Feminism / Films / TV

In ‘Women, War & Peace’s ‘I Came to Testify’ Brave Bosnian Women Speak Out About Surviving Rape as a Weapon of War

Cross-posted at Bitch Flicks.

When we discuss war and security, we don’t often explore its ramifications on women. Rape and sexual assault are common threats women face globally. But of all the artillery and tactics soldiers use, we rarely think of rape as a weapon of war. And yet too often, it is.

On Tuesday night, I watched I Came to Testify, the first in the 5-part documentary series, Women, War and Peace, on PBS showcasing women’s role in war and its impact on women. Produced and written by Pamela Hogan, one of the series’ executive producers, I Came to Testify highlights the courageous women who testified about the rape camps during the Bosnian genocide.

The powerful film examines women’s horrific experiences in the town of Foca in Bosnia (formerly Yugoslavia), a site of one of the rape camps. Before the Bosnian War, journalist Refic Hodzic said that brotherhood and unity was the “ideology” in Yugoslavia; “no one cared who was Croat, who was Serb, who was Muslim.” But overnight, things changed. Many Serbs pulled their children out of school and fled town. The Bosnian Muslims were eventually dehumanized by Serbian soldiers, pitting neighbor against neighbor.

In Foca, soldiers rounded up the Bosnian men, women and children. Men “were beaten, starved and executed in concentration camps” while the women “were locked in hotels, schools, private homes & makeshift prisons around the city.” After they were gathered, the rapes began. Soldiers threatened women; to cut off their breasts, slit their throats and kill their daughters. Hundreds of women and girls were held captive in rape camps.

Established by the United Nations Security Council in 1993, the Yugoslav War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands was the first tribunal established in Europe since Nuremberg and the first ever convened during a war. 16 women agreed to travel to The Hague to share their nightmarish ordeal. As narrator Matt Damon (who wanted to be a part of the documentary because of his 4 daughters…god that makes me love him more!) said:

“Their testimonies would embody the experience of hundreds of women held captive in Foca.”

One of the witnesses, called Witness 99 to protect her anonymity, recounted how on the day they were rounded up, she was raped in front of her in-laws and then they were murdered in front of her. Witness 99 escaped to a refugee camp where the horror of rape continued. Another witness said she “cried and pleaded” for the soldiers to let her go “but they just laughed.” Another witness testified that one of the soldiers told another, “You have to learn how to rape Muslim women like we are doing.” The women said fear “paralyzed” them.

In Foca, half the residents, 20,000 Muslims were just gone. All 14 mosques were destroyed. Evidence in Foca showed that a campaign could be built to prove that a systematic, organized campaign of rape had been “used as an instrument of terror.” While the UN estimated 20,000 women raped in Bosnia, others say it was more like 50,000.

Peggy Kuo served as a trial attorney with the tribunal. She declared that “rape has always been an undercurrent of war.” When talking about war, the term “rape and pillage” frequently arises. But we don’t really think about what the words mean. Kuo said the soldiers raped the women, objectifying them and attempting “to strip them of their identity.” Journalist Hodzic explained:

“Rape was used not only for the immediate impact on women but for the long-term destruction on the soul of the community.”

Witness 99 asserted:

“Rape is the worst form of humiliation for any woman. But that was the goal: to kill a woman’s dignity.”

The women heroically faced their fears to share their stories. They were astutely deemed heroes by those interviewed in the film. As Kuo articulated:

“…The people who came and testified were able to maintain their dignity and they didn’t let the perpetrators take their humanity away from them. So yes in one sense they were victims. But in another sense, they were the strong ones. They survived.”

While rape had been charged as a crime before, it usually falls under the umbrella of hate crimes. With this groundbreaking tribunal, for the first time rape was charged as “a crime against humanity.” The case wouldn’t prevent all rapes. But Kuo said that even though they couldn’t prosecute every rape, it was a significant statement to acknowledge what happens to women during war. The case “transformed the definition of wartime slavery,” laying the “foundation of trials involving violence against women in international courts.”

War leaves devastation in its wake. Yet historically, when we talk about war, we talk about it in terms of soldiers and casualties; too often from a male perspective, forgetting that it equally destroys women’s lives. Kuo explained:

“Looking at pictures of Nuremberg, it’s mostly men…women aren’t given a place at the table, even as a witness…”

And that still holds true today. We need to reframe security issues from a gendered lens.

Genocide frighteningly still occurs; people systematically killed because of their ethnicity, religion or the color of their skin. As tragically seen in Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, soldiers utilize rape as a weapon of war again and again. Rape and sexual assault occur beyond conflicts and don’t only threaten women as men face rape in wartime too. It’s an epidemic we must combat.

Bravery bolstered the 16 Bosnian women to come forward, speaking out against the unspeakable atrocities they survived. As Witness 99 so eloquently said:

“War criminals wouldn’t be known & there would be no justice if witnesses didn’t testify…I was glad to be able to say what happened to me and to say who had done this to me & my people. I felt like I had fulfilled my duty. I came to look him in the face. I came to testify.”

We live in a rape culture that continually silences women’s narratives. The survivors’ horrific experiences shock and haunt. If we ever hope to change things and obtain justice and peace, I Came to Testify reminds us that women’s voices must be heard.

Watch the full episode of I Came to Testify online or on PBS.

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