Rape in the Bosnian War

During the Bosnian War many women from all Bosnian ethnic groups were raped. Estimates of the numbers raped range from 20,000 to 50,000.[1][2] This has been referred to as "mass rape",[3][4][5][6][7] particularly with regard to the coordinated use of rape as a weapon of war.[4][5][6][7][8] The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) declared that "systematic rape", and "sexual enslavement" in time of war was a crime against humanity, second only to the war crime of genocide. The Kunarac case was the first time in judicial history anyone had been found guilty of these crimes.[4]

According to Margot Wallström, U.N. Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, only 12 cases out of an estimated 50,000 to 60,000 have been prosecuted.[9]


Systematic rape by armed forces

Excavation of a mass grave in eastern Bosnia. Civilian men from Foča were executed whilst women were detained and repeatedly raped by members of the Bosnian Serb armed forces.[10]

Judges from the ICTY ruled that rape was used by the Bosnian Serb armed forces as an 'instrument of terror'. They declared that a "hellish orgy of persecution" occurred in various camps across Bosnia.[11]

Early stages

Before the Bosnian war started, Bosniaks (commonly known as Bosnian Muslims) in Eastern Bosnia had already begun to be removed from their employment, to be ostracised and to have their freedom of movement curtailed. At the outset of the war, Serb forces also began to target the Bosniak civilian population. Once towns and villages were secured, the military, the police, the paramilitaries and, sometimes, even Serb villagers continued these attacks. Bosniak houses and apartments were systematically ransacked or burnt down while civilians were rounded up, sometimes being beaten or killed in the process. Men and women were separated and detained - many of the men in local camps.[10]

During the early investigations by the United Nations, in 1992, it became apparent that rape was not random, but systematic and had the support of commanders and local authorities.[12]

Some of the reported rape and sexual assault cases committed by Serbs, mostly against Muslims, are clearly the result of individual or small group conduct without evidence of command direction or an overall policy. However, many more seem to be a part of an overall pattern whose characteristics include: similarities among practices in non-contiguous geographic areas; simultaneous commission of other international humanitarian law violations; simultaneous military activity; simultaneous activity to displace civilian populations; common elements in the commission of rape, maximizing shame and humiliation to not only the victim, by also the victim's community; and the timing of the rapes. One factor in particular that leads to this conclusion is the large number of rapes which occurred in places of detention. These rape in detention do not appear to be random, and they indicate at least a policy of encouraging rape supported by the deliberate failure of camp commanders and local authorities to exercise command and control over the personnel under their authority.

United Nations Commission on Breaches of Geneva Law in Former Yugoslavia, First Interim Report 1992 (S/25274)

Many reports stated that the perpetrators said they were ordered to rape. Others said that the aim was to ensure the victims and their families would never return to the area. Perpetrators told the female victims that they would bear children of the perpetrator's ethnicity. That they would become pregnant and then be held in custody until it was too late to get an abortion. Victims were threatened that if they told anyone they would be hunted down and killed.[12]

Houses and camps

"Karaman's House", a location where women were tortured and raped near Foča, Bosnia and Herzegovina. (Photograph provided courtesy of the ICTY)

There were numerous rape camps in the town of Foča. "Karaman’s house" was one of the most notable rape camps. While kept in this house, girls were repeatedly raped. Among the women held in "Karaman's house" were minors as young as 12 years of age.[10][13] In the findings of the Kunarac trial, the appalling conditions of the detention centers being used for mass rape were described.[10]

Women were kept in various detention centres where they had to live in intolerably unhygienic conditions, where they were mistreated in many ways including, for many of them, being raped repeatedly. Serb soldiers or policemen would come to these detention centres, select one or more women, take them out and rape them …. All this was done in full view, in complete knowledge and sometimes with the direct involvement of the local authorities, particularly the police forces. The head of Foča police forces, Dragan Gagović, was personally identified as one of the men who came to these detention centres to take women out and rape them.

International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, Kunarac trial (V. Findings of the trial chamber)

Muslim women were specifically targeted, as the rapes against them were one of the many ways in which the Serb forces could assert their superiority and victory over the Bosniaks. For instance, the girls and women, who were selected by convicted war criminal Dragoljub Kunarac or by his men, were systematically taken to the soldiers’ base, a house located in Osmana Đikić street No. 16. There, the girls and women (some of them as young as 14 years old), were raped by Dragoljub or his men. The soldiers demonstrated a total disregard for the Bosniaks in general, and Bosniak women in particular. They removed many Muslim girls from the detention centres, and kept some of them for various periods of time to rape.[10]

Radomir Kovač, who was also convicted by the ICTY, kept four girls in his apartment, abusing and raping three of them many times. "Kovač would also invite his friends to his apartment, sometimes allowing them to rape one of the girls. Kovač sold three of the girls …. Prior to their being sold, he gave two of them … to other Serb soldiers who abused them for more than three weeks."[10]

One woman was taken by Serbian soldiers to the outdoor sport stadium in Foca. "There she was raped by 28 soldiers before losing consciousness. In addition the soldiers burned her body with cigarettes and cigarette lighters."[14]

Ethnic dimension

Early United Nations investigations concluded that "Rape has been reported to have been committed by all sides to the conflict. However, the largest number of reported victims have been Bosnian Muslims, and the largest number of alleged perpetrators have been Bosnian Serbs. There are few reports of rape and sexual assault between members of the same ethnic group."[12] It has been claimed that "For the Serbs, the desire to degrade, humiliate, and impregnate Bosnian Muslim women with ‘little Chetniks’ was paramount."[15] Women were forced to go full term with their pregnancies and give birth.[15] Many of the reports of the abuses illustrated the ethnic dimension of the rapes.

The women knew the rapes would begin when 'Marš na Drinu' was played over the loudspeaker of the main mosque. ('Mars na Drinu,' or 'March on the Drina', is reportedly a former Chetnik fighting song that was banned during the Tito years.) While 'Mars na Drinu' was playing, the women were ordered to strip and soldiers entered the homes taking the ones they wanted. The age of women taken ranged from 12 to 60. Frequently the soldiers would seek out mother and daughter combinations. Many of the women were severely beaten during the rapes.

Seventh Report on War Crimes in the Former Yugoslavia: Part II , US submission of information to the United Nations Security Council[14]

One case had a Serb soldier telling a Bosnian woman he was raping, "You should have already left this town. We'll make you have Serbian babies who will be Christians."[14]

Non-Serb camps

There were rapes and sexual assaults in non-Serb prison camps, mostly in Croat camps against Bosnian Muslims and Serbs, although not on the same scale as the systematic rape carried out by members of the Serb armed forces.[citation needed] There is a case being heard by the ICTY where a group of six Bosnian Croat politicians and army officers have been indicted for various war crimes involving the detention and abuse of thousands of Bosniaks. These crimes include rape in Herzegovina and Central Bosnia.[16] During Lašva Valley ethnic cleansing Croat forces committed number of rapes against Bosniaks.[17]

Around 100 Serb prisoners of war, mainly men, were detained at Čelebići camp near the town of Konjic, utilised by several units of the Ministry of the Interior (MUP), Croatian Defence Council (HVO) and later the Territorial Defense Forces (TO) during short period of partnership between Bosnian and Croat forces that was established after Serb forces blocked the town. Detainees at the camp were treated cruelly and inhumanely including a few murders. Some detainees were sexually assaulted.[18][19] Two women were also raped in Konjic. The prison was closed according to the decision of the Bosnian government in December 1992 and the remaining prisoners released.[18] The commander of the joint Bosnian and Croat forces in the area was acquitted, whilst the prison commander was given a nine year sentence under the principles of superior responsibility and granted early release in 2003.[20][21] The deputy prison commander was sentenced to 18 years for crimes which included murder and rape.[21]

Psychological and physical effects

A medical study of 68 Croatian and Bosniak victims of rape during the 1992-1995 war found that many suffered psychological problems as a result. None had any psychiatric history prior to the rapes. After the rapes 25 had suicidal thoughts, 58 suffered depression immediately after and 52 were still suffering from depression at the time of the study, one year later. Of the women 44 had been raped more than once and 21 of them had been raped daily throughout their captivity. Twenty nine of them had become pregnant and 17 had an abortion. The study reached the conclusion that the rapes had "deep immediate and long-term consequences on the mental-health" of the women.[22]


Following the end of hostilities with the 1995 Dayton Agreement, there have been sustained efforts to reconcile the opposing factions.[23] Much attention has been paid to the need to understand the reality of what happened, dispel myths, and for responsible leaders to be brought to justice and be encouraged to accept their guilt for the mass rapes and other atrocities.[24][25][26] Historians such as Niall Ferguson have assessed a key factor behind the high level decision to use mass rape for ethnic cleansing as being misguided nationalism.[27]

Prior to 1980, Croatian and Serbian nationalism had been effectively repressed by Marshal Josip Broz Tito, though his suppression of any talk about nationalist issues had failed to diminish the intensity with which they were felt. Milošević had inflamed Serbian feelings with a speech referring to the Battle of Kosovo. Feelings of victimhood and aggression towards Bosniaks were further stirred up with exaggerated tales about the role played by a small fraction of Bosnian Muslims in the Ustaše genocide Serbians had suffered in the 1940s. Other myths invoked included suggestions that Bosnian Muslims were racially different, when in fact DNA tests have shown they are genetically identical with Serbs.[27] Despite the government led hate campaigns, some Serbs tried to defend Bosnians from the atrocities and had to be threatened - invading troops would announce by loud speaker that "every Serb who protects a Muslim will be killed immediately".[27]

In the aftermath of the conflict, ethnic identity is now of much greater social importance in Bosnia than it was prior to 1992. From the 1960s to the war, the percentage of mixed marriages between communities has been close to 12% and young citizens would often refer to themselves as Bosnians rather than identifying their ethnicity.[28] After the conflict it has been effectively mandatory to be identified as either Bosniak, Serb or Croat and this has been a problem for the children of rape victims as they come of age.[28] By December 2009, tensions still exist between the different communities, with the re-opening of a railway service between the Serbian and Bosnian Capital cities being seen as a merely "symbolic re-establishment of ties".[29]

Individuals convicted of related war crimes

Convicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia:

  • Dragoljub Kunarac (28 years in prison) was found guilty of several rapes; inciting his soldiers to commit collective rape and forcing women into slavery. Judged guilty of crimes against humanity (Torture, enslavement and rape).[10][30][31][32]
  • Radomir Kovač (20 years in prison)[10][31][32]
  • Zoran Vuković (12 years in prison)[10][31][32]
  • Milorad Krnojelac (15 years in prison)[33][34]
  • Dragan Zelenović (pleaded guilty, 15 years in prison) Personally found guilty of 9 rapes, 8 of which qualified as torture. Two rapes through 'co-perpetratorship' and one through aiding and abetting where the woman was raped by at least 10 soldiers and lost consciousness.[35][36][37]
  • Hazim Delić (18 years in prison) Found guilty of raping two Serbian women whilst he was Deputy Commander of Čelebići prison-camp. Also found guilty of willful killing and torture.[21][38][39]
  • Anto Furundžija (10 years in prison) Found guilty of torture, outrages upon personal dignity, including rape of a Bosniak woman during Lašva Valley ethnic cleansing carried out by the Croats against Bosniaks in 1993.[17]

Convicted by the Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina:

  • Radovan Stanković (20 years in prison; escaped from prison in May 2007) Committed, incited, aided and abetted; enslavement, torture, rape and killing as part of a widespread attack against the non-Serbian population.[40][41]
  • Neđo Samardžić (13 years in prison)[42][43]
  • Gojko Janković (34 years in prison) Indicted for ordering, committing and inciting the rape of a Bosniak woman and found guilty of raping, murdering and torturing Bosniak and Croat civilians between 1992 and 1993.[35][44]
  • Dragan Damjanović (20 years in prison) Convicted of war crimes including murder, torture and rape.[45]
  • Momir Savić (18 years in prison) "For the killing, rape and torture of Muslims in eastern Bosnia early in the 1992-95 war."[46]
  • Željko Lelek (13 years in prison) "For the persecution and torture of Bosnian Muslims and the rape of Muslim women in the early 1990s."[47]
  • Miodrag Nikacevic (8 years in prison) "For the rape and illegal detention of Muslims in the eastern town of Foca early in the country's 1992-95 war."[48]
  • Ante Kovač (9 years in prison), former Commander of the Croat Military Police in Vitez, has been sentenced under a second instance verdict for crimes against Bosniak civilians in Vitez including rape.[49]

See also

Bosnian War


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