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10 July 2017updated 09 Sep 2021 5:42pm

Gender and genocide: breaking the silence over the rape of Srebrenica’s women

On the 22nd anniversary of the genocide in Bosnia, we must examine the misogyny that sees rape used as a weapon of war.

By Waqar Azmi

Tomorrow, thousands will gather across the UK to mark the 22nd anniversary of the worst atrocity on European soil since the Second World War, the Srebrenica genocide. In Srebrenica itself, the sea of white marble gravestones reveals two important facts about the victims. Almost all were Muslim. Secondly, they were overwhelmingly men and boys.

The selection of men and boys for slaughter was no accident. We know that denial always follows a genocide – in Srebrenica, deniability was part of the killers’ design. Men and boys “of fighting age” (as young as 12) were brutally murdered, buried in mass graves then reburied near the frontlines.

Their murderers did not reckon on the extraordinary work of the International Commission on Missing Persons, which used groundbreaking DNA technology to prove exactly how the men were killed. Even then, the Serbs continued to use the gendered nature of the killings for the purposes of denial. Milorad Dodik, president of Republika Srpska, the Serb part of Bosnia-Herzegovina, said in 2010: “It wasn’t genocide because the women and children were not killed.”

Nowhere was the gendered nature of the violence more obvious, and devastating, than in the systematic use of rape as a weapon of war. An estimated 20,000 – 50,000 women, again mostly Bosnian Muslim, were subjected to sexual violence in Bosnia-Herzegovina during the war. Their stories have largely remained untold, due to stigma, shame and the ongoing struggle to rebuild lives devastated by sexual violence.

The women who have broken the silence on the crimes committed against them are brave beyond belief. Bakira Hasečić is one such woman. An unstoppable force of nature, she established the Association of Women Victims of War in 2003 as a way of uniting the women who were raped and sexually abused during the war.

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Bakira challenges impunity and denial every day by raising her voice and speaking out about the sexual violence that she suffered at the hands of Bosnian Serb forces. She has told how in 1992 the local police officer, called Veljko, brought two Serbian soldiers to her home. They raped her eldest daughter, a teenager, in front of her. When Hasečić tried to stop the soldiers hurting her daughter, she too was raped.

“They tell us that rape happens in every war,” Hasečić told me, “that all armies commit rape, but this aggression, this genocide that happened, the rape of Bosnian Muslim women cannot be compared with any act of war or aggression. It had to be one big project that would include planners, commanders and executors. Simply, rape was used as a weapon for ethnic cleansing and genocide.”

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The intent of genocide is to destroy a people. It is always planned, and proceeds in a number of stages across every facet of community life. Cultural destruction – the burning of libraries, the destruction of religious buildings and symbolic monuments always features.

So, too, does the destruction of family life. This is where sexual violence is deployed as a deadly weapon. The rapes in Bosnia were designed to terrorise and humiliate – by raping women in public, the Bosnian Serbs intended to drive people out of their homes permanently. The brutality of the rapes and the policy of forcible pregnancy was also designed to prevent further generations of Muslims being born, especially when paired with mass murder of the male population.

Rape serves a strategic function in war, but we must not forget it is carried out by ordinary men. They may be soldiers, but they are also husbands, fathers, brothers, sons. What made these men commit such acts of atrocity? Ethno-nationalist hatred, certainly. What is less often recognised is the misogyny also at play in these crimes. Rape victims were taunted and told that they would bear “Serb babies”. Rapes were filmed and distributed as pornography. The few accounts that exist by perpetrators even show that gang rape was treated as a male bonding exercise. In all these cases, individual women were dehumanised to the point of objects – props in the theatre of war.

We see echoes of this today here in the UK. We may live in a relatively peaceful society, but with two women a week killed by men, and 85,000 women per year subjected to sexual violence, it is clear that peacetime does not reap equal dividends between the sexes. We must speak up and clearly name the problem – male violence, and the sexist and misogynist attitudes that underpin it.

This July, Hasečić will be speaking during the UK’s Srebrenica Memorial Week when hundreds of events, organised by Remembering Srebrenica, will be taking place across the UK. She will share her heartbreaking story with thousands to encourage others to stand up and speak out against sexual violence in our society. We must honour the courage of Bakira and the women affected by the genocide in Bosnia-Herzegovina, by listening to their stories. Beyond that, we must stand in solidarity with them by raising our voices and speaking out to challenge misogyny, racism, and all forms of hatred.

Dr Waqar Azmi OBE is chairman of Remembering Srebrenica