Clerics unite to condemn wartime sexual violence: Bosnia

a ZIS-3 Towed Anti-tank Gun during an inspection of a Serbian cantonment area on 28 February 96 during Operation Joint Endeavor | wikimedia

Meeting together at the National Theatre in Sarajevo on Thursday evening, leaders of the Orthodox, Islamic, Jewish and Catholic communities signed a declaration denouncing the stigmatization of survivors of conflict-related sexual violence that had taken place during the wars back in the 90s, said sources.

Today, and after around two decades since thousands of people were raped during the wars between 1992 and 1995, the time has come to give a true chance to the society to encompass the victims who have been branded since the painful events.

Rape was used as a weapon of war during the Bosnian conflict. The UN estimates that up to 50 thousand people were raped. Other source such as Robin Cook, the former British Foreign Secretary had reported that the rapes exceeded 60 thousand.

Devastated and robbed shops owned by Serbs in Sarajevo | wikimedia

 “Rape is a cruel weapon that is as devastating as any bullet or bomb. It ravages victims and their families. It destroys communities, and undermines their chances for reconciliation if left unaddressed. It has also been described as the oldest and yet least condemned crime of all,” Pramila Patten, the UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict said.

The great majority of rapes were perpetrated by Bosnian Serb forces of the Army of the Republika Srpska (VRS) and Serb paramilitary units, who used genocidal rape as an instrument of terror as part of their program of ethnic cleansing against the Muslims.

On 6 October 1992 the United Nations Security Council established a Commission of Experts chaired by M. Cherif Bassiouni. According to the commission's findings, it was apparent that rape was being used by Serb forces systematically, and had the support of commanders and local authorities. It was reported that some perpetrators said the use of rape was a tactic to make sure the targeted population would not return to the area. The assailants told their victims they would bear a child of the assailant's ethnicity and pregnant women were detained until it was too late to have the fetus aborted.

 “What is said is often forgotten. But what is written down stays for the coming generations. This is why we believe that this declaration, while it will not solve all our problems... will help us to look into each other’s eyes and try to mend the wounds of those who have suffered in the past war,” Jakob Finci, the head of the Bosnian Jewish Community and one of the original founders of the Council, told a press conference earlier that day.

The vice-chief mufti of Bosnia's Islamic Community, Husein Smajic, said the Council had given a platform to women to speak about the violence that they have experienced, both during the 1992-95 war and in the post-war period.

“We want this stigma to escape all future generations, by telling stories of all the miserable events that took place here,” he explained.

This step comes in hope to ameliorate the situation and allow the new generations to reconcile with one another, after many of those victims have been isolated and shunned by their own families and communities.

Refugees arrive in Travnik, during the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, 1993 | wikimedia

 “Since our establishment, our biggest goal was reconciliation. In these 20 years we aimed to help build a civil society with the best thing it has – inter-religious dialogue. There is no alternative to dialogue,” said Bosnia's Catholic Cardinal Vinko Puljic, another original founder of the Council.

The Council members have been organizing open-door days at religious institutions. They also ran an event at which the four religious leaders spoke out against nationalism, amid the tensions emerging in the country at the time.

They hoped that the Council's work could promote post-war reconciliation.