The war in Bosnia (1991–1995) was a genocidal campaign carried out by the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA) and by Serbian irregular and paramilitary forces against the country’s Muslim residents. The war was brought about by the breakup of Yugoslavia. While rape takes place in almost every war, the Bosnian conflict was unique for the role rape played in efforts to eradicate Muslims in the country. Whereas rape is usually secondary to the actions of the military, in the Bosnian war the degradation of Muslim women was one of the primary aims of the conflict. Raping them was part of the genocidal campaign against Muslims, euphemistically called “ethnic cleansing.” Rape was used to systematically humiliate and terrorize Muslim and Croatian women. The exact number of incidents is unknown, though European investigators stated that 20,000 women were raped in 1992.
The estimates of those killed, men and women, range from 150,000 to 250,000. As author Beverly Allen has attempted to explain, the perpetrators of these heinous acts implied some twisted logic by which the act of rape would cancel out the victim’s cultural identity. If the victim became impregnated, she would be detained long enough to ensure that she could not abort her fetus and the offspring would be considered nothing less than “a little Serb soldier.” Since Muslim women typically do not have sex before marriage, the physical and emotional trauma of rape brought with it the strong possibility of rejection from society, living without marriage, and childlessness. However, the rapes were not limited to these women, as girls below the age of 12 and women over the age of 60 were also assaulted. Sex crimes were also carried out against Bosnian men in the detention camps, who were forced to commit sexual acts on each other.
A brief review of the history of the Balkans is necessary to explain the tensions among the different ethnic groups since these tensions date back to the time of the Ottoman Empire. The Islamic Ottoman Turks defeated Serbia in the battle of Kosovo in 1389. This humiliating event is often alluded to in Serbian nationalistic propaganda. Bosnia, too, became part of the Ottoman Empire, but not until many years later. Many Bosnians voluntarily became Muslims in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, but Bosnian Muslim culture maintained a notable distinction from much of the Islamic world, as evidenced in its architecture as well as its customs and lifestyles.
In March 1992, Bosnia declared independence. Although Muslims, Serbs, and Croats joined in calling for peace, the JNA and Serbian paramilitary units began attacks immediately. The Bosnian Muslims and Croats were quickly overwhelmed. Attacks in the Serbian war against Bosnia took on a loose pattern. Because they controlled the army, the Serbs had a near monopoly on weapons, especially artillery. The Yugoslav army would bombard defenseless areas for days, then Serbian paramilitary forces would be sent in. The paramilitary groups were made up of Serbian ultranationalists, criminals, and the unemployed. When these forces arrived, they would round up and execute the non-Serbian leaders. In some instances, such as in Srebrenica, nearly all the Muslim men were executed and then buried in mass graves.
In other cases, Muslim and Croatian men of fighting age were sent to detention camps, where thousands of them died as a result of being tortured, beaten, and starved. With the men gone, the women were then at the mercy of the Serbs. Thousands of these women were raped. The irregular forces often held Muslim women captive for weeks or months in “rape camps” while they were repeatedly sexually assaulted. The war was marked by the inability or unwillingness of the United Nations and the international community to recognize and stop the atrocities in Bosnia. Repeated exposure of these crimes in the media finally forced authorities to acknowledge the problem. UN peacekeepers were sent to Bosnia but were unable to stop the violence. In December 1995, the Dayton Agreement was signed.
This peace agreement recognized the international boundaries of Bosnia and Herzegovina and provided for two roughly equal governments: a Bosnian Muslim-Croat Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Bosnian Serb Republika Srpska. The International Crime Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) was created to prosecute war crimes there. As of 2004, a few of the perpetrators of rape, torture, and enslavement have been convicted, but others such as Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic are still being tried before the tribunal or are appealing decisions. As of March 2004, Milosevic was about halfway through his trial, but the United States was still pressing Serbia to turn over 16 indicted war criminals to the United Nations tribunal.