Rape as a Weapon of War

Rape as a Weapon of War

The UN resolution designating rape as a weapon of war is historic, but provides no legal remedy for wartime victims of sexual violence.


I remember very clearly the first rape victim I ever met. It was in the autumn of 1992 in a small town near Zagreb. She was a Muslim from Kozarac, in Bosnia. After a few months in a detention camp, she came with a group of refugees to Zagreb. Selma (not her real name) was in her mid-thirties, with short brown hair and a blue eyes.

She told me her story in a low voice, almost in a whisper. She was in her house with her two children and her mother when a group of Serbian paramilitary soldiers entered her yard. They said they were looking for arms, but there were no arms in her house. They were after something else.

Angrily, one man grabbed her and pushed her in her bedroom. Then the others joined him, too. “Then they did it to me.” Selma simply said, looking down at her hands, ” I could not face my children for a long while afterwards…. I was washing and washing and washing, but their smell did not go away. Imagine, they did it to me in my own marital bed,” she said.

I detected a trace of despair in her words. She did not cry, not any longer. But she felt ashamed and the shame stayed with her; she had to learn to live with it, as did her husband.

On June 20, the UN Security Council unanimously approved a resolution classifying rape as a weapon of war. Human rights groups hailed the vote as historic, but it is no legal remedy. Though raped women were recently legally recognized as victims of war in parts of the Bosnian federation that protection does not extend to Republika Srpska.

While working on my book, They Would Never Hurt a Fly, about Balkan war criminals on trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for ex-Yugoslavia in The Hague, I came across the “Foca case.” In 1992, Dragoljub Kunarac, Radomir Kovac and Zoran Vukovic, three Serbs in the Bosnian city of Foca, imprisoned young Muslim girls, tortured them, kept them as sexual slaves and raped them. But the men did not really understand why they were being tried.

One of them defended himself by saying: “But I could have killed them!” From his own prospective, he actually saved their lives. Rape? What kind of crime this is compared with killing people?

This case is important because on February 22, 2001, Florence Mumbal the International Criminal Tribunal judge from Zambia, found them guilty. The three were the first men in European legal history to be sentenced for crimes against humanity–torture, slavery, outrages upon human dignity and the mass rape of the Bosnian Muslim women.

This sentence recognized that sexual violence is an extremely effective weapon of ethnic cleansing. It not only shames violated women, but also humiliates their men, who cannot protect them. Sexual violence destroys the whole community because the stigma stays with them, not forgotten, not forgiven.

At the trial of the three defendants in the Foca case, was one particular witness, the mother of a 12-year-old girl taken prisoner by Radomir Kovac, who raped her and then sold her to a Montenegrin soldier for 100 euros. The girl was never seen again. Her mother came to confront the perpetrator and to witness against him. But when she took the stand, no words came out of her. Just a sound, the unbearable howl of a mortally wounded dog.

The UN Security Council resolution on rape will not bring this woman’s daughter back. But it is nonetheless historic because, finally, sexual violence is recognized as a weapon, and can be punished. No longer can a man defend himself by saying that he could have killed a women he had “only” raped. We know now, as we knew even before the passage of this resolution, that rape is a kind of slow murder.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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