Who are the ‘Invisible Children’ of Bosnian Wartime Rape?

Genocide: “The deliberate killing of people who belong to a particular racial, political, or cultural group.” — Merriam Webster’s Dictionary

The definition of genocide has been modified throughout the years as the word has expanded in use and meaning. Massacres have affected such a large number of people that genocides that occurred centuries ago are still having an adverse impact on those it left standing behind. We occasionally do hear of the miraculous survivor stories by such individuals who have begun to open up to their communities and are slowly gaining acceptance and closure. But this is not always the case.

An ongoing conflict that is often pushed under the blanket is the recent 1992 Bosnian genocide in Serbia, during which more than 25,000 Bosnian Muslims in and around the town of Srebenica were killed. As part of this “ethnic cleansing campaign,” young children, women, and innocent civilians were murdered, sexually assaulted, tortured, beaten and raped. Many were unlawfully deported and transferred to confinements, others shelled while their homes were destroyed and their places of worship destructed before their very eyes. Sound familiar? So why is there a stigma of controversy surrounding the injustice that clearly spells out ‘genocide?’ Why do we not hear of the survivor stories that seemed to be so prevalent in the aftermath of the Holocaust or the Armenian Genocide?

The root of this enigma stems out from the inability of many young women to speak out on the worst experiences of their lives. Estimates range from 20,000 to more than 50,000 women who were subjected to sexual violence during the Bosnian War, with around 15,000 of these being rapes. The true figure will never be known — not while many of these women have chosen to remain silent, fearing that they will be judged and castigated if they were to speak out on their humiliating experiences. It is to no surprise that there are only 61 cases of children documented as being born of wartime rape as a result of the Bosnian War. The fear and taboo that has surrounded the notion of rape and sexual assault has made it much more difficult for such women to seek help or be accepted by their communities, making it essential for such secrecy in all matters.

From the young girl Lejla who was only 14 when she was brutally raped in a prison camp for three years, to 15 year old Fika and her 17 year old sister who were repeatedly raped by Bosnian Serbs – the trauma never ends. As time passes by and the Bosnian War seems to slip further into the realm of history, many are forgetting about an injustice that impacted so many women and civilians as a whole. The war created an entire group of “invisible children” who in fear of being stigmatized have been kept in silence about their past – until a month ago.

Alen Muhic, a young 22-year-old born of rape in wartime Bosnia, has been the very first to take this step in opening up about his life as an invisible child. After being abandoned by his mother as a young malnourished child, Muhic was adopted seven months later by a janitor who worked at the very hospital where he was born. Although he had happily lived with his adopted family who treated him as their very own, Muhic still felt the need to reconnect with his identity and past. In a documentary titled “An Invisible Child’s Trap,” the tough circumstances facing his quest to find his biological mother and father were portrayed.

As the son of a Muslim Bosniak woman and a Bosnian Serb soldier who had repeatedly raped her during the 1992-95 Bosnian war, Muhic spoke of the stigma surrounding him and others like him in Bosnia who were conceived as a result of rape and the prejudices they face as they become young adults. In a society still torn apart by hatred among its three main ethnic groups — Croats, Muslims, and Serbs — Muhic claims that many people “told [his] parents that Serb blood was flowing in [his] veins, and that when [he] grew up [he] would slaughter them.” As a young child, he was often picked upon by both his classmates and neighbors who knew of the circumstances of his birth and described him as the “little Chetnik,” a derogatory term for a Serb. As soon as the truth was out, Muhic endured insult after insult, hearing the constantly spreading rumors of his birth. “People kept repeating that I am Chetnik bastard who was found in a smutty trash can. But people will always spread rumors about you, that’s the way the cookie crumbles.”

What strikes me as beautiful in Muhic’s journey is the unconditional love he feels for his mother despite her abandoning him as a child. Although she has moved on in her life in America, Muhic still feels the need to understand the circumstances of his birth and to find a connection. But his struggle is not singular – many young children were left at orphanages “where their origins were concealed from them” – hence their status as the ‘invisible children.’ But it’s time to change that.

It’s time we clear all the stigma that surrounds the notion of wartime rape as a result of the Bosnian War. These voices need to be heard, and these hearts need to be cleansed and released. Maybe it’s time for news coverage to end their made-up fantasies on the “terrorists hiding among us” or the latest enemy on the loose in the Middle East. These are the stories that need to be heard. Justice must be laid for all the women who were subjected to such violence. The Bosnian Genocide is not any different than the Holocaust, where minority groups were treated as inferior to others and their basic civil rights were curtailed. The education of such atrocities brings to front an understanding of the ramifications of genocide and mass silence as well as the issues of human rights, tolerance, and racism.

Although young adults like Muhic have been subjected to extreme discrimination by their communities, speaking out about their experiences is really the only way to find closure and peace for such an important part of their lives and identities as individuals. “For years, I have felt angry and ashamed but now I feel really at peace. I have found the answers to many questions.”

Image by Michele Benericetti