An insight into Bosnia and Herzegovina’s male and female survivors of wartime rape

The 2014 documentary Silent Scream addresses the issue of wartime rape during the Bosnian war – and the diverse difficulties survivors continue to face today.

Adem Ferizaj
9 July 2015

Karaman’s house” was a rape camp set up near Foča, a town in the east of Bosnia and Herzegovina. It was not the only rape house set up by mostly Serbs in the Bosnian war ravaging the country from 1992 to 1995: sexual violence was used as a war weapon. The victims were predominantly Bosnian Muslim women. How many of them have to live on with the trauma of wartime rape is still not clear. Reports range from 20,000 to 60,000 survivors of sexual violence.

Nečujni Krik (Silent Scream), a 2014 documentary directed by Mirna Buljugić, Erna Mačkić and Dragana Erjavec, addresses the issue of wartime rape during the Bosnian war, and the diverse difficulties of the survivors in an understated, nuanced way. The major feat of the movie is that men who were raped during the war also speak out about their experiences, in spite of considerable ongoing stigmas.

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Still from Nečujni Krik/ Silent Scream, via BIRN BalkansThe documentary points out how shame keeps the victims from talking about their trauma. According to Teufika Ibrahimefendić, a psychotherapist interviewed in Silent Scream, “the survivors are more afraid of the reaction of others rather than being afraid of what they have survived”. The core of this trepidation is due to the incident in itself; nobody really feels at ease when talking about a survived rape. But the silence is reinforced by aspects of Bosnian society, which is a predominantly traditional one with a male power monopoly. One of the misogynistic traits resulting from this mentality is that – in the words of psychotherapist Dijana Đurić in Nečujni krik – “women are almost considered equal to the criminal. They are made to feel guilty.”

Family support for a wartime rape survivor is essential

If her or his family supports the survivor, it is easier for the survivor to speak. This is what Sahiba Husić, director of Medica Zenica, a nongovernmental organization supporting victims of wartime rape psychologically and medically, explains in Silent Scream – based on her experience. 

The documentary also breaks ground by exploring a component of wartime rape that is often left out in the cold. Branka Antić-Štauber, director of the Power of Woman association, which supports victims psychologically, medically and legally, highlights in Nečujni krik: “Many men are perhaps not ready to cope with the trauma of a woman with whom they will live for the rest of their life – especially when it is a matter of sexual abuse.”

The consequences are disastrous for the women concerned. They were not only victims of war but also victims of peace as well: during the war they were raped and afterwards they were beaten at home. At least, this applies to 90 per cent of people who approach Antić-Štauber’s organisation.

One woman whose face and voice is unrecognisable explains in Silent Scream that she revealed her traumatic secret to her husband. In his reaction was no sign of empathy: “he said that I’m a whore that I gave the perpetrators a reason.”

“If all of us are silent, then there is no truth anywhere.”

Three men who were raped during the war are interviewed in Nečujni krik, and two of them do not even hide their identity. Dobrivoje Bojović depicts his trauma with the following words: “you feel as though you are murdered, you are frightened and you are mutilated.” Bojović does not feel ashamed of what happened to him, but in retrospect he would “rather like to [have been killed] than to go through that.” 

The fact that male rape victims have their say in the documentary is in the sense groundbreaking, as it shows that the prevalent stigmatisation of female rape victims in the society is arbitrary. Even though women were more likely to be victims of sexual violence, men were not safe from it: every Bosnian man perpetuating the stigmatisation of rape victims could have been one of those who were raped. From this perspective, making a concerned person feel guilty for what she or he has survived is not only arbitrary but also irrational.

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Still from Nečujni Krik/ Silent Scream, via BIRN Balkans

Silent Scream also focuses on the legal situation regarding rape during the Bosnian war. The documentary points out that the systematic use of rape during this war urged the United Nations Commission and the Security Council to pass a resolution defining rape as a war crime. Since July 2002, the International Criminal Court Statute in Rome codifies sexual violence in war as a war crime and crime against humanity (art. 8. 2. and art. 7. 1.). 

Hidden hurdles in legislation

Nečujni krik also highlights legal obstacles for survivors of wartime rape. Even though the Law on Civilian Victims of War in Bosnia and Herzegovina includes compensation for sexually abused women and men, in reality hardly any affected person receives it. For the rulebook only recognises a victim if one can show his or her medical documentation from the time the crime was committed; and only 5 or 6 people have this. Another way to become a ‘legally approved’ survivor of wartime rape is to have two witnesses; but not every rape took place in the presence of others.

Moreover, in Republika Srpska, the Serbian entity of Bosnia and Herzegovina, it is not possible to obtain indemnity. In this part of the country a Law on Social Protection has been introduced based on the concept of disability. The problem, though, is that victims of sexual abuse are not counted as disabled persons. In addition, the deadline for registration has expired.

 Yet, the legal situation in the country is not completely without hope. Recently, Bosnia’s war crimes court issued an important ruling, which resulted in the first ever compensation to a wartime rape survivor. The two accused, former Bosnian Serb soldiers, were sentenced to 10 years each in jail.

Although the documentary reveals why it is so difficult to break the silence, Nečujni krik encourages rape survivors to speak about what happened to them. This is the main message of the documentary. In the words of Nasiha Klipić’, a former detainee interviewed in the Silent Scream: “I would recommend to every woman and man who was raped to talk. It would be easier for them. Simply, it should be registered so it is known what we have survived. If all of us are silent, then there is no truth anywhere.”

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