About a year and a half ago I received a book from Bosnia. Its title was I Begged Them to Kill Me. It was a collection of some forty accounts by Muslim women who were raped, mostly by Serbian soldiers and paramilitaries in 1992. During the past ten years several collections of the same kind have been published, but this one was different because the raped women themselves, organized into the Association of Camp Inmates-Canton Sarajevo, collected and published it. They had decided to spread the information about what had happened to them without the help of journalists or experts, or even a professional editor.
This book, bearing all the signs of amateurism, is nonetheless an important and moving document of suffering we thought we had heard and known all about. The anonymous women speak of the unspeakable–of rape, torture, enslavement, forced pregnancy, the selling of women as slaves. This is a very special book to me. The women from the association sent it to me with a dedication because of my book S: A Novel About the Balkans, which also deals with mass rape. I admire their decision to publish their accounts in the belief that their truth deserved to be heard.
Women who were raped before them, in Germany, China and Korea during the two world wars, rarely spoke about it in public. It was not to be mentioned but to be forgotten. Indeed, it was forgotten. However, the raped women in Bosnia believed in the possibility of justice through the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia in The Hague, established by the UN Security Council in 1993. And they understood that justice could not be done without their help. In the book, all of the violated women say they would volunteer as witnesses in that court, and many did. Not in a local court but the international one–because they know very well that the culprits will not be brought to court in their own country. Who would arrest them? Who would put them on trial? What kind of sentences would they get? They had only “had fun.”
Agreeing to testify as witnesses in The Hague was a brave, even heroic step for the raped Bosnian women. To the world they had to say, “Yes, I was raped!” They had to live with that confession afterward–with their children and husbands, their brothers and fathers, their community. And this is not liberal Berlin or Stockholm, marked by decades of women’s emancipation.
Without these brave women, what would have happened? What would have happened in the trial of Dragoljub Kunarac, Radomir Kovac and Zoran Vukovic, three men from Foca who, on February 22, received sentences in The Hague of from twelve to twenty-eight years in prison? Most likely they would be living free in Foca, every day passing by the Partizan Sports Hall where they kept their Muslim prisoners, then by the houses where they kept enslaved women. They would sit in a cafe smoking cigarettes and drinking brandy, telling anecdotes from the war. If any of their victims happened to pass by, they would point at her with their finger and laugh. Indeed, if these women had kept their “shame” to themselves, the three men would not have entered history. Now they are the first men ever to be sentenced exclusively for sexual crimes defined as crimes against humanity–systematic mass rape, sexual enslavement and torture of women and girls during war. This was only possible thanks to the Bosnian women who did not shut up. Perhaps this time it was impossible not to speak–there were too many women violated (a UN report put the number at 20,000, but that is only an estimate). There were also too many journalists around, too many experts and humanitarian workers, people willing to listen and to help.
No matter what made them speak, the women from the book and the other violated Bosnian women are the real heroes of this historical trial, the women who were not supposed to speak. That was exactly what the three men from Foca were counting on–their silence. I wish I had been in the courtroom when the three men received their sentences. What was in their eyes? Disbelief? Despair? Never could they have imagined that any of those women would have the courage to stand up and face them in court. The men must have thought it was a joke when they heard that they were going to be on trial for rape. OK, perhaps they were rude sometimes if the imprisoned women were not obedient. So what? Never could they have imagined that they would get such heavy sentences. After all, they did not even kill anybody. And among those who did kill, there were some who got much lighter sentences. How is that possible? they must have wondered. I wish I had seen that discrepancy on their faces, a discrepancy between what they believed they did (and what perhaps they might have thought was wrong but certainly not a crime)–and what was deemed a crime against humanity by the international court.
When I asked the women from the Association of Camp Inmates-Canton Sarajevo how I could help them, they asked if I could give them a fax machine. They have nothing, not even their own office. A fax machine would mean a lot to them. Not only to spread information but to enable them to fight to be recognized as war victims in their own society, and to get at least some social aid. There is symbolism in their request: They are still not willing to shut up. Recently I received a thank-you letter from them, via fax. They are grateful for the machine, they wrote. But I and millions of other women are grateful to them because they spoke up and changed something for us, too.