Bakira Hasečić – like many of the tens of thousands of women and children survivors who were brutally raped, abused and tortured during the Bosnian War – could never go home again.
After the war, the town where she was born and bred, Višegrad, was – and in fact still is – resident to those who perpetrated unimaginable war crimes against Bakira, her family and friends and many others. This is true of not only Višegrad but of dozens of municipalities in Bosnia.
But summoning an almost inhuman courage, Bakira did go back after the war. Her goal, she says, is justice – for her and all the women who would never be the same again, having suffered a systemic campaign of rape and abuse. And her motivating force, she adds, was to look her tormentors’ straight in the eye.
“I wanted to return not only to the place of my forefathers, my family and my heritage, but I also wanted to return so that the perpetrators would know that they no longer had that hold over me – that they could no longer put me down,” Bakira tells UNITElive.
Founder and president of the Association of Women Victims of War (AWVW), Bakira has spent decades testifying against war criminals and fighting for support, compensation and justice for rape victims of the Bosnian War.
When she returned to her hometown in 1998 armed with a camera and in solidarity with other victims who came to visit Višegrad, they collected evidence, including photos and testimonies, of war criminals still happily living in the town – many of them police officers and people in high positions.
Bakira, who lost 27 members of her family in the war including her sister who was subject to multiple rapes before being murdered, took back this evidence to the Hague Tribunal and Bosnia and Herzegovina courts. This was the starting point of a campaign that the AWVW has relentlessly pursued in its fight for justice – to make sure that war criminals pay for their crimes.
Bakira told her story on Wednesday night (March 6) at an event organised by the Unite London and Eastern region ahead of International Women’s Day.
‘He is free again – that’s why we keep fighting’
“One of the successes we’ve had is our evidence being directly used to convict one man for rape and murder,” she recounted ahead of the event. “He served 14 years – bided his time – and now he is free again. This is why we keep fighting.”
Bakira also points to another success in which for the first time ever, systematic rape used in the Bosnian War was ruled by an international court to be a crime against humanity, second only to the crime of genocide.
But the struggle is far from over for Bakira and the many thousands of rape victims of the war. For example, the former head of a Serb paramilitary group Milan Lukić – the man who repeatedly raped Bakira in the basement of a local police station – although serving a life sentence for other war crimes, was never prosecuted for rape.
Other wartime rapists continue to be free, while survivors struggle with their cases stuck in domestic courts and compensation claims fail to be adequately rewarded because the system for wartime reparations is broken.
“There is little support for victims from any of the political parties in Bosnia,” Bakira explained. “I’m very grateful for the Hague Tribunal – without them no one would have bene prosecuted for crimes committed – but domestic courts simply haven’t done enough.
When the trials are over with, the victims are left to fend for themselves. Many of them live in absolutely poverty – they use any small compensation they’ve received on things like medicine. At the end of the day, the victims, witnesses and perpetrators are dying. It’s better to be a war criminal in Bosnia now than it is to be a survivor.”
Still, what gives Bakira hope is the many thousands of women and some men as well, including some in the UK, who have broken the silence and come forward to tell their stories of war time rape despite unimaginable trauma.
She draws strength from the unending fight for justice and thanks organisations such as Unite which support her cause.
“I’m very grateful to Unite for inviting me to speak. We must come together and work together to organise more conferences like this one,” Bakira said ahead of the International Women’s Day event, which highlighted the lessons to be learned from the Balkans War amid a rise of the European far right.
“Through meetings like this, we can exchange thoughts and ideas about how people have fought back and how people have survived. We must work together to create that dialogue so that these atrocities don’t happen again.”