Survivors of wartime sexual violence appeal for justice in Vukovar

Apr 3, 2012

photo: undp croatia

Playwright Eve Ensler advocates for rights of rape victims at UN-hosted roundtable 

Two decades after many of the worst atrocities were committed in the 1991-95 war, Croatian victims of rape and sexual violence are still awaiting justice, recognition, and support. This was the conclusion of a roundtable organized in Vukovar on 3 April by the United Nations (UN) in Croatia and the City of Vukovar, with support from the Office of the President of Croatia. 

The event was organized to draw attention to the plight of rape survivors and mobilize state authorities and civil society to redouble their efforts to punish the perpetrators and respond to the needs of the victims. Croatia's experience was set in a broader context by the American playwright and activist Eve Ensler, who issued a rallying cry for a global crusade to fight all discrimination and violence against women.

"Croatia as a nation treats its war veterans with deep respect and a generosity that some might argue is even excessive," saidLouisa Vinton, UN Resident Coordinator and UN Development Programme Resident Representative in Croatia. "Surely the survivors of sexual violence, who bear scars as deep as any wounded soldier, merit the same recognition and compassion. Yet for too long their plight has been neglected and their needs ignored."

Two survivors of repeated rapes during the 1991 occupation of Vukovar shared the horrors they experienced and their sense of abandonment by the justice and social welfare system.

"The fact remains that victims of wartime rape and sexual violence do not enjoy any status or entitlements," said Marija Slišković, President of the Association of Women in the Homeland War. Slišković has drawn attention to the issue by publishing Sunčica, a compilation of the testimonies of seventeen victims. "The criminals are at large, while justice and care for victims are still lacking," said Slišković. "The wrong message has been sent: the victims have been left alone to cope with the consequences, while the perpetrators have been allowed to believe that what they did was not a crime, and have lived free for 20 years."

"As a Vukovar war veteran, I spent 9 months in three Serb war camps and experienced many traumas," said Predrag Fred Matić, Minister of War Veterans. "However, one of traumas that keeps following me are screams of women in camps. From these cries it was not difficult to imagine what was happening to these women. From the side of institutions, not enough has been done to help these victims. Just a small number of women was granted with the status of civil victims of war.

What we aim for is that the Law on Croatian war veterans defines the rape with its real name, which is a war crime. Amending of national laws on victims of war is based on the existence of invalidity. But, these wounds are some other wounds – wounds of the soul and wounds of the pride. The war has ended, but the issue of war crimes has not ended. There will be no abolition. If someone committed a war crime, he must be held responsible for it."

The discussion highlighted the lack of any accurate reckoning of the number of victims of sexual violence from the 1991-95 conflict. The Croatian State Attorney's Office has a record of 67 rape victims, but this number is believed dramatically to understate the reality owing to the victims' reluctance to come forward. Although the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia has established that wartime rape and sexual abuse constitute war crimes and torture, only 17 court prosecutions in Croatia have so far dealt with cases of sexual violence, according to the Dokumenta Center for Dealing with the Past.

Only a few guilty verdicts have been handed down, and most of these have been issued in absentia. This record points to the need for better psychological support for witnesses and also mechanisms to protect their identities, concluded Vesna Teršelič, head of Dokumenta. "The support to persons with a civil victim status is still insufficient, and we hope that it will soon at least be raised to the level of support provided to victims in Bosnia and Herzegovina."

Participants also pointed to the disparities between the extensive support provided to Croatia's war veterans (whose annual benefits total 1.8 percent of GDP) and the complete lack of healthcare, pension, or other provisions for survivors of sexual violence. Some advocated that rape victims be awarded the status of civilian victims of war. Drawing on her experience counseling survivors in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Marijana Senjak said:

"The recovery is possible, it is not accidental and it has its predictable phases. Primarily, we need a comprehensive approach, from a psychological, gynecological and general legal support. However, through our experience in the Zenica Centre we are trying to help out through multiple therapeutic models with many stages. For example, the phases in which the victim gets in contact with her own vulnerability and her own anger are extremely important, and only through a gradual transition through all the stages can we reach real recovery."

State authorities present admitted the challenges in punishing perpetrators but still urged victims to overcome their silence and step forward. Tatjana Vučetić from the Ministry of Justice discussed efforts to improve support to witnesses, including the Witness and Victim Support Offices established in seven county courts in partnership with UNDP.

Davor Petričević County State Attorney in Osijek emphasized "This kind of war crimes is extremely difficult for processing, sometimes even impossible, but it does not prevent our investigators to cooperate with the International Hague Tribunal, but also special Attorney's Office in Belgrade, to look for new evidence with all available means and to raise new indictments. I emphasize, none of these cases is left forgotten in a drawer somewhere."

As special guest, in the organization of the Centre for Women Studies, Eve Ensler, American playwright, Tony award winner, and author of Vagina monologues, a play that raises awareness on sexual violence against women, joined the discussion: "I sat here today and listened to words of women who have been victims of rape, and I was simply overcome by fury. A life of one woman is the life of all of us. If someone inflicts pain to one woman, he has inflicted pain to all of us. When I listen to stories of these Vukovar victims, who meet their rapists every day walking freely down the road, honestly, I would like to get a gun. However, the very fact that these women suppress this fury demonstrates their strength and the strength of every woman. I cry every day for all women victims of sexual crimes in Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and in the whole world, I cry and I am not ashamed to say it out loud." 

The discussion was organized with the financial support of UN Women.