices often distorted.
If it wasn't for The Hague court, Kunarac, Kovac and Vukovic would today be sitting in some café in Foca's main street, smoking, drinking brandy and telling anecdotes from the war. If by accident one of the women they raped happened to pass by, they would point their finger at her, and laugh.
Yet the question remains: How could a waiter, a salesman, or a policeman have turned into torturers? No court can provide the answer. Hearing the witness testimonies or reading about the criminals' deeds in newspapers, you just can't stop wondering, Who are they? Can ordinary men behave like that? Your neighbours, perhaps? Or your relatives?
You would like to dismiss the thought, of course, but it is not so easy. You look at photos of the defendants. They look quite ordinary, although now that you know what they did you begin to have doubts. Subconsciously, you look for some obvious signs of perversity in their faces - something that would confirm that, actually, other such men can be recognised as criminals in advance.
"They were low-life people who would go around and beg for cigarettes," said one witness about the three men from Foca. "But when the war broke out, and as soon as they managed to put their hands on guns, they began to feel big and strong. They were brave only with us, with women and children."
Perhaps this witness is right, that all war criminals were low-lifes, and this change happened on all sides, not only among Serbs. Perhaps Judge Florence Mumba is also right when she says, "What the sum of evidence manifestly demonstrates, is the effect a criminal personality will have in times of war on helpless members of the civilian population."
If so, there must have been many such criminal personalities around, able to rape and torture tens of thousands of women. And there were thousands and thousands of such men. Do the majority of men then bear criminal personalities? Or is it perhaps more likely that the war itself changes ordinary men - like Kunarac, Kovac and Vukovic - into war criminals out of opportunism, fear and also belief? Hundreds of thousands of normal people simply believed they were right in what they were doing. Otherwise such big numbers of rapes and murders can hardly be explained.
The idea that normal men, and not monsters, committed such crimes is even more frightening.
Now they sit, awaiting their sentence. Living in their small town in the mountains, they could not imagine the world would be interested one day in what they did; that a special court would be founded and that they will be accused of rape as a crime against humanity. And that a woman - a black woman! - would preside over their case. How strange, how inexplicable, it must be to them to sit in a prison in some foreign country far north and be judged by foreigners.
You could sense that, in spite of the long process and many witnesses and Judge Mumba's excellent speech, none of the accused quite understood why was he was punished. They stood there, a minute or two before they were taken back to the car with dark windows, and driven to prison through the same streets perhaps for the last time. And not even then did any of them understand why. There were so many other men who did worse things than they in the war. Why them? They will never feel remorse, but will serve their sentences regretting that they let themselves be caught or tricked into surrender.
It is up to other people to understand the importance of this verdict, as reflected in the judge's speech, "Political leaders and war generals are powerless if ordinary people refuse to carry out criminal activities in the course of war. Lawless opportunists should expect no mercy, no matter how low their position in the chain of command may be."
As Kunarac's 28 year sentence was read out, he bowed his head like a man who understood he had lost everything. Kovac, who received 20 years, did not even change his facial expression, and neither did Vukovic, who was sentenced to 12 years. Watching them, you understand that war finally boils down to what one individual does to another, to what they did to those girls. In the end, the war is only a sum of such actions. And finally you may end up in a court room awaiting your sentence, all alone.
Slavenka Drakulic is an IWPR special correspondent focusing on justice and war crimes. Her most recent novel, about mass rape in Bosnia, "As If I Am Not There", is published by Abacus.
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