Identified only by numbers or their initials, and protected by a screen, witnesses at a United Nations tribunal in The Hague painfully recount the transformation of their communities into sexual enslavement camps during the Bosnian war.
Last week, a young woman identified only as A.S. told the court how Serb soldiers incessantly raped her in 1992 in the tiny village of Foca. Eventually, her attackers sold her to some men from Montenegro for $250 and a truckload of soap.
Other tales of inhumanity emerged shortly after the trial began on March 20. Women watched helplessly as their children and grandchildren were violated and degraded. A survivor told of being sexually enslaved when she was only 15 years old at a sports hall with some 50 other Muslim women.
War crimes investigators estimate that Serb troops raped 20,000 women during the 1992-95 war. Now three men - Dragoljub Kunarac, Radomir Kovac, and Zoran Vukovic - stand accused of running one of the most notorious of these detention camps as part of their ethnic-cleansing campaign. They hold the ignominious distinction of being the first people indicted for sexual enslavement in the history of international tribunals. The trial is expected to continue for some time.
"This is the most important trial on sexual violence to ever appear before an international tribunal," says Paul Risley, the spokesman for the war-crimes prosecutor. "The crime of rape has been successfully tried against other individuals ... but always in combination with other crimes, such as murder."
Back in 1998, a three-judge panel in Tanzania convicted a Rwandan mayor for genocide; the judiciary also determined that sexual violence can be genocidal in nature. But the trial under way in The Hague signals that these crimes in themselves deserve the attention of the tribunal.
Human rights workers have documented similar abuses by troops against minorities in Burma (Myanmar). And some of the survivors of an estimated 200,000 "comfort women" still seek justice from the Japanese government for being subjected to sexual slavery by the Japanese military during World War II.
Human rights advocates hope that a conviction for sexual enslavement now might help reverse a worrisome trend in which rape is used as a tool of war.
"Because of the devastating effect sex crimes has on communities, we are noticing that wartime rape crimes are increasingly either encouraged or included as official military strategies," says Kelly Askin, the author of War Crimes Against Women. "And this is particularly so because historically the gender-based crimes have been ignored during prosecutions or calls for accountability."
The sexual-enslavement trial against Serbs in The Hague makes "a statement that henceforth the international community takes these crimes seriously and intends to end the cycle of impunity traditionally surrounding sexual violence," adds Ms. Askin.
"It will hopefully help to get attention to, and redress for, the surviving comfort women," she adds.
"Sexual crimes are used to humiliate as many people as possible, to destroy the fabric of the family, and by extension the fabric of society," says Manuel Carballo at the Geneva-based International Centre for Migration and Health, which is writing a report on sexual violence against refugees.
One or even three convictions, however, will not likely turn the tide as ethnic conflicts continue to explode.
"We have seen in recent years, wars that are basically designed to push out ethnic groups.... Rapes committed in public effectively terrorize communities and convince people to flee," Mr. Carballo says. "The nature of conflict is changing. Wars are no longer military-to-military conflicts. Ethnic conflicts and ethnic cleansing lend themselves to sexual violence."
Rape and the threat of rape caused a wave of ethnic Chinese to flee Indonesia during the riots that swept Jakarta in 1998. It was also allegedly employed as an intimidation tactic by combatants in Bangladesh's war of independence.
But it was the Bosnia conflict that raised the attention of the world's aid groups to helping victims of sex crimes. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees issued guidelines specifically dealing with this issue for the first time in 1995. Most aid workers traditionally attended to refugees' needs for shelter, food, clothing, and emergency medical assistance. Now, many agencies send counselors equipped with rape kits.
"There's an increased focus on psycho-social counseling," says Julie Mertus of Brown University's Humanitarianism and War Project.
In Kosovo, aid workers were better prepared to help rape victims than they were in Bosnia, she says. "But frequently these well-intentioned efforts are not appropriate because they don't include [trained] women from the target community" as counselors.
"Women who are raped suffer not only the act of the rape itself but also the social aftermath. Some communities and families find it difficult to accept them again. These women then become ... marginalized in society."
Since the international criminal court is still years away from operating, human rights activists are hoping national courts will fill the void.
A civil lawsuit has been filed against Unocal in the US, charging that the oil company is liable for rapes and other crimes committed by the Burmese military during their business partnership. "We're saying that the sexual abuse of women was part of a pattern of intimidation [by Burmese forces]. The use of rape as an act of violence against women was foreseeable," says Jennifer Green, co-counsel for the plaintiffs. "You have to take that into account in the project. And [Unocal] didn't...."
But despite the grim reports, observers still hold out hope for radical improvement. "I hope that [tribunal indictments for sex crimes] are harbingers of more prosecutions and investigations of this particular war crime," says Regan Ralph of the New York-based Human Right Watch.
"They need to be because you don't want one conviction for token justice."
*Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society