SECTION 2 Victims or Agents?
11. INSIDE: The Unspeakable
A woman walked ninety miles across central Bosnia with her two small children, going well out of her way to skirt military roadblocks. She arrived exhausted and emaciated in Zenica, the fourth largest city in Bosnia, forty-eight miles north of Sarajevo. A staff member of Medica Zenica,1 an aid organization serving hundreds of traumatized women, listened to her story.2 Before their escape, the fatherless family had spent three months at an internment camp in Croat-controlled territory, where they hung onto life with little to eat and abysmal sanitary conditions. The mother described her torment as she listened for hours on end to her children crying, locked up in the next room. In that camp, rape and other tortures were part of everyday life.
To the Medica worker hearing her story, the assignment of collecting statistics on this woman and the thousands of others so abused seemed a mockery of their experience. She’d asked me, “What do numbers mean, when one woman tells me she has been raped 150 times? And how many women have been killed and aren’t here to tell us how many times they were assaulted?” Death frequently followed; too often the accounts could come only from witnesses rather than the victims themselves.
As war swept across the bucolic hills of Bosnia, stories of sadistic acts surfaced wherever a safe environment allowed the unburdening of memories.3 Although men and boys were not immune to sexual humiliation and rape, most such acts were perpetrated against women—tens of thousands of them.
While the reports were numbingly abundant, every horror was unique. Each belonged to only one person. Still, the stories had a strong collective frame. In addition to isolated incidents of rape typical of war, Bosnian women of all ages were crowded into camps across the country: Keraterm, Omarska, Manjaca, Batkovici…
In the Trnopolje internment camp, women and girls were confined in a public hall; at nightfall, soldiers barged in and shone their flashlights onto faces in the crowd to pick out their victims. When three women were taken out each evening and failed to return, the entire remaining group—left waiting—understood what was happening. One camp commander added his own special twist: after raping the women, his soldiers slit their throats.
In rural communities, the raped girls could expect that their humiliation would be gossiped about, making them unmarriageable—part of a plan to slow the propagation of the “other” group.4 In addition, ethnic identification was patrilineal. Attackers often taunted their victims, saying the women now would produce their rapists’ offspring—as if their very bodies had been colonized. Thus sexual assault became an act of genocide.
For the women of Bosnia, the rapes were only one part of a long series of exhausting and terrifying experiences. Overwhelming trauma left some survivors mentally impaired. Still they had to reconstruct their lives, despite devastated homes, children with enormous needs, and elderly parents without healthcare. Having lost their men, women were left on their own to piece their lives back together.
Their stories reconnected me with my years in Denver, before I became an ambassador, particularly helping people who were hungry or abused. And so throughout the years of war, and in the peacetime that followed, I sought out moments away from my official entourage, to be in a simple space—in a school turned into a refugee camp, or the back room of a small NGO—with an individual woman, listening to whatever she wanted to talk about. My schedule, my passport, the presidential certificate on my wall all said I was “Ambassador.” But I knew, and the woman beside me would have known, the limitations of a title.
Sitting close to this woman, my arm around her, I often felt more in touch with the world than I did in my diplomatic role. In the quiet, we exchanged a few words, perhaps pictures of our children. As we talked about her experience, and then about the life-threatening illness of my daughter, I was grateful for the humanizing moments she afforded me, away from the pomp and posturing of my role. Embracing her, I embraced myself, the evil we were forced to face, and the strength we mustered in spite of it.
Some women were emotionally distant, as if a thick scab had formed over their raw emotions. But to cover wounds is not to heal them. Perhaps time would be the ultimate cure. As each day passed, they would be able to integrate their experience into a stronger sense of self. The world would offer them acknowledgment and understanding, which they would transform into some sort of psychological reparation. Or would time simply allow the world to once again forget?
12. OUTSIDE: The Politics of Rape
Medica Zenica, empathizing with the survivors, complained bitterly that the International Red Cross and the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) knew about the massive numbers of rapes but failed to sound the alarm.5 The small NGO accused the Red Cross and UN of knowing about the camps as early as the summer of 1993. The truth was actually worse. In 1992, on 6 August and 10 and 11 November, the American TV news show Nightline carried stories on death camps, calling them Bosnia’s “Hidden Horrors.” Nightline’s 14 January 1993 show was titled “Rape as a Weapon of War.”6
Infuriated by the lack of response, Medica drew a comparison to Hitler’s time, “where the diplomatic policy being practiced by the League of Nations did not stop the dictator and slammed the doors in the Jewish refugees’ faces, thus assisting the Nazis in their ‘Final Solution.’”7
Indeed, the lack of official response was morally criminal, but the “international community” was too amorphous to accuse of the crime, and there was no framework for reckoning and no one to press charges. Ultimately, the cries of survivors and their advocates crescendoed into a roar that reached outside the war zone. A variety of NGOS sponsored research that described “systemic rape” as a tool of war in the Balkans. From the outside, it was natural to lump together the varied stories as systemic rape. Few wanted to think of the actual people—who these victims, these numbers, were. We could not bear to realize that every rape was as unique as the schoolgirl’s aspirations or grandmother’s memories it destroyed.
Dismayed by the silence of the policymakers, women in other countries began to speak on behalf of Bosnians, creating a growing sense of international solidarity. The rapes became a theme of the UN’s Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing in early 1995.
Still, many policymakers in America as well as Europe continued to ignore the evidence that officials on the ground reported to me: an elderly matron raped with villagers forced to look on; a father forced at knife point to rape his daughter; an AK-47 thrust into a woman’s vagina, then fired; a young girl attacked by sixteen men in one night, the last purportedly a UN Protection Force soldier.
All the while, most Serb media vigorously denied the proof that was piling up: “The saga of the ‘rape camps’ in Bosnia provides the worst example to date of how a hysterical scare story can be accepted as good coin by the mainstream media…. What are the facts? No evidence has been produced to substantiate the claims of a ‘systematic’ campaign centered on ‘rape camps.’” And, in a statement damning to the Red Cross and UN, the writer continued: “Neither the International Red Cross nor the UN High Commission for Refugees has come across any such camp in Bosnia. The only evidence is anecdotal.”8
Predictably, Bosnian President Radovan Karadžić—a Serb and a psychiatrist—claimed the rape was “not organized, but done by psychopaths,” and that “Muslim Mullahs” were behind the stories of mass rapes.9 Countering the detractors, some well-respected NGOS took up the cause. For instance, Human Rights Watch reported:
Women interviewed by Human Rights Watch described how they were gang-raped, taunted with ethnic slurs and cursed by rapists who stated their intention forcibly to impregnate women as a haunting reminder of the rape and intensification of the trauma it inflicts. In our view, the forcible impregnation of women, or the intention to so impregnate them, constitutes an abuse separate from the rape itself and should be denounced and investigated as such. Moreover, the rape of women in an organized fashion—whether in buildings where they are kept for the purpose of being raped or in camps where they are detained with family members—establishes that local commanders must know that their soldiers are raping women and do nothing to stop these abuses.10
But a different set of problems emerged as journalists, prosecutors, human rights activists, and therapists crowded into the survivors’ psychological space with requests for interviews. One reporter told me she heard a colleague say, loudly: “I need a woman who’s been raped and speaks English!” Surely the outsiders had no idea that they were re-injuring the wounded as they recorded testimony, asked research questions, made documentary films, and eventually brought survivors before US congressional committees or the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague.
Even academics, who had to follow strict protocols designed to protect the subjects of their research, added to the pain of the women with their analytical approach. Their questions, while coherent, were at a dramatically different level from the women’s experience. “Did the description of genocidal rape against Bosniak women minimize the rapes of Serb women?” they queried. “Should the rapes of Bosniak men be considered in a different category? Were publicity efforts organized by outsiders—other than themselves—inappropriately capitalizing on the other’s tragedy?”
As the attention grew, Bosnian women often felt misunderstood and misused. Yet it was difficult for them to know how to express their feelings, in part because they had competing impulses. Many felt an obligation to answer official inquiries. Some felt a strong drive to describe what they had experienced, as part of their healing. But many just wanted to get on with their lives and forget it all.
To be fair, some policymakers also felt conflicted as they probed into women’s personal lives. But they had a job to do. The women had been violated, and justice needed to be meted out. That meant accounts to be written up. Depositions collected. Trials held. Testimony recorded. Verdicts announced. Punishment delivered.11
Whatever the good intentions, the observation bruised the observed. Survivors of rape and other atrocities hardly recognized their experiences in a catalogue of wartime accounts. That is because terror is essentially personal. Humiliation is an intimate moment, not easily shared. However accurately the outsider tries to record what has happened, violation is exclusive to the violated. Thus hearing their rape spoken of as an abstract social phenomenon further dehumanized the survivors, who had already endured so much.12
13. INSIDE: An Unlikely Soldier
Among those providing basic aid to the raped women taking refuge at Medica Zenica was a young woman named Selma. Sitting with me for hours in a smoky café, she shared her story of being shuttled between the roles of victim, agent, victim, agent.
A number of years had passed since her childhood in Africa as the daughter of a Yugoslav diplomat. There Selma developed her keen sensitivity to prejudice and discrimination. In 1990, she was in an adolescent slump. Her father had gone to serve in Lebanon, leaving his family behind in Zenica. In her own words, she “fell into bad company.”
Sullen and angry, she sat watching TV, trying to understand the first eruptions of war in nearby Slovenia. Her six-year-old brother tried to comfort her: “Don’t worry, Sis, I’ll protect you.” But when the news of mass rapes began, she didn’t wait around to find out if he could. She lied about her age (she was seventeen) so she could join the Patriotic League, later part of the Bosnian army. Her mother watched as she packed her bag, asking: “Do you know what you’re doing?” This was not the first time Selma had exercised her activist impulses. When she had organized students from her school in a protest march to Sarajevo, the demonstration had been stopped by police.
Frustrated again, she was going off for what would be a year and a half in the field, with the troops. Her military unit spent months on the front lines, including at Mt. Igman, the strategic front beyond the Sarajevo airport. Selma was the only woman among 120 men. At first the commanders tried to relegate her to making coffee, but she insisted she wasn’t afraid to fight. She wore a jacket six sizes too big and shoes that swallowed her feet, but “I was the best logistics officer they had,” she asserted in our conversation.
Selma wasn’t immune to pain—physical or emotional. Soldiers gave her letters to deliver “if I don’t come back.” Friends died in her arms. Two, who were brothers, were killed on the same day. She told me she drove their bodies to a burial site, with prayer beads in her hand, hoping their coffins would not be opened at checkpoints and that her friends could lie in peace.
Because she spoke multiple languages, Selma was of particular value as a translator for arms deals and other undercover transactions. That also made her dangerous: she knew too much. “They wanted to get rid of me,” she said, “because I was going really deep into things regarding money and weapons.”
When she reached her psychological limit, Selma returned home and hung up her uniform. Her mother says she sat in a corner for months, consumed with anger. No longer able to reach out to others, she needed time to restore her spirit. Eventually, she used Medica Zenica to recover from the battlefield, staying with the organization from 1993 to 1996. When traumatized women needed food, she went to the Bosnian army to beg for provisions. When outside medical professionals arrived with over a million dollars sewn into the linings of their coats, she oversaw the distribution of the funds. She used a satellite phone to help survivors make connections with their families, and she found ways to deliver urgently needed medications.
As Selma and I talked for hours, she smoked incessantly, reflecting on her years of service and advocacy for the most vulnerable. She was simply trying to do what was right, she said; her effort had nothing to do with money. In fact, when she left the army, she didn’t claim the pay she was due, thinking it would have made a mockery of her sacrifice, the betrayal of a principle.
Looking back, she had harsh words for the international community: “I always thought diplomacy was a nice, beautiful affair. You could meet friends from different cultures and smile all the time. But I learned that the international community is a battlefield. Human beings are just numbers in that world, just statistics. People say, ‘fifty thousand dead.’ They seem to forget that it’s fifty thousand men, women, and children with names… with histories.”
14. OUTSI DE: Happy Fourth of July
“The man on the roof with the machine gun is ours,” Ambassador Jacko-vich whispered, as we stood on a stage in the backyard of the US embassy in Sarajevo. The hundreds in our audience had blended into an indistinguishable sea of faces. At his words, I looked up, until I spotted the ominous figure with dark glasses. “Glad to know it,” I muttered back to Vic through a stage smile.
For months I’d requested permission to go to Bosnia, but my friend Dick Moose, undersecretary of state for administration, had refused. The last thing he needed was the kidnapping or death of an ambassador to complicate an already impossible situation.
With frustration, I could only watch from the safety of Vienna as opportunities for intervention were squandered. After a shell killed sixtyeight Sarajevans in the city’s marketplace, NATO demanded that the Serbs’ heavy guns ringing the city be withdrawn, but by only a matter of meters. For those listening at ground level, the ensuing international debate was farcical. A local journalist tried to put words to the lunacy:
Where, actually, does the misunderstanding lie, if there is a misunderstanding at all? It is in the very assumption that moving the guns will change the minds of those who have been firing the guns at innocent civilians these two years…. As far as I am concerned, it is totally irrelevant to me after meeting a child whose leg was amputated. He went to bed Christmas Eve hoping that Santa Claus would bring his leg back.
What do you think—did he get it? And what do you think it will be possible to talk about with that child one day, and with thousands of other Sarajevo kids whose hair turned gray before they even went to school, if they ever did get to school? It’s all the same to me after talking to an 80-year-old grandmother who, amid the worst bombardment, walked through the middle of the main street and at the frantic warnings to hide because she could get killed, quietly but clearly answered, “That is why I am crossing the street like this, my son. But unfortunately, I won’t get hit.”13
Ambassador Jackovich understood the damage of dashed hopes. He also was tormented by the enforced distance between himself and the conflict he had been appointed to address. Eventually, despite the continued siege, Washington agreed to move his embassy onto Bosnian soil. Because there was a lull in the fighting, I had been able to talk Undersecretary Moose into letting me go to Sarajevo for the public dedication ceremony, selling the idea by saying I would convey remarks from President Clinton and Secretary of State Warren Christopher. Moose agreed on the condition that I fly in and out the same day.
Presidents, generals, and envoys waited here for cargo planes to take them out of Sarajevo.
It was not a simple journey, covering the 316 miles from Vienna to Sarajevo. I took a commercial flight north to Frankfurt, spent the night on the Rhein-Main US Air Force base, then flew south, strapped in with fifty thousand pounds of flour on a thirty-year-old military cargo plane.
As we descended, I moved into the cockpit, listening through a headset and peering through the clouds. The thick German accent of the air traffic controllers during takeoff had been replaced by Slavic. Voices from the cloud-hidden city seemed like spirits rising from war-torn valleys.
As we broke through the cloud cover, the first sign of life was children playing soccer beneath our flight path. But the innocence evaporated when we landed; I was told to run from the loading ramp of the plane to a wall of sandbags, then whisked into an American-made armored sedan. That first Sarajevo airport experience became the baseline against which I measured the city’s progress over time. Our route was on the edge of the suburb of Dobrinja, where, a year earlier, two shells had exploded among players and spectators at another soccer match, killing at least eleven and wounding one hundred. Even a game of soccer could be deadly.
All around were vestiges of the two-year siege: buses turned on their sides as barricades, crumbling buildings, hand-painted signs on walls that warned “SNIPER DANGER”—and endless rows of window openings covered with plastic printed with the ubiquitous blue UNHCR seal. I could see sky through the rubble of someone’s kitchen, while red geraniums bloomed defiantly on the window ledge. Our car sped along empty streets, pulling up to the new embassy, a relic of Tito’s administration now being remodeled for US occupancy. The building was freshly painted, but there was nothing inside.
I joined Ambassador Jackovich as he greeted a mix of Bosnian political and military leaders, UN officials, NATO personnel, international media, and Bosnian friends of the embassy. We were a crowd of three hundred, gathered on a sunny lawn to share a moment of hope.
When the beleaguered Bosnian president, Alija Izetbegović, arrived, we walked onto the stage. Standing behind the flag-draped podium, less than five hundred yards from Serb bunkers surrounding the city, I stared into the crowd, wondering what mix of thoughts and emotions they were sending our way.
It was my time to speak. I had asked the office of the secretary of state for a statement to read. What I received, just before I left Vienna, struck me as tepid, disrespectful of the enormous pain these people were living with. Instead of delivering those words, I assured myself that I was the president’s representative (albeit to Austria), so I should feel confident speaking on his behalf. Better to ask forgiveness than permission.
Through me that day, President Clinton described to the crowd how another nation, founded across the Atlantic, had struggled to build a peaceful, multiethnic society. Our country, too—however imperfectly—was built on principles of tolerance and the celebration, rather than fear, of differences. That is why we would stand behind the people of Bosnia in the face of ideologues who denied those values, I said, well aware that I was pushing the administration with that declaration.
The crowd applauded enthusiastically. No one mentioned that as we were lauding these lofty ideals, a meeting of international officials was taking place in Geneva, with the agenda of awarding the Serb aggressors 49 percent of the country, as well as part of Sarajevo.14 Since at the time the Serbs held 70 percent, the agreement might have seemed like a diplomatic success, until one remembered that prior to the onslaught the country had been basically multiethnic. Ceding any portion to Serb purists would be a reward for assailants whose crimes were antithetical to this celebration.
Even in the middle of a war, Ambassador Jackovich had managed to arrange for hamburgers and hot dogs, a flag-bearing color guard, and a five-piece military band. I watched as the Stars and Stripes was slowly raised above the embassy for the first time, with loudspeakers broadcasting a tinny rendition of the American national anthem. The flag hung limp as it crawled up the pole. Then suddenly it caught a breeze and unfurled dramatically as the anthem recalled “the home of the brave.”
I can’t imagine who took this picture from the roof of the embassy as I brought the words—or at least sentiments—of President Clinton to the crowd in the yard of the new US embassy in Sarajevo, with President Izetbegović and Ambassador Jackovich on the stage.
Literally on the side, next to the stage in the embassy yard, the women who had become my teachers posed to remember this day when their voices were heard by a visiting diplomat.
15. INSIDE: Women on the Side
Waiting for me at the opening ceremony of the US embassy in Sarajevo were six women of different professions, all of whom spoke English. We gathered around a table on the patio—the only furniture at the embassy. The women had agreed to give me their critique of the current political situation, as well as their experience of the carnage.
The meeting had been conceived months earlier, when Ambassador Jackovich asked me to co-sign a strongly worded cable to the secretary of state supporting a robust program to encourage democracy in Croatia, Serbia, and Bosnia. Any way I could convey to Washington the potential at the grass-roots level would be welcome, Vic told me. He had even come to talk with a group of Balkan women who had made their way across the battle lines, against all odds, to Vienna to meet with me. They weren’t complaining, helpless, or hopeless. Instead, they focused on restoring their country, using their knowledge of hardship to forge connections with others in need. Such women leaders could help stabilize the Balkans, and Vic agreed that their voices had been missing at negotiating tables and in strategic discussions to end the war. He would arrange a meeting in Sarajevo.
That was the preamble to our patio meeting at the embassy, where a distinguished journalist described her feelings when she received emergency food packets from the UN. This was a woman who had frequently traveled, who had dined in fine restaurants. She was at the same time grateful for and indignant over the desiccated supplies: “They didn’t understand us at all. They thought we were primitive.” MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) were a bitter signal to her that war had become an ongoing reality. “I wanted to slam it in their faces,” she said.
A hospital administrator told how she had brought nervous, tightly strung paramilitary soldiers into her kitchen, sat down with them over some coffee, and assured them everything would be okay: “Women spend their whole lives negotiating. I knew how to calm down the soldiers, because we mothers know how to help our children and husbands talk.”
A third woman had not seen her eighty-five-year-old father in two years. He lived only a twenty-minute walk from her doorstep, but on the other side of Serb lines. She was a physician and had been his caregiver. Now she couldn’t reach him, and she had no word of how he was faring in the acute deprivation of war—or if he was even alive.
Although markedly different in nearly every other way, each woman insisted that this was not an ethnic or religious war. They described to me events and relationships that, they insisted, disproved the notion that their country was doomed to divide. Instead of embracing dogma, they described to me how they had helped neighbors of every persuasion celebrate holy days. Suddenly, everything had changed. Others weren’t “Croats,” “Serbs,” and “Bosniaks,” but demonized “Ustaše,” “Chetniks,” and “Mujahideen.” True, ethnic grievances of years past had to be acknowledged, but such historical factors were not deterministic, the women asserted. Instead, the attacks were acts of bullies and had to be met with fierce resistance, not an ethnically based solution.
As I listened, I tried to make the speakers’ descriptions of brutality fit their appearances. Although I cringed at the thought of evaluating these professional women by their attire, I couldn’t help but notice that they were dressed more stylishly than I was in their fashionable summer skirts, high heels, and pearls. But to them this was a statement—a refusal to despair. “Every day,” one whispered, “I get up and take my bath from a cup of water… and put on my makeup.”
16. OUTSIDE: Contact Sport
At center stage in the policy arena was a mechanism dubbed the Contact Group. Nowhere was the dysfunction of the international community more evident. Several concerned nations created the team in April 1994, aiming for an efficient solution to the conflict. Representatives of the United States, Britain, Russia, Germany, and France met periodically, airing their differences as they strained to come up with a plan. There was even discord regarding the makeup of the group. Italy was angered at being excluded, especially since it was the nearest neighbor to Yugoslavia. Still, all three fighting parties had high expectations for the Contact Group.
Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke’s deputy, Ambassador Robert Frasure, represented the United States at the meetings. When the Contact Group convened in Vienna, he invited me to accompany him. As we walked in the door, he whispered: “The parts are already determined. Everyone knows everyone else’s lines. This is just Kabuki theater.”
Bosnian Vice President Ejup Ganić was appearing before the group that day. The United States, Bob told me, would make a point of not seeming very supportive of him, so as not to alienate other Contact Group members. The Russians, he said, would insist that no force be used against the Serbs. The French would back that view. The British would add that “there are no white hats”—no good guys—in this conflict. The Germans, prohibited from having troops on foreign soil, would push for others’ troops on foreign soil against the Serbs. The Americans would listen, then support the German position, although insisting on multilateral action through the UN.
The play was performed exactly as Ambassador Frasure had predicted.
The Contact Group was the source of the 4 July 1994 Geneva peace plan to give 49 percent of the country to Serbs.15 The plan included disincentives to either side if it rejected the proposal, but it was no secret that the objectors would be the Serbs. The disincentives included stricter sanctions, a serious enforcement of heavy weapon “total exclusion zones” around safe havens and Sarajevo, and the lifting of the arms embargo on the side that accepted the package. The UN expressed concerns about the notion, saying that it might pull out the protection forces because they would be seen as supporting one side in the conflict. Never mind that the supported side, unlike the other, would be in compliance with the peace plan.
The Serbs did reject the plan, and the fighting heated up again. Despite passionate telegrams to Washington from the US Embassy in Sarajevo pleading for action, no significant military assistance was forthcoming. In fact, to his domestic audience, President Clinton reaffirmed his promise that American ground troops would not be put in harm’s way by being sent to Bosnia. Meanwhile, international actors continued to play their scripted parts as the killing continued.