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Balkan War Rape Victims: Traumatized and Ignored


ZAGREB, Croatia — A dazed, 60-year-old woman spends most of her day staring at the wind-swept leaves around her refugee camp, waiting listlessly for the end of her life. Her wounds from gang rape by soldiers are more emotional than physical, but she has neither the strength nor the will to recover.

A 28-year-old in the fetid basement of Zagreb's mosque is too worried about her children to apply the one salve she says would end the suffering inflicted by multiple rapes. Her three toddlers, already traumatized from having witnessed the beating and violation of their mother, would be orphaned as well as homeless if she were to succumb to the urge to take her own life.

For girls like a 17-year-old Muslim waiting to give birth after months of sexual enslavement, there is neither professional help nor much prospect of healing. Each time a fetal foot or elbow swims across the womb, those impregnated by war rape relive the terror of the attacks.

The young, unmarried ones have nothing to inspire hope for the future, psychologists and social workers say, because they will be ostracized in their tradition-bound societies once the war ends and some semblance of civil life returns to their homeland.

The victims of war rape are largely being ignored in Croatia, where predominantly male, Roman Catholic, conservative health officials are too discomfited by the subject to provide care or compassion.

As a gynecologist attending to the pregnant Muslim teen-ager put it, "For her there are probably no alternatives but madness or prostitution."

No one can estimate the number of women who have been raped during the 18 months of the Yugoslav war, a conflict that has visited medieval barbarity on hundreds of thousands of lives.

Most of the rape victims have been cast out of their homes and left to fend for themselves, and sometimes their small children as well, in battle zones without food, warm clothing or shelter. Many are too shattered by the degradation or too overwhelmed by the struggle to stay alive to confide to overburdened relief workers what they have endured.

For those who do talk, often with the hope of drawing attention to the common plight of women in vanquished areas of Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, there is little reward aside from the emotional catharsis of voicing a painful truth.

Their experiences are horrifying and legion. At virtually every refugee camp and hostel in crowded Croatia, haunted women of all ages plod through the motions of living, propelled only by the need to be strong for children or parents depending on them.

"Who knows how many there are? 50,000? 60,000? Every time one woman finds the strength to talk about what has happened to her, it turns out every woman in her village was raped. This is happening in all the occupied areas," said Zorica Spoljar, a volunteer with the Kareta feminist organization who has been visiting refugee shelters to talk to rape victims.

"Men rape during war because it is considered an act of the victors," she said. "In traditional societies, like those in the occupied areas, women have always been considered property, so violating them is a way for the winners to show who now controls that property."

Medical workers treating the wounded and diseased flooding into Croatia say they have neither the time nor the expertise to provide the psychological counseling that the rape victims need--with the added complication that most of the women refuse to acknowledge their injuries.

"We can often tell that a woman has been raped, by bruises or infections, but they will rarely admit it," said Sarifa Gordanjak, a doctor from the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo attending to Muslim refugees in Zagreb, the Croatian capital.

Some victims relate their attacks in the third person, or delegate the disclosure to trusted elders. While their daughters wept in silence, two older women from Hanifici, near the central Bosnian city of Kotor Varos, told of a three-night ordeal suffered by the younger women of their village after Serbian rebels moved in with tanks and artillery, rounded up adult men and marched them off to a fate still unknown to the women.

"We could hear their cries all day and all night," a woman named Hefa said of the rape victims. "The Chetniks (Serbs) kept their truck motors running, but it wasn't enough to drown out their screams."

The 28-year-old sheltered at the mosque is too distracted by worries for her children to bother with keeping up a modest facade. The rapes, amid four months of unmitigated terror, seem to have equal rank with the other brutalities in her recollections. She has no more tears to shed in the retelling.

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