“Sisters at War”, letter in London Review of Books 18 March 1999, by Robert Bell

London Review of Books From LRB Vol 21, No 6 | cover date 18 March 1999

Letters: Volume 21 Number 6

Sisters at War

Rakiya Omaar and Rachel Sevenzo (LRB, 18 February) take a brave stand
in the face of worldwide concern about the female victims of war, and
its almost universal focus on sexual abuse a consequence, as they
point out, of the revelations of the mass rape of Bosnian women. The
contention that mass rape was a conscious and organised strategy of
war in Bosnia sold a lot of newspapers. I was surprised then, on
arriving in Sarajevo six months after the end of the war, and in the
three years I have spent in Bosnia since then, to find that this
defining characteristic of the war is never mentioned: no
international programmes of any size target the problem and the
expected flood of abandoned babies has not materialised.

The first accounts of mass rape appeared during the Croatian war,
with Serb forces accused of systematic targeting of Croat women in
Eastern Slavonia. This was a bit of off-the-cuff propaganda from
Franjo Tudjman’s Government in Zagreb, but it was instantly seized on
by the international press and the feminist movement. And it wasn’t
very difficult to find women who had been raped to back it up. The
following year, the beleaguered Bosnian Government repeated the
exercise to even greater effect, as part of the further demonisation
of the Serbs (as if their real activities weren’t enough), and again
rape victims were easily found.

But there is no evidence of systematic or strategically targeted mass
rape. Despite this, the ‘phenomenon’ spawned untold numbers of press
reports, several books and a proliferation of seminars. The objective
of the mass-rape campaign, as reported, was to alter the ‘ethnic’
balance through the propagation of little Serbs. Since there is no
ethnic difference between the Serb aggressors and the rape victims,
such a campaign would have led merely to the propagation of little
Croats or little Muslims. This is not to say that rape on a large
scale did not happen. It always does in war, particularly in this
kind of civil war. But it was not the strategy it was made out to be.

Robert Bell, Sarajevo