BOSNIA: NO PLACE TO HIDE-NO PLACE TO RUN: The Balkanization of Women’s Bodies

BOSNIA: NO PLACE TO HIDE-NO PLACE TO RUN: The Balkanization of Women’s Bodies

by Jill Benderly

Horror and outrage have been the world’s response to systematic mass rape and forced pregnancy of Bosnian women by the “Yugoslav” (Serbian) Army and Bosnian Serb militias. Feminists, human rights groups, Muslims and others have sought ways to document abuses, help survivors and prosecute the war criminals.

In this war, with its devastating refugee problem, it has been difficult to meet the needs of war-raped Bosnian women — and the children they were forced to bear. Difficulty confounds international relief efforts. Difficulty seems insurmountable for the devastated healthcare system ofBosnia-Herzegovina, as well as for the healthcare system in Croatia, which is strained to bursting by almost a million refugees.

Since last fall, foreign reporters have flocked to the refugee camps in Croatia to press raped women for the gory details of their ordeal. But few reporters interviewed the women best able to help the rape survivors: Those feminists in the capitals of Croatia, Serbia and Slovenia who, long before the war started, staffed projects to aid women who were victims of domestic violence. Now, their mission has taken on a grave urgency, for helping all women, of all nationalities, who are being brutalized by the war.

In expanding their services, these feminists need direct support: funds, supplies, medical backup, training, more volunteers…and most of all, support for the feminist perspective that distinguishes them from the efforts of their governments. These projects provide assistance to women by women, and in ways that will not use the survivors to further fuel the fires of nationalism burning on all sides in the conflict.


The former Yugoslav republics are home to a small but outspoken independent feminist movement, one of the strongest in Eastern Europe. Yugoslav post-war feminism dates from 1978, when an international feminist conference was held in Belgrade. A majority of those attending found that feminism explained much about why women’s “emancipation” — which was mandated by Yugoslavia’s unique form of “self-managed socialism” — did not feel like freedom. Yugoslav women were free to be “workers, mothers, heroines of the partisan war and shoppers all rolled into one. But they were not free to ask the question, “What do we women want our lives to be?”

Soon after the conference, feminists in Zagreb and Belgrade formed “Women and Society” groups; the groups sponsored forums and published feminist texts in mainstream magazines. The feminist critique hit a nerve: The ruling Communist Party, through its official women’s organizations, quickly reviled the feminists as “bourgeois Western pawns.”

By the mid-1980s, a new generation of women began to breathe a different kind of energy into feminism. For them, the women’s movement was about action; their primary efforts went into grassroots activism and women’s self-help programs. They went to the open-air markets and asked the women how they felt about their lives. They opened their doors to Gypsy women who came to drink coffee, tell fortunes and speak about the difficulties of homelessness.

They dared one another to spray paint the walls of the housing blocks with messages such as “Women neighbors of the world, unite!”

In the late 1980s, groups in the capitals of the three biggest Yugoslav republics — Zagreb (Croatia), Belgrade (Serbia) and Ljubljana (Slovenia) — started SOS telephone hotlines. Feminist volunteers answered phone calls from women who had been abused, beaten, and raped. The feminist counselors never saw the faces of these women, they only heard their voices. But they gave them unconditional support. They counseled them about how to get a divorce, emergency medical treatment, child support. Before long, the hotline groups began plans for establishing shelters where women and their kids could find refuge. In 1987, groups in the three cities formed The Yugoslav Feminist Network, which held annual gatherings to share ideas and link projects, especially the hotlines.

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 opened up the political process throughout Eastern Europe. Although Yugoslavia had broken away from the Soviet bloc in 1948 and established a decentralized federation of republics with an economic system based on worker selfmanagement rather than central planning, the Yugoslav Communist Party still monopolized political power in each republic and in the federal government. Throughout Yugoslavia, as in the rest ofEastern Europe, feminists joined other alternative movements in feeling euphoric about this sweet moment of possibility, of change. But the alternative movements that started the changes soon found themselves sidelined, their energy and visionfrustratedby “politics as usual.” The region preferred to turn the clocks back to pre-Commumst days rather than forward to something new.

The year 1990 ushered in the first multi-party elections in each republic of the Yugoslav federation. Feminists were recruited as candidates for Croatian and Slovenian local elections by Communist, Green and centrist parties, but not by the winning nationalists and Christian Democrats. After the elections, the number of women deputies in parliament dropped to an all-time low in all Yugoslav republics. The nationalist revival in Serbia and Croatia sang hymns to women as “mothers of the nation.” The inauguration of Croatian president Franjo Tudjman climaxed in a ceremony in which he tucked a feather into an empty cradle to honor unborn Croatian babies.

In Croatia and Serbia, flurries of legislation threatened to curtail reproductive rights. Bills proposed limits on abortion and contraception. At the same time, Serbian lawmakers sought to enforce population control on Albanian women in Kosovo, a province under Serbian martial law where 90 percent of the population is ethnic Albanian and Serbs want to reverse the demographic tide.

Women throughout a changing Eastern Europe experienced political disenfranchisement, legislative threats and disproportionate female unemployment. Yugoslav feminists responded by organizing women’s parliaments and women’s lobbies to publicize the state of affairs and influence the political process. In Serbia, the Belgrade Women’s Lobby pressed the government for a Ministry ofWomen, a battered women’s shelter, a quota of women in parliament, laws against marital rape, and decriminalization of prostitution. In Croatia, a Women’s Parliament convened by feminists on International Women’s Day, March 8, 1991, proposed a similar plank to the drafters of the new Croatian Constitution.

Not all the efforts ofYugoslav feminists were defensive. They successfully introduced women’s studies courses into the university curriculum in Ljubljana and Belgrade. Lesbian and gay groups also came out into the public presence in all threebigcities. In 1990in Zagreb, Croatia, the city where Yugoslavia’s first hotline protesting violence against women had opened two years earlier, Women’s Aid Now took the next step by occupying a large flat and converting it into a shelter for battered women and their children. The shelter became known as the Women’s Autonomous House Zagreb. About the same time, a handful of Zagreb radical feminists formed a small editorial collective which put out the first issue of a magazine called Kareta.


Less than a year later, Yugoslavia disintegrated. Slovenia and Croatia declared independence in the summer of 1991, and were invaded by the Yugoslav Army, commanded by Serbian generals. The Western powers’ insistence on maintaining the territorial integrity of the Yugoslav federation supplied diplomatic ammunition to Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic and his generals.

The Slovene war lasted only a week before the Slovenes beat back the “Yugoslav1′ army. The Croatian conflagration began soon afterward in Serbpopulated enclaves and spread throughout the republic. Serb paramilitary bands, backed up by Milosevic’s army, attacked Bosnia-Herzegovina in April of 1992. Soon the genocidal horrors of “ethnic cleansing” and starvation were unleashed.

From the moment the war began, peace movements across the former Yugoslavia had their work cut out for them. Young men deserted the army in droves. Mothers of soldiers marched on parliaments and army headquarters to demand that their sons be sent home from army duty. At first, mothers from Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and elsewhere held coordinated antiwar protests. But as the war ravaged Croatia, cooperation — and even communication — between antiwar efforts in the various republics dwindled. In Zagreb, wartime life was strangely schizophrenic.

Wlnle the “Yugoslav” army destroyed the Croatian cities of Dubrovnik and Vukovar, inhabitants of Zagreb slept in their bomb shelters. But soon Zagreb life began to feel eerily normal — except that almost overnight Serbs had become conquerors and Croats victims. Children of mixed marriages suddenly didn’t know who they were.

As the experience of a war replete with massacres and occupation shaped a defensive Croatian consciousness, it became easy for the Croatian government to co-opt popular “peace” sentiment. For example, a women’s protest called “Wall ot Love” (Bedem Ljubavi) was little more than a cheering squad on behalf of Croatian president Franjo Tudjman.

The Croatian peace and feminist movements also suffered bitter divisions between those who felt themselves to be part of a victimized Croatian nation and those who still opposed all nationalism.

Those with the first view were more likely to cooperate with the government. The non-nationalists, grouped around the Antiwar Campaign-Croatia in Zagreb and its affiliates in other Croatian cities, had more trouble gaining public exposure, as the government had done an effective job of throttling “disloyal” independent media.

The issues of nationalism and nonnationalism were further complicated by the spread of the war into Bosnia. While the Serbs have been the most blatant in their plans for “ethnic cleansing” there, local Croatian militias and the Croatian government have, as well, pursued their thirst for Bosnian and Herzegovinian territory. In fact, envoys of Tudjman and Milosevic agreed to carve up BosniaHerzegovina at the expense of the Muslims. Perhaps because Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina, has a mixed population and a history of tolerance, the peace movement there has brought together Muslims, Croats and Serbs, even under siege.

In Belgrade, the Serbian capital, the mood has been differently grim. The Serb conquerors run the government, they have an agenda but they feel the world misunderstands them. They justify their actions by claiming to be protecting endangered Serbs in other republics. A significant portion ot the populace has grown tired of the war and of Milosevic’s government. A crazy quilt of marchers — students, feminists, royalists, intellectuals — has been ringing alarm clocks and bells in front of Parliament to warn the regime to wake up to the truth. Cigarettes and gasoline have disappeared from the stores as international economic sanctions have taken hold. Weapons, however, are still on the market.

Here, too, the opposition media has been stifled. In the December 1992 election, the opposition candidates had no access to TV, and foreign observers witnessed widespread voting fraud. Still, nearly 40 percent of the Serbian electorate voted against Milosevic and for the self-described “candidate of change” Milan Panic.

Since the “war began, a small band of Belgrade feminists who call themselves the Women In Black have been protesting the war with silent vigils.

Standing in Belgrade’s main street every week, they are spat upon and called traitors and whores.


In the summer of 1992, when the news of rapes, forced pregnancies and other war-related crimes against women emerged from the refugee camps, feminist journalists were among the first to pursue the story. Croatian writer Slavenka Drakulic called the rapes “a method of ethnocide.”

Despite international newspaper coverage of these crimes, it took two UN reports on human rights (the second released in November 1992) before a global outcry was heard. Soon a stampede of fact-finders arrived on the scene. The European Community, human rights groups, the UN and the Bosnian and Croatian governments all play “the numbers game” about the extent of the rapes. Have there been 20,000 rapes, as estimated by the European Community, or over 100,000, as reported by the Croatian women’s group Tresnjevka? (All of these figures are extrapolations calculated by multiplying the small number of women refugees who have reported being abused, by the total number of women refugees, or by the number of women in the camps.) While it is critical to establish the magnitude of the crimes — and evidence that they are systematic — feminists are asking what is actually being done for the women?

The first priority of feminist groups was to get out information about the war crimes. But many have now shifted gears to lay the groundwork for providing long-term assistance to the war-ravaged women. Feminists in Zagreb have opened a Center for Women Victims of War. This center is a project of the Zagreb Women’s Lobby, a coalition made up of the Autonomous Women’s House Zagreb, the Independent Alliance of Women (an offspring of the Women and Society group), the Informative-Documentary Center on Women, and women from the Antiwar Campaign-Croatia. A similar center was established in the Bosnian city of Zenica by a German feminist gynecologist.

A Belgrade coalition, including the Belgrade Women In Black, Belgrade Women’s Lobby and the Group for Women Raped in War (some of the women from the Belgrade SOS hotline), has proposed a center on the same model as those in Zagreb and Zenica. Despite the logistical difficulties in communicating, women from Zagreb, Belgrade and Zenica are cooperating on the centers.

These feminists have been attending training sessions; a team of two from Zagreb visits a refugee camp twice a week to talk to the women about their needs, and to help them establish selfhelp groups. When the groundwork has been laid, enough funds have been raised, and the women survivors indicate that they are ready, small shelters additional to the existing one in Zagreb will be opened.

Feminists also wish to provide counseling that will be culturally sensitive, especially to the needs of Muslim women. Their plans to make abortion, gynecological care, pregnancy assistance and adoption services available are no small part of this endeavor.

A German group, Sisters in Need, works with women throughout the former Yugoslavia. It has established feminist guidelines for the best use of donations to help the rape victims. Among them: “Any direct or indirect influence of the state or religious institutions must be avoided…Care for women rape survivors must on principle be provided by women’s groups which are not bound by a nationalist ideology.” They also call for a training program to be developed by women doctors, psychologists and counselors.

Following these guidelines, U.S. women have set up a fund to assist the Centers for Women Victims of War. Funds can be made payable to MAD RE (a non-profit organization working for ten years in ejobal solidarity with women), 121 W. 27th Street, Room 301, New York, NY 10001, telephone: 212-6270444. A coalition of groups including the American Fnends Service Committee, Women Organized Against Rape, Women’s Health Action and Mobilization, the YWCA, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, MADRE, and many others, have initiated GATHER — Global Action to Help End Rape — whose goal is to raise $50,000 for the Center for Women Victims of War, Zagreb.

As part of that fundraising effort MADRE sponsored a North American speaking tour, “Mother Courage II,” in March and April. The tour brought together women from Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia who are working on behalf of war-raped women. Their passionate witness against war, rape and the atrocities committed in the name of nationalism stirred audiences in seven North American cities.

Even the U.S. Agency for International Development has acknowledged the importance of the efforts of the women’s groups in the former Yugoslavia to help rape survivors. The agency will provide small grants to hotlines, community centers, schools and other programs.


The news about rape spurred a powerful response in the U.S. and the anger was focused most direcdy on the Serb fighters, whose policy of “ethnic cleansing” is so abhorrent. Perhaps this is because a visceral response to what is a complicated situation is far easier to entertain than trying to sort out the twisted history of Yugoslavia and the dynamics of its disintegration.

However, as women get involved in solidarity work with feminist and peace movements in the former Yugoslav republics, it is important that they resist over-simplifying a complicated situation, and resolve not to leave U.S. policy on this matter solely to the “experts.” It’s interesting to note that even when it conies to rape, the experts are almost always male. When Time ran an article on the rapes (“Unspeakable,” February 22, 1993), the correspondents interviewed only male professors and policy analysts.

“War is the continuation of politics by other means,” goes the famous aphorism of the 19th-century Prussian military strategist Karl von Clausewitz. Just as the Yugoslav war is an escalation of politics by other means, so rape can be seen as the escalation of the control of women’s bodies by violent means. This can be seen in the recent political history of the region. Controls made abortion illegal and contraception utterly unavailable in Ceaucescu’s Romania. In Communist East Germany, which used the carrot instead of the stick, it brought muttipolitik (Mommy politics) — financial incentives for working mothers, which allowed them to have their children and work, too, but mainly in dead-end jobs. In Serbia, in 1990, it brought population control for Albanian women and threats to curtail abortion tor Serbian women. In Bosnia, in 1992, it meant rape and forced pregnancy.

Gail Kligman, a visiting professor of government at Georgetown University, and an expert in reproductive policies in Southeastern Europe, puts the rapes in a long-term perspective: “Political selfdetermination in the region has always been linked to control of women’s bodies. That was true for the communists, and it is true for the regimes that have followed them. Rape is more than a war crime, it is a weapon of war.”

Feminists in the former Yugoslav republics hold opposing views about who is doing the raping and why. One view condemns men on all sides of the conflict. The other singles out the Serbian paramilitary forces, and the ‘Yugoslav” army that supports them, for perpetrating systematic rape and forced pregnancy in the service of “ethnic cleansing. “

In fact, both of these positions reflect aspects of the truth. International factfinding missions have gathered evidence of war crimes against women on the part of all armies in the conflict, but particularly the Serbian forces. Dr. Shana Swiss of the Women’s Commission of Physicians for Human Rights, who followed up the UN investigation, documented 119 cases of pregnant rape survivors in six hospitals in Croatia, Serbia and Bosnia. She suggests that this is a very small percentage of the actual number of women. While Swiss saw cases ofSerbian women raped by Croats or Muslims, “the overwhelming majority of the victims are Muslim women raped by Serbian irregular soldiers,’1 she reported.

The EC’s Investigative Mission into the Treatment of Muslim Women in the Former Yugoslavia, led by Dame Anne Warburton and Simone Weil, sought specifically to “arrive at a view.. .whether or not the rape of Muslim women could be properly described as ‘systematic.'” Their December 1992 report found that a “repeated feature ofSerbian attacks on Muslim towns and villages was the use of rape or the threat of rape to force the population to leave their homes…The delegation saw examples of statements and documents from Serbian sources which very clearly put such actions in the context of an expansionist strategy… Viewed in this way, rape cannot be seen as incidental to the main purposes of the aggression, but as serving a strategic purpose in itself.”

Amnesty International’s January 1993 report “believes that the rape and sexual abuse of women, the great majority of them Muslims, by Serbian forces has occurred in many places in BosniaHerzegovina and in some cases has been carried out in an organized or systematic way, with the deliberate detention of women for the purpose of rape and sexual abuse.”

The two positions have very different strategic implications. As adopted by some feminists in the former Yugoslavia, the position that war-related violence against women takes place on all sides has a particular meaning. In an environment where nationalist hysteria and manipulation is omnipresent, this multilateral outlook is a non-nationalistic response: It establishes a framework for cooperation between women of all nationalities.

Women in the U.S. are far enough removed from the site of the conflict that they can speak to the use of rape by all armies and yet underline the special crimes of the Serbian forces. As Helsinki Watch’s Jeri Laber wrote in the March 25 New York Review of Books, “Although the rapes have been attributed to all sides in the war, the Serbian forces appear to be using rape on the largest scale and with impunity. Whether or not the order to rape comes from the highest authorities, the practice appears to be tacitly condoned, and even encouraged at the local levels of command. The fact that the rapes often occur before witnesses indicates that the rapists have nothing to fear.”

A view like that makes it possible, for example, for the Center for Constitutional Rights, a New York-based legal rights group, to single out Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic as the perpetrator of war crimes against women and to bring a class action suit against him in a U.S. court.

In the U.S., adopting a “rape on all sides” position leads to problems. In New York, the Women’s Action Coalition put together a January rally protesting rape on all sides in the former Yugoslavia. When young Bosnian men and women, carrying signs asking the U.S. to lift the arms embargo so Bosnia could defend itself, tried to join the rally, they were told to march in their own circle because their demands were incompatible with WAC’s. This unfortunate incident begs the question: Who speaks for Bosnian women rape victims? Their compatriots, or U.S. feminists?

In fact, the unwillingness ofU.S. feminists to point fingers at Serbian aggression only lets our own government off the hook. However, in taking the position that the Serbian army and militias are the worst perpetrators of war rapes, we must take care not to demonize the Serbs.

A nuanced picture of the conflict would emphasize the extent of the opposition to Milosevic in Serbia. It is also vital to acknowledge and support the independent media in Belgrade (especially Studio B television, the magazine Vremeand the daily newspaper Borba).

Secondly, if Milosevic, Karadzic, and the commanders of the Serbian paramilitary bands are “bad guys,” it is important not to make the Croatian government, or even the Bosnian government, into”good guys.”

The regime of Croatian president Franjo Tudjman has consistently manipulated women’s issues on behalf of nationalism. A Zagreb tribunal on war crimes against women, held February 7, was attended by 1300 women from Western Europe. The tribunal was organized by human rights activists in Berlin. However, the tribunal’s independence was marred by pressure from the Croatian government which insisted that its representatives speak from the dais. Therefore, when the only Serb who attended, a U.S. citizen born in Belgrade, gave a moving speech, most Croatian women in the hall walked out to protest her very right, as “an enemy,” to speak!

Five Croatian women writers and journalists who have questioned Croatian nationalism and its effects on women have been targets of a hate campaign whipped up against them in Zagreb’s yellow press. These five “witches,” who include well-known feminist writer Slavenka Drakulic, feminist philosopher Rada I vekovic, and feminist editor/journalist Vesna Kesic, have found their photos on Zagreb’s front pages, under headlines screaming that they are feminists, quislings, and communists.


There are three clusters of feminists in Zagreb working on the issue of warraped women. Croatia is sheltering most of the war refugees from its own republic and from Bosnia-Herzegovina, so it is the most feasible site for work on this issue.

The war has severely exacerbated already-existing conflicts among the Zagreb feminist groups. The splits among them did not start with the war; they started in the mid-1980s. The earlier differences may sound familiar to U.S. feminists — they were about pornography and censorship, and about working within the system or outside of it.

In wartime, the political divisions among Croatian feminists have taken on a larger meaning: non-nationalism vs. nationalism.

Tresnjevka has focused on interviewing Bosnian rape survivors and funneling their reports to the world media. Tresnjevka activists Zeljka Mrkic and Nina Kadic have gathered devastating testimony, but their propensity for exaggerating the figures is disturbing. Ivana Balen of the Helsinki Citizens Assembly Women’s Commission wrote in the winter of 1992 that Kadic and Mrkic ”undermined their credibility by citing the number of 120,000 victims….The Bosnian Government estimates there are 35,000 victims….There is no absolutely reliable source of information and data is being manipulated for political propaganda.”

Radical feminist group Kareta—which has retained the counsel of U.S. feminist lawyer Catharine MacKinnon and works with Croatian- American feminist Natalie Nenadic and New York- based Equality Now — takes a stand that as Croatian women they view rape as a distinctly Serbian weapon, for which they hold all Serbs — even feminists against the war — culpable.

In contrast to Tresnjevka and Kareta, the Zagreb Women’s Lobby resists the mindset of Croatian nationalism. In December 1992, the Zagreb Women’s Lobby sent “a letter of intentions” to international women’s and peace groups discussing strategy and the kind of help they need. Lobby members wrote: “We fear that the process of helping raped women is turning in a strange direction, being taken over by governmental institutions….We fear that the raped women could be used in political propaganda with the aim of spreading hatred and revenge, thus leading to further violence against women and to further victimization of survivors….”

Non-nationalist politics have made it possible for a working relationship to be reestablished — delicately — between Croatian and Serbian feminists. Despite renewed fighting between Serbian and Croatian armies, the groups that make up the Zagreb Women’s Lobby and those that make up the Belgrade Women’s Lobby are cooperating on launching the centers for women war victims.

Nationalism takes its toll on feminists in Serbia as well. Activist members of Women In Black, Lepa Mladjenovic and Vera Litricin, share some of thendeepest feelings about the effect of the war in a paper entitled “Belgrade Femi- nists 1992: Separation, Guilt and Identity Crisis1′:

”When the war started nationalist hatred increased drastically and the Serbian government began to produce propaganda and the notion of the Enemy. All of a sudden Slovenians became an enemy, then Croats, then Muslims, then Americans, Albanians and so on. Deep conflicts emerged in families, in work places, and women began to separate on that basis. Completely new questions appeared in women’s groups. Can a feminist be a nationalist chauvinist? Can a pacifist be a nationalist? Is a weapon an instrument of defense? Should the groups take clear attitudes toward nationalist questions (and therefore the war) and in that way lose some women? Should the groups avoid the issue of nationalism altogether? Should the women merely sit down and confront their beliefs and see what happens?

“So nationalism made some women split within themselves. It also caused painful scars to Zagreb-Belgrade feminist relationships…”

Those scars prevented the Belgrade women from attending the Zagreb tribunal in February 1993.

The Women In Black and Belgrade Women’s Lobby instead sent a letter to the Zagreb tribunal which brings to life their pain and their hopes: “We feel that for so many women from Croatia and other countries it is not easy to face women from Serbia, from the country whose regime started the war. However not all women are the same, we have seen that nationalism has separated some of us, and some not. Some of us feel guilty for belonging to a nation of aggressors, and are maybe repeating the familiar old female guilt pattern, even though the guilt is not ours….

“Living in this time of increased terror and fascism in Serbia, we cannot count on our government, we cannot count on our nations, and we certainly cannot count on men with guns. But we can count on all women who will stand up with us against sexual violence and war. Without faith in each other, our work would have no meaning.”