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TCU Magazine "Cover Story"

Violation of a nation

Former U.S. Ambassador Swanee Hunt '72 was there in 1994, brokering the peace talks in Bosnia. With trepidation, she watches the aggression in Kosovo today. She knows all too well what's happening there.


By Swanee Hunt '72

In September 1993, a woman walked 90 miles across centraláBosnia with her two small children, avoiding the military roadblocks, arriving in the town of Zenica exhausted and pathetically underweight. A staff member of Medica, a German relief organization serving hundreds of traumatized women in Bosnia, listened to her story. The fatherless family had spent three months before their escape in a Croat internment camp close to Capljina, where they hung onto life with little to eat and horrible sanitary conditions. The mother described how she had listened for hours on end as her children cried in the next room, unable to reach them. Rape and other torture were part of everyday life.

To the Medica worker, collecting statistics on this woman and the thousands of others so abused was meaningless. "How can I think of figures, when one woman tells me she has been raped 150 times? How many women have been killed, after how many rapes?"

Medica has claimed bitterly that the International Red Cross and United Nations High Commission on Refugees knew about the camps as early as the summer of '93, but they failed to ignite the world's conscience. Both the policy of negotiation with the aggressors and the attitude of the West to the Bosnian refugees were unfortunate reminders of the situation in Hitler's Germany, where the diplomatic policy being practiced by the League of Nations did not stop the dictator and slammed the doors in the Jewish refugees' faces, thus assisting the Nazis in their "Final Solution."

Stories of unspeakable atrocities against Bosnian women surfaced wherever a trusting environment allowed the unburdening of horrendous memories. In Mass Rape, an encyclopedic collection of terror, Alexandra Stiglmayer documented this gruesome topic. Often the accounts there, as well as in other sources, came from witnesses rather than the women themselves. The reports were numbingly plentiful and shockingly varied: an old woman raped with villagers forced to look on; a young girl raped by 16 men in one night, the last being a UN Protection Force soldier; a father forced at knife-point to rape his daughter; an AK-47 thrust up a woman's vagina -- then fired. Every story of horror was as unique as the aspirations of a 13-year-old girl, or the memories of a 60-year-old grandmother. Each story belonged to only one person. To speak of rape collectively would further dehumanize the women who had already endured so much. Terror must be personal. Humiliation is an intimacy of the soul. And violation ultimately is exclusive to the violated.

Yet there was a strong collective framing of the story. In addition to isolated incidents typical of rape in war situations, in Bosnia women of all ages were confined in camps across the country: Karaterm, Omarska, Trnopolje, Manjaca, Batkovici. Often one girl was raped by groups of men. On instruction from one camp commander, soldiers slit the throats of the women after raping them, establishing their group's modus operandi.

In the Trnopolje internment camp, women and girls were confined in a public hall; at nightfall, soldiers would enter with flashlights to pick out their victims. When three were taken out each evening and failed to return, the entire group left waiting understood -- even if they didn't or couldn't put words to the nightmare. There was also the collective force of the ethnic context, particularly in rural settings. There, the raped girls' humiliation would be shared within their communities, making them "unmarriageable," and -- the perpetrators hoped -- preventing the propagation of the ethnic group. Impregnation was not an accidental by product; the rapists taunted their victims, saying the women now would produce the rapists' offspring, as if their bodies had been colonized by the ethnic nationalists.

In still another way, the rapes were collective, as by the thousands, the moans of the women blended into an eerie roar that reached outside the war zone. George Soros' Open Society Institute funded research to define and describe what was happening. Women began to speak on behalf of other women, within Bosnia and from outside, creating a sense of solidarity. Word of their travail traveled as far as the Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing in 1995 and sponsored by the UN. Only the deafened policymakers -- on both sides of the ocean -- managed to consistently ignore the cries of the victims.

After the experience, women and girls who survived the rapes and other torture were trapped between the inner drive to describe what they had experienced and the psychological need to forget it all. Overwhelming trauma often leaves the victim disorganized, unable to function effectively, and disconnecting memory from emotion. For the women of Bosnia, the rapes were only one part of a long series of terrifying, distressing experiences. Before and after, they had to try to reconstruct lives within a devastated infrastructure and economic system: Their children were damaged by the terrors of war and needed extra care; the mothers, in turn, lost not only their material possessions, their homes and their jobs, but often were piecing together their lives without husbands, brothers and fathers.

Scholars, journalists, human rights activists, therapists all eventually crowded into the women's psychological recovery rooms. They took testimony, conducted historical research, made film documentaries, brought the women to testify before congressional committees or at the International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague. The public attention was necessary, but the task of describing the calculated horror raised problematic questions:

-- Did the description of genocidal rape minimize other rapes (of men, Serbs, or by men of the same ethnic group) as "ordinary"?

-- Did theoretical analyses ignore the larger context of differences among ethnic groups in relation to gender (such as the "ruination of women")?

-- Were raped women glorified, and at the same time diminished, as passive, vulnerable victims?

-- What damage did they endure as they relived the trauma in conversations with reporters or as witnesses in court?

-- Did organizations dominated by men trivialize the rapes?

-- Were publicity efforts organized by outsiders (including Balkan women who didn't experience rape) opportunistic, capitalizing on others' tragedy?

Listening to the arguments that divided those outside Bosnia who cared about the campaign of rapes, I became quietly sad. Violation as an abstraction required an equally abstract response: if not restoration, then justice. Accounts should be written. Declarations published. Trials held. Punishment delivered. Action required reaction. But the abstractions could only glide across a thick surface, sealing the seething emotions that roiled with an uncontrollable energy. Throughout the years of war, and in the peace time that followed, I sought out moments away from the crowd, in a simple room with one woman, listening to whatever she wanted to talk about.

My schedule, my passport, the Presidential certificate framed on my wall said I was there as a diplomat, an official person, an ambassador. But I knew -- and the woman beside me knew -- who I really was, sitting close against her, with my arm stretched around her back. In the quiet we exchanged a few words, descriptions of our children, some tears.

She would look into my eyes. I would look back into hers, grateful for the humanizing moments she had afforded me, away from the pomp and posturing of my position.

With my hand I would squeeze her shoulders, embracing her -- embracing me -- embracing all the evil we are forced to face, and all the strength we can muster to persevere in spite of it.

Sources: Medica: Surviving the Violence Bulletin published January 1996 by Medic Zenica and Medica Mondiale. Mass Rape: The War Against Women in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Ed. Alexandra Stiglmayer, University of Nebraska Press Lincoln, London 1994.