WOMEN who have been raped will tell you that it often takes a long time to feel whole again. They will tell you how they took showers over and over, how they kept husbands and boyfriends at arm's length for months, how they circled the house as night fell, checking the locks and bolts.
And some of them talk of feeling they've lost something. A woman who was raped told me once, "I feel like he opened this wound and I bleeded out my whole normal personality, like I was just a shell afterward."
Certainly that is how some of the women of Bosnia feel today. Perhaps that is how their larger community will appear in the years to come, as a shell afterward, after the systematic and brutal violation of so many women.
How many have been carted off to camps to be raped repeatedly night after night? No one knows for sure. Thousands? Tens of thousands? The numbers vary, but they grow as surely as the bellies of those women impregnated by their enemies, their attackers.
And as they do we must ask ourselves a question that goes far beyond defining rape as a war crime, welcome as that long-overdue classification may be.
Is a particularly sophisticated and brutal form of genocide going on in the former Yugoslavia, which relies on the psychosexual destruction of those who would bear the next generation of Bosnian Muslims, so hated by the warring Serbs?
I will try not to numb you with the stories. The 10-year-old who was taken away every night to be raped by soldiers and then returned each morning to her mother. The 17-year-old who was raped in the garden of her home while her mother was being assaulted beside her, then taken to a camp where she was raped by countless men, one of whom impregnated her.
The women raped in front of children, husbands and fathers to heighten the humiliation. The ones in hospitals who stare away silent but whose medical condition suggests extraordinary genital trauma. "While I was still conscious I was raped by eight of them," a 15-year-old named Azra told the vice president of a Croatian women's group. "Since I was a virgin, I bled terribly."
"They have been broken," says Feryal Gharahi, a board member of the international women's rights group Equality Now, who just returned from the region.
These women are not getting the help that we take for granted: no counseling, not even, in many cases, treatment for venereal disease. Some have been denied abortions, often because they were kept captive until their pregnancies were advanced.
Others talk of suicide, or have been ostracized by their families. Many say the soldiers were ordered to rape them, as though it was Serbian military policy.
My colleague John Burns wrote a chilling profile of one Serbian soldier. The young soldier told him of the abandoned motel set up as a rape camp -- "good for raising the fighter's morale" is how he said Serbian commanders described what went on there -- and of how they killed the women afterward.
There were always more arriving: "It was never a problem. You just picked up a key and went to a room."
Can you imagine hearing the key in the lock, again, again, again?
We women once liked to think that if we ran the world, there might be less emphasis on brute strength. But pacifism suddenly seems a pallid ideal beside these stories. And the timidity of American policy seems ill-suited to this brutality.
It's time to reconsider U.S. military intervention, despite the seeming intractability of this no-win war. Comparisons are odious, and comparisons with the Holocaust impossible. But we should not want to contemplate yet another occasion on which a vulnerable people were exterminated and we Americans read the handwriting on the wall as though we were illiterate.
If husbands are never able to embrace again wives whom they know to have been violated, if women so violated recoil from sexual contact, if families reject daughters twice victimized, by violence and then by the strictures of a culture that esteems virginity -- then it is possible that the rape policy will help wipe out the Bosnian Muslims.
We will have witnessed the genocide of these people without even recognizing it, the killing of something inside these women that guarantees the future.
Anna Quindlen is a columnist for the New York Times.