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Coping with trauma

July 11, 2012

On the anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre, 500 more bodies uncovered this year were buried Wednesday. For their loved ones and the victims of sexual abuse in the Bosnian conflict, the suffering hasn't abated.

17. Gedenktag vom Völkermord in Srebrenica. Die Bilder wurden in Juli 2012 aufgenommen. Copyright: DW/Marinko Sekulic Srebrenica, Juli, 2012
Srebrenica GedenktagImage: DW

Monika Hauser is a Cologne-based gynecologist who founded the international organization medica mondiale, which offers support to the victims of sexualized violence. She was awarded the Alternative Nobel Prize in 2008 for her "tireless commitment to helping women who have experienced the most horrific sexualized violence," work she began in the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s.

DW: This July marks the 17th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre, in which around 8,000 Bosnian Muslims - mainly men and boys - were killed by army units under the command of General Ratko Mladic.The Srebrenica massacre has been described by the UN Secretary General as the worst crime on European soil since World War II. What does this anniversary mean for the women left behind?

Monika Hauser: This is, of course, a very painful day. Though many of these women say that every single day brings its own pain, such anniversaries are perhaps even more painful because the memories from back then are brought back and the wounds are reopened. But they also say time and again that the scabs over their wounds are very thin, and that they don't really live in the now because they never had a chance to rebuild their lives after the catastrophe, above all those women who were never able to give their love ones a proper burial. These women are faced with a particularly difficult situation; They were never really able to take leave from their men, and this lack of closure is what holds up the process of trauma. Where is my husband or son? How can these people begin a new life when they are assailed by such questions?

Srebrenica Gedenktag
500 more bodies from the Srebrenica genocide were uncovered this year for burialImage: DW

What was your role in Bosnia in the early 1990s?

At the end of 1992, I took off for Bosnia after seeing the headlines about the allegations of what was happening there to Bosnian women. As an aspiring gynecologist and women's rights activist I felt a special need to be there to offer these women support. And when I saw that none of the international organizations stationed there were planning any kind of project to help the victims of sexualized violence, I was really angry. And the way that the media were reporting on the abuse made me angry, too. They were leaving out the details and sensationalizing the stories, without denouncing human rights violations.

I was angry and headed to Bosnia with very concrete plans to build a network of support. Together with 20 experts in Bosnia we founded the organization Medica Zenica in the central-Bosnian city at the beginning of 1993, which offered refuge to the victims of rape. That was the beginning of what today is medica mondiale. My role was to initiate the project and get it on its feet, which we achieved by the end of 1993, and my colleagues in Bosnia have been on the ground there ever since. To this day, women come to Medica Zenica for therapeutic support.

Deutschland Kölner Ärztin Monika Hauser erhält Alternativen Nobelpreis Right Livelihood Awards
Hauser was on the ground in Bosnia to offer victims helpImage: picture-alliance/dpa

What kind of support has your organization been able to offer?

We are talking here about women who were assaulted during the war and are traumatized by their suffering and the way in which their affliction has been made into a taboo subject. That said, we must note that Bosnia is, in part, very much like a western society, and many of the women we dealt with back then had received support from their husbands and partners. But these women were dealing with very serious psychological problems that couldn't be alleviated without medical attention. This is why it was critical that these women had an outlet where they could speak about their problems, so that they could truly re-enter society. But society had to develop awareness about support and respect to and for survivors. And we also dealt with many women who later testified as witnesses in The Hague.

What does the Mladic trial mean for the thousands of victims - above all for the women?

This is a very complicated question, in large part due to the way in which the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) has been received here in Bosnia. It was very important for us to support the ICTY from the get-go, because we believed that it represented a form of justice that was critical for the survivors of genocide. We know from the Holocaust that when survivors experience justice after such atrocities by speaking out about what they have gone through and gaining public recognition for their suffering - that it helps them put the broken parts of their lives life back together again.

Gedenken Srebrenica
Not a day goes by without suffering for the victimsImage: DW/Killian

However, it was extremely difficult for the victims and witnesses of sexual violence to testify before the court in The Hague. They were treated like a form of evidence by the prosecution agency. Only after the creation of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague, with the new Rome Statute, were the women given the chance to file a civil suit on their own, and thus to represent themselves. This wasn't possible with the ICTY, and this meant that they were sitting adjacent to the (highly-paid) legal defense team - without any of their own legal representation - and the legal team was given the chance to take apart the testimony - the very credibility - of these women.

Now, in a court of law all testimony must be free from all contradictions. But when the witness is confronted in the cross-examination with a barrage of specific questions about the rapes in question, it is difficult to remember every detail without contradictions. For example, the witness would be asked: "Ten years ago, you say you were raped by 30 men on May 4. Was that to the west or east of the hill near the village where you claim these crimes were committed?" Or they would ask what kind of uniform the soldiers were wearing who allegedly raped them, etc.

Verurteilung von bosnisch-serbischen Soldaten wegen Srebrenica
Mladic denies all charges levelled against him by the ICCImage: Picture-Alliance/dpa

It is absolutely impossible for traumatized people to provide perfect testimony of what happened to them. It is furthermore the mercy of the human soul that traumatized people can't remember all the details of their trauma. So this is a very serious problem that such women are expected to provide testimony completely free of contradiction. Interesingly, male witnesses were rarely confronted with these accusations. We are faced with a dilemma here: Witnesses are forced to provide something to the court they simply cannot provide, and we are asking the court - both the ICC and the ICTY - to come up with ways to solve this predicament.

Interview: Joanna Impey
Editor: Gabriel Borrud