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23 December 2015
Analysis

Survivors of Childhood Wartime Rape at Higher Risk for Psychological Trauma, Poverty

Dzana Brkanic BIRN Sarajevo

The sexual abuse of boys and girls was widespread during the Bosnian war. Although associations of war victims have registered approximately 1000 instances of wartime child rape, experts estimate that the number is much higher.

Childhood survivors of wartime rape experience higher levels of trauma than adults, and also are at higher risk of experiencing poverty and not completing their education. They also have to contend with communities that judge them and make their acceptance difficult.

War crimes against children were committed in prisoner camps, homes and other detention sites. Two women from Vlasenica, aged 14 and 15 at the time, were abused and raped in front of their family members and also other women and girls.

“I was 14 years old. I lived with my mother, father and two sisters. I remember everything as if it was yesterday. It’s etched into my memory. When I close my eyes, the images return to me...The soldiers took turns with us,” said one of the Vlasenica rape survivors, whose identity is known to BIRN Bosnia and Herzegovina (BIRN BiH).

Number of Survivors Higher Than Official Figure, Advocates Say

Associations of war victims and former detainees claim the number of childhood wartime rape survivors is much higher than the official figure of 1000.

Bakira Hasecic, the president of the Woman - Victim of War association, said when the association took statements from their members they discovered that many girls who were raped during the war had relocated to other countries. Some of them failed to survive the conflict. Hasecic estimates that approximately 5000 minors were raped during the war, and that the youngest victim was seven years old.

The 14 year old Vlasenica survivor interviewed by BIRN BiH said she and her two sisters were raped by a group of soldiers before being sent to various detention sites.

“I just drove us there. We needed to do some work in the house. When my sister and I stepped inside, there were a lot of drunk soldiers, they were sitting and drinking and that’s when it all started. There were more of them. They were taking turns with us, five or six of them...I lost consciousness. I was powerless. At first, I resisted. Then they beat me up. I was raped several times,” she said.

One of the three sisters didn’t survive, and was detained with other girls in the Pelemis settlement. Her remains have not been located. An old woman took the 14 year old sister onto a bus, enabling her escape.

The 15 year old sister from Vlasenica also survived. She was detained in a detention camp in Susica for three years, during which time she was raped repeatedly. She still carries the trauma of the systematic rape she experienced and the inhumane conditions in the camp.

“I’m a young woman, but I’m totally unwell. I slept on a concrete floor. I didn’t even have blankets. I was in a shirt and skirt. They took me out of the house, naked and barefoot. I saw people’s misery, the killings and the dead. The food was like what you’d give a dog, they threw you food that stank...sometimes they didn’t give you anything. We couldn’t go to the bathroom, we took care of our needs there, where everyone watched us,” she said.

A significantly smaller amount of registered minors were sexually abused during wartime Republika Srpska. Dragisa Andric, the president of the Association of Detainees of Republika Srpska from the region of Visegrad, said there are no registered cases of boys raped during the war. He says there are survivors, but the slow pace at which such crimes are prosecuted makes them hesitant to come forward.

“Even the women I know don’t want to give a statement. There are loads of them, but they don’t want to register,” Andric said.

In the Posavina area, Suzana, who was 14 years old when she was raped in Odzak, is registered with a war victims association. She condemns the government of Republika Srpska for not providing adequate support to wartime rape survivors.

“We are mentally burdened. We’re almost crazy. We have nothing from our country, the so-called Republika Srpska. They don’t even recognize any of us [wartime rape survivors] as civilian victims of war. You don’t have anything anywhere, you want to sue the judge, and nothing will come from it,” Suzana said.

More than 15 individuals have been convicted of war crimes against minors by the Hague Tribunal and the Bosnian state court. Due to identity protection measures, it’s unclear whether victims are minors in certain verdicts.

Trauma of Survivors Goes Unaddressed

The sisters from Vlasenica and Suzana suffer from similar forms of trauma, especially mental health issues like depression and aggression.

“I recently remembered the rape and fell unconscious. The test results showed a condition one reaches before having a stroke,” said the former 15 year old from Vlasenica. She said her biggest regret is not finishing school.

The former 14 year old from Vlasenica says she is afraid of her own aggression when she remembers her rape.

“I hit my child in that moment. Not too much, but I regret it and cry terribly. It makes me feel guilty, and then I kiss the children. And those pills they give us, they mess with my head,” she said. She added that she sometimes she feels like she can barely survive with her three children and husband.

Ever since the day she was raped, Suzana said she lost her ability to smile. She is registered as unemployed.

Branka Stauber, the director of the Power of Woman association, says children who are raped during war don’t know what rape means or how it affects them. The physical and psychological trauma experienced by childhood wartime rape survivors is significantly higher than the trauma experienced by adults, and leaves behind long lasting physical and psychological consequences.

“The most common psychological consequences are the development of fears, phobias, nightmares, depression, anxiety, problems with concentration. Many of these women never manage to finish school or concentrate on something to get a job or an education. Each of them has a very low sense of self-esteem. They develop various diseases, such as diabetes or hypertension,” Stauber says. She adds that sexual dysfunction and suicidal thoughts are also common issues experienced by childhood survivors of wartime rape.

BIRN BiH has noted that the number of boys and men who have registered as wartime rape survivors at various victims associations and detainee unions is decidedly low. This may be due to the social stigma and shame attached to the rape of men and boys.

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