Photo: Remembering Srebrenica
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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.

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.

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.”

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

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Donald Trump’s offer to talk to North Korea tests the “madman” theory to the limit

Nixon also allegedly played up his unpredictability in the Cold War, with the US embroiled in Vietnam. 

Is Donald Trump’s announcement of talks with North Korea leader Kim Jong-un his Nixon goes to China moment? As recently as last October, Trump publicly rebuked his (now former) secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, for leaving the door open to talks, concluding that he was “wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man”. This followed Kim’s promise “to tame the mentally deranged US dotard with fire”. Now we are told that dotard and dictator are due to meet.

As Trump continues to break all the rules of post-Cold War international relations – on anything from alliance management to trade and nuclear non-proliferation – it is worth remembering that the so-called madman theory of diplomacy at least has a distinguished heritage.

Niccolò Machiavelli once wrote that “at times it is a very wise thing to simulate madness”. Richard Nixon was said to test the same proposition at the height of the Cold War, with the US embroiled in Vietnam. According to his chief of staff, HR Haldeman, Nixon had played up his unpredictability – supported by a back catalogue of ferocious Commie-bashing that stretched back two decades – in order to send a signal to Moscow, Beijing and Hanoi that he was prepared to countenance nuclear war.

According to Haldeman’s account, this was a lesson he had learned at the feet of Dwight Eisenhower, who had sought a truce to the Korean War in 1953 by getting word to the Chinese that he was willing to drop the bomb to bring hostilities to a close. By 1972, the year that Nixon went to China, his secretary of state Henry Kissinger also reflected on the president’s tried and tested strategy to “‘push so many chips into the pot’ that the other side will think we might be ‘crazy’ and might really go much further”.

So Donald Trump may yet become a nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize. If he succeeds in denuclearising the Korean peninsula he would be a more worthy recipient than Barack Obama in 2009. In truth, the gamble on direct talks with Kim Jong-un is based on an exaggerated sense of his own genius for deal-making rather than a careful reading of history or a painstakingly constructed plan. As such, it has none of the chessboard choreography that underlay nuclear diplomacy in the Cold War era. And it comes against the backdrop of continued chaos and confusion in the White House.

The story of how the opening for talks came about may well become a fable of the dysfunction in the court of Trump. On 8 March, Chung Eui-yong, national security adviser to President Moon Jae-in of South Korea, arrived at the White House for a scheduled meeting with his counterpart, HR McMaster. On learning of his presence, Trump asked to see Chung himself. In that discussion, Chung revealed that Kim Jong-un had made an offer to meet Trump in person. A meeting with a US president is something that the North Korean regime has sought for decades, but has resurfaced in the context of the improved relations between the two Koreas following the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.

Before his officials could intervene to urge caution, Trump appears to have jumped on the suggestion of a summit and told the South Koreans to go public with the news. A surprised Mr Chung said that he would first have to call President Moon, who subsequently gave the green light. At 5pm, Trump popped into the White House briefing room to hint to reporters that a major announcement was coming on Korea. By 7pm, Chung found himself in the dusk on the White House driveway making an impromptu statement that the president of the United States had expressed a willingness to meet the North Korean leader.

The meeting has been pencilled in for May, though it is unclear where it will take place and on what terms. With Kim likely to refuse any visit to the White House, and the Americans eager to avoid handing a propaganda victory to his regime with a pageant in Pyongyang, the most likely outcome would be on it taking place in the demilitarised zone between North and South Korea.

That is if it happens at all. Both defence secretary James Mattis and McMaster (whose position is said to be under threat) are thought to be opposed to a meeting. The befuddled Tillerson, on an official visit in Africa, was taken ill and initially unavailable for comment. On 13 February, Trump tweeted that he had a new secretary of state.

If Trump calculates that his hard line has yielded this opening, then one could be forgiven for guessing that Kim might believe the same. Meanwhile, the apparent willingness to consider “denuclearisation” is so ambiguous as to mean almost anything. Having witnessed the fate of the last nuclear-armed dictator to “come nicely” and give up his missiles – Colonel Gaddafi in Libya – Kim is unlikely to be in a hurry to dispense with his greatest bargaining tool.

 At the end of last year, the view from White House watchers was that Trump was gearing up for war. Much was made of the saga of Victor D Cha, an academic and former Bush administration official, who had been expected to be confirmed as ambassador to South Korea before Christmas. Despite being known as a hawk, Cha had expressed opposition to a “bloody nose” or “limited strike” military option against the regime. Having set himself against some prominent voices on the National Security Council, his nomination was withdrawn. Now the administration is attempting a different course but Cha, writing in the New York Times, warns the stakes are just as high. If handled with care, a meeting might provide a unique opportunity brought about by an unlikely combination of bluster and force. But a failure would increase the likelihood of war by raising the stakes and exhausting the diplomatic last resort. 

John Bew is an NS contributing writer

John Bew is Professor of History and Foreign Policy at King’s College London and is leading a project looking at Britain’s place in the world for Policy Exchange. He is a New Statesman contributing writer and the author of Citizen Clem, an Orwell Prize-winning biography of Clement Attlee. 

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game