NEW OPTICS: THE PRISM SERIES
#1: Historic recognition for children born from rape
For the first time in Europe, children born from wartime rape have been given legal recognition. Remarkably this law has been drafted and adopted in Bosnia, a country where an estimated 20,000 – 50,000 women were raped during the Bosnian War 1992 – 1995. The number of babies born due to this wartime rape is unknown, even now 30 years since the war began, there are no official figures of the number of children who have been born from war rape and only a handful have come forward. For many survivors and their children the stigma and societal prejudice of wartime rape is still too great and the trauma too raw.
One of the few who has refused to hide away, is a boy, now a grown man born in Goražde, Alen Muhić. I first met Alen in 2005 when I was making a film for UK Channel 4 News about the survivors of sexual violence in the Bosnian war. Alen was 12 years old and was the very first child to speak out in public about his origins. Alen’s adoptive parents took advice from psychologists and encouraged Alen to speak out and be interviewed. He had already been filmed by a Bosnian filmmaker Šemsudin Gegić who had made a documentary about Alen, A Boy from a War Movie in 2004.
When I met him in 2005 he appeared to be incredibly well-adjusted and just like any 12 year old boy, who loved football and Information Technology. He refused to hide away then or now and his adoptive family told us they were determined the circumstances of his birth would not determine his life. In 2005 when I was filming with Alen, I was particularly struck by his sensitivity and insight when he told me,
“I wonder how our mothers feel
who had been raped by those
fighters and who give up their children”
Alen Muhić 2005 Fiona Lloyd-Davies/ ITN Productions (2005)
Alen was adopted by the Muhić family after Muharem Muhić, the night watchman at the hospital, heard of Alen’s circumstances from the moment he was born. But so did the rest of this town, besieged, shelled, starving and in extremis, it was only a matter of time until Alen would find out the nature of his origins.
Amina Hujdur from Trial International told me “this [legislation] represents a truly momentous milestone, as this is the first time on the [European] continent that these children are recognised as a specific category of victims of war”. This is not just a dry bit of legalese, it has real benefits for Alen and the few others who have come forward. Whenever they apply for any kind of benefit, scholarship or something that requires paperwork, in the past they have been asked for the name of their father. A fact they either don’t know or perhaps even if they have been able to find out, do not want any association with. For Ajna Jusić, a young woman also born from war rape who set up Forgotten Children of War it was both deeply traumatising as well as discriminatory. She has been forced to publicly declare her birth status for years, often in very public situations. Now, a trained psychologist, Ajna has been integral in fighting for this legal recognition saying “children born of wartime rape have always been a neglected category in our society. This is an important step in the global fight for human rights”. This legal recognition is part of a newly adopted Law of Protection of Civilian War Victims and means that children born of war can now “obtain the status of civilian victims of war”.
However, it is not without flaws, some of the main demands such as access to scholarships and benefits have not been included and most importantly only children born of rape to mothers already registered within the system can obtain this legally recognised status. That means the majority will be excluded. In addition, it has been adopted in only one of the three administrative districts in Bosnia, the Brčko district. While there are some positive moves within the rest of Bosnia Herzegovina (BiH) Federation, the Bosnian Serb entity, Republika Srpska, forged out of ethnic cleansing during the war and then endorsed into a recognised entity through the Dayton Accords, does not recognise these children legally or as war victims.
It was in this part of Bosnia, now Republika Srpska that evidence of rape camps were first reported by journalists as early as August 1992, just five months from the outbreak of war . One of the most notorious places where sexual violence was used tactically as a weapon of war was in Foča, a town just 30 minutes-drive from Goražde. According to the 1991 census, 51.6% of the population in Foča was Bosniak (known at that time as Bosnian Muslims). But in April 1992, Bosnian Serbs took control of the town and within just nine days executed, murdered and expelled the non-Serb residents. Rape camps were set up, some in private apartments and homes, others in school buildings, a hotel and even the town Sports Hall. Alen’s mother was one of the women held there. After some time, she managed to escape to Goražde, heavily pregnant and gave birth to Alen in February 1993 leaving her baby in the hospital just a few days later. Her courage and resilience to survive cannot be underestimated, to have endured sexual violence and to have managed to escape is incredible. But it was also a time of heavy fighting with intense attacks by the Bosnian Serbs on the remaining Bosniak held enclaves in the east – Srebrenica, Zepa and Goražde. Imagine, heavily pregnant escaping from a prison, through frontlines into a besieged town under heavy bombardment, to give birth and then flee once more, leaving your baby behind. Even at the age of 12, Alen showed remarkable emotional maturity when he told me
“it’s not their fault.
I think this war was very unfair”.
Until the recent past, rape was universally accepted as
an ‘unfortunate’ by-product of war ‘from prehistoric times
to the present…rape has played a critical function’ 
American journalist and feminist writer Susan Brownmiller’s
book Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape (1976), was
the first comprehensive and detailed examination of major
rape patterns in wars. It showed extensive historical evidence
of the understanding of the immorality, the ‘wrongness’,
of rape as far back as 546AD in Rome. In more recent
history, the Leiber Codes 1863 signed by President Abraham
Lincoln to regulate the conduct of the Union army during
the U.S. Civil War specifically included “rape” and made it
punishable by the death penalty. Today, rape is punishable by death or imprisonment under the American Uniform
Code of Military Justice. Yet despite this recognition that it was uncivilised, forbidden and even illegal it continued to ‘flourish’, persisting as a common act of war (and peace), From the extensive recorded evidence of rape throughout history, Brownmiller also showed that rape in war was well documented, yet pushed aside, buried and went virtually unpunished. She considered this historical amnesia “almost the greater crime after the war”.
Yet rape in the Bosnian war did not go totally unpunished. Nine men were indicted for the crimes committed in Foča at the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia (ICTY) for their involvement in the "ethnic cleansing" in Foča and rape. These indictments were the first in history where people were indicted for rape as a war crime. At the verdict Judge Florence Mumba of Zambia found that ‘the Bosnian Serb Army has especially targeted Muslim women and used rape camps …as “instruments of terror”. Three men were found guilty of crimes against humanity. This was just the tip of the iceberg and there was much criticism of the ICTY for not doing more rape cases. However, when the ICTY closed in 2017 the court in Bosnia continues to try cases and in December 2020 two men were sentenced to 8 years each in prison convicted of wartime rape in Foča by the Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
When Alen was 11 years old during a playground scrap at school, another child shouted that he was adopted. He had been bullied and called insulting Bosnian Serb names throughout his childhood, but this was even more painful. He ran home to confront his parents, who told him the story of his birth. Since then, Alen has spoken out and been at the forefront of campaigns to recognise and support children born from war rape. When I met Alen again in May this year on my second visit to Goražde, I found an assured, confident man who seemed to have a strong and calm sense of self and his own identity. He had never seen the film I had made, and when I sent him a link, he told me how thrilled he was to see it.
It is shocking, that as I write this once more war rape is happening on the continent of Europe. In June this year, the UN Human Rights office, OHCHR reported 108 allegations of conflict related sexual violence and had verified just 23 cases in Ukraine perpetrated by Russian forces. Once again rape is being used as a weapon of war and so under reported that it’s being called a “hidden crime”. How many babies will be born and what will their future be?
Yet, I believe these brave, outspoken survivors of war like Alen, are showing us there is a dignified way through this trauma. Today, he lives in Goražde, working at the hospital where he was born. He has tracked down both of his biological parents, and is remarkably sanguine about them, expressing neither anger against his biological father nor resentment to his mother. Rather he has the utmost respect for her. I see Alen as one of the most inspirational characters of this city, someone who appears to have found acceptance with the past and embodies hope for the future. Speaking in New York in 2020 he said,
“I did not allow myself to be trapped in the victim’s armour and thus remain permanently in a state of helplessness and wait for someone’s mercy.”
Alen has agreed to take part in the feature documentary UNCONQUERED: Goražde - City of Heroes.
 Amina Hujdur, Trial International.
 Roy Gutman, Bosnia Rape Horror, NEWSDAY, Aug. 9, 1992, at 5; Roy Gutman, Serbs' Rape of Muslim Women in Bosnia Seen as Tactic of War, Hous. CHRON., Aug. 23, 1992, at Al;
 Susan Brownmiller Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape (1976), p.15.
 Totila, the Ostrogoth who captured Rome in 546AD forbade his troops to rape Roman women; Richard II of England in 1385 among 24 articles governing the conduct of soldiers decreed “That none be so hardy as to…force any woman, upon pain of being hanged.” Browmiller 1976
 Susan Brownmiller Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape (1976), p.35.
 Ibid p.42.
 Hagan, Justice in the Balkans p.199
The author outside Goražde hospital where Alen was born (2022)