Accountability, justice and reparations. Selma Korjenić has spent more than a decade fighting for the rights of victims of war crimes in Bosnia and Herzegovina—and she sees every small step as a victory for all women and girls, everywhere.
All human beings are equal in dignity and rights. That is one of the principles guiding the staff at TRIAL International. 20 years ago, the organisation (which has its headquarters in Geneva) set out to achieve the vision of a world where impunity for international crimes is no longer tolerated.
“It means to hold perpetrators accountable—of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, sexual violence crimes, torture and forced disappearances—together with the opportunity for victims to have justice and reparations. We believe that this can deter future commitments of crimes,” says Selma Korjenić, head of programme in Bosnia and Herzegovina for TRIAL International.
TRIAL International stands on the side of the victims and survivors and supports them in achieving justice—among others through their legal expertise. In 2007 they started working in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Selma joined the organisation shortly after to work with victims and survivors of conflict-related sexual violence.
“We have a strong focus on conflict-related sexual violence, particularly regarding women. Because we believe it’s a crucial area to tackle for impunity and redress. Our work around reparations also stems from the strong belief that reparations that supports women’s empowerment can contribute to transformative justice by placing women in a better position, to break with historic patterns of sub-ordination and social exclusion,” says Selma.
In essence, the same kind of patterns that place women at risk of becoming subject to conflict-related sexual violence, are also the patterns that persists also after war is over.
“If you are trying to change the patterns of conflict-related sexual violence, you will have changed something for the future. You will have addressed the conditions for proper prevention of future crimes, but you will also have influenced everyday lives of women and girls. Because they will have more possibilities,” says Selma.
She exemplifies this by how TRIAL International has fought for victims’ right to compensation for criminal proceedings from war perpetrators.
“This was an important practise which encouraged survivors to make it through testimonials and the whole criminal proceeding. Now, this has also been established for cases of trafficking and, hopefully, it can be established for other cases of gender-based violence as well,” says Selma.
Selma grew up in a small town in eastern Bosnia and Herzegovina. A town where rape and violence were widespread during the war.
“As a young teenager, I had to leave my hometown with my family at the beginning of the war. We fled to Sarajevo, which means I was also living here under the besiege,” says Selma.
Later, when she was older and attending university, she felt compelled by her history to investigate why those terrible crimes had to happen.
“Through the horrible stories of my family, but also later on through official records and information, I learned that those horrible crimes happened especially to women and girls, not just in my hometown but also across the country. I was asking myself, why women need to be collateral damage by conflicts—that are not triggered or started by the women, but triggered and started by the men?”
As a student of political science and sociology, Selma explored what drove people to commit such horrible crimes. The more she studied, the more of a pattern she saw.
“At that time, rape was used as a weapon of war in Rwanda and later on DRC [the Democratic Republic of the Congo] and since, it has been used in many countries globally.”
In the end, she wanted to actually do something about it. She was also driven by an urge to seek out the good in all the misery.
“It was important for me also to look for the positive acts done during the war. It’s not that everyone is evil and bad—I believed that there would be examples of the people who saved each other’s lives. Because they didn’t care about ethnical or national belongings. And I found many such stories of neighbors saving each other. That gave me something to believe in and is what has kept me going all these years,” says Selma.
Motivation is needed, because fighting for justice in the aftermath of war is a difficult process.
“Rule of law is not functioning properly in the country—not just as a survivor of war, as a citizen you don’t feel secure, psychologically. You don’t feel that the state is protecting you. War-time victims, especially women, feel abandoned,” says Selma.
In a country like Bosnia and Herzegovina, where the conviction of war criminals can be a controversial topic, victims and survivors are left scared of being physically attacked for witnessing.
“We have had situations where survivors call us and ask us for our advice because they need to go to court and witness but don’t feel secure. They might be living in a community surrounded by supporters of the war criminal and fear being able to go back there, that they won’t be protected,” says Selma.
She explains that the country is still in the midst of many transitions, not just related to criminal justice, but also to social and economic justice. The conflict remains frozen and tensions are still high, even almost 30 years after the war has ended.
“Winning your court case is one thing. When we talk with survivors who have been redressed, they are thrilled with the verdict. But their traumas are still triggered every day in society, because there are reminders from politicians or in the media, of the conflict. Officials may say: ‘We don’t want to live with each other.’ Or they are celebrating war criminals or threatening with messages of a new war. If you were living outside of Bosnia and Herzegovina, you might be able to close the chapter after the verdict, but here the trauma is triggered, again and again,” says Selma.
The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation has supported TRIAL International’s programme in Bosnia and Herzegovina since 2016.
“For long-term battles, you always need long-term partners. Who, first of all, understand that change is possible but also that it’s not coming overnight. The support of Kvinna till Kvinna is enabling us to continuously work on improving the rights of victims of war, including women war-time torture survivors. What that means is fighting for the recognition and improvements of rights, especially if it’s in the way of changing institutional approaches and practices, for example in accessing reparations or demanding prosecutions of those who committed crimes against women,” says Selma.
She is also fully convinced that the work TRIAL International is doing in Bosnia and Herzegovina travels beyond borders.
“I really believe that every small step in improving and changing the lives of women and girls, is one step forward for many others. We work on supporting survivors of wartime sexual violence here in Bosnia and Herzegovina—and women in general who are affected by the war—and I believe that we are contributing to bettering the lives of women and girls globally, in other conflict-affected areas in the world.”
“Fighting for what happened in the past to Bosnian women means for me, really, not just fighting for those women, but for all little girls and all those who aren’t yet born. To create some kind of right path and possibilities for them to live in a society that will never let something like this, like what happened here in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the 90s, happen again.”
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.