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When horror encounters listening

· Twenty years after the end of the war in the former Yugoslavia ·

It can happen when you are least expecting it, in the street or in the bar, in a queue or in a shop. Twenty years after the Dayton Agreements (14 December 1995), which sanctioned the end of the war in Croatia and in Bosnia and Herzegovina, it is still possible for rape victims to meet their tormentors.

The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague has transferred its competences to local tribunals, but the latter are still struggling today to condemn the guilty, and it is not always easy for the victims to request the financial support to which they are entitled. Sexual violence is a crime that politicians are skilled in exploiting, but it is an infinite process to work through for those who have experienced it. In many situations, both public and private, rape is a taboo subject, it is the word for shame, the word that makes people lower their eyes, a form of violence that is not deleted from the mind.

A scene from the film “Esma’s secret. Grbavica” (2006) by Jasmina Žbani

Rape is an ancient crime that recurs in every war but in the Yugoslav Wars at the end of the 20th century it acquired particular characteristics: it is a constant of war of which none of the parties – Croat, Serbian or Bosnian – can say they are innocent, and became a war weapon in the “ethnic cleansing” operations in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Here women’s bodies were the battlefield on which to leave a mark. Thousands of “ethnic rapes” had a strategic aim: to eradicate the foundations of the adversary’s community. For one does not return to a village in which the women have been raped and this was a war of villages that were subsequently often abandoned.

The term “ethnic rape” put individuals on a secondary level, whether they were men (less widespread, but sexual violence was also perpetrated on males) or women. It nailed people to their nationality, individuals were given no choice – one of the premises and objectives of the conflict – and made communication between the different women’s associations difficult because if one speaks of “rape” one puts the accent on the woman factor, hence women universally, and if one adds “ethnic” it is their nationality that counts: Croatian, Serbian, Bosnian or Albanian. Mass rape was not a consequence of the intoxication of victory as it was for the Russian soldiers who freed Berlin, it was instead a “premeditated crime”, coldly decided upon and frequently also imposed on those who had done the same thing. In thousands of Bosnian villages the same scenario was repeated again and again: the militia arrived and the men were instantly killed, deported or forced to flee. The same thing happened to the women, many of whom, however, were imprisoned in secret places: houses, hotels, prefabricated buildings, schools transformed into war brothels (the title of a text by Ivan Čolović a philosopher and anthropologist from Belgrade) where, in the summer of 1992, violence was perpetrated in an extended and continuous way. Here, a crime struck at intimacy and the private sphere took place in public, in the presence of spectators-witnesses, where more than 90 per cent of the women knew who were raping them, where victim and tormentor spoke the same language.

Considered the “reproductive enemy”, women prisoners were often deliberately made pregnant. This was a further outrage to mark the conquest of the territory, in order to pursue an ethnic purity which would succeed paradoxically in producing a child of mixed-blood. Many women were to be killed, to die during the violence or to take their own lives. An exceedingly large number found themselves pregnant, facing a tragic dilemma. Jasmina Žbani’s film Grbavica (2006) [in the UK Esma's Secret: Grbavica; in the USA Grbavica: Land of My Dreams], set in Sarajevo, tells of the relationship of a woman with her adolescent daughter to whom, at a certain point, this mother was to recount, or rather confess who the girl’s father was and how she was conceived. It is a story that succeeds in facing in a non-didactic manner the ambivalence of the situation which puts the victim in an insecure position: between the need to intervene and to denounce.

Yet there is a moment in which the Horror encounters Listening and on its way barbarity encounters modernity. Women of every age and condition, women fleeing from tiny villages in the middle of nowhere, speak, recount and testify. In many cases they will do so only once and then never again. In the refugee camps at the city gates, in railway stations turned into campsites, often in transit from their place of imprisonment to all the unknowns of exile, they meet other women who are prepared to take them in. They are women of Ljubljana, Zagreb, Belgrade, Sarajevo, Tuzla and Mostar, who have grown up in urban milieux where there are sos telephones lines for violence against women, houses for abused women, rescue networks and feminine and feminist solidarity. Together with many other women, journalists or psychologists, these groups of activists, precisely because they had already been taught to listen to those suffering from traumas such as rape, make it possible for shock and upheaval to find, in almost real time, the “words to speak of it”.

It is a unique experience which has enabled the collection of an immense amount of material. The oral account has become a shorthand text, an essential testimony for the work of the Tribunal of The Hague. Oral communications were then frequently transcribed into a written text: an anthropology of suffering that continues to be told. It is material that poses questions and gives rise to reflections on the particularity of the Yugoslav case. How can a reality of emancipation and female freedom, now consolidated, be reconciled with the “excesses of violence” and cruelty that harm “the fairest sex”? In this conflict, unlike what happened in Yugoslavia – but not only Yugoslavia – during the Resistance, the female part of the population did not experience any moments of emancipation in proximity to the battles (the phenomenon of enlisted women volunteers appears to have been insignificant). Indeed, the social and political processes that accompanied the events of the war have everywhere made more precarious and marginal the condition of the female part of the population, which war made the scapegoat of the conflict between countryside and city, between modernists and traditionalists that is still latent today.

The Yugoslav case influenced international law. On 20 June 2008 the Security Council of the United Nations voted unanimously on a motion that recognizes rape as a weapon of war. It declares that rape is a form of slavery and, as such, a crime against humanity.

Nicole Janigro




St. Peter’s Square

Aug. 26, 2019