Film award forces Serbs to face spectre of Bosnia's rape babies

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The Independent Culture

A surprise win for a Bosnian film at this year's Berlin festival has been greeted with a barrage of criticism in Belgrade where its subject, the rape babies left behind by the 1992-95 war, is still utterly taboo.

Grbavica, a moving drama about a single Bosnian mother, raising a 12-year-old daughter she had by an unknown Serb rapist, deals for the first time with the sensitive issue of Muslim women raped by Serbs.

It is also a story about the fate of the children some of the women kept and their struggle to survive in devastated post-war Bosnia.

The movie will almost certainly never be shown in Serbia, where allegations of rapes committed during the war are regarded as part of a smear campaign against the Serbs.

The film's young director Jasmila Zbanic launched a fierce criticism of the culture of denial on Saturday when she picked up the prestigious Golden Bear award.

"It's a big European shame that (wartime Bosnian Serb leaders) Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, responsible for rapes, murders and persecutions still have not been arrested" Miss Zbanic said as she received the award.

The 31-year old director, who spent the 1992-95 war in the Bosnian capital, named her debut feature Grbavica after a Sarajevo neighbourhood that was besieged by Bosnian Serbs during the war. Grbavica is also the home of Esma, a single mother whose rebellious 12-year-old daughter Sara grows up believing her father died as a Muslim hero defending Sarajevo. Things go wrong when Sara has a chance for a free school field trip, providing she shows a document detailing her father's death. Esma stalls until all hell breaks lose as the ugly truth surfaces.

She admits to Sara she decided to keep her, despite not wanting her after being repeatedly raped. The reason was simple - as she held Sara to her breast, the baby seemed to her to be the only beauty left in the world. Esma is played by Belgrade-born Mirjana Karanovic, a Serb actress who has faced criticism from much of the Serbian media for taking the role.

In a recent interview, she said she hoped the movie would be watched by both Bosnian Muslims and Serbs, "to allow them to realise what they had done to each other and to heal ... maybe we can reconnect," she said.

So far, there are no exact figures on how many, mainly Bosnian Muslim, women were raped in the war. Estimates range from 20,000 to 50,000. Nobody knows how many kept the children they conceived from what was often described as a systematic strategy of humiliation by Serbs.

Most were rejected by their communities due to the "shame" of being raped. "There are many such children. Many were adopted abroad ... some are in orphanages", Miss Zbanic said at a press conference in Berlin.

She made the movie after interviewing hundreds of women, many of whom have hidden the bitter truth like Esma.