Unwanted babies - victims of war Rapes in Bosnia leave lasting scars


BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- In a hot, Spartan room of a Belgrade orphanage, surrounded by a few soft toys, a 1-month-old baby boy howls for food.

Jovan is not yet old enough to comprehend that his mother has rejected him and that he represents a shame to society. The hospital staff hope he will never find out.

For little Jovan was born to a Serbian mother who was repeatedly raped by Bosnian paramilitary troops in Sarajevo. In the Balkans, there are strong taboos against rape and prejudice against children born of rape.

Even before Jovan was born a month ago, his mother had signed the documents surrendering her baby for adoption.

For the woman, a 27-year-old professional, the life she carried within her was only a terrible reminder of those weeks in August last year when Bosnian soldiers gang-raped her in the dark, damp fallout shelter of her apartment building in Sarajevo. Many different men took turns raping her, usually at night, she told the doctors. She said there were other women, mostly in their teens, who were gang-raped in the same shelter.

Jovan's mother was eventually released by her tormentors. But she could not get an abortion in the besieged city. By the time she managed to escape to Serbia, it was too late.

"We tried to tell her that she should keep the baby," said Dr. Ljubica Toholj, a psychiatrist at the facility. "But she would not hear of it. She wanted to erase the horrid memory."

She told the doctors and nurses here that she felt no affection for the child, that she hated it. They recalled her telling them: "I want to put everything behind me. I cannot think about it $H anymore."

She gave birth and disappeared.

The woman and her son, Jovan, are saddled with an enduring trauma of an ugly war. Her ordeal and unwanted baby must remain her secret if she is ever to marry here and regain a normal life. Jovan, whose future is uncertain, will never know his biological father and mother.

Haunted for life

In a very conservative masculine society such as that of the former Yugoslavia, the initial reaction to wartime rapes was one of compassion, according to Natasa Kondic, a Belgrade sociologist. "But that quickly turns into a sort of hostility toward the victim."

This is the reason, said Ms. Kondic, why most women try to repress the memories of their emotional ordeals "as a way of self-defense." This is also the reason why children such as Jovan are put up for adoption.

Women who report rape are often treated contemptuously by the authorities, as well as by members of their own families. Given the stigma, it is both socially and emotionally destructive for them to talk about it.

"This is a special tragedy and a special crime," said Ms. Kondic. "Women were used by all governments as witnesses in the propaganda war. Those who came forward were practically forced to give statements to the authorities and the press" to confirm mutual charges of mass rapes.

"I know one victim who had enormous problems after her picture was shown on television," said Ms. Kondic. "She had settled down in Pancevo [just outside Belgrade] and found a job. But she had to leave Pancevo and start her life somewhere else."

Rape seems to have been one of the barbarous practices in the Bosnian war committed against civilians solely because of their nationality.

Evidence compiled by international organizations suggests that most of the rapes occurred in public places and were committed in front of witnesses. The victims were frequently subjected to a variety of sadistic acts. Rapes also took place in detention camps where guards appeared to have had license to do as they pleased.

Dr. Toholj, the psychiatrist in Belgrade, and Dr. Izet Aganovic in -- Zagreb said that most of the resulting pregnancies were terminated. Most of the violent rapes occurred last summer, and doctors in large cities in the former Yugoslavia recorded a sharp increase in the number of abortions late last year and early this year, Dr. Toholj said. Abortion here is available on demand.

There is no way to determine the number of women who have been raped. Evidence available to United Nations relief organizations shows that such crimes were committed by all three sides, but that the chief offenders were Serbian paramilitary forces.

Bosnian authorities say they have partially documented more than 14,000 cases of Muslim women who were violated by Serbs. Serbian officials say they know of more than 1,000 Serbian women who were violated by Muslims. No figures are available on Croatian women.

XTC A European Community estimate last year spoke of 20,000 women having been raped by soldiers. But diplomatic specialists dismissed the report because it provided no basis for the figure. "It's impossible to make a reasonable guess," said one Western diplomat. "Most women have kept silent because of social taboos, shame, what have you. We'll never know."

There is also no credible evidence as to the number of women who, like Jovan's mother, were unable to terminate their pregnancies. Scores, perhaps hundreds, are believed to have delivered unwanted babies.

Two such babies died here recently due to medical reasons, according to doctors. Two are being cared for in Belgrade's Zvecanska orphanage. It is home to 124 other refugee children and 15 mothers with infants who have escaped the war. An orphanage in Zagreb supported by the Red Crescent Society, the Muslim equivalent of the Red Cross, cares for seven abandoned babies conceived by rape. Their Muslim mothers, gang-raped by Bosnian Serb soldiers, gave the same reasons as Jovan's mother did for abandoning him.

Adoption difficult

Other abandoned children are reported to be have been quietly sent to various towns and cities of the former Yugoslavia. No one knows what will happen to them and what their future holds. Jovan and other youngsters are cared for until the age of nine months and then are put up for adoption.

What makes their future even more precarious is the peculiar Balkan tradition of shunning the adoption process. There are many potential adoptive parents in Europe and North America. But both Serbs and Croats insist that preference must be given to their respective citizens, or foreigners of Serbian and Croatian descent. Adoption by foreign adoptive parents is extremely rare.

Jelena Brajisa, director of the Roman Catholic charity Caritas in Zagreb, said she has received countless telephone calls from people all over the world wanting to adopt war orphans. But Croatian authorities insist that local couples must be given preference. "We have a centuries-old culture here and we can manage to bring up these children," said Ms. Brajisa.

A similar position is taken by Serbian authorities.

Milan Radojevic, director of the Zvecanska orphanage, said there are about 130 requests for adoption coming from Serbian couples, while there are more than 1,000 abandoned children in orphanages in and around Belgrade.

Dr. Aganovic, who is a Muslim, believes that the best thing for war orphans is for them to be sent as far away as possible. "If we think about the future of these babies, what's best for them, then they must be adopted."

But all sides seem to be in accord on one point -- children such as Jovan should not be labeled "rape babies." As Dr. Toholj put it: "Why put that burden on their shoulders? The babies are innocent."

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad