Bosnian Women's Brave Choices Should Be Honored

A former prosecutor who worked at the Yugoslav War Crimes Tribunal, where the first war crimes case focused on rape is in progress, urges that both the Bosnian women who are testifying and those who have remained silent deserve our respect.

A trial based on the testimony of Bosnian women from the city of Foca is now under way in The Hague at the first international war crimes case ever focused on rape.

Their testimony makes clear that in Foca rape was used in particularly vicious ways as an instrument of terror. As a former member of the prosecutor's office at the Tribunal in The Hague, I congratulate these witnesses for their enormous courage in participating in this historic prosecution. At the same time, I recognize that many other courageous women, and men, who were victims of war-time sexual violence did not wish to testify.

Criminal prosecutions that hold individuals accountable for their actions, like the Foca case, are important for many reasons. They make it clear that it is individuals who are being held responsible, and that whole groups are not being blamed. A sense that justice is being done may be important to promote lasting peace, a peace that will not be undermined by demands for revenge.

Criminal trials also contribute to the creation of an accurate historical record so that years later the truth of what happened cannot be effectively denied. And, equally important, criminal trials are one way, but certainly not the only way, to attend to the suffering of those who were hurt, to give them a safe place to tell their stories, to be sure they know that what happened to them is being acknowledged and not swept under the rug.

Bosnia is the first place where the press drew worldwide attention to the use of rape as a means to terrorize a civilian population. And the press was right. It became apparent as my office's investigations progressed that rape and other forms of sexual assault had been deliberately used as part of a campaign of terror designed to humiliate women, and also men, and persuade them to leave their homes and never return. We wanted to bring evidence of that deliberate use of rape to light in a trial.

It was especially important to illustrate this use of rape as a means of policy, we thought, because Bosnia is not the first or only place that rape had been used in that way. And Bosnia is not the worst. In Rwanda, in the midst of the wholesale slaughter in 1994, countless women were raped. Most of those who survived the genocide found themselves infected with HIV.

In our search for evidence, investigators from my office encountered women who had witnessed unspeakable crimes, been kept in notorious prison camps and suffered terribly. Many I met were not much different in their attitudes and values from people I knew in New York: lawyers, office workers, mothers, grandmothers. They could have been us. Or, but for the good fortune of our living in the United States and not Bosnia, we could have been them.

It soon became apparent that some of the women, many of them reliable witnesses to other events, indeed had been victims of sexual assault but that they would not talk about it. Some may have been concerned that making their stories public, even with the privacy protections available under the Tribunal's rules, would tarnish their reputations. Some who had been imprisoned together had evidently promised each other that they would never reveal that they had been raped.

For these women, whose husbands, sons, fathers and brothers had been killed in the war, who had witnessed brutal beatings and torture of countless others, who had lost their homes and everything they owned and become refugees in strange countries, being raped was not the worst thing that they had experienced.

That my colleagues and I from the Tribunal, and many advocacy groups, were particularly interested in hearing about sexual assault did not change these women's own assessment that their reasons for remaining silent were more important than amplifying the historical record or having their stories heard. We pressed the women when we interviewed them, but in the end we recognized that similar as we felt ourselves to be, we could not impose our own priorities on them.

As American women at this time in history, we are uniquely privileged-by education, affluence, stability, work opportunities and so many other benefits-compared to women in other parts of the world. Because of that privilege, it seems to me that while we are working to combat violence at home, in the workplace and in public, we also have an obligation to hold out a hand to women in other parts of the world.

We know for sure that worldwide women face many problems, like violence, similar to the ones we face here. At the same time, we must recognize that they might prefer solutions and approaches different from the ones we advocate, and that there is no one course of action that is uniquely correct.

So even as the Foca trial at The Hague proceeds, and we honor the women who bear witness to the suffering that occurred throughout Bosnia, let us also respect the women who acted to protect each other from further pain and humiliation.

Editor's Note: Minna Schrag is a New York-based attorney and chair of the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund, publisher of Women's Enews.