The abuse of victims


By Staša Zajovic

Since the beginning of the wars in ex-Yugoslavia, especially in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the image of the suffering of the civilian population projected by the major television networks is usually a variation on the image of the woman-victim, who, exhausted, humble and in tears, carries a child in her arms. If she is shown as a rape victim, that image is emphasized even more.

Endless scenes of suffering women served as a pretext for the Gulf War intervention in the Iraq-Kuwait conflict; the raped women in Bosnia were to be "protected by an efficient military intervention."

The abuse of victims and human suffering for political purposes is widely practised in this war; by the nation-state, by the media, even by humanitarian organisations. On the other hand, what such institutions don't seem to be willing to acknowledge is the fact that in Serbia and the other republics of ex-Yugoslavia women are the most active members of anti-war movements and the driving force behind most pacifist groups, human rights organisations and non-governmental agencies.

Media and the Militarist Exploitation of Rape

Between the fall of 1992 and the fall of the following year, rape of women in Bosnia was a "media hit". Scores of reporters visited refugee and other camps and hospitals in search of "information"--the supreme right of western civilization.

They were not satisfied with just any victims; their picture had to meet certain criteria and expectations. Their attitude was focused on ´victimization', which negated the integrity of the women and elicited indignation from women who do not enjoy being labelled "victims."

At the Meeting of Female Solidarity held in September 1993 in Merida, Spain, Radmila Zarkovic said, "Very often I get disgusted with newsmen from Europe. Their typical demands are: we want a Croatian woman married to a Muslim who is still in Bosnia. I usually ask them, ´Should she also be a rape victim?' The stories of such newsmen are cliches with which we are expected to comply." A telling joke: "What does a newsman ask when he come to a camp? The answer: ´Anyone here been raped and speak English?' When women from autonomous feminist groups have visited rape victims, the raped women's first reaction is, "Don't you have a camera? You are the first one not to ask these questions."

It is true that for the first time in history war-rape is being talked about while the war is still happening. However, it turned out that the unusual interest in raped women did not tend towards their protection but towards the achievement of various political aims. The big media, above all CNN (a US news channel), wanted to create a psychological climate to justify a possible military intervention "in defense of innocent victims." As feminist analyst Cynthia Enloe writes, "It would not have been possible without a feminization of victims."

Political interests separated the victims on ethnic grounds. Initially, the West talked only about raped Moslem and Croatian women while Serbia lamented the fate of raped Serbian women, which in both cases fomented interethnic hatred.

The members of the patriarchal brotherhood consider rape a violation of male honour. But raped women can regain honour by killing or by committing suicide. "Many victims of rape have committed suicide," reports Duca in 1992. "One Dragana, mother of two, acted like a real hero at a torture chamber in Bosanski Brod. To avoid falling into her tormentors' hands, she shot herself in the mouth."

The ideal of honour deserves a special place in patriarchal history. Another chapter could be devoted to the suffering mother: for example, the great Serbian mother of the Jugovic clan who offers her sons to the fatherland without shedding a single tear. From Homer to the present day, war is the basis of western civilization and the mother is the guardian of death.

In ancient Greece, the cause of death was listed in public records in only two cases: death on the battlefield and death in childbirth. Such equivalence of childbirth and war, the cradle and the grave, has been characteristic of every war so far; thus, during the first year of the war in Croatia, the main news of the Serbian radio in Krajina was of deaths in battle and of births. After dedicating her entire life to the task of reproduction, to bearing and raising sons, the woman gives them to the fatherland. "Even the generals wept," wrote Politikarecently of one such woman. "Three hearts of a single mother have been built into the freedom of the proud Serbian people. Her heart ached, but she didn't shed a single tear." A similar necrophilic practice can be seen in Alija Izetbegovic's description of a mother who has lost a son: "Everyone present at the funeral was crying, both the women and the soldiers, except the mother. She said, ´We do not grieve over the loss of our sons. On the contrary, we are proud of it.' "

The National State as Collective Victim

Since nationalism was promoted to the status of the official ideology in Serbia in 1987 (during the so-called "Anti-bureaucratic Revolution"), the image of the Serbian nation as the epitome of good has been maintained and embellished. The Serbian people are presented as a collective "martyr" which, because of ´naivete', ´magnanimity' and ´tendency to yield' has always been the ´victim of all kinds of conspiracies.' The apostles of nationalism, who are naturally ´public servants', recommend that ´the heavenly Serbian people come to its senses,' and free itself of its numerous enemies. Headed by the ´divine' leader Milosevic, it must mobilise its military potential against ´evil' (that is, all other nations in its territory and their civilian populations). Blessed by a wise Patriarch, the ´holy' Serbian warriors will do this job correctly.

This transformation of the aggressor into the victim serves no other purpose than to compensate for the feeling of powerlessness, turning it into a fatalism which accepts even collective suicide. This fatalism in its turn creates ideal conditions for the undisrupted perpetuation of the regime's power.

Another national state which more or less follows this logic is the Croatian state. Its version of patriarchal logic rests on the unquestioned dichotomy of aggressor and victim, in which a male army (the Serbian Yugoslav People's Army) does violence to the female Croatian land. Adherence to this dichotomy created painful tensions at a feminist meeting held in February 1992 in Venice. Some feminists from Zagreb erected a wall between us: on one side of that wall were we "from the aggressor country", on the other side they "from the attacked country." Such symbolic walls have their origin in the patriarchal myth which prescribes that when the homeland (a woman) is at war, women from the warring lands should also be at war.

By accepting the analogy between one's homeland and a victimised woman, one could easily turn into an accomplice in a war. Identifying with male and militarist states means internalising militarist logic. Accusing women from an ´enemy' country, especially women who have opposed ´their' militarist state, plays into a patriarchal strategy of eliciting feelings of guilt for something which the men of ´my' nation have done. Not women; no one asked women if they wanted this war. If we identify our experience with that of the fatherland, the land of fathers, we are applying for a place next to the sons/heroes who have given their lives on the altars of that fatherland, which has nothing to do with the homeland of women as ´a land of life and feelings.'

The victim is, therefore, neither the fatherland nor the state but all those who have been deprived of choice, including the choice to live, while aggressors are those who destroy life, regardless of their nationality or the goals they advocate.

Experience has taught us that those who are fascinated by the fatherland and its history are precisely the people who kill and destroy.

Abuse of Refugees and Civilians in Serbia

Having suffered violence in war-torn areas, refugees are repeatedly exposed to economic, psychological and political violence in the ´home' state as well. Women refugees who are not Serbian or whose husbands are not Serbs are blackmailed. Adult male refugees are subject to compulsory mobilisation for the front in Bosnia or treated as a ´reserve army' in case of internal conflicts in Serbia. Depending on the needs of the regime, refugees are abused in many other ways. During the 1992 elections they were employed as a voting machine; now they serve as scapegoats for the desperate economic situation (though the state has accomodated only 4.5% of 580,000 registered refugees and has found employment for only 10,000). If refugees are "ideologically deviant" and, for example, refuse to take part in the war, they are subject to additional persecution.

The embargo has affected only Serbia's civilian population. Women bear the brunt of the misery caused by it. The state-sponsored media have been trying hard to absolve the regime of all responsibility for the war and poverty by blaming others. We are shown terrible scenes of massacres whose victims are mostly Serbian. These scenes are presented as a call to vengeance. According to public opinion polls done by the independent media from Belgrade, in 95% of all cases the motive for joining a paramilitary unit was, "I can't stand watching television scenes of my people's suffering."

Such scenes serve as well to silence people or give sham consolation. Identifying with the ´victim', the recipient is likely to have reactions such as, "that could have been me," "things could be even worse," "I live well in comparison to those people." The purpose of such manipulation is to forestall any idea of rebellion against the regime.

The Victim

´Victimism' as a production of the role of victim is not only the practice of a nationalist and militarist regime which spawns war. Unfortunately, many well-meaning individuals and humanitarian organisations fall into the same trap by looking upon victims as passive recipients of help. Statements such as "She doesn't look like someone who's been raped" or "She doesn't look like someone who doesn't have anything to eat," elicit anger. People who make such outrageous statements often forget that the victim does not fit the description because she/he is trying to get out of that role. According to the "benefactors", the victim is supposed to be grateful, humble, to elicit compassion and satisfy the "benefactor's" need to give protection. I'll never forget the almost-angry words of an Austrian female "benefactor" during a rally last summer, in which feminist pacifist activists took part: "Judging by the appearance of these women, one would never guess that sanctions have been imposed against Serbia. They are well-dressed and so cheerful." The ´benefactor' overlooked the fact that there are differents ways of responding to oppression, some of which are personal. Nor did she seem to be familiar with Kathleen Barry's statement, "Victimisation fostered by so-called well-meaning people is just as oppressive and destructive as the sexist negation of the woman as victim."

Fortunately, our relationship with feminist and pacifist sisters from the West are free of such paternalistic attitudes. Our exchange presupposes differences related to the specific situation, yet all of us are fighting for the same goal: greater power and autonomy for women.

Staša Zajovic works with Women in Black in Belgrade.

Programmes & Projects

Add new comment

This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Enter the characters shown in the image.