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Vesna Nikolic-Ristanovic. Women, Violence and WAR: Wartime Victimization of Refugees in the Balkans. Translated by Borislav Radovic. Budapest: Central European University Press, 1999. 245 pp. Bibliography, list of contributors, index. $49.95 (cloth), ISBN 963-9116-60-2.

Reviewed by Kathryn Spurling, School of History, University College, UNSW, Australian Defence Force Academy.
Published by H-MINERVA (March, 2001)

Not a Voice But a Scream

It is difficult for us living in quiet democratic corners of the world to appreciate horrors facing those less fortunate. Television news footage viewed from our comfort zone has limited effect, partly due to visual media industries which blur the divide between real and imagined; and partly because of our own dismissive mechanisms which assure us that this could not happen to us. It is because of this that books such as Women, Violence and WAR: Wartime Victimization of Refugees in the Balkans are so important because we need to be confronted and this collection, edited by Vesna Nikolic-Ristanovic, a senior researcher at the Center for Women's Studies, Belgrade, is indeed confronting. Original primary research and analysis undertaken by Nikolic-Ristanovic, Slobodanka Konstantinovic-Vilic, Natasa Mrvic-Petrovic and Ivana Stevanovic, has been translated into English, and offers new insights on a timeless theme.

The book offers a grim description of the plight of those living in the former Yugoslavia during the 1991-95 war. Every depraved act imaginable was performed by neighbour against neighbour, in the name of ethnic/religious conviction. And it was the women who suffered most. The authors utilise research gained from extensive interviews to demonstrate the staggering extent of the crimes and humiliations committed by men against women during this war. Much still needs to be written concerning war, all too often in the past reduced to military campaigns, and this book offers a depiction which suggests that war has little to do with the protection of those who do not bear arms. But this is more than a narrative tracing another dreadful chapter of history; the book offers valuable analysis of the crimes committed against women in the former Yugoslavia and how this analysis fits into the established framework of argument concerning rape and violence against women in war. Rape in war is the means by which differentials of power and identity are defined, "women's bodies become a battlefield where men communicate their rage to other men because women's bodies have been the implicit political battlefield all along" (p 63). Primary to their argument is the underlying view that rape was the forced impregnation of women of another ethnic group; that ethnic cleansing was the paramount motivation . Male abuse of female sexuality and reproductive rights has always been part of war but this book demonstrates just how strong in the most recent Balkans conflict was the connection with political and military goals. However the specific ethnic/religious overtones must also be recognised. During 1999 in East Timor Christian women pro-independence supporters were taken prisoner by Muslim pro-Indonesian militiamen and repeatedly raped over a period of three months. The women were given contraceptive injections. The emphasis on the ethnic cleansing hypothesis also diminishes the fact that men rape in war for the same psychological and physical gratification which motivates men to rape in non-war zones.

But the stage set by Women, Violence and WAR promotes further debate on why warriors of all ethnicity have not historically been held more accountable for their crimes against women. Nikolic-Ristanovic pursues the theme of accountability in her chapter, "The Hague Tribunal and rape in the former Yugoslavia". She believes the Hague Tribunal has failed to send a clear message of condemnation of rape, that the tribunal only pursues cases where the crime is deemed "against humanity" and is systematic and widespread. This month an international Hague Tribunal ruled for the first time that mass rape constituted a war crime and a crime against humanity. Three Bosnian Serb men were sentenced to periods of imprisonment between twelve and 28 years for mass rapes committed during the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina. While the prosecution was commendable the Hague Tribunal has a long way to go before it can challenge Nikolic-Ristanovic's charge of insufficient action. Women, Violence and WAR does not restrict itself to physical crimes committed against women in the Balkans. For so many women of the former Yugoslavia the loss of their homes, their major sphere of influence, was psychologically damaging. Combatants destroyed more than physical structures when they set fire to villages. The same overpowering sense of disorientation and isolation accompanied women into refugee camps. Whilst the threat of physical violence had eased they continued to struggle with the reality that their way of life had been destroyed. Women refugees must overcome the separation from or the loss of a husband and accept a greater obligation towards their children and other persons with whom they shared refuge. "This inevitably changes their family functions and their relationships with their children. In a stable economic situation , a woman can deal more easily with war traumas that she has experienced" (p 197) but refugee status ensures no escape for women from the crimes committed against them during war.

Women, Violence and WAR: Wartime Victimization of Refugees in the Balkans provides a provoking depiction of war in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s and a worthy cross-discipline treatise on war and violence against women.

Document compiled by Dr S D Stein
Last update 21/03/2001
S D Stein

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