A protected witness testified in The Hague this week about being gang-raped and held prisoner by Bosnian Serb soldiers during the 1990s war.
The prosecution witness, referred to only by the number RM-70, appeared at the trial of former Bosnian Serb army commander Ratko Mladic in The Hague. Her image and voice were digitally distorted to conceal her identity from the public.
Prior to the witness's testimony, prosecuting lawyer Maxine Marcus provided a brief summary of evidence and said that RM-70 would describe a “relentless pattern of rape and sexual torture” in 1992 at various facilities in Foca, a town in eastern Bosnia. At onelocation, known as “Karaman's House”, detainees were sexually enslaved and frequently gang-raped, the prosecutor said.
While the accused Mladic – who led the Bosnian Serb army from 1992 to 1996 – is not charged with any stand-alone counts of rape, the counts of genocide, persecution, deportation and inhumane acts include rape and other crimes of sexual violence as underlying acts. Mladic is further accused of being part of a joint criminal enterprise to permanently remove Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats from territory claimed by the Bosnian Serbs.
In 2001, the Hague tribunal convicted three members of the Bosnian Serb army – Dragoljub Kunarac, Radomir Kovac, and Zoran Vukokic – of personally raping, enslaving and torturing Bosnian Muslim women at various locations in Foca in 1992, including Karaman's House and Foca's high school.
RM-70 told the court this week that while she and others were being held in the Foca high school, some Serb TV crews came to film them. She said that prior to this, “we got three meals a day and we had those sponges on which we slept”.
“A man came and told us that [TV crews] would come and film to show how they [Serb forces] were protecting us and how they had saved us. I asked myself – from whom had they saved us…? How could I say that they had saved me and protected me when I was being raped by a dozen or two dozen of them every night? They were lying shamelessly. They killed my mother and my brother,” she said.
“Would you like to take a break?” prosecutor Marcus asked at this point.
“That's alright, we can go on,” RM-70 responded.
“You mentioned being detained at Karaman's House and you mentioned a 12- year -old girl named Almira Bektovic – was she also sexually assaulted?” Marcus asked.
“Yes, she was,” the witness said, adding that Bektovic was the youngest girl held in the house.
“Do you know what happened to her afterwards?” Marcus asked.
“No, I don't. She's missing,” RM-70 said.
The prosecutor noted that in her witness statement, RM-70 mentioned that one of the Serb captors “negotiated” with another man about the “sale of Almira”, and that she heard the girl was sold for 200 Deutschmarks.
“Is this Almira Bektovic you were referring to?” Marcus asked.
“Yes,” the witness replied.
The prosecutor also asked RM-70 to describe an incident where she was “forced to make the sign of the cross”.
The witness said that in October 1992, she had been in Karaman's House for about three months when four men came and told eight of the female prisoners to sit in a line-up. One of the men asked their names.
“We gave him Serbian names and then he asked us whether we had learned to make the sign of the cross. Since I was the first one sitting down in that line, I didn't know the difference between the three fingers and the whole hand. I started making the sign of the cross with the whole hand.
“All of a sudden he jumped up and shouted at me, ‘Do you want me to cut your hand off? You don't use your whole hand, but only three fingers.' I said, ‘I apologise sir, I did not know, I didn't attend the proper course,'” RM-70 said.
The prosecutor then asked what she warned might be “a difficult question”.
“Did you ever come to learn whether there was any reason that you and the other girls were being mistreated? What was goal of mistreatment, if any?”
“My opinion was that they wanted to destroy, kill… destroy our spirit as much as they could,” RM -70 said. “Because a raped woman… there is no cure for woman who is raped. I will never recover. I cannot recover ever. I am trying very hard. My life was destroyed. My family was destroyed. Those dearest to me were killed. They took my happiness.”
She added that “not all the Serbs are the same. If it hadn't been for some Serbs, I wouldn't be sitting here today. There are some good people among the Serbs, but they couldn't do anything, they didn't dare.”
“Is there anything else you'd like the chamber to know?” Marcus asked.
“What I have come here to say, and what I have said so far, is that there are so many innocent victims. There's so many and perhaps this is my way of finding comfort, finding solace and so far I've always felt I've owed something to somebody because I'm alive… I have this feeling of guilt, that's why I had to come here to tell the truth, because of all those innocent victims who were killed,” the witness said.
Nearly all of the cross-examination took placed in closed session.