NEW YORK–After a week of listening in rapt horror, a federal marshal who thought he’d heard it all in a lifetime of law enforcement admitted he could not fathom how neighbors killed neighbors and committed atrocities against women in the former Yugoslavia.
“It’s almost diabolical, isn’t it?” he said. “What they did–using rape as a weapon of war.”
Dr. Mladen Loncar was the witness who was able to explain to the marshal, U.S. Judge Peter Leisure and the jury of nine women and one man the precise diabolical nature of the 1992 systematic rape and assault of Muslim and Croatian women in the Serb-controlled territory.
A Croatian psychiatrist, Loncar testified as an expert, but he was also a survivor, one of those extraordinary individuals who having watched unspeakable evil decides to fight it every remaining waking moment.
“Sexual abuse attacks were organized to destroy the crucial core of a person, their personality. By raping people, you destroy them,” Loncar said of the “rape camps” and “rape factories” where thousands of Bosnian women were attacked.
Eleven Bosnian women also testified in gruesome detail about the attacks and their lasting scars. Two of the witnesses currently are Loncar’s psychiatric patients. The jury awarded them $745 million in damages, money they are unlikely to ever see.
But it was Loncar, a former political prisoner caught up in Yugoslav politics, who testified about the strategic use of rape in the ethnic cleansing campaigns conducted by Bosnian Serbs against Muslims and Croats, especially women. What he described was a cold, passionless and deadly personal violence.
Loncar knows well the mind of an architect of the Bosnian ethnic cleansing. He attended the same university as Radovan Karadzic, another psychiatrist who became the Bosnian Serb president and charted the course of the genocide. Loncar later was imprisoned in a Serbian concentration camp, freed by the Red Cross and vowed to help other survivors.
Karadzic, indicted by the war crimes tribunal in The Hague, was accused in a civil case here in federal court of devising a military rape strategy as a means of demoralizing entire Muslim and Croat populations, weakening their families and their will. The objective, cruelly and successfully realized, was to force Muslims and Croats out of territory claimed as part of “Greater Serbia.”
The rape of Bosnian Muslim and Croat women in 1992 was “an extremely effective tool” in the attempt to destroy a people, the rape victims’ lawyer Catharine MacKinnon said. A law professor and women’s advocate, MacKinnon explained that the defendant Karadzic had been served with a summons in 1993 when he was in New York. He refused to appear, saying U.S. courts have no jurisdiction.
MacKinnon said that the genocide carried out against Bosnian Croats and Bosnian Muslims in the early 1990s resulted not from spontaneous acts of violence or drunken frenzy, but from a carefully developed game plan for a “Greater Serbia.”
The jury listened for seven days as tales of stupefying depravity unfolded in the hushed courtroom. The unusual case was brought under an obscure 1789 alien tort claims act which allows non-U.S. citizens to sue for violations of international law and the Torture Victims Protection Act which also allows redress in federal court.
The courtroom was often filled with anguished sobs from witnesses, lawyers, jurors and spectators. Three witnesses collapsed. There were numerous trips to local doctors.
Yet these women who lived through the rape camps and had to wait years before speaking publicly about what they had endured, nevertheless, continued to testify, knowing that what they were doing was on behalf of the thousands of other women who never dared, or never lived, to plead their cases.
Loncar testified that the strategy of rape was part of a concerted effort to destroy the identity of individual men, women and children. “They tell me they are no longer the same; they are different people,” Loncar said.
Loncar said that rape was especially demoralizing to the Bosnian Muslims who prize a woman’s virginity and monogamy in marriage. Even to be alone in a room with an unrelated man is considered humiliating to the woman, her husband and entire family. Many men have rejected wives and daughters who were raped; some rape victims have committed suicide rather than bear a Serbian child fathered by a Serbian attacker.
Along with repeated sadistic sexual torture, and physical beatings with metal rods, cables and electric shock, the women endured a constant barrage of demeaning verbal insults from their captors. “Bula,” pejorative for a Muslim woman, was a common term of address.
Professor M. Cherif Bassiouni, a war crimes authority who worked for the U.N. Human Rights Commission, explained that rape of a Muslim women can lead to disintegration of the family, causing them to leave their land, opening the way for Serb occupation. In this way, he said, the systematic rape of the Bosnian women was “part and parcel of a planned policy of ‘ethnic cleansing.'”
Bassiouni also testified that on fact-finding missions in 1991 he encountered a Croatian officer who described meetings devoted to devising how to recover territory redistributed following World War II and after the communist breakup in Russia and Eastern Europe.
“Karadzic is responsible for every act (committed against these women),” said co-counsel Maria Vullo. “But what he did not succeed at was silencing the women’s voices.”
Brenda Smiley is a freelance writer.
Photo by Reuters.