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Twenty years ago this month, the siege of Sarajevo began. And while the Bosnian War ended in late 1995, a new report from Amnesty International sheds light on an old wound that has yet to heal. Thousands of Bosnian women who were victims of sexual violence are still seeking justice.
NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports.
(SOUNDBITE OF GROUP SINGING)
SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Sarajevo commemorated the start of the war with a young people's concert, and row after row of empty red chairs marking the more than 11,500 citizens who died during the siege of the capital. But there was no mention of the many thousands of women raped and tortured during the war.
Women have always been victims in warfare, but it was thanks to the courageous testimony of Bosnia's sexually abused women that rape was recognized as a war crime under international law.
ELENA WASYLEW: Majority of those responsible for these crimes have not been prosecuted. They are still at large.
POGGIOLI: Elena Wasylew is one of the authors of Amnesty International's report "Old Crimes, Same Suffering." She says only a total of 40 cases have been prosecuted by the Yugoslav War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague, and in local courts.
WASYLEW: And on the other hand, the women who went through the suffering, they have received very, very little help from the government.
POGGIOLI: The exact number of victims is still unknown. No efforts have been made to create a database. Amnesty International estimates the victims in the several thousands. Many have developed serious, stress-related diseases - post-traumatic stress disorder, heart disease, as well as sexually transmitted diseases and cancer. But Wasylew says many have still not received medical help.
Amnesty International researchers visited local hospitals and clinics; and spoke with government officials, medical staff and psychiatric experts as well as victims.
WASYLEW: And the findings were really striking. There is very, very little understanding, still, on the local level. Very, very little awareness of the problem.
POGGIOLI: Vera Jovanovic, president of the Helsinki Committee in Bosnia-Herzegovina NGO, says it's not lack of awareness, but unwillingness of politicians in dealing with this issue.
VERA JOVANOVIC: (Through translator) This issue of rape victims is kept under wraps. This is still a traditional, male-dominated society, and these victims are pushed into the shadows. People pretend they don't exist.
POGGIOLI: Precisely because of the stigma attached to rape, many victims have gone abroad. And those who stayed are reluctant to return to their homes where the crime was perpetrated. But many rural women who work on the land have no choice and thus, have to live side-by-side with their torturers.
In an effort to break the wall of silence, Amnesty International is making videos to try to help victims and their families cope with the continuing trauma. One of them shows a husband who is very supportive of his wife.
WASYLEW: He sends a message to all of the husbands, and all of the men, in Bosnia-Herzegovina. And he said, you have to stand by your wives. You have to tell them - you have to tell everybody that this is a crime; that this is a crime! You can't be ashamed of what happened.
POGGIOLI: The man's voice and face were disguised. He lives in a small town, and feared reprisals against his family. The majority of victims surveyed by Amnesty International are Muslims. But researchers say there are also Croat victims as well as Serbs. But Serb authorities are in greater denial, and even more reluctant to acknowledge the victims' existence.
The important thing, Wasylew says, is bringing all the perpetrators to justice.
WASYLEW: But that's the problem. The victims do not have ethnicity but in this country, they do. And if you want to give them an ethnicity, it's impossible to talk about an international justice.
POGGIOLI: Two years ago, the Bosnian government promised to adopt new laws that would give victims reparations as well as justice, but nothing was done. And officials are reluctant to discuss this issue.
Amnesty International hopes its latest report will spark international pressure on Bosnian authorities to finally rescue these women from their state of limbo.
Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News.
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