THE HAGUE, Netherlands–FWS-87 was in seventh grade and a virgin when it began. In court, she couldn’t remember how many times she was assaulted during eight months of torture, gang rape and enslavement.

FWS-50 was assaulted by a Serb soldier armed with a hunting knife. He threatened to slash her skin in the shape of a crucifix if the Muslim woman refused to have sex.

FWS-105 said the drunken men did "whatever they wanted" to her. One bit her neck until she was covered with blood.

FWS-95 wept so loudly in court that her sobs were audible through the prosecutor’s microphone across the room. But she refused to let the proceedings be adjourned.

The women, identified only by codes, were among the 16 survivors who testified for the prosecution in the Foca rape trial, named after the southeast Bosnian city overrun by Serb forces at the outset of the ethnic war that lasted from 1992 to 1995. An estimated 50,000 girls and women were raped during the conflict. The proceedings have been going on since March at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, an ad hoc court set up by the United Nations, down the street from the International Court of Justice in this seaside Dutch city of The Hague.

Bosnian Serb paramilitary fighters Dragoljub Kunarac, Radomir Kovac and Zoran Vukovic are accused of raping Muslim girls and women detained at a sports hall, a high school and a construction workers’ barracks in Foca.

Almost every night in the summer and fall of 1992, Serb soldiers would enter the detention centers and select their victims from among the female prisoners lying on gym mats, the witnesses testified. The women were taken to classrooms and private apartments where they were sexually assaulted, forced to dance nude and then compelled to perform degrading domestic chores. Some were kept as personal sex slaves by former neighbors–much older men whose wives and families they knew.

Foca’s women’s prisons have come to be known at the war crimes tribunal as the "rape camps" or "rape factories" of the Balkan conflict.

Although rape has been part of warfare since men began doing battle, what distinguished it in the Bosnian conflict was its perpetration in a systematic, widespread manner with official encouragement. Rape was used as a tool of "ethnic cleansing" campaigns, prosecutors say.

Now, prosecutors in The Hague are trying for the first time in history to make rape punishable as one of the most serious crimes under international law.

The defense case currently is underway. Lawyers are not disputing that rapes occurred but they have sought to refute victims’ and prosecutors’ claims that rapes were widespread and officially encouraged by Bosnian Serb authorities.

Kunarac, the key defendant, took the witness stand and launched into a long, rambling alibi. He admitted to having sex with only one of the witnesses–and claimed that he was seduced.

Even though voice and image scramblers shielded the women’s identities on monitors in the public seating area, the defendants were in full view of the women who took turns on the screened witness stand. Several glared at their torturers, one testified with her back to the men.

"I’m proud to be here! Let the world know what they did!" one of them declared repeatedly.

In her book, "War Crimes against Women," scholar Kelly Dawn Askin says Bosnian Muslim women were prized targets because, in their patriarchal culture, communal pride was inextricably linked to their virginity–or their fidelity as married women.

Because the transmission of identity is patrilineal in both Serb Orthodox and Muslim traditions, the women were taunted about the Serb babies they would bear as a result of the rapes. By violating women, the aggressors sought to humiliate and demoralize the entire Muslim population and terrorize them into fleeing.

"It’s about domination, power, violence," says Patricia Viseur Sellers, a former attorney with the Philadelphia public defender’s office, now the tribunal’s expert on gender war crimes.

"It’s the same motivating factor that would make someone torture someone in a jail cell in Argentina. That person probably runs a newspaper stand during non-wartime and would never think that they’re either capable or would want to do that," she said. When it was established in 1993, the tribunal marked the first international prosecution of war criminals since Nazi and Japanese leaders were put in the dock after World War II.

At the Nuremberg trials, rape was never prosecuted. In the Tokyo trials, it was not recognized as a full-fledged war crime even though it would have been one of the easier prosecutions of atrocities. Evidence was widespread that the Japanese government was involved in keeping "comfort women" for soldiers.

Today, the Foca case is not the only international trial to include rape charges, although it is by far the most significant.

On July 21, the Yugoslav tribunal will rule on an appeal by a Bosnian Croat paramilitary fighter, sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment for failing to prevent the rape of a woman prisoner by a subordinate. At another U.N. tribunal on the slaughter of Tutsis in Rwanda, judges held that sexual violence could be considered an act of genocide.

But Foca is not just about the guilt or innocence of three wartime rape suspects.

Jurisprudence from these trials will provide the underpinning case law and form the building blocks of the statute for the International Criminal Court, currently in the ratification process. That tribunal is intended to prosecute atrocities anywhere in the world.

One of the more important precedents established at the Yugoslav tribunal is that witnesses who have suffered traumatic experiences are not necessarily considered unreliable, as has been the case elsewhere. The court’s statute is considered progressive on gender crimes, requiring no corroboration for the testimony of sexual assault victims.

Now the tribunal must weigh the testimony of Kunarac, the key defendant, against that of his alleged victims, including FWS-50, who was raped at knifepoint.

"He was very forceful," she recalled. "He wanted to hurt me. But he could never hurt me as much as my soul was hurting me."

Jerome Socolovsky covers the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal in The Hague for The Associated Press.