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Essay: Vilina Vlas
On rape as a weapon of war
Vilina Vlas hotel in Višegrad, Bosnia. Photograph: David Gill/The Observer
Trigger warning: rape, sexual violence, suicide, genocide
For too long, rape has been considered an almost natural result of war, as if soldiers and rebels and fighters just stumbled upon it, as if it were something that was inevitable rather than deliberate.
Rape and sexual violence have always been used—deliberately, systematically, intentionally—in conflict and war to terrorize women (and sometimes to emasculate men). Women’s bodies are considered proxy battlegrounds; an extension of those battlefields. There too, patriarchy’s insistence that it and it alone owns our bodies.
The latest reminder: Ukrainian human rights group have accused Russian troops of using rape as a weapon of war. The official ombudswoman for human rights, Lyudmyla Denisova said she had recorded “horrific cases of sexual violence by Russian troops in Bucha and other places, including one in which a group of women and girls were kept in a basement of a house for 25 days.”
It is especially sickening and poignant at once to read of these latest atrocities this month. In April 1992, Serb paramilitaries turned a hotel called Vilina Vlas into one of the biggest rape camps of the Bosnian war. There they held captive and raped 200 women and girls. By the time the camp closed in August 1992, only five had survived. It reopened just a few months later, as a hotel and spa again. This is what I saw when I visited it in 2016.
I visited Bosnia for the first time that year to speak at the Bookstan literature festival in Sarajevo. After one of my events, Bosnian journalist Nidzara Ahmetasevic struck up a conversation with me during which she told me I had to visit the town of Višegrad and a spa hotel there called Vilina Vlas.
In April 1992, Serb paramilitaries turned a hotel called Vilina Vlas into one of the biggest rape camp of the Bosnian war. There they held captive and raped 200 women and girls.
I had heard snippets here and there since I had been in Sarajevo about a former rape camp that was now a spa. It had been one of several where Serb troops sexually enslaved Muslim women and girls. The thought of it horrified me, but I had to go to learn about what happened there and to see for myself how violations of women and girls are erased.
I was grateful that a Bosnian woman so kindly offered to take me. War is begun by men; it is ended by men. Women and children are rarely consulted when wars are started nor when men are trying to end them around a peace table. And the story of war is written not just by the victor, as the adage goes, but by the men who fought that war, regardless of their side.
I did not know about Vilina Vlas before I arrived in Bosnia. During the 1992–1995 Bosnian war, I was a Reuters correspondent in Cairo. Writing for a news agency means that you read breaking news before anyone. I remembered well the harrowing stories that came across the wires. I had planned on visiting Srebrenica, where Serb forces killed eight thousand Muslim men and boys in July 1995 in Europe’s worst atrocity since the Second World War. The UN International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and the International Court of Justice have ruled that the atrocity qualified as genocide. But the murders prompted Western airstrikes on Serbian forces, which ended the war in 1995.
I rarely use the word “evil.” But there is no other word to describe Vilina Vlas.
I knew about the mass rape and sexual violence that Bosnian Muslims had been subjected to by Serbian forces, but I did not know of the names of cities or specific sites of camps where women and girls were sexually enslaved in the way that I did Srebrenica.
In 1992 Vilina Vlas was used as headquarters for murder and rape by Milan Lukic, the leader of the Serb paramilitary group the White Eagles. A judgement at the ICTY confirmed the hotel had been used as a rape center. Nidzara told me that the women and girls sexually enslaved there were tied to the furniture in rooms where they raped. At the end of each day, Nidzara told me, they would be mass raped in the swimming pool. After one such mass rape, a fourteen-year-old girl killed herself by jumping out of the window of her room.
Nidzara told me these stories as we drove through some of the most beautiful vistas I have ever seen in my life. Bosnia is a beautiful country. The juxtaposition of the details I heard from Nidzara inside the car and the breathtaking scenes around us magnified the horror. By the time we arrived at the hotel, our driver, a Bosnian man who was a child during the war, said he would wait for us in the parking lot because he could not enter the hotel after all he had heard.
Inside the building, Nidzara told the receptionist that I was a tourist from New York who was interested in staying at the hotel. Nidzara translated for me as the front-desk receptionist gave us a tour. The woman told us that she had started working at Vilina Vlas as soon as it had reopened. She must have known its history. The whole town must have known.
As she led us to the elevator on our way to see the guestrooms, I saw guests milling around in robes, on their way to the hotel’s spa and hot springs. I wanted to yell at them, “Don’t you know women were raped in this hotel? How could you stay here as if nothing had happened?”
And they might indeed have had no idea, because for all intents and purposes, there is a concerted effort by the hotel itself and the Višegrad government, not to let anyone know. There are no memorials outside the hotel. The local government has blocked one and ignored calls for the hotel to be torn down or even remodeled.
Travel sites in English make no mention that the place was a rape concentration camp. The front-desk receptionist told us that the hotel is administered by the Višegrad municipality, which is led and dominated by Serbs who are not interested in what happened to Muslim women and girls in the hotel during the war.
I could feel the spirit of the women and the girls who had been kept prisoner in that concentration camp. I kept muttering to myself, “We remember you, sisters. We honour you, sisters.”
I rarely use the word “evil.” But there is no other word to describe Vilina Vlas. As the receptionist showed us the kind of rooms available, I remembered that Nidzara had told me in the car on the way that some of the rooms still had the same furniture from the days when women were imprisoned and raped in them. The receptionist led us into one room, and I wondered as we looked out the window which one the fourteen-year-old had used as her exit from hell.
As I followed Nidzara and the receptionist through the corridors, I could feel the spirit of the women and the girls who had been kept prisoner in that concentration camp. I have a tattoo on my right forearm of Sekhmet, the ancient Egyptian goddess of retribution and sex. I touched her image with my left hand, like reaching for a talisman for strength, and kept muttering to myself, “We remember you, sisters. We honour you, sisters.” It was my promise to honour them by continuing to remind the world of what they endured, to avenge them as I am now by insisting that you hear what happened to them.
After seeing two rooms, we took the elevator to the lobby level, and the receptionist breezily told us we could make our own way to the pool. Along the way, I saw the hair salon to our left. One woman was having her hair blow-dried. The more mundane the activities we encountered, the more the deliberate amnesia and erasure sickened me.
I saw guests milling around in robes, on their way to the hotel’s spa and hot springs. I wanted to yell at them, “Don’t you know women were raped in this hotel? How could you stay here as if nothing had happened?”
At the pool, guests splashed in the water; some reclined on the side enjoying the warmth of the sun shining through the windows. Some two decades earlier, women were subjected to mass rape in this very pool. Nidzara and I quickly left to use the bathroom. I asked her how many times she had been to Vilina Vlas. As she told me that this visit was her third, I could see her hands were shaking. On the way out, Nidzara asked for brochures from the receptionist so that I could take home with me documents to the surreal depiction of evil.
As soon as we exited the building, I asked Nidzara if I could hug her, and I sobbed as I did. I could not stop crying as we got in the car and drove away. Nidzara, who was sitting in the passenger seat by the driver, reached to the back seat to hold my hand.
As we drove away, our driver, Edin, who had waited for us outside the hotel where he could see guests eating and drinking on the terrace, shared his horror at how oblivious guests were. “I wanted to yell at the people having tea on the terrace, ‘How could you be here?’ I wanted to scream at the woman having tea with her daughter, ‘Don’t you know what happened to women and girls here?’”
I wanted to burn the building down. I wanted to destroy it, brick by brick.
It is believed that between twelve thousand and fifty thousand women were raped during the Bosnian war. No one has been held accountable for the rape of women and girls in Vilina Vlas.
We drove to Srebrenica, where we had a tour of the memorial for the men and boys massacred in that town. There are photographs and some personal possessions of those whose remains have been identified. It was heart-wrenching to read personal details that fleshed out their individuality, but it is a beautiful memorial.
At the burial site across the street is a plaque in honor of the men and the boys. There are white headstones as far as the eye can see and a list of the names of the victims whose remains were identified and buried there. In many cases, victims had the same surname, testament to the massive toll on the same families that the massacre had taken.
How different Vilina Vlas would be if the names of the women and girls who were raped and killed there were listed on a plaque outside the building. In Srebrenica, the men and boys have a moving and fitting memorial that acknowledges the horror they were subjected to. In Višegrad, women and girls have a spa, where all memory of the atrocities committed in the war’s biggest rape camp has been erased.
The hotel brochures.
The hotel brochure for this former site of crime against humanity, where rape was used as a weapon of war, promotes the place as a “healthy” retreat. The memories of those women and girls that patriarchy has erased has been left to other women to honor. The Association of the Women Victims of War has been fighting to have a memorial plate put on the front wall of Vilina Vlas hotel and spa, and the Bosnian filmmaker Jasmila Zbanic has made a narrative film about Vilina Vlas called For Those Who Can Tell No Tales.
It is believed that between twelve thousand and fifty thousand women were raped during the Bosnian war. No one has been held accountable for the rape of women and girls in Vilina Vlas. A 2001 ruling by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia against three Bosnian Serbs declared systemic rape and sexual enslavement a crime against humanity for the first time.
We must connect the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war to the more mundane and daily use of sexual violence globally as a weapon of patriarchy’s war on women and girls.
I am forever grateful that Nidzara, who knows and has befriended several women who survived rape during their countries’ war, took me to Vilina Vlas. I could not imagine being taken there by a man or being told by a man the stories that Nidzara told me. Men are too often both heroes and villains during the narration of war. Women get one or two lines in the story.
It is imperative that the world acknowledge that rape and sexual violence are used as weapons in war and conflict everywhere. And in doing so, we must connect the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war to the more mundane and daily use of sexual violence globally as a weapon of patriarchy’s war on women and girls.
Because when we connect that wartime systematic use of rape and sexual violence to its use against women in non-war zones, we connect the ways that patriarchy protects and enables misogyny via sexual violence as a weapon, a weapon of war and its more quotidian uses as a weapon. That weapon is meant to terrorize us and keep us in our place.
It’s a weapon used to control where and when we can go and how we can behave, a weapon that patriarchy wants us to think will damage and destroy us forever. The world finally sees how that weapon works during war. Let’s recognize it in the every day too.
Today, we read about rape as a weapon of war being used against Ukrainian women by Russian troops and against women in the Ethiopian civil war, and before them in the war in Syria, against Rohingya women by troops in Myanmar, in every conflict zone.
“I would come to this place at least once a year,” Nidzara writes about Vilina Vlas. “And every time I made myself go inside and talk to the people I met there. For me these visits were a way to remember all those women and girls, to pay respect, but also to condemn the killers and rapists.”
Know that whether you read about it in headlines or not, it is happening. And women are silenced by its shame, stigma, and trauma. Which is why we must never forget.
Mona Eltahawy is a feminist author, commentator and disruptor of patriarchy. She is editing an anthology on menopause called Bloody Hell! And Other Stories: Adventures in Menopause from Across the Personal and Political Spectrum. Her first book Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution (2015) targeted patriarchy in the Middle East and North Africa and her second The Seven Necessary Sins For Women and Girls (2019) took her disruption worldwide. It is now available in Ireland and the UK. Her commentary has appeared in media around the world and she makes video essays and writes a newsletter as FEMINIST GIANT.
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