Bosnia Appeal: Rape victims tell harrowing stories

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The Independent Culture
MARIE STOPES International (MSI) has released a haunting short film about rape, now being shown at Rank cinemas during the next six weeks. In one minute it tells of a 22-year-old Bosnian woman being raped in front of her two children last summer and then asks - as the camera passes over the faces of 16 men - which man was responsible. Shockingly, the answer is all of them.

MSI says there are many thousands of victims of rape in former Yugoslavia. As the organisation continues to provide psychological and social support to displaced and refugee women, a clearer picture of the horrors of war is beginning to unfold.

Since last May, MSI has created four field trauma centres in Bosnia and Croatia for both Muslim and Croat women. Only now, says Dr Eva-Maria Herms, the organisation's Bosnian programme director, have the women gained enough confidence to tell little pieces of their harrowing stories.

'A woman gives many little hints over a period of time because she wants to keep it secret: she might tell a story about a soldier or violence, just in occasional sentences. And it can be weeks before we put the sentences together and identify who has been raped. It is a minority at the moment,' says Dr Herms.

A MSI centre at Bihac which is still expanding, in spite of communication and supply difficulties, there are discussion groups as well as individual counselling for torture and rape victims. Dr Harms is concerned about encouraging the women to express themselves and their deep anguish. 'Rape is a terrible, terrible violence, but there are other deep problems for these women as well,' she maintains.

There is the constant fear that their menfolk will not return from the fighting or imprisonment. And when and if they do return they then have to cope with unforeseen consequences. Previously wellbalanced, gentle men have suffered so much in prison or in the army that their wives and girlfriends no longer recognise them or their personalities.

'During their time away they have been forced into committing atrocities they would never have thought possible, actions that have gone against every moral principle they had,' says Dr Herms. The consequent shame, loss of identity and deep frustation that the men feel is often displayed in alcoholism and violence. 'Men don't talk so readily, so they take it out on their women and children,' she says. Unemployment exacerbates the problems.

Isolation, extreme poverty and the worry of not knowing when the war will end all make life more unbearable for the women. Some have said that they would rather be shelled than have to continue living as a refugee. Depression is highly prevalent and the requests for anti-depressants are endless.

MSI's fortnightly radio show, transmitted from Split, reaches a further 60,000 women and Dr Herms is pleased with its progress, even though sometimes the programmes are criticised. At first it transmitted programmes about reproductive health and pregnancy: 'It was insensitive to tell pregnant women to eat fresh milk, fruit and vegetables when all they get is tinned food,' she acknowledges. The programmes now deal with loss and bereavement, anxiety, depression and love, but it once missed the mark on anger, too, when it described someone blaming her anger-ridden day on receiving a telephone call too early in the morning. 'All the women protested, saying no one in a war can afford to lose their temper about such a simple thing. Life during a war is completely different, too pressurised.'

Perhaps because of MSI's growing reputation - it now has 83 support groups and 25 women's centres reaching about 40,000 women - Dr Herms is often approached by men who have been raped, who want space to talk and who are desperately seeking help.

'At Bihac about a third of the men who have been in concentration camps have been raped and tortured. They might behave strangely but they will never talk about their feelings to their friends or wives because they feel that not only have they not protected their women, but they have been humiliated themselves,' she explains.

While hoping to start another project in Sarajevo soon, Dr Herms is obviously haunted by these men and their needs. She regularly sees emaciated men, who have had their teeth pulled out by torturers, struggling along the roads, returning from hard labour camps. 'Perhaps we should think about the men. It hurts so much to see what people can to do to each other.'

The Independent Bosnia Appeal has so far raised pounds 252,133.77 to help 15 charitable organisations working in the region. For every donation to one or more charity, the Independent will add 10 per cent, up to pounds 30,000. The appeal closes on 31 January.

If you would like to support the appeal, please send a separate cheque for each donation, made payable to the organisation - with the wording as below - and send to: Bosnia Appeal, The Independent, 40 City Road, London EC1Y 2DB.

1 War Child; 2 Victims of War Appeal (former Yugoslavia) - this for the Red Cross; 3 Care; 4 Cafod (Bosnia); 5 Christian Aid (Bosnia); 6 Edinburgh Direct Aid; 7 Feed the Children; 8 Help the Aged Former Yugoslavia Appeal; 9 Islamic Relief Bosnia Fund; 10 Marie Stopes International (Bosnia); 11 Oxfam; 12 The Refugee Council; 13 Save the Children Fund; 14 Scottish European Aid; 15 UNA Trust Bosnia.

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