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n 1995 I was writing a book, The Suitcase, and collecting the testimonies of refugees, mainly women and children from the territory of the former Yugoslavia, which at that moment was still in the midst of full-scale territorial war. I travelled all over Europe and the USA in order to speak to these refugees. During these journeys, I learned the painful truth, that women and children are the territory of a war; their bodies are both the spoils of war and proof of victory.
One of the places I visited was the center for refugees in St Louis, where I spoke to people from the war zones who had been granted leave to stay in the USA. It was December 1995, six months after the Srebrenica genocide in Bosnia. Many of the people I met in St Louis were from there, and many of their families had lost their nearest and dearest on that occasion when 8000 men were killed in the course of three days and buried in mass graves. Over the past 25 years, some of the bodies from Srebrenica have been exhumed and properly buried, but some are still missing, among them children. The story of Selma, a seven-year-old girl missing since 11 July 1995 is still painfully unresolved. Recently there have been clues from Italy that the girl might have been illegally adopted, and is safe and sound – to the delight of her parents who are still living in St Louis.
Even though the criminals are obvious and notorious – the Bosnian Serb leader, Ratko Mladic, who is now in prison in the Hague, with his military and paramilitary troops, patronized by the president of Serbia at the time, the late Slobodan Milosevic – there are no good guys in this, the biggest war crime since the Second World War, which occurred in the heart of Europe. Instead of protecting what was supposed to be a safe enclave the Dutch troops looked the other way while the Srebrenica abuses occurred, and the European Community failed to control the smuggling of people and goods. In October 1995, US officials and politicians signed the Dayton Treaty between the three sides in the war, equalizing the blame and legitimizing the war leaders amidst the mass graves.
Ten years later, in 2005, a video recording of the Serbian paramilitary group ‘The Scorpions’ was discovered and brought to the court of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague. A trial against six members of this group started in Belgrade, Serbia under the jurisdiction of The Hague tribunal. I followed that trial and wrote another book on it, called The Design of Crime. In this horrifying video recording you can clearly see and hear how the Bosnian Muslim prisoners were executed while the cameraman was trying to get the best shots of the scene. Then the family members of the executed came to Belgrade to testify and identify the victims. They were mostly Bosnian women, the mothers and sisters of the dead: the famous mothers of Srebrenica, hunting for the truth, be it bones or stories. They needed closure, but they also had their own stories to tell.
As with my research for The Suitcase, in this case too the stories of survivors, who were mostly women, differed from the official mainstream news and theories. These women spoke about violence and war: sheer gratuitous violence, rapes, killings, and torture. They seldom mentioned politicians, religion, or even ethnicity. I witnessed a Scorpion soldier who pulled the trigger face the mother of the 17-year old he murdered saying, “I am sorry for killing your boy. His only fault was that he was a Muslim.” She was baffled, intimidated. “But my boy was not religious,” she said.
Now let me tell you another true war story from the 1990s in the Balkans when the war broke out; call it civil, call it religious, ethnic, political, or aggression by the Serbian regime ... I call it plain looting. In Sarajevo, a 19-year-old girl of Serbian ethnicity was gang-raped by her neighbors, guys she knew from school, her own age, but of Muslim ethnicity. It was an act of revenge on her family since her brothers were the notorious Serbian snipers who had harassed the city from the surrounding hills. She didn’t mention her shame to her family, not even her parents with whom she lived, ironically in the part of town that was Muslim and that her brothers were targeting. But soon she realized that she was pregnant. Her shame became public, and her father threw her out of home. We can see from Rahima Mahmut’s contribution to this forum how this question of shame is also inhibiting Uyghur women from speaking out about their experiences of abuse and rape in the internment camps in Xinjiang.
After the girl was thrown out, she fled to Serbia and was taken in by women activists who gave her shelter and care. She planned to give away her child for adoption as soon as it was born. She cried every day, “I don’t want to be a mother, I want my mom!” Her father sent her a message: “If it is a boy, she may come back home; if it’s a girl, no way!” She gave birth to a girl and decided to keep her with the help of her feminist friends. Things went really well for some months, until one night her friends found her standing on the window sill on a high floor, contemplating jumping. When they asked her what had happened she said very lucidly, “There was a full moon, my baby was sleeping, calm and beautiful in the moonlight and I was adoring her, then all of a sudden, I recognized in her face the rapist, and finally I knew who her father was. This baby is the thing I love best and hate most in the world. I just can’t go on.” Eventually she went back to her mother in Sarajevo, and the baby was kept by a woman in Belgrade from our group in a way that she could come back for her whenever she felt ready. No man or woman is an island, and there is no such thing as ethnic purity or a just war.
Because women and children are treated as loot and proof of victor in wars, killing minors is not considered a crime, and rapes are committed as a weapon for defeating the enemy. This runs through history. Think of all the masterpieces in the world’s art galleries depicting battlefields; there is almost always a nude body of a suffering woman on display among the heavily armored and armed faceless soldiers. With the criminalization of rape in 2008/9, thanks to a major effort by feminists worldwide, and supported by countless women’s testimonies, some kind of conscience is finally dawning with regards to gender-based violence.
In Sarajevo in 2015 an international Women' s Tribunal of women was held by a group of feminists, activists, women who had testified, lawyers, journalists, writers and artists. The mothers of Srebrenica had been very upset about the way that the ICTY had previously dismissed their testimonies and other precious evidence. The testimonies of women in this tribunal were released only to women activists, to be used only when and how they wanted it. It was an extremely successful and moving event, a milestone in war and women’s history. It was theater beyond Shakespeare, just as the trial of Scorpions was. You had in the same small room the perpetrators, the survivors, the recorded voices of the dead, the scribes, the lawyers and the judges. The Women’s Tribunal established a legitimate high-profile approach to alternative forms of justice. While the Hague tribunal did not adequately address the gender perspective, the approach of the women’s tribunal was much larger and inclusive, and it was above political and national interests.
In situations of war, my place would always be that of a victim, but I refuse to use the word victim if somebody makes me one, because it restrains me. While working in Casa Jasmina, the smart home of the future in Turin, of which I am one of the founders, I formed the group Internet of Women Things with the women involved, since we realized that there were too few women involved with the technologies of the future. Our group immediately started questioning the surveillance systems, the lack of control over technology in society, the consequences of loss of privacy in private spaces such as the home. The use of surveillance to control and discipline Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims is very striking in accounts of the Xinjiang crisis (see Byler in this Forum), but these same systems are being rolled out right across Europe (see Kapoor in this Forum).
For centuries, the bodies of women have been controlled, monitored, used and abused, as a political policy, as a territory for the implementation of ideas, rarely in good faith, and always without their consent or participation. Violence, sexual and other, against women has no class, race or nationality. In my numerous interviews and workshops with women who have personally experienced war and violence, I have noticed that in their storytelling what mattered was first and foremost the personal violence against their body and will, perpetrated by somebody or something that had power over them, be it soldiers, the state, or just some random men who took advantage of the situation.
This is not to say that the culprit would be forgiven if he came from the same race, class or nationality. From the point of view of the perpetrators, that was usually the main point: to possess, to mark, and to humiliate. In that sense, the violence against women can be metaphorically extended to different situations and historical moments. After the Balkan wars and September 11, Muslim women have been particularly targeted but in different political circumstances, the kind of violence they have suffered could easily be replicated in any other culture which does not permit women to control their own bodies. Examples are freedom of reproductive choice, equal rights in the public sphere, and social and sexual harassment.
I would argue that in every society the treatment of women and their rights is a litmus test of the level of democracy and progress. Few people today know that in ancient Egypt women could own property, be rulers, and goddesses. The huge differences then were between gods, semi-gods and slaves. Nowadays, the differences between us seem no less huge, especially in the technologically advanced wars of the last few decades, where killing is easily done without confronting a single human face, and where sanctions may be imposed to punish a regime and the suffering of the civilian population is invisible. When women from different cultures confront their troubles and traumas, they often notice that religion, race or class have less to do with their problems than they assumed and advocated. The problems flow from those who have the power to impose the sanctions, and from the mainstream rules and habits of their society. Thus, women’s solidarity in conflict zones is always the major vehicle of peace, reconciliation, treaties and coexistence.
Jasmina Tesanovic is a feminist and political activist (Women in Black; CodePink), a writer, journalist, musician, translator and film director. In 1978 she promoted the first feminist conference in Eastern Europe, “Drug-ca Zena” (Belgrade), and she designed and created the first feminist publishing house in the Balkans, Feminist 94. She is the author of the widely translated Diary of a Political Idiot. She is co-founder of the Turin-based Casa Jasmina, the smart home of the future, and founder of the Internet of Women Things (IoWT) movement.