WMC Reports

WMC Women Under Siege Conflict Report: Bosnia (2012)


The 1990s war in the former Yugoslavia was marked by intense sexualized violence that ruined the lives of old women and young girls alike. One hallmark of the terror was the creation of “rape camps” in which women were tortured and violated repeatedly. The fractured history of the Balkans led to three years of war from which the region is still recovering today.

After World War II, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was declared, with Marshal Tito as its leader. Yugoslavia was composed of six republics: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Slovenia, within which various ethnic groups lived. A new constitution in 1974, which helped to decentralize government powers, also gave autonomous power to the regions of Kosovo and Vojvodina. Bosnian-Croats, Serbs, and Bosnian-Muslims were considered separate ethnic groups within the federation, but those divisions were not to be emphasized. Tito’s totalitarian government forbid the expression of "nationalism,” jailing activists who tried to foment nationalist movements.

When Tito’s reign ended in 1980, Yugoslavia’s popular communist sentiment was supplanted by various nationalistic and ethnic allegiances. In the 1980s and 1990s, as a result of a difficult economy that magnified ethnic tensions and scapegoating, the union of republics within Yugoslavia began to break down. According to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), the early-1990s population of Bosnia-Herzegovina was about 43 percent Bosnian Muslims (often referred to as Bosniaks), 33 percent Bosnian Serbs, 17 percent Bosnian Croats, and roughly 7 percent other nationalities. Despite the numbers, Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Croats had greater access to power due in part to the region’s location between the republics of Serbia and Croatia.

Women were tortured and raped in this house near Foča, known as "Karaman’s House" for its Muslim owners who fled.

In March of 1992, a majority of Bosnian citizens voted for independence, but were met with violence from the more politically powerful Serbs. Bosnian Serbs, with the help of Serbia and the Yugoslav People’s Army, began to assert control through violence. Bosnian Croats also attempted to declare power with Croatia’s help. War, including massacres and large-scale, systematic rape, officially lasted until November 1995. Although all sides/ethnic populations committed violent acts, Bosnian Serbs were responsible for the majority of sexualized attacks, aimed mostly at Muslim women. It is estimated that as many as 60,000 women were raped.

A major site of gang rape during the beginning of the war, from April to July 1992, was the town of Foča in southeastern Bosnia. Later, in 1995, a small town called Srebrenica was declared a U.N. “safe zone” but became the site of mass murder and rape, largely under the direction of Ratko Mladić, colonel general of the Bosnian Serb Army, and politician Radovan Karadžić. Because Dutch Blue Helmets were supposed to be protecting the safe zone at the time, blame is often placed upon the Dutch U.N. army in particular for allowing the devastation at Srebrenica on its watch. The BBC reports that after a 2002 investigation held Dutch officials responsible for giving their troops such a difficult area to defend without enough arms and resources, the entire Dutch government resigned. Accusations of rape of Serbian women by Bosniaks were leveraged as propaganda by Serbia, though it was the Serbs who were mostly responsible for rapes during the conflict.

Read the full report here.

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