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'I knew my rapists... I had to watch what they did to my daughter'

Victims in Croatia might soon get justice after war crimes.

Refugees from Vukovar in Bosnia-Herzegovina on 22 November 1991
Refugees from Vukovar in Bosnia-Herzegovina on 22 November 1991
Image: AP/Press Association Images

MORE THAN TWO decades and therapy have done little to heal Ana Horvatinec’s trauma of wartime rape by her neighbours in the Croatian town of Vukovar.

“There were six of them… I had to watch what they did to my daughter and she had to watch what they did to me,” Horvatinec told AFP.

After years of neglect, Horvatinec and other victims of sexual violence committed during Croatia’s 1991-1995 war of independence believe a new bill will bring a crucial acknowledgement of their suffering, as well as compensation.

The rapists “were people I knew”, said the 65-year-old.

We should be compensated for what we went through… Now at last, we are being recognised as victims of this crime.

Between 1,500 and 2,200 people, most of them women, suffered rape and other severe forms of sexual violence during the Croatia war, the UN says.

Only 147 cases have been recognised, and the vast majority of crimes remain unreported.

This month, the government announced its backing for legislation, set to be voted in May, entitling victims to a one-time compensation payment of up to €20,000, a €320 allowance, health care, psychological counselling and legal aid.

‘Better late than never’

For Horvatinec, “it’s better late than never”.

Yugoslavia Civil War Reporters look at corpses in a garden in downtown Vukovar on 20 November 1991 Source: AP/Press Association Images

Home to Croatia’s biggest river port, Vukovar was the scene of one of the darkest chapters of the 1990s Balkan wars. It was virtually razed to the ground and suffered a huge massacre when war broke out after Belgrade-backed rebel Serbs opposed Croatia’s declaration of independence.

In November 1991, after a harrowing three-month siege, ethnically mixed Vukovar fell to Serb forces and some 22,000 non-Serbs were expelled. About 350 people from the region are still reported missing.

YUGOSLAVIA WAR CRIMES TRIBUNAL Patients flee from the hospital in Vukova after Yugoslav army took control of it. Source: AP/Press Association Images

With her then 21-year-old daughter, Horvatinec was captured and taken to a detention facility, where they were both raped. They were then briefly transferred to a camp in Serbia. Her husband Djuro was also captured, and would only be released four months later.

In search of peace when the war ended, the family moved to Petrinja, some 60 kilometres southeast of Zagreb.

“But… nothing can turn back time. One simply cannot forget,” blue-eyed Horvatinec said, staring blankly at her living room wall.

Tragedy continued to haunt her even in peacetime: last year, her daughter was killed in a car accident.

Of all the Yugoslav war victims, those who faced sexual violence have suffered the worst neglect.

Overall, 20,000 to 50,000 women were raped during the string of ethnic conflicts, most of them Bosnian Muslim women. Since 2006, they have been receiving a monthly pension of some €290.

In Kosovo, which broke off from Serbia, women who suffered rape are recognised as war victims, but shortages in the state budget mean they receive no financial compensation.

Quest for justice

The new Croatian law will help rape victims heal, experts say.

“It will help them overcome their trauma when society acknowledges the crime and their suffering,” psychiatrist Mladen Loncar told AFP.

The law might also encourage more victims to report the crimes, experts say.

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“Until now, victims have had to deal with their own trauma privately. Now, they will finally be seen by society,” says Marija Sliskovic, who runs Women in the Homeland, an NGO that has been advocating for rape victims’ rights since 2010, and helping them to heal.

Horvatinec’s husband says victims have played a key role in drafting the new law.

It has made the women strong. They have realised they should not be ashamed, that they are not guilty for what happened to them.

The 60-year-old stood by his wife through years of suffering, even though she once asked him to leave her, claiming “she would never be the same”.

“We both went through a lot… A marriage can easily break in these circumstances,” he says.

After a long silence, he adds: “One simply cannot understand without having gone through a similar experience.”

Yugoslavia Civil War Source: AP/Press Association Images

Raped by some 20 men in Vukovar, Ruzica Barbaric fled her home town during the war and returned in 1998.

She lives off a €200 pension, and hopes the new compensation will help her live “a decent old age”.

Only 15 people have been convicted for wartime rape in Croatia, among them one of Horvatinec’s torturers, who received a 15-year jail sentence.

But Barbaric, 63, insists other perpetrators must face justice.

“I was raped and I want the people who did it to be punished,” she said. ”Our wounds will never heal.”

© AFP, 2015

More: French soldiers accused of ‘stomach-turning’ rape of children fleeing war

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