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Women, War, and Rape

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The soldier shown above is a Bosnian named Benadita. She's 16. Her father's a battalion commander of the army of Bosnia-Herzegovina, and she belongs to a small company of 36 women volunteers. The war in which she's been fighting tugs at America's heartstrings, although "It's the economy, stupid" remains the wisdom this nation lives by.

Pundits flourish in times of national paralysis, and the Tribune's response to the Balkan warfare has been exemplary. Editorially, the paper opposes armed American intervention in the region, a position columnist Stephen Chapman frequently argues at length. "The trouble with the policy of humanitarian military intervention," Chapman wrote just last Sunday, "is that it's a blank check payable to a bankrupt world."

But just as frequently syndicated columnist William Pfaff has argued that the Western powers must step in. Their record of doing nothing but supporting the Vance-Owens plan to dismember Bosnia, Pfaff said in the Tribune two Sundays ago, "is a chronicle of diplomatic and political incompetence and folly worse than that of the 1930s."

In an analysis of the Balkan crisis that appeared in January, the Tribune's man on the scene, Thom Shanker, came down on the side of Pfaff. "By doing nothing to halt carnage in Bosnia, the White House sent a message to every authoritarian figure around the globe that if they massacre unwanted minorities, herd their young men into stinking concentration camps and rape their women, young and old, Washington will look the other way."

Should Washington look the other way regardless? That's the nub of the debate. Recently we noticed that we hadn't heard from the half of the country that might feel most agitated by their government's inaction. As Shanker wrote, "It took four months, until December, for Western powers to acknowledge that there was an organized strategy to terrorize and debase Muslim women through a campaign of mass rape. And even that acknowledgment was in response to global outrage at estimates that the number of victims had grown to 20,000 in the months since the campaign of rape was uncovered."

Consider a Mike Royko column of a couple of weeks ago, a column ridiculing the notion of equal opportunity for women in combat: "As one angry female political commentator sniffed on CNN the other day: 'Modern wars are fought differently.' She should pass that profound insight along to some of the rape victims in Bosnia."

A feminist could turn Royko's comment upside down. OK, modern wars are no different. If women are the inevitable victims of war, all the more reason for women to fight in them. Yet as overmatched and threatened by total defeat as Benadita's side now happens to be, American women have neither demanded nor even pleaded for American arms to be brought to bear on her behalf. Of course few women write op-ed columns, and the ones who do tend to leave talk of wars and armies to the menfolk. But even in feminist media where the spirit of sisterhood flourishes, the favored agenda is unlikely to do Bosnian women in Serbian camps much good. And on the far left some women even discern in reports such as Shanker's the oligarchic media peddling rape hysteria to serve the interventionary appetites of U.S. imperialism.

We've spotted just one call to arms. It was made by author Sandra Cisneros in a speech adapted for the New York Times. "Dear To Whom It May Concern, I've had it with the lot of you, all of you," she cried. "This is real. I'm not making this story up. A woman is there [in Bosnia]. She's my friend, take my word for it. She's in there. Get her out, I tell you. Get them out. . . . I demand you march, take a plane, better take a tank. . . . I demand you go right in there, I demand you give me a sword mightier than this useless pen of mine . . . "

But how did even Cisneros conclude? "And I don't know what to do. I don't know what to do."

"Rape has always been a military tactic, a combat 'perk,' whether by direct order or implicit prerogative," observes the editorial in the current Ms., the universalizing italics the magazine's. "Rape is a violent act--and a political act. How long must we scream to make the world understand? . . . If rape in war is a weapon, then what is it in peacetime?"

Ms. doesn't tell women what to do about Bosnia. But in the new issue of New Directions for Women, Dorie Wilsnack, treasurer of War Resisters International, offers some advice. She urges her readers to "look beyond the stark media stories to the wider context of information about rape and war. . . . We owe it to the Bosnian women to educate ourselves about the nature of rape and war, how these two acts of aggression are related and how they foster each other. . . . THE BOSNIAN RAPES [her emphasis] ARE UNIQUE ONLY BECAUSE WE HAVE READ DETAILED REPORTS IN THE MEDIA."

Do American women owe Bosnian women anything more specific than this education? Yes, says Wilsnack. "Women working with rape victims in former Yugoslavia . . . can always use financial contributions. . . . There is important support work to do here in the U.S. as well: building the campaign to make rape a war crime; demanding that the U.S. welcome Bosnian refugees; opposing plans for outside military intervention . . . "

Earlier this month, Madre, a New York organization that focuses on women's and children's issues, brought its "Mother Courage" tour to the University of Illinois at Chicago. The tour's subject was rape as an instrument of war, and although publicity focused on Bosnian horrors, there were speakers not only from Serbia, Croatia, and Bosnia but also from Nicaragua, Palestine, and the Philippines. All these women had dreadful stories to tell. The Bosnian panelist--a Bosnian American professor named Dr. Safija Sarich--listened with discontent.

"The Mother Courage tour, you know, focused on rape as a universal sort of occurrence in war," she told us later. "Their position is every rape is the same, and what is going on in Bosnia today is not particularly different." (The executive director of Madre, Vivian Stromberg, explains, "I don't want to create a hierarchy of rape.")

Sarich thinks Bosnia is different fundamentally. "Western journalists who have interviewed these people have concluded this is a government program, part of the genocide of the entire Bosnian people." She said the women are raped repeatedly, under orders of Serbian officers, in front of other prisoners, and if not then killed left feeling too defiled ever to return to the Muslim villages the Serbs wish to eradicate. "All of this to me adds up to a genocide," said Serich. "I attempted to convey these concepts to the audiences. Some did see the distinction, but other speakers said, 'On the streets of San Francisco women are raped. Women are raped in their beds.' I said, 'Yes, but also there are these differences.'"

Three months ago, before she felt the differences so strongly, a Chicago woman named Aimee Wielechowski circulated an open letter that made the usual "demands" on President Clinton and UN Secretary General Boutros-Ghali. The most bellicose was to "strengthen United Nations peace-keeping forces and expand their mandate to include the protection of vulnerable groups, including women threatened by rape and other forms of violence." Others ranged from the broadcasting of warnings to all soldiers, officers, and government leaders in the region that rape can be prosecuted as a war crime to "culturally sensitive woman-centered humanitarian aid."

Wielechowski's a leader of the Bosnian committee of the Women's Action Coalition, a group of young Chicago women who don't believe it's enough just to talk about the issues that trouble them. She has gradually concluded that what Bosnian women need most is more and bigger guns.

"When feminists talk about Bosnia they talk about rape and they talk about women, but there's not a lot of discussion about what do we do about it," Wielechowski told us the other day. "Historically women have been antiwar, so it poses a difficult dilemma. If we call for American intervention, that's prolonging the war. If we call for lifting the arms embargo, that's prolonging the war.

"Women emotionally feel this issue. But there's a gap between feeling it and responding to it. It's one thing to respond to the rapes, but it's another to call for action--which is what needs to be done."

Wielechowski now believes the arms embargo must be lifted so the forces defending Bosnia can fight on a more equal footing with the armies overrunning it. This position is so unremarkable that the Tribune holds it, but for a woman of the left it's new ground. Do you know a single woman who supports American military intervention? we asked her. "That's not what's being discussed," she replied. "What's being discussed are care issues and legal issues. It's reactionary rather than proactive." She said, "To me, as a feminist, this brings up so many issues I have never had to deal with."

The photo of Benadita was taken by Ljubomir Sopcic. He's a Croatian American who recently returned to Chicago after ten weeks in Bosnia, and he believes nothing can save that country now but NATO air strikes. Wielechowski has posted several of Sopcic's pictures on a wall of Women & Children First, the bookstore where she works, and we asked her to study the photo of Benadita and react to it.

"Partly it's frightening," she said. "But on the other hand it's empowering to know that in some way women are taking control of the situation and are not caught up in all these debates we're caught up in. I think back to how excited women were when the two fictional characters Thelma and Louise took the issue of rape into their own hands and how much we supported them. Maybe peoples' responses to the picture will be--'Well, that's fantastic.' I don't know. But part of me hopes that the women are hating the fact that they have to fight, hating the fact that no one in the international community is coming to their aid, and that they're not enjoying killing people. Maybe that's the higher moral standard I have for women."

Dick Tracy's new author isn't as unlikely as he sounds. Besides his supercilious Tribune coverage of high society Michael Kilian writes mystery novels, and he tells us that by cutting back on his books from one a year to one every other he'll have time for the strip.

Kilian succeeds another crime writer, Max Allan Collins, who was booted early this year by Tribune Media Services. Tribune editorial cartoonist Richard Locher, who will go on drawing Tracy, had been doing the writing in the meantime.

"One thing I want to do is have it deal quite directly with the real crime problems we're faced with in 1993," Kilian told us. "My first story's about racial and ethnic hate crimes, for example. The second one is about carjacking. But Tracy stays the same. He's America's greatest cop, still true to Tess Trueheart."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Ljubomir Sopcic.

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