Emina Rahmanovic rarely leaves her tiny apartment. Fresh snow outside makes the neighborhood of Crkvice, in the Bosnian city of Zenica, seem like a picture postcard. A little boy on the pavement pats a snowball he has made with mittened hands, smiling to himself as he looks for a target. But Rahmanovic sees none of this. She spends most of her days in bed. "Yesterday was the first time in seven years that I stepped on snow," says the 33-year-old.
Rahmanovic says she takes between fifteen and eighteen pills a day. The medication helps her to deal with the insomnia, chronic back pain and depression that have become an everyday part of a life shattered by the rape she was subjected to during the civil war in Bosnia, an ethnic conflict between Bosnian Muslims, Serbs and Croats that claimed more than 100,000 lives between 1992 and 1995. Rahmanovic’s ordeal began in late 1992, when she fled with her family to seek safety in neighboring Croatia. Her family members managed to bribe their way across the border, but Croat soldiers stopped her. Stranded at a military barracks in the city of Travnik, she was raped by Croat soldiers in early 1993. She was 16.
Months later, after the men released her, she sought refuge in Zenica. By this time she was pregnant. Now Rahmanovic (whose name has been changed to protect her identity) is the mother of a teenage girl and a 12-year-old boy. Her children are among the few positive things in her life. She says she looks forward to the times when she sees them at the orphanages they live in. Most of the time she is a prisoner in her home, tied to the trauma of her past. "I feel trapped in my own head," she says. "I can’t get over what happened. There are people who lost their children and family members [in the war]. They somehow continue living, but I just cannot. Maybe it was because I was really young. I constantly question why it had to happen to me. I can’t break free from these feelings."
No one has been convicted of raping her, and she doubts the men who did will ever be held accountable. Her health problems have prevented her from finding regular work. She survives on a disability allowance from her local government, equivalent to $167 a month. She was also able to get psychological support from Medica Zenica, a leading NGO that has provided counseling to war rape victims since 1993.
Amnesty International estimates that around 20,000 women were raped during the war. The majority of the victims have not seen their attackers stand trial; many have not received economic or psychological support from the state. According to a September 2009 Amnesty International report titled "Whose Justice? The Women of Bosnia and Herzegovina Are Still Waiting," the Bosnian government’s failure to "investigate and prosecute crimes of sexual violence before international and national courts" has promoted a culture in which "impunity prevails." The document adds that state psychological healthcare services are scarce, with on average only one mental health center per 40,000-50,000 people in a country of around 4.6 million. In many cases, NGOs have been left to pick up the pieces, with little or no funding from the state.
Rahmanovic’s attempts to get support and justice are tiny fragments of a much larger narrative that raises fundamental questions about how societies can recover from systematic ethnic cleansing. The conflict may have ended years ago, but Bosnia remains a traumatized country. Around 12,500 people are still missing. Many others are struggling with economic instability and unemployment, as well as horrific memories of the recent past. Many victims and abusers live side by side, and anecdotal evidence suggests that ethnic divisions are widening. Without accountability and economic and psychological support for war rape survivors, the fault lines between ethnic groups could deepen. Growing distrust and fear could, in turn, threaten the country’s stability.