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Shaken By Reports Of Rape, Bosnian War Crimes Survivors Urge Ukrainian Women To Document Everything

Nusreta Sivac, a Bosnian War rape victim, looks through a window in one of several camps where she was detained, in Trnopolje near Prijedor, Bosnia-Herzegovina. (file photo)
Nusreta Sivac, a Bosnian War rape victim, looks through a window in one of several camps where she was detained, in Trnopolje near Prijedor, Bosnia-Herzegovina. (file photo)

SARAJEVO -- Nusreta Sivac has spent decades recounting horrific episodes from a war that much of Europe has tried hard to forget.

One of dozens of female prisoners at one of the notorious Prijedor concentration camps run by ethnic Serbs early in the 1992-95 Bosnian War, she has testified in prosecutions in The Hague and still appears in ongoing war-crimes trials in her native Bosnia-Herzegovina.

She said she recognizes a tragically familiar pattern in reports from Ukraine since Russia's full-scale military invasion eight weeks ago.

"It is a model copied there in Ukraine, the raping of women," Sivac told RFE/RL's Balkan Service.

From their perspective as survivors of Balkan conflict synonymous with ethnic cleansing, genocide, and rape, she and other Bosnian women said the most important advice they could give Ukrainian women enduring the current war was to persevere and document crimes -- and look ahead to a time when they, too, might get their day in court.

"I would tell them to gather strength for when they have the opportunity. It may be dangerous now and it is not appropriate to talk at this time -- to testify about it," said Sivac, a former judge and an activist for war-crimes victims.

Nusreta Sivac giving a talk on her wartime experiences in 2012.
Nusreta Sivac giving a talk on her wartime experiences in 2012.

International observers have concluded that, between 20,000 and 50,000 girls, women, and men were raped during the 1992-95 Bosnian War.

The vast majority of those crimes have gone unpunished, despite decades of efforts by international prosecutors at the purpose-built International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague.

More than 30 people were convicted by the ICTY of sexual violence constituting war crimes between its first prosecution in 1997 and its final verdicts in 2017. One hundred and thirty more have been convicted of wartime sexual violence by Bosnian courts, and around 200 more cases are still pending in Bosnia. (NGOs who track such cases say around two-thirds of those convicted receive prison sentences of between three and five years.)

But Ukrainian authorities and the prevalence of smartphones in Europe's first major war of the 21st century have drawn immediate attention to possible war crimes.

Cases Already Opened

Rape accounts have proliferated as reports of abuses by Russian troops have increased, although much of the war zone is still difficult to access.

The Hague-based International Criminal Court's chief prosecutor launched an investigation in March into possible crimes committed in Ukraine since November 2013, reaching back to before Russia covertly invaded and annexed Crimea in 2014 in what was the initial phase of a decade-long conflict.

The UN Human Rights Council has created a Commission of Inquiry into possible violations of the laws of war and suspended Russia's membership.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued an extraordinary statement warning of reported rape and other atrocities by Russian troops, calling for the "adequate preservation of evidence" and international political will "in the medium and long term" to investigate such crimes.

Individual rape accounts have also emerged, with detailed statements by victims in some cases already handed over to Ukrainian authorities continuing to operate despite Russian military offensives all over the country.

Ukrainian Woman Tells Of Rape By Russian Soldiers
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Oleksiy Danylyak, a deputy prosecutor in the southern Kherson region, told RFE/RL recently that his office opened more than 1,000 cases into alleged violations after Russian troops withdrew from occupied areas there, including murder, kidnapping, deportation or forcible relocation, torture, and sexual crimes.

Intercepted Russian statements from the battlefield have even incriminated troops in the suspected use of rape to terrorize Ukrainians and prosecute the war.

Russian officials have not responded specifically to the allegations of battlefield rape in a war where Russian artillery has routinely pounded civilian areas, including residential buildings, schools, and hospitals. Russian officials deny targeting civilians.

In Moscow on April 26 for his first senior meeting with Russian officials since the full-scale invasion began on February 24, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said he was concerned about possible war crimes and that independent investigations were needed.

'Document The Crimes'

"Whatever the results are of this aggression, they must dedicate themselves to documenting war crimes," said Mirsad Tokaca, a founding director of the Research and Documentation Center in the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo.

He contrasted the situation with that of wartime Bosnia, where former Yugoslav institutions had mostly ceased to function. Ukraine still has prosecutors' offices, courts, police, NGOs, and now an international commission already formed to look into accusations of wrongdoing, he said.

Tokaca has already offered his center's assistance and experience, he added. "This is the 21st century and you can see the [higher] level of communication," Tokaca said. "We didn't have that in 1992."

Mirsad Tokaca (file photo)
Mirsad Tokaca (file photo)

Two months into the war, Russian forces control wide swaths of eastern and southern Ukraine including the easternmost parts of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions controlled by Russia-backed separatists since 2014. Russia also maintains its annexation of Crimea, which UN countries have overwhelmingly rejected as an illegal occupation.

Russian advances have been limited and come at considerable cost to Russia's military, according to Western military analysts who cite the stubborn defense of Ukrainian professional soldiers and volunteers along with the supply of weapons and intelligence by Western supporters.

'Persevere In Everything'

Halida Konjo-Uzunovic suffered torture and abuse and lost her husband and other male family members during an ethnic-cleansing campaign by ethnic Serb troops who controlled the region of Foca, in eastern Bosnia, between 1992 and 1994.

About 3,000 Bosniaks were killed in Foca, with authorities still searching for the remains of more than 600 of the victims -- more than one-third of them women or girls.

Konjo-Uzunovic said the images from Ukraine have evoked memories and understanding for the horrors of war that Ukrainian women are enduring.

"Only we who have gone through the same can fully understand and tell them to persevere in everything, even though it is the most terrible thing that can happen to a woman," Konjo-Uzunovic, who now lives in Sarajevo, told RFE/RL's Balkan Service. "I have personally experienced all this and the abduction of male family members, their executions and [identifying] their bodies."

One of the greatest sources of frustration for her and other victims has been the lack of a unified institution to seek justice in Bosnia, which is still divided administratively and otherwise along ethnic lines formally set up under the 1995 Dayton agreements that ended the fighting.

She said that Ukrainian women must feel that justice is nearly impossible in a divided country, and she hopes they don't face a legacy of war similar to what she and other Bosnians experienced.

But Konjo-Uzunovic said she and other affected victims have emerged from being "wounded, humiliated, and injured" to "walking bravely through life all these years."

Written by Andy Heil based on reporting by RFE/RL Balkan Service correspondents Milorad Milojevic and Meliha Kesmer in Sarajevo

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