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Court fees and fear: Bosnia war rape victims struggle

A woman mourns after a mass funeral for victims of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre. There is no suggestion that the woman pictured in this image is sexual assault victim [Matej Divizna/Getty]

Two decades have passed since the war ended in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but Selma - not her real name - still lives in fear.

She is a survivor of rape and a former prisoner of the 1992-95 Bosnian war, in which an estimated 100,000 people were killed. Some estimates put the number of women raped during the conflict at up to 50,000.

A team of lawyers contacted Selma and other victims of torture 10 years ago to sue Bosnia's Serb-dominated Republika Srpska entity for damages.

She paid the requested amount of 25 euros, but didn't expect much from the case.

But six years later, she was shocked to learn that she owes 2,500 euros for court fees since the claim for damages was rejected due to the expiration of the statute of limitations.

Courts in Republika Srpska had declared that legal cases against the entity had to be filed by 2001.

Torture victims face court fees of up to 5,000 euros due to lost civil proceedings, an exorbitant amount for those who are already struggling to make ends meet.

Over the past few months, she has been getting more notices regarding her debt.

Selma's monthly salary is a mere 250 euros and she worries this will likely be partly deducted to settle the fees. Authorities visited her home last month and wrote up a list of all of her items to be confiscated.

"I'd rather be killed than give my money to [President of Republika Srpska] Milorad Dodik. When they pay me for my destroyed life, then I'll pay the [court] fees without another word," Selma told Al Jazeera.

"They destroyed me [during the war] and they continue to destroy me today."

Selma said she would rather die than give what little money she has to the government of Milorad Dodik, president of Republika Srpska [File: Dado Ruvic/Reuters]

Selma was held captive as a prisoner three times during the war.

She spent time in a concentration camp and the third time that she was held, soldiers from the Republika Srpska army raped her, leaving her pregnant.

Over the course of six months, she made 17 attempts to escape to liberated territory held by Bosnian government forces (ARBIH).

It wasn't until ARBIH freed the prisoners from the concentration camp run by the Republika Srpska army that she managed to make the two-day trek through forests, mountains and hills to reach free territory in February 1993.

Seventeen others who were travelling with her didn't survive; they died overnight due to the freezing cold.

To try and recover, Selma spent two months at the psychiatry ward and for six years has been regularly consuming antidepressants.

But now, having received the latest court order urging her to pay the fees, she relives her trauma everyday.

'I really don't know how I'll survive this'

Another survivor of rape who participated in the civil proceeding is already having her pension deducted, Selma explained.

A third woman, she said, had all her assets confiscated, including the plastic chairs on her front porch after authorities broke into her home and raided the house at 3am.

Selma waits in anxiety each night, expecting her turn at any moment.

"That's how [Bosnian Serb forces] arrived in 1992. If it'll be like that again, then I really don't know how I'll survive this," Selma said.

"Whenever a car stops by my house, I think 'It's them.' I already survived this experience in 1992. And now again, even after 25 years, there's still no end to it. After 25 years, I still haven't freed myself from [Serbian] Chetniks.

"For a while I was thinking of filling up bottles with gasoline and to welcome [the authorities] this way because I have nothing to lose anymore; I've already lost everything. But then I thought about how my son needs me and I changed my mind."

With no legal mechanism in place that would cover victims' court fees, torture victims have appealed to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, seeking their rights.

No rights for victims of torture

A state-level law on the rights of victims of torture was first introduced in parliament in 2014, but it wasn't adopted due to a lack of support from Republika Srpska representatives, who claimed that it would discriminate against Serbs.

The initiative to implement a law started in 2004 and since then has been drafted at least eight times.

If it's adopted, it would regulate compensation for torture victims according to the state's economic ability, as well as provide free healthcare and psychological aid.

"We believe that it is morally unacceptable, after dismissing their claims, to further demand the victims be the ones to pay the enormous amounts to the entities and the state they sued, who are responsible for the great suffering and damage caused to the victims during the war," said Adisa Fisic Barukcija, spokesperson for TRIAL International, an NGO that fights for international crimes and supports victims in their quest for justice.

"There is no justification for this, especially considering the fact that the incurred costs of the entities' Attorney's Offices are reimbursed through special budgets, regardless of any additional charge."

At least 30,000 applications for compensation have been filed; among which 90 percent of them to courts in Republika Srpska.

In January 2017, regarding the case of Cindric and Beslic (victims of war crimes) v. Croatia at the European Court of Human Rights, judges ruled that after their compensation claim is dismissed, victims aren't obligated to pay court fees to the state.

"Unfortunately, there are few examples in Bosnia and Herzegovina of cases where the judgment Cindric and Beslic is applied, which is why the victims who have started civil proceedings are living with a constant fear of the results of the proceedings and the consequences they might have on them and their families," Fisic Barukcija said.

A rosary is placed on a tombstone at the Memorial Center Potocari, near Srebrenica [File: Antonio Bronic/Reuters]

So far 10 victims of sexual abuse during wartime Bosnia have been awarded compensation for damages, according to statistics by TRIAL.

However even when the civil proceeding is successful and the perpetrator is found guilty, he's often financially unable to pay for damages.

In one case a member of the Republika Srpska army was found guilty and sentenced to eight years in prison along with paying 15,000 euros in damages to his victim that he raped.

Since the convict didn't have the money, Bosnia and Herzegovina as a signatory of the UN convention against torture is required to pay compensation for the victim from state funds.

The rape survivor could have used the much needed money to help recover as she suffers from schizophrenia and severe post-traumatic stress disorder.

However, since Bosnia still does not have a state mechanism in place to do so, TRIAL decided last month to appeal to the UN Committee against Torture for the first time, taking the case to an international level.

Selma however lost all hope in the justice system long ago.

Her concern is that authorities will make a scene in the neighbourhood when they come to confiscate her items and that she will have to explain her story to the neighbours and to her son.

"The authorities can take whatever they want. I'm just worried that [their arrival] will make a mess in my life and for my son. He still doesn't know [that he was born out of rape]. I've been waiting for him to mature a bit more to explain some things to him. I'm scared for him," Selma said.

"I've already been through it all; I'm already numb. If you could cut me up right now, I don't think any blood would flow. I'm worried for my son.

"I just want this whole ordeal to be done with so I can finally breathe."

(c) 2017 Aljazeera

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