Bosnia, Croatia: Victims of Mass Rape Subjected to Pornographic Torture

“Serbian propaganda moves cultural markers with postmodern alacrity, making ethnicity unreal and all too real at the same time. … Actual rapes of Bosniak and Croatian women by Serbian soldiers, filmed as they happen, have been shown on the evening news in Banja Luka, a Serbian-occupied city in western Bosnia-Herzegovina. The women were presented as Serbian and as being raped by Bosniak or Croatian men.”

One woman was forced to keep her Serbian captor’s penis hard in her mouth from midnight to 5:00 A.M. for fourteen nights in a Serb-run concentration camp in Vojvodina. ‘My job was to please him, to excite him that whole time… he would beat me up.’”

Published with Permission. Excerpt from the book “Mass Rape: The War Against Women in Bosnia-Herzegovina,” (1994); Edited by Alexandra Stiglmayer, Marion Faber, Chapter: “Turning Rape into Pornography: Postmodern Genocide.” (Topics: Bosnian Genocide, War in Croatia, Mass Rape, Serbian War Propaganda). 

By Catharine A. MacKinnon 

“Everything was dark, but the bed on which they were raping was lit up, like when they interrogate you and point the light only on you. Only that bed was lit up with a spotlight…. I had a feeling that they were sometimes recording or filming.” In what is called peacetime, pornography is made from rape in film studios, on sets, in private bedrooms, in basements, in alleys, in prison cells, and in brothels. It should be no surprise to find it being made in a “rape theater” in a Serbian-run concentration camp for Bosniaks [Muslims] and Croatians [Catholics] in Bosnia-Herzegovina — as reported above by one survivor, a twenty-eight-year-old Croatian and Bosniak woman. Still, it comes as a shock, a clarifying jolt. When Linda “Lovelace” reported her coercion into the pornographic film Deep Throat, Gloria Steinem reworded the essence of the disbelief and blame Linda encountered as amounting to asking her, “What in your background led you to a concentration camp?” If this was ever only an analogy, it isn’t anymore.

Exploding the strategy pioneered a year earlier in Croatia, Serbian military forces in Bosnia-Herzegovina have been, as the world now knows, carrying out a campaign called “ethnic cleansing.” This is a euphemism for genocide. It means removal or liquidation of all non-Serbs from the territory that was called Yugoslavia. This campaign of expansion through ethnic extermination has included rape, forcible impregnation, torture, and murder of Bosniak and Croatian women, “for Serbia.” A Bosnian Muslim soldier — call him “Haris” to protect his identity — who spied on Serbian forces, described what he saw them do, from Vaganac in Serbian-occupied Croatia to Grabez in Serbian-occupied Bosnia: “Everything that’s Bosniak or Croatian, they slaughter, kill, set on fire. Nothing’s supposed to remain alive, not even a chicken, cat, or bird, if they know it’s Bosniak or Croatia… One said, ‘There’s a dog; it’s Muslim, kill it.’” The raped women, the filmed women, the pregnant women, and probably the murdered women as well as the men suffer not only from these atrocities but also from knowing that they are intended to be the last of their people there.

This genocidal war has repeatedly been mischaracterized as a “civil war,” aggressor equated with victim, “all sides” blandly blamed for their “hatred.” Yet Serbian aggression against non-Serbs is as incontestable as male aggression against women in everyday life. Wars always produce atrocities, especially against women civilians. But there is no Bosniak or Croatian policy of territorial expansion, of exterminating Serbs, of raping Serbian women. This is not reciprocal genocide. The reluctance to say who is doing what to whom is reminiscent of the mentality that blames women for getting ourselves raped by men we know and then chides us for having a bad attitude toward them. Asja Armanda, of the Kareta Feminist Group in Zagreb, theorizes that the closer to home atrocities come, the more they are domesticated, made into love gone wrong. The more “feminized” the victims thus become, the more hesitant other men are to intervene in a family quarrel, and the more human rights can be violated and atrocities condoned.

The rapes in the Serbian war of aggression against Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia are to everyday rape what the Holocaust was to everyday anti-Semitism: both like it and not like it at all, both continuous with it and a whole new departure, a unique atrocity yet also a pinnacle moment is something that goes on all the time. As it does in this war, ethnic rape happens every day. As it is in this war, prostitution is forced on women every day: What is a brothel but a captive setting for organized serial rape? Forced pregnancy is familiar too, beginning in rape and proceeding through the denial of abortions; this occurred during slavery and still happens to women who cannot afford abortions — who in the United States are disproportionately african American or Latina. Also familiar is the use of media technology, including pornography, to make hatred sexy. Women are abused by men in these ways every day in every country in the world. Sex has also been used before to create, mobilize, and manipulate ethnic hatred, from the Third Reich to Penthouse. Yet the world has never seen sex used this consciously, this cynically, this elaborately, this openly, this systematically, with this degree of technological and psychological sophistication, as a means of destroying a whole people.

With this war, pornography emerges as a tool of genocide. Natalie Nenadic, an American of Croatian and Bosnian heritage, writes from Zagreb that she learned from Bosniak sources that “some massacres in villages as well as rapes and/or executions in camps are being videotaped as they’re happening.” One woman who survived the Bucje rape/death camp in Serbian-occupied Croatia reports the making of pornography of her rapes this way: “In front of the camera, one beats you and the other — excuse me — fucks you, he puts his truncheon in you, and he films all that…. We even had to sing Serbian songs… in front of that camera.” Account after account documents that Serbian forces film as they rape. As they do it, they watch, laugh, encourage each other, and spew ethnic curses and epithets. “Ustasha whore” is particularly commonplace. “Ustasha” is a derogatory political term that refers to the fascist regime in Croatia (then including Bosnia-Herzegovina) that collaborated with Hitler. [Serbia also was a Nazi-puppet state]. Serbian soldiers use it for Bosniak and Croatian women – most of whom were not even born until after World War II.

In a war crimes trial in Sarajevo in March 1993, Borislav Herak, a Serbian soldier, testified that the rapes he committed had been ordered for “Serbian morale.” As an instrument for their morale building, the Croatian-Bosniak survivor quoted earlier – one of whose twin sons was decapitated in her arms – reports that, as they raped her, “Serbian soldiers were telling me ‘Croatia needs to be crushed again. Balijas need to be crushed completely. You are half this and half that. You need to be crushed to the end. Because you’re Croatian, you should be raped by five different men — and because you’re a Bula, you should be raped by five more.’” Balija and Bula are derogatory names for Bosniaks. Xenophobia and misogyny merge here; ethnic hatred is sexualized bigotry becomes orgasm. Whatever this rape does for the rapist, the pornography of the rape mass-produces. The materials become a potent advertisement for a war, a perfect motivator for torturers, who then do what they are ordered to do and enjoy it. Yes, it improves their morale.

Some of the rapes that are made into pornography are clearly intended for mass consumption as war propaganda. One elderly Croatian woman who was filmed being raped was also tortured by electric shocks and gang raped in the Bucje concentration camp by Serbian men dressed in generic camouflage uniforms. She was forces to “confess” on film that Croatians raped her. This disinformation — switching the ethnic labels — is especially easy where there are no racial markers for ethnic distinctions, and it is a standard technique. Another such incident of switched victims and murderers was dismissed as “a shameless lie” by relief officials, according to a UN spokesperson in Sarajevo, quoted in the New York Times on April 14, 1993. One woman captured by the Serbs described how she was forced to participate in such lies by reading a scripted false “confession” about her activities as a “terrorist” for a Television Novi Sad camera. She knew the fabrication aired because she was recognized by a Serbian guard who said he had seen her on Belgrade TV.

Serbian propaganda moves cultural markers with postmodern alacrity, making ethnicity unreal and all too real at the same time. Signs and symbols, words, images, and identities are manipulated to mean anything and its opposite — all in the service of genocide, a single reality that means only one thing. When human beings are “represented” out of existence, playing reality as a game emerges as a strategy of fascism.

Actual rapes of Bosniak and Croatian women by Serbian soldiers, filmed as they happen, have been shown on the evening news in Banja Luka, a Serbian-occupied city in western Bosnia-Herzegovina. The women were presented as Serbian and as being raped by Bosniak or Croatian men. In September 1992 one woman about age fifty, entirely naked and with visible bruises, was shown being raped on television. A Serbian cross hung around her neck; the rapist — using a term for Serbian fascist collaborator that has become a badge of price among Serb forces — cursed her Chetnik mother; someone was yelling “harder.” The verbal abuse was dubbed — and unmistakably Serbian in intonation and usage. The man’s face was not visible, but the woman’s was. In another televised rape a few days later, a woman near age thirty-five, with short, dark hair, was shown on the ground; her hands were spread and tied to a tree, her legs tied to her hands. Many men watched her raped in person; thousands more watched her raped on television. This time, in an apparent technical lapse, about four or five seconds of the actual sound track was aired: “Do you want sex, Ustasha? Do you like Serbian stud horses?” Earlier in the war, according to Asja Armanda of teh Kareta Feminist Group, a news report showed Serbian tanks rolling in to “cleanse” a village. The tanks were plastered with pornography.

How does genocide become so explicitly sexually obsessed? How do real rapes become ordinary evening news? Before the war, pornography saturated Yugoslavia, especially after the fall of communism. Its market, according to Yugoslav critic Bogdan Timanic, was “the freest in the world.” A major news magazine, Start, with a Newsweek-like format and the politics of The Nation, had Playboy-type covers and centerfold section showing naked women in posture of sexual display and access. Select women who were privileged under the Communist regime, and who presented themselves as speaking for women, regularly published there and even occasionally served as editors. (The presentation of pornography as a model of feminism repelled many women). When pornography is this normal, a whole population of men is primed to dehumanize women and to enjoy inflicting assault sexually. The New York Times reported finding “piles of pornographic magazines” in the bedroom of Borislav Herak, the captured Serbian soldier who calmly admitted to scores of rapes and murders. At his war crimes trial in Sarajevo, when asked where he learned to kill, he described being trained by killing pigs. No one asked him where he learned to rape, although he testified that his first rape in this was his first sexual experience. Pornography is the perfect preparation – motivator and instructional manual in one – for the sexual atrocities in this genocide.

Pornography, known to dehumanize women for its consumers, pervades some rape/death camps, according to survivors. In one military prison, the pornography was customized to suit the guards’ sexual tastes, in echoes and parallels to the acts they performed. One woman in her mid-thirties, a mother of two, recalls how some men drew little penises next to women in the pornography with whom they wanted to have sex and wrote their names on the penises. Next to the men in the materials, they wrote, “I have a longer one than you” and signed their names. One Serbian guard “draws a picture of his own dick and an arrow showing where he’d go with it.” In other words, these men do to women in the materials what they do to women in the camp: “The women were cut out, but the man remains whole.” And speaking of personalized weaponry, survivors in the Bosnia-Herzegovina Refugee Women’s Group, Zene BiH [Women of BiH], in exile in Zagreb, report finding the name of Jovan Tintor, a Chetnik commander, insribed on the remains of projectiles that were aimed at, and hit, a Sarajevo maternity ward.

When pornography is this common and this accepted, the lines dividing it from news, entertainment, and the rest of life are so blurred that women may know no word for it. The woman who survived the Serbian military prison described a thick sex book that made the rounds. It showed she said, “men with animals and women with animals, how you get AIDS.” The book was “so read that it was completely falling apart.” Another woman spoke of seeing “those magazines with the nude women, the sex.” The women in the military prison grasped for words to describe them: “Either they remain standing and are nude or … you have a woman lying on a woman or a woman lying on a man, all those poses that are done. I don’t know what those magazines are called.” Asked what was on the walls of the room where the guards slept — pictures of political leaders, perhaps? — another woman answered, “I can’t say I saw Milosevic or Tito. These pictures were mainly naked women … those usual pictures from Start and those things. Male things.”

The conditions in the camps throughout the occupied areas of Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina are subhuman. Some peacetime brothels have become rape/death camps — a kind of surreal camouflage though blatancy. Some are outdoor pens ringed with barbed wire. Some are animal stalls. Some were arenas, factories, schools. Women are typically allotted one thin slice of bread a day. Humanity is jammed into closet-sized concrete cells, begging even for broads to sleep on, waiting for the few to be selected out for systematic torture, to be taken to the rooms with the beds with the bloody sheets. “When night came,” as one survivor put it, “death in life came.” Those who were allowed to live often had to sexually service their captors. One woman was forced to keep her Serbian captor’s penis hard in her mouth from midnight to 5:00 A.M. for fourteen nights in a Serb-run concentration camp in Vojvodina. “My job was to please him, to excite him that whole time, so that he would be able to ejaculate… Sometimes I began to suffocate, and when [he] began to spurt out on the cement, he would beat me up. I had to remain kneeling.”

Often the atrocities are arranged to be watched by other soldiers. In televised rapes, the viewer can see other boots standing around, walking around. The Croatian-Bosniak woman quoted earlier says of her experience: “These soldiers would invite their friends to come watch the rapes. That was like in the movie theater. All sit around while others do their job…. Sometimes those who were watching put out cigarette butts on the bodies of the women being raped.” The Serbian soldier Borislav Herak described how other soldiers watched him rape one young girl after another — all of whose names he remembered.

This is live pornography.
We will never know what happened to most of the women who were killed – until we uncover the mass graves, or the pornography. A gang rape observed by Haris, the Bosnian soldier, gives a rare glimpse into the sexual spectacles staged for private viewing, proceeding on orders from a superior at Licko Petrovo Selo, a village in Serbian-occupied Croatia: The woman was tied to four stakes in the ground, “in a lying position, but suspended.” While they were raping her, the soldiers said “that Yugoslavia is theirs… that they fought for it in World War II, partisans for Yugoslavia. That they gave everything for Yugoslavia.” The national politics are fused with sex. Haris reports that the men laugh and chide each other for “not satisfying her,” for not being able to “force a smile out of her,” because she is not showing “signs of love.” They beat her and ask if it is good for her. The superior who is ordering them says, “She has to know that we are Chetniks. She has to know that we’re commanding, that this is our Greater Serbia, that it’ll be like this for everyone who doesn’t listen.” Does it ever occur to them that the woman is a human being? “I don’t know if they ever even think this is a person,” Haris says.

Is there a relationship between the pornography consumed, the sexualization of the environment of torture and predation, and the sexual acts that are performed? This is not an academic question. One woman reported that she saw done to a woman in a pornography magazine what was also done to her. Describing materials in the camps, she says, “Those pictures with those things you hit them with… like you have a chain like this, and like this they hang you to a bed. He hangs her from the ceiling.” Without missing a beat, she moves from describing the materials to describing what was done to her. “I know there was some kind of wooden board on the side, a woman tied to it by chains, she had a mask over her eyes and he was hitting her with some kind of thick whip-crop. I mean that whip-crop reminded me of the Begejci concentration camp, because there in Begejci, they had a thick whip, a crop made like that one — from leather — and they beat the captives in that way. I mean, I was whipped like that once in Begejci with that whip-crop, so I know that it hurts.”

Many tortures in the camps are organized as sexual spectacles, ritualized acts, performed and watched for sexual enjoyment. Haris, hiding in a tree, observed a small concentration camp in Serbian-occupied Croatia in April 1992. It was wholly outdoors, with “hungry, tortured people, beated, bloody.” He watched a man and a woman — who appeared to be seven or eights months pregnant — being taken to a clearing in the woods. The woman was tied vertically to a cross, legs pressed together and arms extended. They ripped her pregnant belly open with a knife. “It was alive… it moved.” The woman took fifteen minutes to die. The man, apparently her husband and father of the baby, was bound to a nearby tree and forced to watch. The attackers attempted to force him to eat the baby’s arm. Then “they hacked him up, cut the flesh on him so that he would bleed to death.” While they were doing this, “they were laughing… ‘We’re going to slaughter all of you. This is our Serbia.’” Haris is certain it was filmed.

Change the politics or religion, and victims of ritual torture in this country report the same staged sexual atrocities ending in sacrifice. Some say these “snuff” scenes too are videotaped.

The Nazis were precocious with the media technology of their time. They used it to create images of events that never took place. They also took pictures of some of their horrific medical experiments and executions. They imprisoned women in brothels, forced women in camps to run naked before cameras, and paraded naked women for pictures just before their executions. They published sexually explicit anti-Semitic hate propaganda. Since then, visual technology that uses human beings as live targets has become cheap, mobile, and available. Nearly half a century of deployment of pornography worldwide has escalated explicitness, intrusiveness, and violence. With this at hand, the Serbs make the Nazis efforts look comparatively primitive.

Rape was not charged in the post-World War II indictments of the Nazis at Nuremberg, although sexual forms of torture, including rape, were documented at the trials. Perhaps this omission was a casualty of the tribunal’s emphasis “not on individual barbarities and perversions” but on the Nazi “Common Plan.” Rape in war has so often been treated as extracurricular, as jut something men do, as a product rather than a policy of war. Yet the propagandist Julius Streicher — editor of the anti-Semitic newspaper Der Sturmer, which contained pornographic anti-Semitic hate propaganda — was indicted for “crimes against humanity for incitement to hatred of Jews. Streicher, described by prosecution documents at the Nuremberg trials as a brutal sadist who carried a leather whip attached to his wrist, was found guilty and condemned to death by hanging. In the war crimes trials for the genocidal war against Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia, will those who incited to genocide through rape, sexual torture, and murder — the Serbian pornographers as well as the high policymakers and the underlings — get what they deserve?

Women hesitate to report that pornography is made of their rapes even more than they hesitate to report the rapes themselves. Disbelief from outside combines with humiliation, shame, and a sense of powerlessness inside. It is unbearable to know that even after you are dead — maybe soon, on tape — thousands will see you this way. The depth of despair at stopping the rape becomes an infinity of hopelessness at stopping the pornography of it.

Even though women in rape/death camps know that the same things are being done to other women, and sometimes are even forced to watch them, still the sense of isolation is total. Always they fear reprisals, especially for speaking out against the pornography, even when they are what is called free — meaning they and their families are not literal captives of armed men.

What do we owe them, women for whom “you were lucky if they only raped you”? What will make it possible for them to speak of what was done to them? As one survivor put it, “I have no use for telling you the rest. I have no security. I have nothing.” When the films of her rape are sold as pornography — emblem of democracy and liberation in port-Community Eastern Europe and increasingly protected as speech worldwide — she will have even less than that.

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