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Justice Delayed in Bosnia | The Nation

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Justice Delayed in Bosnia

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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.

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Rajeshree Sisodia
Rajeshree Sisodia is a journalist and photographer who has covered human rights issues for a number of publications,...

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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.

The limited support is partly the result of the complicated power-sharing system created by the US-brokered Dayton agreement, which helped end the war and carved up Bosnia into two semi-autonomous, ethnically divided entities: a Muslim-Croat federation and a Serb republic. Though the state government passes legislation and allocates funding at the national level, the two entities have separate judiciaries, governments and parliaments, and the implementation of laws is subject to local budget constraints. There are consequently large differences in the level of support victims get depending on where they live.

Officials at the federation's Department for the Protection of Persons with Disabilities, which is responsible for overseeing the counseling and compensation that cantons provide for war rape victims, recognize the inadequacy of the government aid. According to department figures, only 612 survivors received monthly compensation equivalent to $353 last year after the state government gave the department $28 million to use as compensation for around 12,000 civilian victims of war. Esma Palic, an adviser in the department, says the office's hands are tied by the state's complicated administrative system and adds that the budget is "overwhelmed."

At the republic's Ministry of Labour and Protection of War Veterans and Persons with Disabilities, spokesman Slavko Peric is more optimistic. He says in a statement that the ministry is "pleased" with the level of compensation, which depends on each victim's level of "impairment," and adds that the republic provides extra compensation if survivors are unable to work or are single parents.

One of the biggest obstacles blocking progress is the absence of a national standard that outlines exactly what help victims are entitled to. Saliha Duderija, Bosnia's assistant minister for human rights and refugees, helps head the state department responsible for drafting national laws to ensure war rape victims get compensation and counseling. Though the department is drafting legislation that would give equal rights to all war rape survivors, she says, the proposals are being blocked by larger political agendas.

"It's really difficult to get some political support within this country for drafting this law because the formal attitude of the ministry is that the situation is OK," Duderija says. "Political support is the key. Even though the war has stopped, it's still going in people's heads and in their words. Politicians use the issue at election time to get votes, regardless of ethnic group."

As Bosnia heads toward parliamentary and presidential elections in October, the outlook for women like Emina Rahmanovic looks bleak. Some prominent Serb politicians--including Milorad Dodik, prime minister of Republika Srpska--have claimed that war crimes committed by Bosnian Muslims against Serbs are not prosecuted, and have denied certain atrocities ever happened. Bosnian Muslim politicians have also accused the republic of not prosecuting war crimes. This political infighting has undermined efforts to provide victims with better healthcare services and justice. (No one from the republic's Ministry of Justice was available for comment.)

Prosecutors at the Special Department for War Crimes are swimming against this tide by attempting to bring war rapists to trial. The department, part of Bosnia's Chief Prosecutor's Office (CPO) in Sarajevo, is looking into more than fifty cases of war rape and/or sexual violence. It also has the authority to transfer these cases to lower-level courts. Department head Vesna Budimir rejects accusations that war crimes committed by Bosnian Muslims against non-Muslims are not prosecuted, and insists that "the CPO is an impartial, independent institution that [does not] prioritize one ethnic group over the others."

Research appears to support her claims. Veiz Bjelic, a Bosnian Muslim prison guard, was jailed for six years in 2008 after the state court convicted him of war crimes including repeatedly raping a Serb prisoner held in captivity between 1992 and 1993. Since it was formed in March 2005, the CPO has issued twenty indictments for sexual war crimes. According to Amnesty International, twelve of fifteen decisions have resulted in convictions; three defendants have been acquitted.

The reasons for the low number of prosecutions are complicated. The stigma associated with rape makes it difficult for many victims to come forward. It is also difficult to gather reliable witness testimony and medical evidence fifteen years after the end of the war, especially considering the limited resources and political will to investigate such cases.

"The people working the cases are working very hard," says David Schwendiman, former head of the Special Department for War Crimes. "They are doing a great job. But the government does not provide them with the support that they need. The national government should take great blame for not being truly committed to this."

A concurrent stream of justice is being meted out at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague. Following a unanimous decision by the UN Security Council on June 19, 2008, to classify rape as a weapon of war, judges at the ICTY were the first to preside over such cases. The legal precedent paved the way for subsequent rulings in cases of sexual violence stemming from other conflicts, including the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. But the charge sheet in the high-profile ICTY case against former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, who is charged with two counts of genocide and various crimes against humanity, does not include any charges of rape or sexual violence, even though rape was mentioned in the indictments to show how some Serb forces under his control terrorized the civilian population. Amnesty International has also reported that the ICTY has prosecuted and completed only eighteen trials that have included charges of rape and/or sexual violence. A spokeswoman for the tribunal would not comment on the figure but said that the ICTY has indicted seventy people for war rape and/or sexual violence, of which only three have been acquitted.

Analysts believe the European Union and the United States could apply diplomatic pressure on Bosnia to improve its track record on this front. Sarajevo is eager to join the EU, which means Brussels has leverage over what the country does. The United States, which played such a dominant role in creating Dayton and the Peace Implementation Council, an international body responsible for implementing the peace agreement, could also flex its diplomatic muscle to pressure Bosnia.

Marko Prelec, Balkans project director and senior analyst at the International Crisis Group, says, "The international community should pressure Bosnia's state government to fully staff and support its war crime office, which it has not done. A lot of international funds went into this [setting up the state court and state prosecutor's office], 44 million euros, [$60 million], and Bosnia must not be allowed to waste it through neglect of the institutions this international effort has built."

Marek Marczynski, a researcher in Bosnia for Amnesty International, believes that failure to provide redress to the victims of the war could jeopardize the country's future stability. "Bosnia is very fragile," Marczynski says. "It's the worst since the end of the war. The way of dealing with the past in the past was [to say that] the crimes committed by the Chetniks, Ustase and the Partisans never happened. You did not talk about the past. But people did talk about it, in their families, within their ethnic groups, but there was no political mechanism by which these feelings could be expressed.

"The [latest] war that happened was a result of that--people wanted revenge. I don't want to witness another revenge in twenty years' time for what happened in the 1990s. I'm not saying necessarily that there will be armed conflict, but the example of the past is a good lesson to keep in mind. It tells us something about how important it is to prosecute these kinds of crimes."

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.

The limited support is partly the result of the complicated power-sharing system created by the US-brokered Dayton agreement, which helped end the war and carved up Bosnia into two semi-autonomous, ethnically divided entities: a Muslim-Croat federation and a Serb republic. Though the state government passes legislation and allocates funding at the national level, the two entities have separate judiciaries, governments and parliaments, and the implementation of laws is subject to local budget constraints. There are consequently large differences in the level of support victims get depending on where they live.

Officials at the federation's Department for the Protection of Persons with Disabilities, which is responsible for overseeing the counseling and compensation that cantons provide for war rape victims, recognize the inadequacy of the government aid. According to department figures, only 612 survivors received monthly compensation equivalent to $353 last year after the state government gave the department $28 million to use as compensation for around 12,000 civilian victims of war. Esma Palic, an adviser in the department, says the office's hands are tied by the state's complicated administrative system and adds that the budget is "overwhelmed."

At the republic's Ministry of Labour and Protection of War Veterans and Persons with Disabilities, spokesman Slavko Peric is more optimistic. He says in a statement that the ministry is "pleased" with the level of compensation, which depends on each victim's level of "impairment," and adds that the republic provides extra compensation if survivors are unable to work or are single parents.

One of the biggest obstacles blocking progress is the absence of a national standard that outlines exactly what help victims are entitled to. Saliha Duderija, Bosnia's assistant minister for human rights and refugees, helps head the state department responsible for drafting national laws to ensure war rape victims get compensation and counseling. Though the department is drafting legislation that would give equal rights to all war rape survivors, she says, the proposals are being blocked by larger political agendas.

"It's really difficult to get some political support within this country for drafting this law because the formal attitude of the ministry is that the situation is OK," Duderija says. "Political support is the key. Even though the war has stopped, it's still going in people's heads and in their words. Politicians use the issue at election time to get votes, regardless of ethnic group."

As Bosnia heads toward parliamentary and presidential elections in October, the outlook for women like Emina Rahmanovic looks bleak. Some prominent Serb politicians--including Milorad Dodik, prime minister of Republika Srpska--have claimed that war crimes committed by Bosnian Muslims against Serbs are not prosecuted, and have denied certain atrocities ever happened. Bosnian Muslim politicians have also accused the republic of not prosecuting war crimes. This political infighting has undermined efforts to provide victims with better healthcare services and justice. (No one from the republic's Ministry of Justice was available for comment.)

Prosecutors at the Special Department for War Crimes are swimming against this tide by attempting to bring war rapists to trial. The department, part of Bosnia's Chief Prosecutor's Office (CPO) in Sarajevo, is looking into more than fifty cases of war rape and/or sexual violence. It also has the authority to transfer these cases to lower-level courts. Department head Vesna Budimir rejects accusations that war crimes committed by Bosnian Muslims against non-Muslims are not prosecuted, and insists that "the CPO is an impartial, independent institution that [does not] prioritize one ethnic group over the others."

Research appears to support her claims. Veiz Bjelic, a Bosnian Muslim prison guard, was jailed for six years in 2008 after the state court convicted him of war crimes including repeatedly raping a Serb prisoner held in captivity between 1992 and 1993. Since it was formed in March 2005, the CPO has issued twenty indictments for sexual war crimes. According to Amnesty International, twelve of fifteen decisions have resulted in convictions; three defendants have been acquitted.

The reasons for the low number of prosecutions are complicated. The stigma associated with rape makes it difficult for many victims to come forward. It is also difficult to gather reliable witness testimony and medical evidence fifteen years after the end of the war, especially considering the limited resources and political will to investigate such cases.

"The people working the cases are working very hard," says David Schwendiman, former head of the Special Department for War Crimes. "They are doing a great job. But the government does not provide them with the support that they need. The national government should take great blame for not being truly committed to this."

A concurrent stream of justice is being meted out at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague. Following a unanimous decision by the UN Security Council on June 19, 2008, to classify rape as a weapon of war, judges at the ICTY were the first to preside over such cases. The legal precedent paved the way for subsequent rulings in cases of sexual violence stemming from other conflicts, including the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. But the charge sheet in the high-profile ICTY case against former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, who is charged with two counts of genocide and various crimes against humanity, does not include any charges of rape or sexual violence, even though rape was mentioned in the indictments to show how some Serb forces under his control terrorized the civilian population. Amnesty International has also reported that the ICTY has prosecuted and completed only eighteen trials that have included charges of rape and/or sexual violence. A spokeswoman for the tribunal would not comment on the figure but said that the ICTY has indicted seventy people for war rape and/or sexual violence, of which only three have been acquitted.

Analysts believe the European Union and the United States could apply diplomatic pressure on Bosnia to improve its track record on this front. Sarajevo is eager to join the EU, which means Brussels has leverage over what the country does. The United States, which played such a dominant role in creating Dayton and the Peace Implementation Council, an international body responsible for implementing the peace agreement, could also flex its diplomatic muscle to pressure Bosnia.

Marko Prelec, Balkans project director and senior analyst at the International Crisis Group, says, "The international community should pressure Bosnia's state government to fully staff and support its war crime office, which it has not done. A lot of international funds went into this [setting up the state court and state prosecutor's office], 44 million euros, [$60 million], and Bosnia must not be allowed to waste it through neglect of the institutions this international effort has built."

Marek Marczynski, a researcher in Bosnia for Amnesty International, believes that failure to provide redress to the victims of the war could jeopardize the country's future stability. "Bosnia is very fragile," Marczynski says. "It's the worst since the end of the war. The way of dealing with the past in the past was [to say that] the crimes committed by the Chetniks, Ustase and the Partisans never happened. You did not talk about the past. But people did talk about it, in their families, within their ethnic groups, but there was no political mechanism by which these feelings could be expressed.

"The [latest] war that happened was a result of that--people wanted revenge. I don't want to witness another revenge in twenty years' time for what happened in the 1990s. I'm not saying necessarily that there will be armed conflict, but the example of the past is a good lesson to keep in mind. It tells us something about how important it is to prosecute these kinds of crimes."

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