Genocidal rape and the invisible children of Bosnia
The children of rape have become 'the symbol of the trauma the nation as a whole went through, and society prefers not to acknowledge their needs.'
The topic is taboo. These people are neither Serbian nor Bosnian; they are invisible. Now, adults, they struggle to cope with the past and its consequences. Moreover, any hint of their existence is condemned to a faltering silence.
Since ancient times, sexual assault has been used as a weapon of war. Ancient Greek philosopher Homer discusses rape as a military tactic in the Iliad. However, the Bosnian conflict witnessed the first use of rape as a weapon of war.
In support of the ethnic cleansing strategy engineered by the Serbian authorities, genocidal rapes aimed to “plant the seed of Serbs in Bosnia” and produce little “Chetniks.” Also, it intended to prevent the captives and their families from returning to the region. A whole system was constructed – villages transformed into rape camps, gynaecologists were on shift, and to avoid miscarriages and abortions, women were released only in advanced pregnancy.
What happened to the babies?
Because of the mother’s physical and emotional trauma during the pregnancy, a severe number born with disabilities. Besides, the infanticide rates in the country increased considerably after the mass rapes. Bosnian authorities tried to hinder adoptions and encourage mothers to embrace the child, but the financial incentives were not commensurate to the purpose. The babies were mainly abandoned in hospitals and orphanages. On the other hand, the way of conceiving cast a shadow on the adoption process, as people named them “children of hate.” Later, some of them were adopted by families in the United Kingdom.
At some point, the births became evidence of the crime. DNA tests proved the identity of the father or allowed him to escape justice. Selma, a rape survivor, was attacked multiple times by her neighbour. On the day of reckoning, she lost the case because she allegedly ‘tried to hide the pregnancy,’ which was viewed as evidence for a consensual relationship. The court dismissed the psychological status, the lack of agency, and the war conditions.
That led to a more significant point –the (un)definition of rape and its vindication. The kids became labelled in a derogatory way– ‘children of war,’ ‘children of hate,’ ‘invisible children,’ and so on. Rape counsellor and researcher Joan Kemp states that a problem occurs when these people are accepted as ‘children of the rapists’ rather than ‘children of rape victims.’ However, the second one is controversial too.
Negative stigma towards the mother exists. Sometimes victims were named ‘prostitutes, who sold their bodies for little food.’ To avoid stigmatization and condemnation from family and community, many victims did not report the assaults. Nevertheless, approximately 30 per cent of all war crime cases in Bosnian trials involve charges of sexual violence. However, the resulting sentences represent merely a Pyrrhic victory since the defenders get between two and five years in prison.
Branka Antic-Stauber, director of the Power of Woman association, points out that 90 per cent of the people who seek help from the association faced wartime sexual abuse. She explains: “Men are often unable to cope with the fact that their wives belonged to someone else, regardless of the fact that it was an act of violence.”
At some point, society is more offended by the rape than the victim herself. Then, stuck in a vicious circle, society blames the assaulted for the resulting ‘shame.’ British psychiatrist Ruth Seifert explains that this kind of full-scale invasion of women’s bodies is ‘an extracurricular battlefield’-both sides attack each other through the sufferer’s sexuality. As a result, the kids are metaphorised as seeds of new wars.
The situation for the adoptive families is not heartwarming either. “When that little Chetnik grows up, I hope he kills you,” the adoptive mother of Alen Muhic was told. Similarly, women were raped while being told that they have to give birth to a “boy who would kill Muslims when he grows up.” Both situations reflect the two sides of the same narrative.
Alina learned the truth when she was 15 years old from her mothers’ psychiatrist’s notes. The family shares that they faced open hostility after the truth came out. Likewise, her stepfather was denounced for marrying a woman with a child.
A recent report says that children of rape “became the symbol of the trauma the nation as a whole went through, and society prefers not to acknowledge their needs.” Zahra Ismail, a conflict resolution practitioner at the European Center for Peace Studies, argues that these children are “also, albeit secondary victims of the rape, who are denied their basic rights.”
In Bosnia, a newborn’s citizenship is based on the principle of jus sanguinis, which means he/she depends on the parents’ nationality. Consequently, they need to provide the father’s name when requesting a driver’s license or apply for financial aid.
“My mother was raped. I do not know who my biological father is. Can I still apply for student aid?” – that is what Ajna Jusić, the president of the Association “Forgotten Children of War,” had to explain every time to the authorities. Founded in 2015, the NGO aims to help people like her by abolishing the obligation to have a father’s name on official documents and provide them with the benefits given to the war victims. Long story short, they are deprived of fundamental human rights; especially, the right to respect private and family life.
Neither the life nor the standing of these people is straightforward. How are we supposed to name them when rape itself was only considered a war crime in the 21st century? In a world where sexual assault’s definition is still being debated, the burden for the survivors is woefully understated. Ironically, the effect on society’s pride is more considerable. However, the Serbian side is sweeping the issue under the rug. In 2020, Serb authorities in Bosnia reopened a hotel, once used as a rape camp.
Who to blame? The list is long. However, that does not change the fact that innocent victims suffer the most. Beneath the veil of anonymity, they pay the highest price.