Terminal Sexism:

Men, women and war in ex-Yugoslavia

(with an attached "Letter to Edward Broadbent")

by Adam Jones (1994)

[Originally published in Balance, Winter 1994-95.]

[Note: This is a shorter, slightly more recent, and more polemical version of the argument presented in my article for Ethnic and Racial Studies, Gender and Ethnic Conflict in ex-Yugoslavia.]

The photographs in the morning paper remind one of past wars, past migrations of the dispossessed.

In one photo, a stream of about half a dozen army trucks pulls away from a besieged Bosnian town. Aboard are some of the 2,114 people evacuated by the United Nations to relative safety elsewhere in Bosnia. Tens of thousands of Muslims have been left behind, but hopes now are high that large numbers of them can be freed.

Let's look again at the photographs. Scrutinizing them closely, it's hard to pick out a single male face - though apparently a few sick and elderly men have been granted transit through the Serb front lines.

As for younger men, forget it. The Serbs have announced bluntly that they will under no circumstances allow "battle-capable" Muslim men through their lines.

This restriction seems to obvious, so "natural," that almost no media commentator bothers to mention it. I find myself thinking of the point, early in the Gulf Crisis, when Iraq's Saddam Hussein released all women and children among the western hostages he had seized to stave off outside attack. A handful of males from Muslim countries had also been released; all those still held were men. The New York Times analyzed the mass release under the headline: "Who Can Leave Iraq? A Matter of Randomness and Ethnicity."

Almost none of the feature stories I come across on the Bosnian evacuation points out that the overwhelming majority of evacuees were women and children. Only The New York Times mentions, in passing, that with the handful of exceptions noted above, "Serbian fighters have allowed no adult men to leave ... on the United Nations evacuation convoys."

No media figure questions the complicity of the United Nations and the international community in staging an evacuation that accept, from the start, a range of gender-specific ground rules laid down by Serbian attackers.

I can't help wondering, in light of the enormous media attention devoted to women rape victims in ex-Yugoslavia, what world reaction would have been had the Serbs permitted men and children to flee - but declared that women would be held back, so troops could rape and otherwise abuse them more easily.

What fate will the young male "defenders" of the town experience when their community is overrun? They may be killed outright: The New York Times acknowledges that "during evacuation from cities and towns surrendered to Serbian fighters in Bosnia and Herzegovina and in neighbouring Croatia, Serbian militia-men have summarily executed men of fighting age."

The departure of the town's women and children makes slaughter more likely. "Women and children have acted as a buffer, protecting the defenders who move among them with ease," the Associated Press reported during the early stages of the siege of Sarajevo. "If the city is emptied of non-combatants, only its defenders will remain to contend with the Serbs' guns still ringing the city." (Note how readily all men physically capable of combat are defined as "combatants.")

At least the AP acknowledges that actual human beings might still remain after women and children have left. A report by Knight-Ridder's Dan Stets from the besieged Croatian seaport of Dubrovnik noted the reluctance of Croatian authorities to allow women and children to leave the town (though thousands eventually did). "If the women and children stay," Stets reported with a straight face, "it will mean that the attacking [Serbian] army would be shooting at them and not just at a walled city ... Their presence might force the army to hesitate before shooting."

If the men of the besieged city are not killed immediately, they will likely be dragged away for interrogation, torture, and internment in bestial conditions, with execution delayed a while longer. Consider recent testimony from the Susica concentration camp, just outside the eastern Bosnian town of Vlasenica. The New York Times (in a story reprinted in The Globe and Mail, 3 August 1994) quotes a Muslim woman, Fikra Atalov, who claimed that "Every day ... more civilians were coming in [to the camp], and room had to be made for them - either by the removal of women and children to [the town of ] Kladanj or through executions of men."

Atalov's account makes it plain that women were also incarcerated at Susica, and were regularly raped. But the most extreme abuses were reserved for males, writes the Times' Roger Cohen: "Each night throughout the summer of 1992, witnesses say, [Dragan] Nikolic [a Serb who apparently directed the slaughter at Susica] would come into the barracks and point to men or read out a list of names. Shortly afterward, people inside the building would hear shooting. The men who were selected never returned. Pero Popovic, a 36-year-old former guard, said they were generally lined up against an electricity pylon just outside the barracks and shot."

It is estimated that 3,000 "people" died at Susica between June and September 1992.

The sexual torture that scars the lives of female detainees is by no means absent from men's experiences in the prison camps. "Nothing was more traumatic for the [incarcerated] men than the castrations," Newsday's Roy Gutman reports in his new book, A Witness to Genocide. "United States Embassy officials found a witness to an incident in which a man had his testicles tied with wire to the back of a motorcycle, which took off at high speed. He died of massive blood loss."

Another incident described by Gutman "began when a guard with a grudge to settle called out Emir Karabasic, a Muslim policeman, from the room in which Hadzic was sleeping and ordered him to strip naked in the hangar in front of parked dump trucks. ... Another Muslim ... [was] ordered to lower his face into a channel cut in the concrete floor and drink old motor oil, then to bite off Karabasic's testicles."

Men who manage to flee the war zone often find brutality instead of sanctuary awaiting them. In July 1992, The Globe and Mail reported Croatian President Franjo Tudjman's statement that Croatia "cannot undertake to care for those who in conditions of war should stay on the battlefield and defend their homes against the [Serbian] aggressor."

Whom, in particular, was Tudjman referring to? That was clear from The Globe's account of "scenes of anguish" at the Croatian coastal town of Split, where "nearly 4,000 Bosnian men have been forced shouting and screaming by Croatian military police into buses returning them to their war-torn republic."

I think of those scenes at the Split quayside when I read the words of Susan Brownmiller, feminist author of Against Our Will, writing about women's victimization in ex-Yugoslavia. "Balkan men have proved eager to fight and die for their particular subdivision of Slavic ethnicity," Brownmiller wrote derisively in Newsweek in 1993. "But Balkan women, whatever their ethnic and religious background ... have been thrust against their will into another identity. They are victims of rape in war."

Thrust "shouting and screaming" like the men at Split, perhaps? Or maybe those women were just asking for it - like all the males so "eager to fight and die."

The pattern is clear. In the ex-Yugoslavia conflict, the roles and experiences of men, no less than women, are defined by their sex. Being female in Bosnia today means vulnerability to rape - often gang-rape, sometimes while interned in so-called "rape camps." Many women have also been killed - after being raped, or randomly, or while undergoing the risky evacuation process.

Being male means facing forcible conscription into armed "service"; denial of the right to flee the war-zone or to claim refugee status; internment in concentration camps on a massive scale, and subjection there to beatings, torture, starvation, and execution. Most grisly of all is the apparently regular pattern of gender-selective massacre, where men are separated from women and children and carted off to execution. (Such events carry an added horror for Canadians, with our memories of l'École Polytechnique and the systematic manner in which Marc Lépine selected his female victims.)

In 1992, the Reuters news agency quoted a 44-year-old Muslim woman describing the arrival of "Chetniks" - Serbian irregular forces - in her village. "They took our menfolk away without letting them say goodbye or put their shoes on," she said. The dispatch quoted witnesses who claimed that "victims were taken away in trucks and then shot in pairs before being dumped and hastily covered with earth."

Mass graves uncovered soon thereafter were filled "about 90 percent" with "middle-aged or elderly Muslim men." Meanwhile, according to a Southam News report, "Bosnian Mersudina Hodzic, 17, living in a room at the Zagreb mosque, said all the male members of her family were massacred by Serbs last month. She was calm and unemotional as she told of watching the murder of her father, 15-year-old brother, five uncles, grandfather and other male relatives."

"We came out of the shelter," Zilhada, a Muslim housewife from northwestern Bosnia, told Helsinki Watch human-rights investigators. "They [the Chetniks] were looking for men. They got them all together. We saw them beating the men. We heard the sounds of the shooting. One man survived the execution. They killed his brother and father. Afterwards the women buried the men."

The largest gender-selective slaughter to come to international attention (though with little notice of the gender dimension) was the massacre at the Ugar Gorge, reported by one of only seven known survivors in October 1992.

"At about 8 o'clock in the morning on Aug. 21, the Serbs brought five city buses to Trnopolje," the survivor told Time magazine. "Women and children filled about half of one, and they ordered men to fill the rest." At the Ugar River, the buses were stopped. Serb forces "chose about 250 people, all men between about 16 and 50, and put us back on two buses."

Half an hour later, the massacre began. "It was very quiet. Then a soldier came and pointed to a man at the front and said, 'You.' They got out, and we heard a single shot. Then another Serb came in and said to the soldier on board, 'Now two get out.' More shots. Then we realized it was over, there was no life for us. They started taking people by threes, and we heard machine-gun bursts along with pistol shots."

Roger Cohen's 1994 reporting from Susica for The New York Times includes a separate but strikingly similar account of "Men [being] loaded into the back of a truck, taken up to the edge of the ravine, about nine kilometres away, and then shot as they got out of the vehicle ... The bodies fell into the ravine and bulldozers were later used to cover them over." Cohen's source, Pero Popovic, testified that "in mid-June [1992] I witnessed the execution at the ravine of 26 people [sic]. One man got away by running down into the woods as he got out of the truck. In all, at least 1,000 people [sic] were executed up there. At first the executions took place during the day, but later they were all at night."

The overall death count seems tilted strongly against men, though reliable statistics are impossible to come by. Aryeh Neier, executive director of the New York-based Human Rights Watch, noted in The Nation: "As in most wars, anecdotal accounts suggest that the majority of those who have died [in the conflict] are men." If news media accounts of gender specific suffering tend to depict women as the primary victims, that might reflect the fact that the women are still around to talk to reporters, and have managed to reach safety away from the war-zone. If the men are not in concentration camps, fighting, or hunkering down under siege, they're probably dead.

One theme emerges again and again in interviews with female refugees - not the experience of being raped and abused, but the fear and pain of not knowing what has happened to their men. Many others know all too well. Marcia Jacobs, a representative of the Balkan Women's Relief Committee who has interviewed female refugees in Croatia, told me that "Many of the women I met had seen their husbands executed in front of them, and then their older male children taken away."

Hardly surprising, then, that in its recent report on life in the Serb-occupied territories, Amnesty International refers to a pervasive climate of fear that affects men most of all. "Muslim men, in particular, have said that because of the growing fear they tried to avoid walking in the streets ... Some Muslim men, who felt especially at risk, slept away from their homes in places such as orchards."

Where stands the international community in all this - and where should it stand?

I suggest, first of all, that there is no justification for the extensive focus on women's gender-specific victimization in the Balkan conflict, to the near-total exclusion of men. It is time to dispense with absurd stereotypes, à la Susan Brownmiller, that depict all men as enthusiastic killers. We must acknowledge the fear and extraordinary vulnerability that permeates the lives of men in ex-Yugoslavia, no less - and perhaps a good deal more - than women.

In Canada, recent mobilizing efforts around ex-Yugoslavia have focused on the plight of women, to the point that one could forget any other category of victim exists. Consider the regular tirades by the likes of Judy Rebick, former chair of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women. Rebick called in November 1992 for Canada to accept all women from ex-Yugoslavia as refugees on the basis of their sex: in particular, because incidence of sexual assault rises heavily in wartime.

Rebick displayed no similar concern for young men facing conscription, internment, and slaughter on a massive scale. (Nor has subsequent immigration legislation: see the accompanying letter to Edward Broadbent.) Media commentary was supportive of Rebick's arguments; but I came across no suggestion that gender should be grounds for male refugee claims as well. In fact, given the range of gender-specific threats men face, and the preferential treatment women and children already receive under existing evacuation procedures, the case for blanket acceptance of male refugee applicants would be a strong one.

At graduate school in Montreal a couple of years ago, I sat down for a beer with N., a thoughtful and articulate Croatian man in his early thirties who fled his homeland to escape the war. He told me of the difficulty of structuring a refugee application when forcible, gender-selective conscription was not considered a repressive act by the state. Instead, N. had had to present himself as a stateless person, on the grounds that the Yugoslavia whose passport he carried no longer existed.

N. was lucky. His claim was accepted, and he is now making a new life in Canada. Tens of thousands of his countrymen have not been so fortunate. Dead, tortured, besieged, incarcerated, they are the primary victims of the conflict that has torn the Yugoslav federation apart.

If they are acknowledged as victims, it is as "soldiers," "Muslims," "civilians," "people." Women rape-victims, on the other hand, receive attention as women. Acknowledging male victims as men might be a first step toward marshaling international concern about the other side of gender-structured suffering in this sickening war.

It might, for instance, make it harder for the United Nations to blithely go along with evacuation arrangements that exclude a given group of potential refugees from consideration. At the very least, Canadians might come to perceive how cynical and reprehensible are the pronouncements of public figures for whom only one category of victims is worthy of sympathy and concern.

A Letter to Edward Broadbent

[An edited version of a letter sent on 1 September 1994 to the Hon. Edward Broadbent, then-chair of the International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development (ICHRDD), an independent government-advisory group in Montreal. It was published as a sidebar to the "Terminal Sexism" piece in Balance. I later received a brief acknowledgment from Mr. Broadbent's secretary.]

Dear Mr. Broadbent,

This letter is to accompany an offprint of my article, "Gender and Ethnic Conflict in ex-Yugoslavia." I hope you will read the article in the context of Canada's recently-introduced policies on gender discrimination as a grounds for refugee applications.

I know you have spoken passionately in support of adding gender to the reasons for a "well-founded fear of persecution" that could, in turn, be grounds for a successful refugee application. And I applaud your stand.

My concern is that, as with so many other issues, the term "gender" has been used interchangeably with "women." It has yet to be widely appreciated that men, too, regularly face gender-based discrimination that is both systematic and injurious. To my mind, the most obvious such example is military conscription, with the related phenomena of forced "service" in village-level "civil-defense" groups, such as those which operated under army supervision in Guatemala during the 1980s.

The study I conducted of gender-specific and gender-selective human rights abuses in ex-Yugoslavia, for example, suggests that hundreds of thousands of Balkan men have been killed in combat, executed, incarcerated, savagely beaten, or forced into hiding as a result of conscription measures, their attempts to evade such measures, or the fear of one warring party that "combat-age" males could be conscripted by the other side (hence, "preventive" detention and incarceration).

I personally know one Croatian male who did succeed in obtaining refugee status in Canada, but was unable to base his claim on the fact that, were he to return to Croatia, he would either be arrested as a deserter or conscripted and forced to risk his life in combat (and incarcerated if he refused). Why was that claim untenable? Is it any different from a woman claiming refugee status on the grounds that she has violated certain "social traditions or cultural norms" of her society, and faces reprisals as a result?

I think the difficulty is that the idea of gender-selective conscription is so deeply embedded in virtually all societies, North and South, that we have lost the ability to see it for what it is: namely, perhaps the most ubiquitous, severe, and physically-destructive act of gender-specific discrimination in the world. (Female infanticide, in China and elsewhere, would also be a contender.)

My main focus in the piece on ex-Yugoslavia is the phenomenon of war and how it intersects with gender. But I think there are a number of other issue-areas specific to (or disproportionately involving) men. I believe some of these may involve injurious and unwarranted discrimination against males - whether by state agencies, non-state actors, or more amorphous social and culture conventions.

In the area of work, I believe we should attend to gender-specific forms of slavery and child labour (as these affect both girls and boys).

With regard to inter-tribal/inter-ethnic conflict and terrorism, I think the evidence in my Yugoslavia article is pertinent. Perhaps one can distinguish between ethnic conflict/terrorism that overwhelmingly targets males (as in India) and that which does not appear to discriminate between the genders (as in Rwanda). I am aware of no conflict in which women are or have been disproportionately targeted for abuse and slaughter.

Regarding state repression, there is clearly a high-to-overwhelming presence of males among the targets of state terror. Indeed, I do not know of a single country serious rights violations occur regularly, and where males are not overwhelmingly on the receiving end of them. This obviously reflects men's prominence in the activities that draw state repression. But in many instances - and I would be glad to provide you with examples from around the world - this translates into a targeting of males, particularly young males, as such. They are liable to be detained, incarcerated, or tortured simply as a way of suppressing dissent among a target group of potential "troublemakers." Anyone who has undergone military searches of public transportation in the Third World, for instance in Central or South America, knows that those frisked and questioned are men, virtually without exception.

As far as physically-invasive or destructive rituals are concerned, I would accept an African girl or young woman's claim that she should be considered for refugee status because she faces mandatory circumcision. Could a male advance the same claim, if the circumcision or related ritual involved a demonstrable risk to his physical or emotional well-being? ...

The danger in writing a letter like this is that I will be dismissed as a reactionary seeking to foment a "backlash" against reasonable female (and feminist) claims and concerns. ... What I would hope [instead] is that the ICHRDD (and the Canadian government) could also consider "the other side" - in other words, move beyond a pat equation of "gender" with "women." By so doing, I believe your organization could only bolster its deserved reputation for speaking and acting on behalf of the downtrodden, persecuted, and disenfranchised.

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Created by Adam Jones, 1998. No copyright claimed for non-commercial use if source is acknowledged.
Last updated: 12 October 2000.