When I was in Sarajevo in 1993 filming No Man’s Land I heard many stories of “rape hotels” and the systematic use of rape as a weapon. These stories haunted me so I returned in 1994-95 to film Rape A Crime of War for the National Film Board of Canada:

While Sarajevo was under siege it was impossible to get to the Hotel Sonja, high up on the Serb held territory where we heard terrible things were happening to girls and women. Once the siege had lifted we were able to see it for ourselves. The hotel was booby-trapped and mined, untouched and abandoned. What we found was a crime scene: women’s underwear discarded on filthy mattresses on the floor, empty bottles of liquor and magazines of pornography. Down the hill at river’s edge the remains of several women lay in a mass grave.

It has been estimated that between 20,000 and 50,000 rapes were committed during fighting in the former Yugoslavia. There has always been rape in war, but in Bosnia it was being “ordered” by commanders, acknowledged as a “strategy”. To witness this in our time, in modern day Europe, was shocking. From the heart-wrenching story of a woman who had been gang raped and given birth to a “rape baby”, to the accounts of women interned in the now infamous concentration camps outside Prijedor, we learned what the war had done to so many women, their families, and their communities. Some were courageous enough to testify at The Hague, where the first person to be indicted for rape as a war crime was about to go on trial.

Rape a Crime of War took us on a journey that now seems sadly prescient. From Rwanda, to Chechnya to the Congo, the numbers of rape in war have become numbing, the damage and pain it inflicts so deep that it has become the weapon of choice. Along with the use of child soldiers, rape as a strategy has changed the face of war and presented us with one of the moral challenges of our time.

Bosnian war, Croatian War, Serbia, conflict, rape camps, Prijedor, rape victims, rape as strategy, rape as war crime, Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia, The Hague, rape victim testimonials, prosecution, Hotel Sonja Sarajevo, mass grave, survivors, history, contemporary conflict, women’s studies