Surviving wartime sexual violence

Wartime sexual violence victim / Photo by: Inia Herenčić

By Jasmina Papa

It was a sunny, crisp March morning in 2012. Arriving to Vukovar, in Eastern Slavonia, a town that is believed to be the site of some of the worst atrocities that took place in the 1991 to 1995 war in Croatia.

Traces of shelling and bullets are still visible on some of the buildings. The social fabric is torn too. Prior to the war, Vukovar was a home to 44, 639 citizens - 47 percent Croats and 32 percent Serbs.


  • Women's groups estimate that at least 2,500 to 3,000 women survived sexual violence in the 1991 to 1995 war in Croatia.

During the war more than half the population was internally displaced or became refugees; more than 1,500 were killed and approximately 2,500 were wounded. Records from 2011 showed that the population declined by 37 percent and the unemployment rate rose to 31 percent (compared to the national average of 17 percent).

The trust between Croatian and Serbian communities is low: there are different shifts in schools for children of different backgrounds; coffee shops are labeled for Croats and for Serbs.

As part of my work with UNDP’s efforts to support witnesses and victims, I was meeting a group of women who have banded together to break the wall of silence about sexual assaults they survived in 1991 and 1992 during the city's siege. Ivana (names have been changed), told us what it was like to live in the city that was occupied street by street over a period of two months:

“When our street was seized, I had already been living in the cellar with my daughter, 12, son, 11 and aunt for a month and a half.  By that time, my father and brother had gone missing. When enemy forces came into our street, we had to put a white cloth on the door of the house. In early October, two men came and took my husband. They returned him the next day – he was all beaten up, but found out my father was killed. A day later, soldiers came again, took my husband and killed him as well... Living in an occupied town is the worst nightmare: movement is restricted to a few streets, no information about what is happening in other parts of town, trying to find food and water, listening to the falling sound of  grenades and hiding....”

Ivana's group approached the Office of the President of Croatia, and then UNDP to organize a public discussion calling for attention to their situation. I remember thinking: ‘How is it possible, that 20 years since the end of the war, numerous psycho-social, community development interventions, 14 years of the peaceful reintegration of Eastern Slavonia and Bassiouni commission's report that so little, or in fact nothing is known about destinies of women?”

(The UN Bassiouni Commission, which gathered evidence of war crimes in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia in 1992 to 1994, concluded that “the practices of sexual assault and rape have been carried out by some of the parties so systematically that they strongly appear to be the product of a policy.”)

In a dimly light, cold room of the Association of Prisoners in Serb Detention Centers during Homeland War, Ivana continues her story continues:

“One evening, in February  when I was sitting by the candlelight while children slept in the other room, there was a banging on the door. There were two soldiers from the occupying forces, asking for spirits and cigarettes. We had none. They placed two bombs and kalashnikov on the table and told us that one will take me and the other one my aunt. I was scared for my daughter and let them get on with it. Then they swapped.”

Ana joins in telling her story:

“A group of paramilitary soldiers came into my house, and ordered 'Make us some coffee or tea!' I looked in the kitchen cupboards knowing there was nothing there. Then they started laughing, grabbing my arms and legs, touching me. They left soon after, only to return at night to take me, blindfolded, into another house full of soldiers. One of them told me: ‘Woman, these people will tear you apart'. They  ripped apart my clothes and soon I was standing naked in a room full of smelly men. I do not know how many of them raped me, but I do remember that one told me he was going to kill me if he is left unsatisfied. I was suffocating.  After a few hours they put me into something resembling a coffin, pulling my breasts and satisfying themselves in perverse ways....”

Some of the women told their stories to police and prosecutors several times but not much happened. Not surprising then, that the State Attorney's Office has only 67 cases of wartime rape and other forms of sexual violence on record.

Some women were able to identify their attackers by name. Yet only 18 cases involving allegations of wartime sexual violence have reached the Croatian judicial system, and so far only four resulted in a conviction.

In the most recent case, in September 2012, the convicted defendant escaped Croatia just hours before his sentence was handed down.

Twenty years after the war, women like Ivana and Ana live coping with violent memories, lost family members, sometimes seeing perpetrators in the streets, stigmatized by many in their communities, trying to create some sort of normality in their lives.

Croatian legislation makes it impossible for them to claim the status of a civilian victim of wartime sexual violence.

By contrast, 500,000 war veterans have been awarded special status and recognition, and they and their families receive benefits whose combined annual value is estimated to 1.8 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP).

Women's groups argue there are many more who never told anyone what happened.Their estimates are that at least 2,500 to 3,000 women suffered. The umber of men who survived sexual violence is anyone's guess, as there are only handful of those who spoke about it, indicating that it was not that rare.

Evidence collected as part of the International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and the testimony of survivors suggests that sexual violence was a common occurrence whenever women were kept in detention centres.

Why are so few of these cases on record, and even fewer in the judicial system?

Part of the problem is that, even in peacetime, rape is among the least reported crimes. Victims are driven to silence by stigma, fear of reprisal, a reluctance to re-live their trauma, and ultimately by a lack of faith in finding justice.

But other factors have been at work as well. The limited reaction of law enforcement and judicial officials appears to have played a role, perhaps reflecting a widespread assumption that the perpetrators could not be identified or apprehended.

Under international law governing war crimes and gross violations of human rights, the state has a duty to investigate and, where appropriate, prosecute crimes and provide victims with reparation, which includes not only compensation but also restoration, rehabilitation, satisfaction and guarantees of non-repetition. Croatia has not fulfilled these responsibilities.

Listening to the stories of women, we have been able to identify shortcomings:

● Lack of data about wartime sexual violence survivors;

● Low capacity of police investigation, state attorney and judicial system;

● Inadequate legislation which is not fully in line with international standards;

● Inadequate measures of victims’ protection and support and lack or inadequate reparation for the victims.

Working in partnership with women’s and human rights groups and state actors, an initiative was created to convey a message of survivors expressed by a playwright Eve Ensler during her visit to Vukovar last April:

“When a women is destroyed or hurt or damaged or undone it is done to everyone in that society and their grief, their suffering, their lack of justice creates a lack of justice throughout the entire society.”