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04 July 2018

Sexualised wartime violence: “Trauma is a serious obstacle to peace-building.”

Starvation, bombardment, fleeing from danger, sexualised and other violence, fear and death: anyone who lives through a war will suffer both physical and physiological injuries. Does time then heal these wounds after the war ends? If it doesn’t, what should we do? “It is never too late to talk about sexualised wartime violence, not even 70 years later,” says Jasna Zecevic, Director of the Bosnian women’s aid organisation Vive Žene. Ajna Jusic, founder of the Bosnian organisation “Forgotten Children of War” and daughter of a survivor, has the following wish: “I believe the education system needs to pay more attention to the discrimination experienced by children who survived certain traumatic experiences, to ensure that society in general treats these children and adults more sensitively.” In this interview, both women speak about traumatic wartime experiences, the stigmatisation of victims of sexualised violence, reconciliation and peace.

In Germany there has been very little public dialogue about sexualised wartime violence. Would you say it is too late now, after 70 years?

Jasna Zecevic (Vive Žene): “It is never too late to talk about sexualised wartime violence, not even 70 years later. Many adults and children are carrying around unanswered questions because of the wall of silence in their families. Sexualised violence during or after the war has persistent and deep impacts on the victims and their close family – whether they speak about it or not. A trauma never disappears by itself: victims can and will suffer from it for their whole life. Especially as they get older, their control mechanisms get weaker and their traumatic experiences will come to the surface again.

So there should always be specialised trauma centres in countries where war took place: centres where professionals can be alert to old trauma experiences re-surfacing and ensure that adequate rehabilitation can take place. A next step would be to involve children or other important persons from several generations in the rehabilitation process. This would finally enable the right answers and support. Reconciliation between generations can take place and the lives of all involved can become richer and more complete.”

Why can society not just say, “Let’s just leave the pain and guilt behind us, and turn to the future”?

Jasna Zecevic (Vive Žene): “Trauma is a serious impediment to constructive communication and peace-building. After a war a society has to be able to offer its citizens safety, justice and a common vision for the future. This is not possible unless wounds are healed and the past is confronted. Not healing the wounds of war means there is a greater chance of a new war in the future. Another issue is with the subsequent generations: children implicitly become part of the traumatic experiences of, firstly, their elder family members and, secondly, their society. Not dealing with trauma at the individual, family, community and society levels creates fertile ground for continuous deep fear of ‘the others’, in turn making it very difficult to deal with aggression.”

Can you describe the problems in the relationships between survivors and their children of war? How do these problems arise?

Jasna Zecevic (Vive Žene): “Survivors of war have their wounds and their children have either their own wounds or they suffer because of the wounds of their parents. Parents and children are each suffering in their own way while not speaking about this in order not to upset the others. Survivors of war can be very protective and demanding towards their children. The parents can be very distrusting towards other persons, keeping their children as much as possible within the family, which deprives them of a normal social development.

Some parents are not able to give their children what they need, i.e. unconditional love, acceptance, protection, developmental stimulation, self-esteem and the courage to live their own lives. Other parents give their children too much, suffocating them with their ‘love’. War children tend to have problems with their own identity, with their feeling of belonging, with attachment, and with interpersonal communication. The (wall of) silence between the generations, between parents and children, deepens their trauma and their isolation.”

Ajna, your mother is a survivor of sexualised wartime violence. When did you find out that you are a child of war?

Ajna Jusic (Forgotten Children of War): “When I was 16 I found out about my true origin.”

Did you speak about this with your mother?

Ajna Jusic (Forgotten Children of War): “After a year I decided to tell Mom I knew the truth, and that I wanted to know everything that happened. In this process, Mom and I have constantly talked about it and, in this way, we shared our truth together.”

Did you benefit from any support, such as psychosocial counselling?

Ajna Jusic (Forgotten Children of War): “After I found out the truth, a schoolteacher sent me to a psychologist, who I saw for six months. Several of my high school teachers were there for me, along with the psychologist who helped me greatly in the process of accepting the truth.”

What motivated you to set up an NGO yourself?

Ajna Jusic (Forgotten Children of War): “My main motivation is to help the women who survived this trauma as well as mothers who are great fighters. Mothers are my idols because they managed to raise children, regardless of their unknowingness, suffering and discrimination.”

What are the objects and aims of “Forgotten Children of War”?

Ajna Jusic (Forgotten Children of War): “The main goal of the organisation ‘Forgotten Children of War’ is to raise social awareness about the existence of the mothers and their children born of war in Bosnia and Herzegovina (including all nations in Bosnia). Related to this, another aim is to achieve recognition of the status of children born of war and legislate for their rights.”

What does Vive Žene do to help survivors and their children of war to find peace, and to learn to get along with each other?

Jasna Zecevic (Vive Žene): “Vive Žene offers psychosocial support to parents, children and families. When it is not possible to work with a complete family, because of serious mental, emotional or relational problems, we offer separate treatment to parents (individually or together) and children.

Personal trauma, questions, frustrations and insecurities are worked through and after some time family conversations can be proposed. Only if all members of the family want to talk together are conversations organised. Every member of the family has a place in these conversations, which make use of techniques such as non-violent communication, role plays and family constellations. After the end of the family conversations Vive Žene stays in touch with the families as part of an aftercare program.”

Why is it so important to change the gender perspectives of boys and girls if we want a non-violent, peaceful future?

Jasna Zecevic (Vive Žene): “Bosnia Herzegovina is a traditional society undergoing change from a patriarchal mentality to a modern liberal and emancipated society. In many rural areas, and even in some urban areas, the patriarchal mentality and traditions are still dominating social and family life. Physical, psycho-emotional and sexual abuse have always been present in Bosnia and Herzegovina, like in any other country, but these kinds of gender-based violence intensified after the war.

The position of women initially become stronger during the war, since they were very active and engaged in all kinds of activities while the husbands were at the frontline. After the war, however, the status of women has become bagatellised and insignificant again. Women are severely under-represented in politics, social life, employment, etc. Gender-based violence is even “normal” in some (especially rural) areas, which is often an expression of extremely difficult situations in families, as well as in society.

Vive Žene is dealing with increasingly serious cases of gender-based violence. Since boys and girls are growing up in these families, often becoming victims themselves, the danger is very high that they later take on this kind of aggressive behaviour. Vive Žene wants to contribute to harmony in relationships and to the growth of non-violent communication. Therefore, we consider it very important to start with the children – boys and girls.”

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