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19 April 2006
Analysis

The last taboo

Widespread sexual abuse of men during the war years remains off the agenda in Bosnia, with victims receiving little or no support.
"I hope nobody lives through what I had to live through. I cursed my mother who gave birth to me," says one anonymous male, referred to only as 4977, who explains that he was held in a detention facility in Foca during the war and was raped by 28 men.

"They would take a pine cone, turn it around, push it into my anus and start pulling out."

His statement is like many others filed in the archives of the Association of Camp Inmates of Bosnia and Herzegovina, ACIBiH.

"They lined us up on one side and separated fathers and sons. They took us out on the stage and ordered us to take our clothes off," says another ex-prisoner, who was held in the Celopek camp in Zvornik.

"I don't want to say what they ordered us to do. That is obvious since they stripped us naked. They were especially attracted to watching a father and son do it."

"Later, they ordered some of us to bite others' sexual organs off," he adds. "Not cut off, but bite off, which is what I had to do. That is the most difficult thing I had to go through in the prison."

More than a decade after the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina came to an end, the sexual abuse of men during the conflict remains a taboo subject. As a result, it is difficult to establish the exact number of victims who suffered this kind of cruelty. For the same reason, many perpetrators will never stand trial.

"It is difficult to talk about that subject," says Murat Tahirovic, president of the ACIBiH. "You know what our society is like. It is a shame to even admit that. It is difficult for women and especially difficult for men."

There is no doubt, however, that sexual abuse of men was widespread during the war. Dr Alma Mehmedbasic-Bravo, a psychiatrist at the Sarajevo Clinical Centre, says she has treated many patients of all ages who experienced this kind of cruelty.

"Mostly they were prisoners who were detained throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina, but also in detention camps on the territory of Serbia - in Misovo polje, Sljivovice and other places," she says.

"They are patients who survived multiple traumas - physical, psychological and sexual," she adds. "Every torture also causes psychical suffering, especially this one."

Tahirovic notes that one particularly brutal practice - forcing close family members to carry out sex acts on one another - was especially common in eastern Bosnia, in the Bijeljina and Zvornik regions.

The President of the Association of Camp Inmates of Sanski Most, Amir Talic, adds that there are also records of male sexual abuse in two of the most notorious detention centres set up during the war, the Omarska and Keraterm camps.

Thanks in part to evidence provided by witnesses and survivors, some perpetrators have been punished and particular instances of such crimes brought to light.

Talic points out that male sexual abuse was discussed during the trial of Dusko Tadic, who was sentenced to 20 years' imprisonment for crimes in Prijedor by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, ICTY, in The Hague.

"A testimony was recorded of a prisoner who was forced to bite off another's sexual organ," Talic says. "They were both killed later."

Talic says his own organisation has had trouble getting men to speak about sexual abuse that they suffered themselves. "If they do speak, it is always about a crime that happened to someone else and that they were forced to watch," he explains.

Edin Ramulic, member of the Izvor association, which represents families of the missing persons in the Prijedor area, has also noted cases of such abuse in the Omarska camp but agrees that people are generally unwilling to discuss the issue.

"That is less mentioned than rape of women. We all know that there was sexual abuse, but it is difficult to find someone who will talk," Ramulic says.

The United Nations Convention Against Torture, to which Bosnia and Herzegovina is a signatory, requires that crimes of this nature should be prevented, that those responsible should be punished and that witnesses to this kind of abuse should be protected during trial proceedings against the perpetrators.

With this in mind, the ACIBiH recently sent a number of files to the state prosecutor's office containing the stories of men who suffered sexual abuse during the war. They are hoping that the first investigations of such crimes by the Bosnian authorities will be initiated soon.

So far, investigations into the wartime sexual abuse of males in Bosnia and Herzegovina have been carried out by prosecutors from the ICTY. Some perpetrators have been punished as a result.

Individuals like Radosav Brdjanin, Dragoljub Prcac, Milojica Kos, Zoran Zigic, Miroslav Kvocka, Mladen Radic, Dusko Tadic, Zeljko Meakic, Stevan Todorovic, Predrag Banovic and Dusko Knezevic have all been indicted in connection with sexual abuse of men, amongst other crimes.

Judges hearing the case against Todorovic, a police officer from Bosanski Samac who was sentenced to ten years at the ICTY for war crimes in 2001, noted instances in which men were forced to perform fellatio on one another.

Knezevic, whose indictment for alleged war crimes in Prijedor has been transferred from the Hague tribunal to Bosnia's own state court, faces similar accusations. The charge sheet against him states that he, together with other men, would enter the Keraterm detention camp to beat and abuse prisoners, including forcing them to perform sex acts on each other.

Talic agrees with Hague prosecutors that such abuse was part of a systematic campaign of ethnic cleansing. "I think it was a torture method," he says.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina today there are numerous organisations that bring together women who were raped during the war and help them to promote their interests. Partly as a result of work carried out by such organisations, a draft law has been put before parliament which sets out the rights of female rape victims in one of Bosnia's two entities, the Federation. In the long-term, it is hoped that similar legislation will be put into force at a national level.

The ACIBiH has launched an initiative to expand legislation governing civilians who suffered during the war, in such a way that it would also encompass male victims of sexual abuse.

In the meantime, however wartime rapes and sexual abuse of men remain largely off the agenda.

"There is no system that ensures any type of assistance for such people," says Tahirovic, who points out that only two non-governmental organisations currently offer any kind of assistance to male victims of wartime sexual abuse.

"The tragedy that these people carry inside them is transferred onto the family and daily life. That tragedy will remain for who knows how long," Tahirovic explains.

"We are trying to prove to politics that it is necessary to stop the agony of people and regulate their status, that finally professional people start taking care of these victims. That they are not left to themselves," he adds.

Dr Mehmedbasic-Bravo says all torture victims live with the trauma they suffered for the rest of their lives. New forms of stress, including unemployment, accommodation problems and a lack of recognition of their suffering, only makes things worse.

"Such traumas are beyond the usual human experience," the psychiatrist says. "Most of the camp inmates were civilians. They couldn't even imagine that something like that could happen to them, that they would be imprisoned, that they will see the death of other people, that they would live through such painful experiences. Such people carry permanent personality changes and post-traumatic syndrome for the rest of their lives."

Tahirovic points out that so far mainly senior war crimes indictees have been put on trial and many of the lower-level individuals who actually committed abuse remain unpunished and at large.

"A great number of victims are forced to face the people who tortured them in prisons, if they return to the towns from which they were expelled," he says, adding, "Those 'small' perpetrators are perhaps even more important than the organisers."

Dr Mehmedbasic-Bravo says recognising those who experienced torture during the war is an important first step towards healing their suffering. "None of the victims can heal themselves," she says. "They need professional assistance to reach the level of life that they had before the torture. They need social, psychological and legal assistance, but also compensation - moral and financial."

"Moral compensation is punishment of the perpetrators," she explains. "Without that, there is no rehabilitation of the victims."

Nidzara Ahmetasevic is the editor of BIRN's Justice Report project. [email protected]
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