Bosnia War Crimes: 'The rapes went on day and night': Robert Fisk, in Mostar, gathers detailed evidence of the systematic sexual assaults on Muslim women by Serbian 'White Eagle' gunmen

Robert Fisk
Monday 08 February 1993 01:02 GMT

THE WORST moment in Ziba's life occurred when a dozen drunken Serbian militiamen stormed into the school gymnasium in which she and more than 100 other young Muslim women were being held along with their infant children. 'They came in with guns and grenades and they screamed at us,' Ziba's friend Emira recalls. 'The Chetniks shouted at us: 'Look at how many children you can have. Now you are going to have our children. You are going to have our little Chetniks.' They said they weren't interested in women who were expecting babies because they couldn't make them pregnant.'

Ziba, 26, mother of two, was among the first 12 women and girls to be selected by the Serbs at the Kalinovik camp. 'They called us 'bitches' and one of them pointed at me,' said Ziba. 'My two children were clinging to me and I was forced to leave them. They thought I was going to be killed.'

Ziba and 11 other young women - the youngest, Sanela, was only 16 - were driven to Kalinovik's only hotel. Five of the women, including Ziba, were from the eastern Bosnian town of Gacko, the rest from Kalinovik itself. 'They made us clean the rooms in the hotel, made us wash the floors then they gave us food at some tables,' Ziba recalls. 'It was all planned for us. No one was shouting any more. They gave us bread and meat and water. After the food they told us to go with them to the rooms. Two Chetniks took me upstairs. They were both drunk, both dirty. They had huge beards which were filthy. I could smell the drink on their breath. I asked if I would see Yasmin and Mirnes (her two infant boys) again and one of them said I would. I was terrified they were going to kill the children while I was in the hotel.

'Then one of the two Chetniks told me to undress. He said if I didn't do what they wanted, they would cut my throat. I believed them. So they both raped me, one after the other. It took half an hour. Then they took me out and put me with the other women who had been brought back from the rooms. We were all told to clean the hotel again and after we had done this they took us back to the gymnasium. From that day it never stopped. The rapes went on day and night for a month.'

The day was 2 August and all but 10 of the 105 women held prisoner in the gymnasium were to be gang-raped over the following 26 days, some of them by as many as seven Serb militiamen. Their suffering was endured by thousands of other Muslim women in August and September of last year as Serbian forces 'ethnically cleansed' the Muslim villages of eastern and western Bosnia.

What makes the ordeal of the Kalinovik women so important, however, is the extraordinary detail which is emerging of their mistreatment. Senad Saric, a gynaecologist from Gacko who has performed seven abortions on the survivors, has compiled a complete list of the names and ages of all the raped women along with those of five girls who were taken away by the Serbs and apparently forced to work as prostitutes. They were never seen again. Survivors, living now in shell-damaged buildings in Jablanica and in the ruined city of Mostar on the Neretva river, have also recorded the names of young men who were brutally murdered in their presence and of the fate of at least 71 other women who were machine- gunned to death in a neighbouring village. They say that the local Serbian police in Kalinovik knew of the rapes and murders but made no attempt to help them.

At least one of the Kalinovik inmates kept a secret diary in which she recorded each day the humiliations heaped upon the Muslim women. The women have also been able to name some of their Serbian tormentors, all of whom belonged to the 'White Eagles' of Vojislav Seselj, identified as a war criminal by Washington but whose Serbian Radical Party gained a dramatic success in the December elections in Serbia. Many of the children who were held in Kalinovik are still traumatised by their experience. Several four and five-year olds were held to a table while knives were placed at their throats in an effort to persuade their mothers to part with jewellery and money. Emira's elder boy, Hasan, trembles whenever his mother talks of the camp.

The horrors of the Bosnian war began for most of the women in early June and July when Serbian forces started arresting young men in the area of Gacko. Around 37 per cent of the region's 10,000 population was Muslim, although Muslims formed the middle classes and constituted a majority inside the town itself. 'We knew something terrible would happen because we saw the murders,' another rape victim recalls. 'One day, they arrested 120 young men and cut the throats of 10 of them in front of us. One group of people included an old man called Sharif Kapitanovic. He was 70. They cut his throat and sent the rest of the people to a camp in Bileca. Altogether they killed 136 people in Gacko, mostly men but some women and children.' From his former patients in Gacko, Dr Saric has catalogued the murders of five elderly men and women in the village of Stolac, including a blind 89-year old called Rizvan Saric, along with his wife, and a man in his eighties named Juko who was beheaded with an axe.

As word of the killings spread to the nearby villages of Basici, Drugovici and Bahori, thousands of Muslim men and women fled in terror to the forests of the Zelengora mountains to the north. Many were rounded up - the men separated from the women and never seen again - the women put on buses, threatened with knives but sent on to the Kosovo capital, Pristina, and then to the Macedonian capital, Skopje, where the local authorities freed them and sent them to Muslim-held Bosnia via Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary. Another group of more than 200 women were rescued by the International Red Cross as they were being driven to a mass grave.

These were the lucky ones. Still hiding in the mountains, hundreds of terrified Muslims planned to reach the Muslim front lines, one group walking by night towards another village called Stolac, the other group northwards towards Konjic on the Neretva. Ziba, Emira and the other 105 women who were sent to Kalinovik, set off for Konjic with their children and several old men and women.

Soada who, like her friend Ziba, is 26, says that they numbered 209 in all and were quickly caught by the Serbs. 'They found 24 old men among us and sent them off to Oulog,' she says. 'We did not see them again. The remaining 185 of us were put on board six open trucks in the rain. The Chetniks told us they were going to look after us, that they would put us somewhere with rooms and bathrooms. So we began to relax. When we came to Kalinovik they put most of us in the gymnasium. A few guards stood at the doors with guns.'

At first the women were not mistreated. Emira remembers a Serbian girl who regularly came to smuggle fresh milk to the women. Food was adequate. The Serb guards spoke to them in what Ziba said was 'a very friendly way'. But it was not to last. 'Everything changed on 2 August,' Emira says. 'The guards were all replaced. They said they were Seselj's men. They were filthy and shouted obscenities at us. Then a woman appeared with long brown hair. She said she was from the 'White Eagles' and that things were going to change for us. The girl told us to take down the babies' pants to see if they had been circumcised. The men started talking ahout making us pregnant. That night the rapes began.'

Emira, who says she was one of the 10 women who escaped rape - she told the Serbs that she had a two month old baby - describes the rapists as both cruel and systematic. 'After the first night, they came and selected some more girls, young ones in their teens. The Chetniks just pointed and said 'You, you and you.' The girls had to be dragged out of the room. They were crying and screaming for help but we could do nothing. This time they took them to the toilets beside the gymnasium, just outside our room. We could hear the girls shrieking. When the Chetniks came back next morning, they would ask for women by name. They took Sanela (the 16-year old) there many times. I can never forget these terrible things. Always the children would cry and scream when their mothers were taken from them.'

When the Serbs doubted the claim of two women that they were pregnant they took them to a hospital for a pregnancy test. Only after the test proved positive were they spared. According to five of the women, the leading rapist was called Bijelica; he was aged around 45 and came from Kalinovik. Another was named Dragon Lalovic. 'The worst was Pero Elez from Miljovina,' said Emira. 'He was the one who selected the five prettiest girls and took them away. He took Almasa Jugo away in his own car, a red Golf. She was only 17.'

Ziba watched the other four being led from the gymnasium next morning; one of them had been kicked awake by a guard. 'They took Amela Greljo and her sister Jasmina and Amna Kovac and Suada Prguda. They were very beautiful. There was no doubt why they took them. All we heard afterwards was that they had been taken to a brothel in Foca.' Amna was 16, Suada 20. Amela was also 17, her sister only 16. Almasa's mother, who was also raped, received a scribbled note from her daughter three weeks later. 'I saw her letter,' Emira recalls. It said: 'Dear Mother, I'm OK. Don't worry about me. Send me my dresses.' Later, Almasa sent another note saying she was now called by a Serbian name.'

From time to time the women were moved to a schoolhouse next door but this in no way relieved the horrors of Kalinovik. They could hear other women and men in the floor above them. One of the latter, a veterinary surgeon named Suad Hasanbegovic, was repeatedly beaten by two guards nicknamed Bele and Mika. The women later saw him dragged to the wash room where, they say, he was drowned in a toilet bowl. Only occasionally did Seselj's men show any compassion.

There appeared to be a systematic policy of extortion by terrorising the children. 'The Chetniks would come in and demand money,' one anonymous victim remembered. 'They would take a four- or five-year old and force him on to a table and put a knife to his throat. The mother would be screaming but they would say they would kill the child unless we gave them ear-rings or jewellery. They came once and said they wanted 400 marks. One of them held a baby to the floor and placed a knife at its throat. The women were hysterical. But we had hidden enough money on us to find just enough to pay.'

The mass rape of the women continued until their release on 28 August. In the very last hours, Ziba who had remained unmolested after the initial assault on her, was taken to the toilets and raped again by two more drunken Serbs. The women were exchanged for Serbs in Croatian hands, early enough for those women who had been made pregnant - at least 15 of them - to have abortions in Mostar and Jablanica. 'I do not need to tell you what I think of those men,' said Ziba, now in a refugee house in Mostar. 'You can imagine how I feel as a woman. You know why they did these things.'

Nor, if United Nations plans for the future of Bosnia-Herzegovina are accepted, will Ziba and the other raped women ever return home. For Cyrus Vance and Lord Owen have seen to it that in a new federal state the area around Gacko will be awarded to her tormentors, the Serbs.

(Photograph and map omitted)

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