‘Invisible’ Children of War: Continuing Cycles of Violence Post-Bosnian Genocide

Bosnia Deaths

TW // Sexual Violence, War, Genocide.

The purpose of genocide is to destroy a nation. Systematic rape is listed among one of the methods of implementing genocide of the Genocide Convention of 1948. During the Bosnian genocide, 1992 to 1995, approximately 50,000 Bosnian women were systematically raped by Serbian men. Between 2,000 to 4,000 children were born of wartime rape. Systematic rape did not only have injurious repercussions on women but on family dynamics and society in general. A gendered understanding of this conflict and structural violence is necessary to fully comprehend the disproportionate impact of war on women and children, particularly the ‘invisible’ children born of war.

Women and children of war cannot be neglected, especially in the context of post-conflict reconstruction and rebuilding the idea of a nation-state after a particularly vulnerable period. While the genocide has officially ended, the sequence of violence has continued and to some extent also intensified from this act of war. This is illustrated by the relationship between women and the state, surveillance and hostility from government and societal structures as well as the transference of identity (or the lack thereof) from mother to child.

Women and the State

To have a gendered understanding of the post-conflict response, it is necessary to recognise women’s place in Balkan society. Based on cultural patriarchal norms and ethnonationalism, the female body is a site of bloodline, purity and survival. The body is seen as a man’s territory that can be conquered and needs protecting. Women cannot be disassociated from shame and are blamed for wartime rape rather than blaming the act of war itself. The use of sexual violence to destroy ‘the enemy’ is done to destabilise and disintegrate social cohesion in the long term through the use of women’s bodies.

State Structures – Government & Society

These women experienced hostility from external surveillance mechanisms within society and government as these structures struggle to construct a collective national innocence regarding the Bosnian genocide. Systematic rape was established via the genocidal architecture of rape camps. Gynaecologists were on-site to monitor miscarriages and abortions and only released women in the advanced stages of their pregnancy. Many women committed infanticide or the state helped them terminate their pregnancies. Few kept their children and paid the price of being rejected from their family and their communities. Some sent them far away to distant family members to avoid association with the child.

Mothers experienced emotional and physical trauma as well as isolation from their family and community. Some sexually abused women became victims of domestic violence in their own homes by their husbands who referred to them as whores and prostitutes. Accordingly, many did not report sexual assault in fear of condemnation from their families and the community. It is necessary to understand that the societal response reproduces the long-term strategy of genocide. People would say ‘Chetnik babies would kill Muslims,’ duplicating the cycle of violence by imposing violent markers on the birth of an innocent child born of war. In a culture that values family and community, isolation has a damaging impact on women and their identity – be it as mothers, wives or general members of society.

Vilina Vlas hotel in Višegrad, Bosnia. Photograph: David Gill/The Observer

In terms of government, there is a lack of acceptance and recognition by the state which alienates mothers and children within state structures. Children’s rights have been put in the foreground as governments and communities refuse their existence. There are issues due to unknown information regarding fathers in documents, which is necessary for access to opportunities such as applying for universities. Political regimes also have the power to edit state memory and national identity. This is demonstrated by the re-opening of Vilina Vlas Hotel in Visegrad (previously a rape camp in 1992) as a spa and the denial of a collective memory of horror which has been censored on purpose to deny the mass atrocity.

Inheriting Identities from Mother to Child

Children of war are agency-less persons and are born facing stigma, discrimination, and abandonment. These children inherit the clear marker of a violent identity from their fathers and lack of agency from their mothers. Deprived of their innocence and not recognised as victims of war, these children are politicised beings that are strongly tied to ethnonational identities from birth. Neither fully Serbian nor Bosnian, they are ultimately invisible as they don’t belong wholly to either. These children are labelled by society as ‘children of hate’, ‘children of the enemy’ or as ‘Chetnik babies’ – a derogatory term used against Serbians. Exclusion from their mother’s ethnic community is not replaced by joining their father’s ethnic community. This social exclusion means that their mother’s ethnic identities are secondary. It is important that these children reclaim their identities and visibly position themselves within Bosnian society which is demonstrated by stories such as Alen Muhic which has been turned into an award-winning film ‘A Boy from a War Movie’.

Alen Muhic – one of the ‘invisible’ children of war. Photograph: Elvis Barukcic/AFP

Collective victimhood regarding the Bosnian genocide neglects these mothers and children from the war narrative and state memory. Patriarchal norms within a society, where the nation’s identity is found in the woman’s body, makes it difficult for women to seek help. Sexual violence ensures that cycles of violence ensues by fostering disintegration which has had a large-scale impact on the sense of belonging for mothers and children of war. It is necessary to not isolate this case of sexual violence and understand structural violence and how they impact the everyday experience and affect the individual. These children are a symbol of trauma that neither the Bosnian government nor society want to recognise. The traumatic history of the ‘invisible’ children and their mothers must be officially recognised and understood to successfully move forward in a post-conflict capacity for all members of society. The innocent victims who suffer the most cannot continue to suffer in silence.

Zahra Beg is a postgraduate student studying Violence, Conflict & Development at SOAS and a Junior Public Affairs & Policy Associate working for The Advocacy Team.

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