x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 22 October 2017

Angelina Jolie's directorial debut gives voice to Bosnian war's women

Valerie Hopkins meets the women who were the inspiration for Angelina Jolie's directorial debut, In the Land of Milk and Honey.

Sadzida Hadzic, a rape camp survivor, says one of her rapists is still working in the border police, but that government authorities have done nothing to hold him accountable. Laura Boushnak
Sadzida Hadzic, a rape camp survivor, says one of her rapists is still working in the border police, but that government authorities have done nothing to hold him accountable. Laura Boushnak

Twenty years after the start of the Bosnian war, its female survivors have inspired a new film directed by Angelina Jolie. Valerie Hopkins talks to some of the women about living with their horrific ordeals, and how they are determined to win their last battle for justice.

Sadzida Hadzic's pockmarked utilitarian housing block is indistinguishable from the seemingly infinite rows of identical buildings just off Sarajevo's First of May Street, a nod to the workers who once inhabited them. But only Hadzic's building bears a plaque with the faded visage of Marshal Josip Broz Tito.

Another poster of the avuncular, larger-than-life leader-for-life of the former Yugoslavia greets visitors and tenants at the front door. His presence recalls an era when his multicultural mantra of "brotherhood and unity" ruled the day.

This spirit defined Hadzic's life until at the age of 27 she was imprisoned for almost six months in one of the 677 concentration camps that cropped up in schools, hotels, government buildings and private homes. Her only offence? Being a Muslim. During her time in the camp, she was forced to cook and clean for her Serbian army captors, and was repeatedly raped and abused.

Hadzic was taken prisoner in Vlasenica, in eastern Bosnia, at the beginning of the 1992-1995 war that pitted Bosnia's Catholic Croats, Orthodox Serbs and Bosnian Muslims (Bosniaks) against one another and claimed 100,000 lives. When the war ended, the December 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement separated the country into two entities, the Muslim-Croat Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Republika Srpska, where Vlasenica is located.

Her story, she says, is powerfully narrated in Angelina Jolie's directorial debut, the romantic drama In the Land of Blood and Honey.

In the film, the Serb Danijel (Goran Kostic)and the secular Muslim Ajla (Zana Marjanovic) start dating in Sarajevo, where inter-religious romances were common before the war. The two are torn apart as Yugoslavia self-destructs and meet again when Ajla is a prisoner in one of Bosnia's now-infamous rape camps, and Danijel is in charge.

Hadzic says the film is the first time someone captured her trauma and experiences.

"It is a movie about my life," she says. "I am Ajla in the most drastic possible way.

"Women who were raped are invisible invalids," she tells me in the two-room apartment she shares with her elderly mother, clutching diaries that tell of her battles to overcome anger, loneliness and post-traumatic stress disorder. "What Angelina has done with this movie is priceless; she made our story a universal story of the collective responsibility of the whole world."

But the film has sparked controversy around the globe and especially in a deeply fractured Bosnia struggling to face its past. One victims association opposed the film, contending that "love could never happen in a concentration camp", and successfully lobbied the government to cancel filming permits, in a decision that was later rescinded.

Then, the sole distributor in Republika Srpska refused to show the film, saying people in that half of the country were simply not interested. Only 12 people showed for the premiere in Serbia's capital, Belgrade, just days after a 5,000-strong standing ovation in Sarajevo.

Even in Sarajevo, the film is controversial.

The leader of the Islamic community, Grand Mufti Mustafa Ceric, called the film "the best thing that happened to Bosniaks since Dayton", referring to the peace accords in that city in the US state of Ohio.

But others contend that it will not help the country move forward.

Belma Becirbasic, a visiting scholar at Columbia University, says that the discussion surrounding the film represents her country's post-war struggle for truth and identity.

"The positive and negative reactions that followed first the shooting of the movie and then its premiere engendered discourses reflecting the ongoing and never-ending struggle for a particular remembrance of the war," she says.

She points out the irony that the same figures who initially opposed the film are now its most ardent supporters, such as the Grand Mufti and the media tycoon and politician Fahrudin Radoncic, "both known for their strong ethno-cleric-nationalistic programmes and for advocating an exclusive and selective memory to the conflict".

She worries that "the movie has in the long run and indirectly done much more damage to the process of facing the past" because of the way elites have responded to the film, which "contributes to dominant ethnic interests and reinforces the image of victimhood as a central post-war narrative".

Rape survivors agree that politicians manipulate their stories for political gain, but say the film is valuable because it vividly portrays what they went through.

"What Angelina did with the film is more than any politician did in the past 20 years; she spoke the truth about things that happened," says Hadzic. "It gave us dignity and courage."

Hasija Brankovic slept on the concrete floor of a rape camp in the town of Rogatica for more than a month, where she was violated by several soldiers at night, sometimes falling unconscious. She was rarely given food or water. Her father, brother, sister and both sets of grandparents were tortured and killed, her home set aflame, and she was separated from her family from 1992 until 1996 without any communication. She now shares two rooms and a kitchen with her mother, three sisters and a brother.

To compensate for her trauma, she receives €50 (Dh245) each month from the Bosnian government.

And she is one of the lucky ones, she says. She has strong family ties, and bonds with women at Sarajevo's association of concentration camp detainees, where she volunteers. But she says many women in her association have never come forward about their wartime rape experiences.

Although female victims of violence were formally recognised by the government of the Muslim-Croat Federation in 2006, Brankovic says it is too little, too late.

"We are on the margins of existence here, it is a catastrophe," she says. "There is no justice, no priorities. Women war victims are left to fend for themselves. We have no rights whatsoever."

The United Nations estimates that 20,000 to 50,000 women from all ethnic groups were raped during the war. But just more than a thousand women across Bosnia claim benefits as victims of wartime sexual violence.

In the Muslim-Croat Federation, 701 victims of wartime sexual violence receive financial support. Republika Srpska does not have a separate category for rape victims, but says 614 women receive financial assistance as civilian victims of war.

In the Federation, women in the most severe circumstances can receive up to €250 monthly, while those such as Brankovic, considered "less severe", receive €50.

Enisa Salcinovic, president of the women's division of Sarajevo's association of concentration camp survivors, says €250 is not enough to make ends meet. A native of Foca who was a prisoner in the infamous Partizan Sports Hall, Salcinovic said she began suffering from severe tachycardia around the time she first saw In the Land of Blood and Honey in December, and the money barely covers her medical expenses, let alone food and other bills for her and her 28-year-old daughter, a casualty of Bosnia's 40 per cent unemployment rate.

Salcinovic has been lobbying the Bosnian government to adopt a statewide, streamlined approach to assisting the women. The government committed to such a strategy in 2010, but has made little progress, according to a March report by Amnesty International.

Esma Palic, an adviser in the Federation government for invalids and civilian victims of war, says work is underway, but that officials in Republika Srpska have been "passive" on the issue and frequently miss meetings.

"It is important that this problem is recognised both in the Federation and in the Republic of Serbia," she says. "You can be sure that there are Serbian women who were raped by Serbian soldiers. There is proof. And they are silent, because they were forced to remain silent."

She blames the complicated government set-up for letting women fall through the cracks.

"This is a country with so many levels of authority and lots of governments, but nobody has any responsibility," she says.

She says another barrier is that rape remains a taboo topic in Bosnian society that few feel comfortable speaking about. She hopes that In the Land of Blood and Honey can help change that, citing the 2006 film Grbavica, about a woman raising a child who is the product of a rapist, which for the first time generated dialogue about women's wartime trauma.

Hadzic's brother, Salcinovic's husband and several of Brakovic's relatives are among the 10,000 people the International Commission for Missing Persons estimates are still missing. In most cases, it says no one has been held accountable for their deaths.

Each has testified before police tribunals and in trials. In a landmark ruling before the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, rape was ruled a war crime for the first time.

But as of 2010, the United Nations Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict Margot Wallstrom complained that only 12 rape cases had been prosecuted in Bosnia in what she called a "painfully slow" process.

Victims complain that the process is too slow and that they are not given adequate witness protection or psychological support.

"It is obvious that the state is on the side of war criminals," says Bakira Hasecic, president of the Women Victims of War Association, which initially opposed Jolie's film.

"We do not have any rights. They need us to testify in court, and then when we leave, no one cares about us. The state provides for indicted war criminals from our resources, from every citizen of Bosnia and Herzegovina, to pay for our executioners, the killers of our family, rapists," she says, chain smoking in her small office, with mug shots of indicted war criminals plastered floor to ceiling behind her.

When a perpetrator is found guilty of war crimes, victims are often instructed to file a civil suit. But sometimes victims are not informed of the verdict, and they do not have access to free legal assistance, says Lejla Mamut, of Bosnia's branch of Track Impunity Always (Trial), a Swiss organisation.

"As far as we know, there hasn't been a single case of victims of sexual violence from the war where victims actually went through the civil claims process," says Mamut.

She says women provide the court with information about their perpetrators, but often do not receive any response or are not informed about the case. Hadzic is one example.

"I had a call from a court of Bosnia and Herzegovina for a war criminal that I discovered," she says. "I reported him, and my friend accompanied me to the court. There was a trial last year, but they haven't called me."

Brankovic complains about the lack of witness support: "I testified. And what happened after? Nobody asked me if I would need a police escort to my house, nobody even called me. When a witness comes to the court, they need to have some kind of protection. I don't want to hide, thank God, I survived to say what happened, but who takes care of these victims when they leave court?"

Individuals suspected or convicted of war crimes can hold public office, which infuriates victims, who say perpetrators work as teachers, policemen and border guards, and in public administration.

At least nine individuals suspected of violating international law ran for office in the 2010 elections, according to analysis verified by Bosnian police.

Hadzic says one of the men who raped her works in the border police. Hasecic says a man who killed her sister is a deputy minister in the state government.

Although many towns remain separated along ethnic lines and nationalist politicians champion division, these women are reaching across the boundaries to fight for one another's rights.

Salcinovic says that when she campaigns for a state-level policy in the halls of Brussels or New York, she speaks "in the name of all women, not just the women from my association, but women from all of Bosnia and Herzegovina".

She says she wants to prevent what happened to her from happening to anyone else. "Today we have so many women who have suffered in wars like in Iraq, Afghanistan, Cambodia, Rwanda and now Syria. Only God knows where next. Whether the woman is in Asia, Europe or anywhere, we have the same problems. We are raped in war, and we claim the right for compensation from the state".

"We are all one tribe," Hadzic wrote in her journal. "It is not a question of whether we speak Croatian or Serbian."

Adds Brankovic: "When I met Angelina, I brought my two friends and fellow victims, Vesna and Ljubica. One is a Croat, the other Serb, and I am Muslim. We are not separated. Names never meant anything to me."

In the Land of Blood and Honey is due in UAE cinemas on April 26.