Gender and Ethnic Conflict
in ex-Yugoslavia

by Adam Jones

Ethnic and Racial Studies, 17: 1 (1994), pp. 115-34.

[Note: for citation purposes, a new page in the text as originally published in Ethnic and Racial Studies is indicated by square brackets and a bolded page number, e.g., "a more nuanced and inclusive approach [116] to the gender variable is warranted."]


Gendercide and Genocide

Gendercide and Genocide

Edited by
Adam Jones

Vanderbilt University Press, 2004

The most wide-ranging book ever published on gender-selective
mass killing, or "gendercide," this collection of essays is
also the first to explore systematically the targeting of non-combatant
"battle-age" males in various wartime and peacetime contexts.

Link to further information
and a full table of contents.

Women: "A Pattern of Rape," and More
Men: The Absent Subjects
Occupied Territories: A Climate of Fear


The influence of gender on patterns of ethnic violence in ex-Yugoslavia has commanded considerable international attention. This article acknowledges the groundbreaking role of feminist scholarship in bringing the gender variable to the forefront in analyses of political and interpersonal violence. However, feminist applications of gender frameworks are to some extent constrained by feminism's normative commitments. The present article argues for a more balanced and inclusive understanding of the role gender plays in conditioning the actions and experiences of men and women alike, in the Balkans war and other conflicts. Towards this end, a detailed evaluation of gender-specific and gender-selective violence in ex-Yugoslavia is presented, with particular attention to the group that appears to constitute the majority of victims - males between the ages of eighteen and sixty-five. The article concludes by stressing the importance of the gender variable in analysing ethnic and political violence, and suggests that a more nuanced approach to this variable's operations would shed important light on ethnic violence in ex-Yugoslavia and elsewhere.


With the recent explosion of media coverage surrounding systematic rape by Serbian occupation forces in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the gender dimension of the ethnic conflict in ex-Yugoslavia has moved to the forefront of public discussion. There is every reason to believe that scholarship will follow suit, devoting more serious attention to a variable in this war - perhaps all wars - that is rarely explicitly acknowledged and almost never addressed at a theoretical level.

The groundbreaking analysis of gender in ethnic and political studies has been carried out by feminist scholars. While much of this body of work is powerfully illuminating, feminism is in some respects constrained by its normative commitments - and by the distinctive "standpoint" from which these commitments arise. As Rebecca Grant notes (1991: 94), "the effort to work within a feminist epistemology can never stray completely from the prime task of working from women's experiences," and most feminist scholars would view this orientation as primary. I argue here that a more nuanced and inclusive approach 

[116]  to the gender variable is warranted. It should devote consideration to "men qua men" - that is, to men as bearers of masculinity, and to the distinctive life experiences that derive from maleness (Brod, 1987: 2).(1)

This article takes such an approach to the subject of gender and ethnic conflict in ex-Yugoslavia. Many of its observations are necessarily tentative and preliminary. I am primarily interested in establishing frameworks and avenues for future research and fieldwork. Given the familiarity of many basic feminist critiques - and given the feminist orientation of much current commentary on human rights in ex-Yugoslavia - I devote somewhat more space here to "the other side" of gender-linked victimization in the Balkan conflict.

Women: "A Pattern of Rape," and More

Several Chetniks [Serbian irregular forces] arrived. One, a man around 30, ordered me to follow him into the house. I had to go. He started looking for money, jewelry and other valuables. He wanted to know where the men were. I didn't answer. Then he ordered me to undress. I was terribly afraid. I took off my clothes, feeling that I was falling apart. The feeling seemed under my skin; I was dying, my entire being was murdered. I closed my eyes, I couldn't look at him. He hit me. I fell. Then he lay on me. He did it to me. I cried, twisted my body convulsively, bled. I had been a virgin.

He went out and invited two Chetniks to come in. I cried. The two repeated what the first one had done to me. I felt lost. I didn't even know when they left. I don't know how long I stayed there, lying on the floor alone, in a pool of blood.

My mother found me. I couldn't imagine anything worse. I had been raped, destroyed and terribly hurt. But for my mother this was the greatest sorrow of our lives. We both cried and screamed. She dressed me.

I would like to be a mother some day. But how? In my world, men represent terrible violence and pain. I cannot control that feeling. ("E., age 16," one of the rape victims whose accounts are reprinted in Drakuli, 1992. Emphasis in original.)

In late 1992 and early 1993, the issue of women rape victims among the civilian population of Bosnia-Herzegovina emerged into public view. A spate of media reports along the lines of Newsweek's cover-story pointed to "A Pattern of Rape" in the beleaguered Bosnian-Herzegovinan state (Newsweek, 1993).(2) The number of rape victims is a [117] matter of considerable dispute, but estimates range as high as 20,000 (European Community figures) to 50,000 (the Sarajevo State Commission for Investigation of War Crimes) (Drakuli, 1993: 270).(3)

Media reports were buttressed by an Amnesty International investigation of "Rape and sexual abuse by armed forces" in Bosnia-Herzegovina (January 1993). Amnesty wrote that "abuses against women, including rape, have been widespread." Though these abuses have been committed by "all sides" in the conflict, "Muslim women have been the chief victims and the main perpetrators have been members of Serbian armed forces." According to Amnesty,

The Amnesty investigation sought to identify contexts in which women were particularly vulnerable to rape and sexual abuse. It noted instances where "military personnel, policemen, paramilitaries or those in authority, either as individuals or as groups, use their strength and position of authority to take advantage of women in the areas over which they have short- or long-term control." Likewise, Amnesty pointed to "places of detention centres where women are held, although not specifically for rape or sexual abuse," and most notorious of all the so-called "rape camps," "detention centres which appear to have been organized solely or mainly for the rape or sexual abuse of women" (Amnesty International, 1993a: 4-5).(4)

Much commentary on the rape issue has pointed to the prevalence of rape as a feature of war and political violence more generally, often drawing on Susan Brownmiller's Against Our Will for documentation of the historical trend (Brownmiller, 1975, esp. Chaps. 3-4). As Brownmiller has argued in that book, and more recently in the Balkan context,(5) rape is a double-edged weapon in war. It is aimed not only at the exploitation and humiliation of the victim, but at the morale of the population as a whole. It can also be an instrument of revenge for acts blamed on the victim's relatives. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, Amnesty International notes that women have often been

singled out ... as a form of retribution because of the perpetrators' presumptions of the actions or intentions of the women's male relatives. The humiliation is often reinforced by carrying out the acts in [118] front of others, sometimes including male relatives of the victims. (Amnesty International, 1993a: 5)

In Brownmiller's view (1975: 31), the suffering of the victim is often "appropriated" by males against whom the act is also aimed: "The act that is played out upon [the rape victim] is a message passed between men - vivid proof of victory for one and loss and defeat for the other." Rape also plays an important part in bolstering the morale and sense of power of occupation forces: "We were told we would fight better if we raped the women," as a young Serb soldier told Newsweek (1993: 14).

The unusual aspect of rape as a tool of war in Bosnia-Herzegovina is its relationship to the wider Serbian strategy of "ethnic cleansing," with its genocidal overtones. In the words of Slavenka Drakuli:

What seems to be unprecedented about the rapes of Muslim women in Bosnia (and, to a lesser extent, the Croat women too) is that there is a clear political purpose behind the practice. The rapes in Bosnia are not only a standard tactic of war, they are an organized and systematic attempt to cleanse (to move, resettle, exile) the Muslim population from certain territories Serbs want to conquer in order to establish a Greater Serbia. The eyewitness accounts and reports state that women are raped everywhere and at all times, and victims are of all ages, from 6 to 80. They are also deliberately impregnated in great numbers ... held captive and released only after abortion becomes impossible. This is so they will "give birth to little Chetniks," the women are told. (Drakuli, 1993: 271)(6)

In addition to impregnation by Serbian forces, an element in the ethnic-cleansing campaign seems to be the recognition that sexual trauma associated with rape will inhibit Bosnian (and to a lesser extent Croatian) women's reproductive role for decades to come.

It should also be pointed out that the act of rape is not always "bounded" by respect for the actual life of the victim. Reports exist of victims being executed after rape. Even for the large majority of victims that survive the experience, the fear of death is present throughout. Activist Marsha Jacobs, who visited Croatia with the Balkan Women's Relief Committee early in 1993 to interview women refugees from the war zones (including many rape victims), argues that "The real issue of rape is people are afraid they're going to be killed. The terror is that this other person has total control over you and can overpower you. It seems there's no reason not to be killed. Rape itself is a terrible experience, but you can live with it. What's [119] really going on in terms of fear is the terror of being exterminated."

Intriguingly, Jacobs found among the women she interviewed a general concern that the issue of rape not be stressed at the expense of the alleged Serbian campaign of slaughter and genocide against the civilian population of Bosnia-Herzegovina, male and female alike. "They didn't want in any way to let the rape overshadow the real problem, which is the extermination and execution of thousands and thousands of men and women" (Jacobs, 1993).

Refugees and Gender

The focus on women victims of rape and other sexual abuse has to some extent overshadowed another type of victimization that has disproportionately targeted Balkan women. I refer to the flow of refugees from occupied territories in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. This is by far the most massive demographic upheaval in post-World War II European history: an estimated 800,000 refugees have fled the war zones at time of writing.

The central variables that operate to determine the composition of refugee flows in the conflict are sex and age - primarily the former. While both sexes appear to be strongly represented among very young and very old refugees (with perhaps a slight underrepresentation of old men), all evidence indicates that the overwhelming number of young and middle-aged adults are women. There are, of course, two ways of looking at this disparity. On the one hand, it means that the always traumatic and often horrendous experience of fleeing is a predominantly "female" one, at least among young and middle-aged adults. On the other hand, the option or ability to flee seems to be open disproportionately to women (along with children and the elderly), a matter discussed in greater detail below.

Gender-Specific Massacres of Women

In at least two instances cited by the U.S. State Department in its October 1992 report to the United Nations, largescale massacres of women may have occurred. The State Department report alleges that, on 20 July 1992, approximately 100 Muslim women were executed - shot in the back - by Serb attackers in the town of Biscani, a community that also witnessed some of the most brutal gender-selective atrocities against males (Helsinki Watch, 1993: 82-83). One of the rare instances of mass slaughter of Serbians, on 27 August 1992, also targeted women together with children. A Croatian attack [120] on a bus convoy departing the town of Gorazde reportedly left about 53 Serbian women and children dead and another 50 wounded (Vancouver Sun, 1992).(7)

One difference between gender-specific massacres of women and men in the Balkan conflict is that such actions, when directed against women, do not seem to be gender-selective. That is, instances of women being separated from men and marked off for execution seem virtually unknown - though the reverse is common, as we will see. Instead, massacres of women seem to occur when a target group for reasons that are closely tied to gender happens to be composed of women (perhaps along with children and/or the elderly). Thus, young- and middle-aged adult civilians massacred in occupied towns and villages will tend to be women if men are elsewhere under arms, or incarcerated, or already dead. Likewise, attacks on refugee convoys (such as the 27 August assault) will tend to feature a predominance of female victims - given the gender disparity among refugees, noted earlier.

The range of women's victimization experiences thus seems to some extent derivative of other factors. But a secondary link to gender is clear nonetheless. And in the case of sexual assault, abuse, and exploitation, the gender variable assumes primary significance. Such atrocities appear to constitute the central, perhaps the sole, case "where women have been subjected to special forms of human rights abuses which they face primarily because of their sex."(8)

Men: The Absent Subjects

By contrast with the direct investigation that is possible into women's victimization experiences (as a result of the ready availability of refugee testimony and the recent publicity concerning victims of rape and sexual assault), men's experiences in the Balkan conflict must be approached more obliquely. In fact, in many cases, the researcher encounters an absence of subjects for investigation. Drawing the appropriate conclusions is, accordingly, more difficult. But the effort is vital if we seek to understand the complex influence of gender on liability to violent victimization.

What do we mean by "absent subjects"? Consider the following vignettes from media reports of the conflict in ex-Yugoslavia:

The perpetrators [of rape] may exploit the vulnerability of women of the subjugated nationalities whose husbands or male relatives are often absent (in some cases in detention). (Amnesty International, 1993a: 4)

[121] In their zeal to "cleanse" northern Bosnia of its Muslims and Croats, Serbs who seized control of the region have deported thousands of unarmed civilians in sealed freight trains in the past month. Hundreds of women, children and old people have been packed into each freight car for sweltering journeys lasting three or more days into central Bosnia, according to refugees who survived the ordeal.(9)

They [female rape victims] barely survived the terrors of the war; many have lost family members or have husbands and sons who are still fighting there, or are held in concentration camps or have disappeared and it's not known if they are alive or dead. If the women talk [about their experiences], they could jeopardize the men's lives. (Drakuli, 1993: 270)

To refer back briefly to the previous section, my contention is that many of women's gender-specific experiences - as victims of rape, expulsion, and sometimes murder - exist against a backdrop of, and in many instances are predicated on, other kinds of victimization that disproportionately target males. Thus, Serbian occupation forces often have a freer rein to rape and terrorize women because males of the community are dead, incarcerated in concentration camps, serving in the defense forces, or in hiding to avoid the same.(10) The refugees who bring with them such grim tales are overwhelmingly women, children, and the elderly, and they often tell tales of the largescale summary execution or mass incarceration of their communities' men. This reflects a subtly two-sided process of gender selectivity and specificity - a process that operates among occupied or threatened populations themselves,(11) is central to the occupation policies of invaders, and may be exacerbated by a host regime at the other end of the refugees' journey.

The patterns at least seem worthy of further investigation. I offer below a range of phenomena and issue-areas that appear to contain a male-specific gender dimension.

The Male as Combatant

The overwhelming majority of combatants in the Balkan conflict are male, volunteers and conscripts alike. Virtually all of those committing atrocities in the former Yugoslavia are men,(12) as are those on the ground who order the atrocities committed, and those higher up the chain of command who determine overall strategy and turn a blind eye when necessary. The gender dimension to both the planning and perpetration of violent atrocity is intuitive, and requires no further discussion here.

[122] In the Balkan conflict, the overwhelming predominance of males among combatants appears to be matched by a predominance of men among war casualties. It is true that in wars such as that wracking ex-Yugoslavia - where battle-lines are not clearly drawn, and sizeable civilian populations are under siege or occupation - one can expect the gender disparity among victims to be reduced. It is also true that no reliable statistics exist on overall deaths in the Balkan conflict, let alone the proportion of those deaths suffered by men versus women. Nonetheless, as Neier (1993) notes, "as in most wars, anecdotal accounts suggest that the majority of those who have died [in the Balkan conflict] are men." This is quite likely an understatement, particularly in light of men's disproportionate presence (and unusually brutal treatment) in concentration camps, along with their indisputably low degree of representation among refugees who have fled to safety.

Keep in mind, too, the earlier point that an age variable often operates to determine the male experience in civil conflict. Young boys and old men tend to fall outside the category of actual or perceived/potential combatants. The rape phenomenon aside, their position seems roughly to approximate that of women. That is, they are more likely than battle-age men to seek or be granted passage out of the war-zone; to reach safe haven; and to be granted refugee status by authorities in the neighbouring state of Croatia. To be established with greater precision, these contentions would have to be tested by field investigators (for example, through analysis of Red Cross and UNHCR refugee rolls). For present purposes, though, the discussion of "male experiences" refers primarily to men of "combat age," between 16 and 60 years old.

In what ways does the male-as-combatant motif shape the experiences of men in the Balkan war zones?

Forcible conscription.

As in most wars, the largescale conscription of young and middle-aged males into armed "service" is a defining feature of the Balkan landscape. It is, of course, impossible to gauge the extent to which forces on both sides have resorted to coercive measures to draw males into the fighting forces; to what extent that service is voluntarily undertaken; and how far even "voluntary" service reflects patterns of gender conditioning and prefabricated role expectations.

A standard stereotype in much feminist commentary on war and political violence depicts men as enthusiastic participants in slaughter. Hence Susan Brownmiller's derisive (1993) comment that "Balkan men have proved eager to fight and die for their particular subdivision of Slavic [123] ethnicity."(13) Against this stereotype can be set evidence like the following:

ZAGREB - There can be no sanctuary in Croatia for Bosnian soldiers trying to flee the fighting in their homeland, President Franjo Tudjman of Croatia made clear yesterday.

In scenes of anguish during the past two days at Split quayside, nearly 4,000 Bosnian men have been forced shouting and screaming by Croatian military police into buses returning them to their war-torn republic.

"Croatia, which already has accepted 400,000 refugees from Bosnia-Herzegovina, cannot undertake to care for those who in conditions of war should stay on the battlefield and defend their homes against the aggressor," Mr. Tudjman said. (Sherwell, 1992a, emphasis added.)

Similar sentiments were evident during the extraordinary early stage of the Balkan conflict, when the central Yugoslav authorities briefly sought to prevent the secession of Slovenia. Busloads of anxious parents travelled from Belgrade to Llubljana to visit conscripted male relatives who had been interned in Slovenia, and to protest the actions of politicians in Belgrade who had placed the soldiers' lives in danger. Whatever "eagerness" the young men in question felt for the war effort against Slovenia was apparently rather ephemeral:

Fresh-faced and homesick, captured Yugoslav soldiers in Slovenia say they thought they were going to defend their country against an Italian attack when they were ordered to seize border crossings. ... Most [of those captured] are young conscripts who appear to have little idea what the fighting was about. ... Many of the captured soldiers are little older than the schoolchildren whose paintings still adorn the walls [of the schoolhouse where they were interned]. Several said they had no idea why they were ordered to seize border crossings and many admitted they had given up without firing a shot. "Our lieutenant just said: 'Let's surrender!" said one. ... The general view among 12 prisoners interviewed was that Yugoslavia's problems have to be resolved without bloodshed. (Sherwell, 1992a)

Other rebukes to the familiar image of males as eager fighters and victims can be extracted from accounts of refugee flows out of Bosnia-Herzegovina.(14) This brings us to another important application of the gender variable to ethnic conflict in ex-Yugoslavia: the extent to which males have been denied the opportunity to flee war zones and claim refugee status. This sometimes reflect a fear on the part of Bosnian authorities that the departure of males will strip the country of the means of resistance. More commonly, the process of gender selection [124] is instituted and implemented by Serb forces guarding checkpoints. They have repeatedly made plain their unwillingness to let through any fighting-age males - presumably for fear that male refugees might subsequently join the anti-Serb resistance once safely out of Serb-besieged communities (Smith, 1992: 14).(15)

Remarkably, the United Nations and other international agencies involved in refugee evacuation have tended to accommodate themselves to the blatantly discriminatory rules laid down by Serb occupiers. At time of writing (April 1993), for example, the news from Bosnia centres on protracted attempts to secure the evacuation of civilians from the besieged town of Srebrenica. Convoys of trucks have evacuated women, children, and old people. But the Serbian requirement that no males with combat potential be carried out overland has been respected - as a glance at photographs of the evacuation convoys makes clear.

Again, a certain voluntary element likely features here. The "women and children first" rule seems as operative among besieged populations as it once was for ocean-liner passengers abandoning ship. But it must also be relevant that, as the New York Times reports, "during evacuation from cities and towns surrendered to Serbian fighters in Bosnia and Herzegovina and in neighboring Croatia, Serbian militia-men have summarily executed men of fighting age" (Sudetic, 1993).(16)

Retributory or "pre-emptive" execution.

The most serious atrocities committed against males primarily on gender grounds are the gender-selective executions aimed at eliminating physical resistance to Serbian occupation and "ethnic cleansing" - up to the point of eliminating future generations of fighters. McKinsey describes the Bosnian Serb forces' "usual tactics of 'ethnic cleansing"' as "surrounding non-Serb villages, killing the men, raping the women and burning the houses" (McKinsey, 1993, emphasis added). Sherwell (1992b), recounting the Serbian occupation of Zenica in Bosnia, points to the Serbian practice of touring town streets in trucks and vans, scouring the community for "mainly young and middle-aged men." A local munitions worker told him:

My son's house was between the two bridges [on the Drina River]. They [the Serbs] drove the trucks containing the men up to the bridges, unloaded them and forced them to bend over the walls. ... Then they massacred them - some they slit the throats, some [were killed] with a knife in the back, some they shot. Their bodies were dumped in the Drina.

[125] In 1992, a Reuters journalist quoted a 44-year-old Muslim woman's description of the arrival of Chetnik irregulars in her village. "They took our menfolk away without letting them say goodbye or put their shoes on." The dispatch quoted witnesses who said "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" (Sherwell, 1992b).

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." Activist Marsha Jacobs reports that "Many of the women I met had seen their husbands executed in front of them, and then their older male children taken away. Other women had missing husbands and sons, and missing pretty much means dead" (Jacobs, 1993).

Helsinki Watch's massive volume on war crimes in Bosnia-Herzegovina is replete with accounts of invading Serb troops separating men from women and older men from "combat-age" men, then carrying out largescale summary executions, beatings, torture, and detention of males. After the town of Caravko fell to Serbian forces in July 1992, "F.S.," a 30-year-old Muslim woman, told of "Our men [having] to hide. My husband was with us, but hiding. I saw my uncle being beaten on July 25 when there was a kind of massacre. The Serbs were searching for arms. Three hundred men were killed that day" (Helsinki Watch, 1993: 82). In the Bosnian town of Biscani, another Muslim housewife testified, with horrifying matter-of-factness:

They were shelling our village [while] I was in a shelter. Some men got away. Those who were in their homes were beaten, tortured and killed by the Cetniks. ... We came out of the shelter. They 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 executions. They killed his brother and father. Afterwards the women buried the men. (Helsinki Watch, 1993: 82-83)(17)

The largest gender-specific slaughter to come to international attention - though, again, with little note taken of the gender dimension - was the August 1992 massacre at Ugar Gorge in Bosnia, reported by one of just seven known survivors last October. [1998 note: This has since been surpassed by the slaughter of thousands of men in fields outside Srebrenica in 1995.] It highlights the contrast with [126] massacres of women, discussed earlier, containing as it does a gender-selective as well as a gender-specific dimension.

"At about 8 o'clock in the morning on Aug. 21, the Serbs brought five city buses to [the Bosnian detention centre of] Trnopolje," the survivor told Time. "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 in 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 get two 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. (Quoted in Graff, 1992)(18)

An important additional variable in some executions of males appears to be community prominence. This correlates closely with gender, given the global predominance of men among political, intellectual, and economic elites. An integral part of the process of "ethnic cleansing" in Bosnia-Herzegovina includes the rounding-up, incarceration, and/or execution of prominent members of the community: mayors, other officials, teachers, intellectuals, and so on. This element is indirectly brought out in Newsweek's feature report on "rape [as] an integral part of ethnic cleansing":

In such Bosnian towns as Brcko, Kotor Varos, Zvornik, leading citizens anyone who owned a business, participated in the Party of Democratic Action, held a university degree were hunted down and liquidated. The rest of the male population was packed off to prison camps. (Newsweek, 1993, emphasis added)(19)


The most vivid evidence of male-specific victimization to arouse international protest was turned up by outside investigation of Bosnian Serb "prison camps" established in occupied territory. While both women and men have been detained, the two "most brutal" camps - Omarska and Keraterm, both closed after international protests in late August 1992 - were overwhelmingly male-dominated (Helsinki Watch, 1993: 33).(20) In many instances, it also appears that the gender- and age-based separation process carried out by occupying forces led to men being detained [127] while women and children were allowed to flee the area as refugees.(21)

Amnesty International (1993b: 2) notes instances in which "some refugee convoys leaving Serbian controlled territory have been stopped and some men separated from their families and arbitrarily imprisoned." The organization also cites testimony from civilian women concerning "the arbitrary imprisonment of their men." The function of this gender-selective procedure seems plain: the camps are designed to incarcerate males who might join or be conscripted into Bosnian or Croatian resistance forces.

Conditions inside the camps have received extensive publicity in the West, though again with the gender dimension usually lacking as a primary concern:

What prisoners most feared were the regular beatings which usually occurred at night, often after the [Serbian] soldiers had apparently been drinking heavily. "The most terrible thing was waiting for your name to be called out," recalled one former prisoner. ... The selected prisoner was usually taken to another building about 15 metres away, from which the other prisoners could hear screams of pain. One or more guards would kick the prisoner, punch him and beat him with wooden truncheons. The victim was returned to the cell usually after a period of between 30 minutes and two hours, usually extensively bruised. (Amnesty International, 1993b: 10)

Amnesty International provides accounts of inmates whose beatings left them "black and blue everywhere. One couldn't find a place big enough to stick in a needle that wasn't bruised." "When I was undressed my arms looked ... as if they had been inflated with a pump for car tyres" (Amnesty International, 1993b: 11-12). Testimony gathered by Helsinki Watch included accounts like the following, from a female detainee:

Most of the prisoners brought to Omarska were men, ranging in age from fifteen to about fifty-five. They most frequently arrived in a paddy wagon, although some arrived in buses. All were beaten as soon as they emerged from the vehicle. They were then beaten against the wall and thrown into various buildings on the camp grounds. ... We saw the men being tortured. They were beaten with braided cable wires. Pipes filled with lead were also used to beat the men. ... The most traumatic experience for me was to see all the corpses. ... Sometimes there was a lesser number of bodies - twenty or thirty - but usually there were more. (Helsinki Watch, 1993: 102-03)

[128] It is clear that largescale deaths and executions occurred in the camps, although the extent to which this represents a systematic pattern of extermination à la the Nazi death camps of World War II remains a subject of controversy. Helsinki Watch (1993: 105) reports that "most of the deaths that occurred at [Omarska] were a result of bestial beatings," but "some prisoners appear to have been summarily executed or shot by firing squads."(22)

Occupied Territories: A Climate of Fear

It is apparent from accounts offered by rape victims that women are by no means immune to abuse, harassment, and victimization - up to and including torture and murder - at the hands of occupying forces in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Nonetheless, Amnesty International's investigation of the situation in the Serb-controlled town of Bosanski Petrovac suggests a disproportionate male vulnerability to victimization reflected in a pervasive climate of fear that affects men more than others in occupied communities.

"Muslim men, in particular, have said that because of the growing fear they tried to avoid walking in the streets of Bosanski Petrovac, even during the day," Amnesty reports. Later, the report notes that "Some Muslim men, who felt especially at risk, slept away from their homes in places such as orchards. Women slept in the basements of their houses." The reasons for the fear are not hard to ascertain. First of all, males in Bosanski Petrovac have great difficulty leaving the occupied areas, if they choose to do so:

Even after being assured safe passage, some refugee convoys leaving Serbian controlled territory have been stopped and some men separated from their families and arbitrarily imprisoned. ... In about May [1992] roadblocks were set up around the town and while initially most people were allowed to pass, by June there were reports of Muslims being prevented from leaving at these checkpoints, particularly if they were males of military age or appeared to be leaving with many of their possessions.

In addition to facing "arbitrary imprisonment," men released from custody "were still required to report to the police every morning and evening." "Civilian men of military age" living in the town were also "required by the Serbian authorities to do forced labour" - ditch-digging, field work, and fence-construction, among other duties. (All quotes from Amnesty International, 1992b.)

Conscription is also a constant threat contributing to the climate of fear. Helsinki Watch investigators visited the Bosnian town of Banja [129] Luka in August 1992 and "spoke to Muslims who said that a succession of five draft notices had been issued to men in the Banja Luka area since the beginning of the war in April 1992":

Mobilization calls were reportedly broadcast on the radio. Those who responded were given mobilization slips, which allowed them to go to work. Those who refused to join the [Bosnian] Serb Army - mostly Muslims and Croats - were not given the necessary papers that allowed them to enter their places of employment. Because they were not able to go to work, many were fired from their jobs. Those interviewed said that until recently, they have "lived like rats," not daring to leave their homes. (Helsinki Watch, 1993: 49)

Also reporting from Banja Luka, McKinsey (1993) describes the plight of one woman whose "husband hasn't left their house for more than a year, ever since he refused to be inducted into the Yugoslav army or the Bosnian Serb army fighting to destroy internationally recognized Bosnia. Some of his friends who also refused to serve the Serbs were snatched off the street and thrown in prison."


The analytical framework adopted in this article can only be a provisional one, given the context of intense and ongoing conflict in ex-Yugoslavia. Two serious constraints must be acknowledged. First, the range and reliability of the statistical information emerging from ex-Yugoslavia is limited. In many cases, "the numbers being bandied about appear to have little basis in careful, independent fact-finding" (Neier, 1993), and are subject to manipulation by all sides for propaganda purposes.(24) Second, the body of scholarly analysis of the course of conflict in ex-Yugoslavia (as opposed to its underlying causes) is all but nonexistent.

This article has relied, accordingly, on two main sources: mass-media reports and human rights investigations. Under these circumstances, no more than a "rough draft" of events and underlying trends is possible. The propositions offered here require extensive research and field investigation to test their validity.

A more basic critique of existing approaches can be advanced with greater confidence. It centres on the fact that the gender variable, inclusively approached, is remarkably under-represented in the literature on ethnic conflict, revolution, and political violence. Perhaps the pathbreaking efforts of feminist scholars - with their normative commitment to the alleviation of social injustice and human suffering - [130] could usefully be supplemented by broader, more nuanced investigations along the lines proposed here.(25)

Books about gender and international relations


1. A common feminist riposte is that most fields of study in patriarchal society have been dominated by male figures and "masculinist" themes. Brod, though, argues that "While seemingly about men, traditional scholarship's treatment of generic man as the human norm in fact systematically excludes from consideration what is unique to men qua men. The overgeneralization from male to generic human experience not only distorts our understanding of what, if anything, is truly generic to humanity but also precludes the study of masculinity as a specific male experience, rather than a universal paradigm for human experience. The most general definition of men's studies is that it is the study of masculinities and male experiences as specific and varying socialhistoricalcultural formations. Such studies situate masculinities as objects of study on a par with femininities, instead of elevating them to universal norms." (In Brod, ed., 1987: 2.)

2. For a representative sampling of other media reports, see Halsell, 1993; "Women: the targets of terror," Montreal Gazette, 23 November 1992; "Serbs accused of using rape as tool of war," The Vancouver Sun (from the London Independent), 6 January 1993, A8; "Rape becomes 'a weapon of war,"' The New York Times, 10 January 1993; Tamar Lewin, "The Balkans rapes: a legal test for the outraged," The New York Times, 15 January 1993.

3. Both of these figures are for the period ending in October 1992. For criticism of the "competition to come up with greater numbers of rapes in Bosnia than everyone else," see Neier, 1993: 259. (Neier is executive director of Human Rights Watch, which subsumes the organization Helsinki Watch.)

4. The term "rape camps" is not actually used in the Amnesty report.

5. For specific comments on rape in ex-Yugoslavia, see Brownmiller, 1993: 37. "Sexual sadism arises with astonishing rapidity in ground warfare, when the penis becomes justified as a weapon in a logistical reality of unarmed noncombatants, encircled and trapped. Rape of a doubly dehumanized object - as woman, as enemy - carries its own terrible logic. In one act of aggression, the collective spirit of women and of the nation is broken, leaving a reminder long after the troops depart. And if she survives the assault, what does the victim of wartime rape become to her people? Evidence of the enemy's bestiality. Symbol of her nation's defeat. A pariah. Damaged property. A pawn in the subtle wars of international propaganda."

6. Helsinki Watch similarly reports that "Whether a woman is raped by soldiers in her home or is held in a house with other women and raped over and over again, she is raped with a political purpose - to intimidate, humiliate and degrade her and others affected by her suffering. The effect of rape is often to ensure that women and their families will flee and never return." Helsinki Watch, 1993: 21.

[131] 7. For another version of this event, see Helsinki Watch, 1993: 273.

8. The quoted passage is from Amnesty International, 1993a: 1. In its global survey of "Human rights violations against women" (1991), Amnesty isolates "Rape," "Sexual humiliation, threats, and other abuse," and human rights abuses that involve pregnant women as the gender-specific forms of rights violations against women. Perhaps one would wish to add state legislation directed against women who fail to conform to established state standards of "propriety," e.g. in Iran and elsewhere in the Muslim world. The Amnesty report adds: "In addition to those abuses to which their sex makes them particularly vulnerable, women also suffer forms of torture, ill-treatment and harassment which are not gender-specific."

9. "Witnesses tell of Serbian horror trains," The Vancouver Sun (from Newsday), 22 July 1992.

10. A relevant example here is the town of Trnopolje, which was turned into a combination ghetto and detention centre, and from which many of the accounts of rape and sexual torture of women originate. "S.S.," a 40-year-old Muslim woman from Trnopolje, told of the summary execution and mass incarceration of men when Serb forces took over: "The army came to the village to take the men to detention centers. There was a lot of blood on the streets. They killed and tortured them. I saw it happen; they put the men together and called out names. Those called by name were taken to a barn, and all we could hear were gunshots. I didn't know where my husband was for eight days, then I heard he was [incarcerated] in Keraterm [concentration camp]. In my village, about 180 men were killed. The army put all men in the center of the village. After the killing, the women took care of the bodies and identified them. The older men buried the bodies." Helsinki Watch, 1993: 58.

11. I mean, here, that the decision to evacuate women and children from a community is often taken by community members themselves; while voluntary armed service and gender-selective conscription are disproportionately male phenomena.

12. Indeed, the paradigmatic war-criminal is a young Serbian male, Borislav Herak, whose chilling testimony of rape and mass murder before a tribunal in Sarajevo received wide publicity in western media. See Burns, 1992. There are, however, regular reports of women serving as guards in concentration camps. Testimony gathered by Helsinki Watch from the Croatian-run detention facility of Dretelj in Bosnia included references to "three or four women guards who were worse than the men." One man's account included sexual torture at the hands of women guards: "They would undress a man, line the rest of us up and make us perform oral sex on him, another prisoner. There were two Ustasa [Croatian] women, sisters, who liked to force us to do this: Marina and Gordana Grubisi. They would make fifty to sixty of us do this. We would throw up and faint." Helsinki Watch, 1993: 339. Small numbers of women volunteers have also served in the armed forces of all sides, and there are accounts of women joining men in ransacking and occupying Muslim households in Bosnia (see, e.g., Helsinki Watch, 1993: 54).

13. Balkan women, on the other hand, "whatever their ethnic and religious background ... have been thrust against their will into another identity. They are victims of rape in war" (Brownmiller, 1993).

14. See also the discussion of a "climate of fear" in occupied territory, below.

15. Reporting from the besieged Bosnian town of Mostar, Smith writes: "Normally about 120,000 people live in Mostar but many women and children have joined the estimated 122,000 refugees the conflict has produced. Males between 16 and 60 are not allowed [by surrounding Serb forces] to leave the city even if they have not been persuaded to join the [Bosnian] combatants."

16. In this case, the U.N. resorted to helicopter airlifts in an attempt to circumvent Serb restrictions, but these were much smaller in scale, leaving behind large numbers of trapped, desperate, and wounded males who feared execution or incarceration when Srebrenica fell to the Serbs.

[132] 17. See also the account of the massacre at the village of Skelani in Srebrenica municipality, in May 1992: "The shooting started at about 4:00 p.m., but we were surrounded and could not escape. They finally entered the village at 8:00 p.m. and immediately began setting houses on fire, looking for men and executing them. When they got to our house, they ordered us to come out with hands raised above our heads, including the children. There were four men among us, and they shot them in front of us. ... I saw another six men killed nearby." The account is given by Farima, a Muslim woman. Helsinki Watch reports that "she and her children were taken to the police station, where they were insulted but not harmed physically. ... The women and children spent the night in the police station and then were transported from Bosnia." (All quotes from Helsinki Watch, 1993: 257, emphasis added.)

18. For a more detailed account of the massacre at Ugar Gorge, see Helsinki Watch, 1993: 34-42.

19. See also the Washington Post press account cited in Helsinki Watch (1993: 73, n. 87) reporting on the "ethnic cleansing" of the Bosnian Muslim town of Kozarac. "Prominent Muslims in Kozarac were identified 'for arrest, detention and eventual elimination' [quoting the Post]. Those identified included members of Bosnia's parliament, judges, police officers, restaraunt [sic] owners, entrepeneurs [sic], factory managers and local sports heroes. Some were shot on the spot, while others were pulled aside and killed."

20. The organization gives the population of Omarska, for example, as 2,000 men and 33 to 38 women (Helsinki Watch, 1993: 87). "Omarska appears to have been the most brutal of the four Serbian-operated camps that were discovered by the press during the summer of 1982. Almost all former Omarska detainees interviewed by Helsinki Watch claimed that they had been bestially beaten, that scores had died from the beatings and that some were executed" (Helsinki Watch, 1993: 89). There is no indication that any of the female detainees were killed (Helsinki Watch, 1993: 113 and n. 154).

21. The instances of such gender-based separation cited by Helsinki Watch are too numerous to mention. See, e.g, Helsinki Watch, 1993: 52 (n. 51), 60, 65-66, 67, 69, 70, 74, 76, 80 ... . Similar procedures have been implemented by Muslim forces in the areas of central and southwestern Bosnia they control or have controlled. See, e.g., Helsinki Watch, 1993: 12: "After an area is captured by Muslim troops, Serbian men between the ages of eighteen and sixty frequently are taken to detention facilities and women, children and elderly persons are asked to which area they want to be evacuated. They are then placed on buses or trains and taken to the destination of their choice."

22. Typical is the account offered by "Idriz," a Muslim detainee: "Every night, guards would read ten or fifteen names from a list. They read out the person's first name, his surname and his date of birth. These men were then taken from the room and returned later in awful condition. They were bloody, their bones were broken and they were falling down, vomiting blood and fainting. By morning, some would be dead. Actually, very few survived [the beatings]." Helsinki Watch, 1993: 123. In general, greater constraints appear to have been placed on violence against female detainees. The Helsinki Watch report includes occasional testimony along these lines, such as these accounts from the Trnopolje ghetto: "Women were sometimes interrogated at night about their husbands but the women were not heavily abused; they were just slapped several times" (1993: 145). "From time to time, they would kick and beat women but not as brutally as they beat the men" (1993: 185). The Serb-run camps that are generally held to be the least brutal (Manjaca and Trnopolje) were also those with the greatest proportion of women and the elderly. The most extreme (that is, murderous) abuses at these camps seem to have been directed disproportionately against males: "Although abuses in the Trnopolje camp were more random and not as bestial as in Omarska, Keraterm and Manjaca, gross abuses did occur. Men were taken from the [133] camp by guards and were subsequently 'disappeared"' (Helsinki Watch, 1993: 139-40).

23. The kind of sexual torture and humiliation regularly visited upon women in the Balkan conflict also appears to be an occasional feature of the lives of male detainees. "Amnesty International has received allegations of instances of male prisoners in detention under the control of both Serbian and Bosnian Government forces being made to perform sexual acts with each other. However, these reports are few in comparison with the numerous reports and allegations of rape or sexual abuse of women." Amnesty International, 1992a: 5. For an example of sexual torture of males - in this case, at the hands of women - see note 12.

24. Such manipulation carries over to western commentary, as Neier (1993) notes. Legal scholar Catharine MacKinnon has cited a figure of over 50,000 women and children raped in the Balkan conflict, and "another 100,000 killed." As Neier points out, MacKinnon's phrasing is ambiguous (perhaps deliberately so?); the 100,000 figure actually refers to all victims of the conflict, most of whom are men. This has not stopped the statistic from circulating in media commentary, however: "MacKinnon, who is representing the Bosnian victims pro bono, puts the total at 'more than 50,000' women and girls raped, and another 100,000 women and children killed" (Halsell, 1993: 9, emphasis added).

25. For one example of this kind of balanced, gender-sensitive investigation outside the present context, see Indian feminist Madhu Kishwar's report on the 1984 anti-Sikh rioting in New Delhi following the assassination of Indira Gandhi. "The nature of the attacks confirm that there was a deliberate plan to kill as many Sikh men as possible, hence nothing was left to chance. That also explains why in almost all cases, after hitting or stabbing, the victims were doused with kerosene or petrol and burnt, so as to leave no possibility of their surviving. Between October 31 and November 4, more than 2,500 men were murdered in different parts of Delhi, according to several careful unofficial estimates. There have been very few cases of women being killed except when they got trapped in houses which were set on fire. Almost all the women interviewed described how men and young boys were special targets. They were dragged out of the houses, attacked with stones and rods, and set on fire. ... When women tried to protect the men of their families, they were given a few blows and forcibly separated from the men. Even when they clung to the men, trying to save them, they were hardly ever attacked the way men were. I have not yet heard of a case of a woman being assaulted and then burnt to death by the mob." Kishwar, "Delhi: Gangster Rule," in Patwant Singh and Harji Malik, ed., Punjab: The Fatal Miscalculation (New Delhi: Patwant Singh, 1985), pp. 171-78. My thanks to Hamish Telford for bringing this source to my attention.


Amnesty International. 1993a. Bosnia-Herzegovina: Rape and sexual abuse by armed forces. Report released 21 January.

----------. 1993b. Bosnia-Herzegovina: A wound to the soul. Report released 21 January.

----------. 1991. Women in the Front Line. Report published March.

Brod, Harry. 1987. "Introduction: Themes and Theses." In Brod, ed., The Making of Masculinities: The New Men's Studies. Boston: Unwin Hyman.

Brownmiller, Susan. 1993. "Making Female Bodies the Battlefield." Newsweek, 4 January.

----------. 1975. Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape. New York: Bantam.

Burns, John F. 1992. "Cold Serbian executioner." The Vancouver Sun (from The New York Times), 28 November, A14.

Drakulic, Slavenka. 1993. "Women Hide Behind A Wall of Silence." The Nation, 1 March, p. 270.

----------. 1992. "Rape After Rape After Rape." The New York Times, 13 December, E17.

Graff, James L. 1992. "Murder at Ugar Gorge." Time Magazine, 12 October, 62.

Grant, Rebecca. 1991. "The Quagmire of Gender and International Security." In V. Spike Peterson, ed., Gendered States: Feminist (Re)Visions of International Relations Theory. Boulder and London: Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc.

Halsell, Grace. 1993. "Women's Bodies a Battlefield In War for 'Greater Serbia'." The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, April/May, 8-9.

Helsinki Watch. 1993. War Crimes in Bosnia-Hercegovina, Volume II. New York: Human Rights Watch.

Jacobs, Marsha. 1993. Interview, Vancouver, 31 March.

McKinsey, Kitty. 1993. "Muslims terrorized by Serbs." The Vancouver Sun, 22 February, A8.

----------. 1992. "Crammed with refugees." The Montreal Gazette, date unavailable.

Neier, Aryeh. 1993. "Watching Rights." The Nation, 1 March.

Newsweek. 1993. "A Pattern of Rape" (Cover Story). Newsweek, 4 January, 32-36.

----------. 1992. "Life and Death in the Camps" (Cover Story). 17 August.

Sudeti, Chuck. 1993. "U.N. Fliers Remove Trapped Bosnians." The New York Times, 20 April.

Sherwell, Philip. 1992a. "Fleeing soldiers denied sanctuary by Croat leader." The Globe and Mail, 22 July, A6.

----------. 1992b. "Massacre in name of ethnic cleansing." The Globe and Mail, 8 August, A1.

Smith, Colin. 1992. "Bosnia's Beirut echoes with fury of 'Stalin's war'." The London Observer, 3 May, 14.

Vancouver Sun. 1992. "Report claims 2,000 Muslims killed." 23 October, A18.

Waddington, Richard. 1992. "PoWs thought they would be battling Italians," Reuters dispatch in the Montreal Gazette.

Copyright 1994 by Routledge Publishers. Used by permission.
Note that the shorter and more polemical version of this argument, "Terminal Sexism," is available for unrestricted classroom or textbook use.  [Link to
Terminal Sexism.]
Last updated: 12 October 2000.