Rape, trafficking and femicide. Radmila Žigić knows a lot about the violence women suffer because of war. As a journalist, she covered the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the 90s and shortly after she became one of the country’s pioneers in the fight against trafficking.
She was 32 when the war broke out. Radmila Žigić—a young woman and a journalist—was met with doubt when she said that she wanted to cover the war.
“I wasn’t seen as credible. I was young, a woman and good-looking, if I may say so—I was only seen as an object of desire,” says Radmila.
Set on proving herself, Radmila went as far as to the front-line of the war and visited the trenches to collect stories from soldiers.
“I wanted to show that I could be just as courageous as a man—stupid, I know, but that’s how I felt back then. I had coffee with soldiers, asked them about their lives and experiences. What it was like to pick up a gun and go to war, to be away from their families. When I came back—alive—I had sufficiently shocked the industry and managed to make a name for myself,” says Radmila.
At the time, Radmila was living in an area controlled by Serbian forces. She wasn’t interested in writing for the state media, controlled by Republika Srpska, as it was filled with war propaganda.
“I wanted to write about issues like corruption and ethnic cleansing. Crimes that I had only heard about, but luckily never experienced myself. But it didn’t matter that I wrote those stories, I had nowhere to publish them,” says Radmila.
After a year, she got in contact with two male colleagues in a similar situation as herself and they decided to join forces to establish a new, independent media.
“It was the first oppositional media in the Republika Srpska. And we had quite a readership. But a year later we were banned by the authorities from working. They told us that we would be killed unless we complied. For two years after that, no colleague from the national media dared speak to me,” says Radmila.
Today, Radmila no longer works as a journalist. Instead, she runs the women’s rights organisation Lara Foundation, dedicated to protecting women from violence and promoting their empowerment in public and political work. Lara Foundation has been a partner organisation to The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation since 1998 and they operate from the city of Bijeljina, north-west in the country.
Through her journalistic work, Radmila had had the opportunity to meet with women from the women’s movement and non-governmental organisations and was very impressed by their work.
“I felt that I wanted to use my platform as a well-known journalist to promote women’s rights. When I met activist Mara Radovanović I was really struck by her energy. She suggested that we should start a women’s edition of the newspaper I was working with at the time. Out of that came the idea of starting an organisation together,” says Radmila.
In 1998, she became one of the Lara Foundation’s founders and her commitment only grew from there.
For a time, Radmila thought that the extent of her work with Lara Foundation would be to publish the women’s edition of the newspaper (which was actually supported by The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation) but then she embarked on an investigation into another dark side of war.
“I had noticed facilities under the name of ‘night clubs’ popping up. They had quite aggressive advertisement of women dancing on poles. I wanted to know what it was all about,” says Radmila.
A friend who worked at the police told her, quite casually, that the women working at the clubs were involved in prostitution. And that some of the women, who mainly came from Ukraine, Romania and Russia, had been forced or lured there and had had their passports confiscated.
“’But this is a crime,’ I told him. I was in shock. And what was even more shocking was that he said it like it was the most natural thing,” says Radmila.
The police officer ensured her that the women had been returned to their families. But she decided to investigate the matter herself.
“I wanted to find out the real story and confirm that this was indeed women who had been trafficked. I managed to find proof already in 1998 when a source that I had within the police told me that in one of the night clubs there were six women who had been forced into prostitution,” says Radmila.
She pulled documents from local authorities who had been in contact with the women—and discovered that the issue was well-known within both the police and the prosecutor’s office. Over a couple of days, she built a case to publish in the newspaper. The night before the publication, however, her editor-in-chief got a call. It was one of the club owners, who had been tipped off, trying to kill the story. But that didn’t stop them from publishing.
Radmila and Mara worked hard on spreading the word of the article. They used their newly established organisation Lara Foundation to raise awareness and came in contact with Human Rights Watch. At the time, Human Rights Watch was involved in a nation-wide state report on the topic of women in trafficking. Radmila and Mara’s investigation was quoted, and the report found that at least 2,000 women was estimated to be victims of human trafficking in Bosnia and Herzegovina at the time.“That’s how we made it to the global news,” says Radmila. “And I have to say, Mara was quite courageous. She would take international journalists into the night clubs for them to witness what was going on first-hand.”
Not long after, in 2000, Lara Foundation opened a shelter for women who had been victims of trafficking but had managed to escape. Before long they had 40 women staying there.
“We learned their stories. What was really going on inside of those night clubs. Through that we found the arguments we needed to fight for their rights and that’s how we built our first campaign: “Stop the Modern Slavery”. People knew that we were telling the truth, because we had direct contact with these women.”
The campaign was a success and eventually led the local authorities rendering a decision that not a single more night club would be allowed to open.
“This was our first success, and it really gave us wings. It encouraged us to carry on, because back then it was really dark times. People felt very helpless, and the fight sometimes felt futile. But we showed everyone that we could make an impact,” says Radmila.
However, working against the club owners, and the traffickers, was very dangerous. The club owners wanted to stop their work and Mara and Radmila received a lot of threats.
“We were afraid, but we never allowed that to stand in our way. We tried to be as open as we could about our work, hoping that if it the public knew about what we were doing, they would protect us,” says Radmila.
As they continued to work on countering trafficking, the threats kept coming. But Radmila was set on trying to get the owners convicted of their crimes.
“For years, I worked with supporting women to stand as witnesses against the owners of the night clubs and their staff. Because we needed witnesses to come and tell their side of the story.”
It didn’t always work. One of the owners, who personally threatened Radmila, is still walking the streets today.
“He lives here in Bijeljina. Whenever we see each other, he just pretends like none of this ever happened,” says Radmila.
The night clubs existed all over Bosnia and Herzegovina. After the war, the country was left with a broken state and weak institutions, and the lawlessness was difficult to unroot. The night clubs were especially frequent in Bijeljina which is close to the border of Serbia and Croatia.
“In a way, Bijeljina was a transit route for illegal prostitution. This was where women from different parts of the world would come on the market in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and people from different parts of the country would come to buy them and then take them elsewhere,” explains Radmila.
Having lived through a war, and fought for women’s rights ever since, Radmila has come close to the different forms of violence women suffer as a consequence of war.
“In a way, this hasn’t changed in 30 years. Even though wars are different, in the sense that they are taking place in different contexts and with different cultural backgrounds in the world, I think that the problems women face are very similar. Because wars are men’s game. When you have armed conflict, gender roles change, no matter how equal you were before. As soon as war breaks out—men become more important than women, because more often, they are the ones carrying the weapons,” says Radmila.
She recalls philosopher Simone de Beauvoir examining (in “The Other Sex”) the thought that in war or conflict, the lives of those who are taking lives are considered greater than those who are giving life.
After the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, women were deprived of their rights. Men who had been active soldiers were looked after by the country, but women were left behind. And the violence they faced was not scrutinised enough.
“Wars lead to increased rates of gender-based violence, of all forms. Right after the war, we fought hard for the rights of women who had been victims of sexual violence. But when it came to crimes triggered by post-traumatic stress disorder in soldiers—a direct cause of violence against women and children—we failed to act promptly,” says Radmila.
During and after a war there are also a lot of small arms in circulation. This leads to an increased rate of murders, not least femicides. The domestic violence became lethal at a much higher rate.
“It took us, in the women’s movement, time to put all the pieces of the puzzle together. To realise that this problem was directly related to the presence of large amounts of weapons publicly available and that PTSD was one of the root-causes,” says Radmila.
Re-building a society after a war isn’t easy. People have lost the livelihoods, are traumatised and have mistrust in one-another. Justice and reparations are slow-grinding processes.
“It took us a long time to make sure that women who had been victims of sexual violence received reparations for this. It was also very difficult to encourage women who have experienced war-time rape to tell their stories. It is still very difficult, to this day,” says Radmila.
She slowly shakes her head.
“It’s horrible that the policy of war—that it is considered a mean to resolve political issues—still remains. War is, in a way, the defeat of politics.”
Kvinna till Kvinna has supported women’s rights in Bosnia and Herzegovina since 1993. The war in Bosnia and Herzegovina ended in 1995 but left behind a traumatised society. On paper, the equality legislation is progressive, but its implementation is patchy. Women earn less and few are appointed to decision-making positions in politics. Violence against women is also widespread. The Bosnian women’s movement works to promote peace, establish accountability for war crimes and end violence against women. Kvinna till Kvinna supports several partner organisations working to promote women’s rights and women’s position in society.