Female War Criminals: Untold Story of the Balkan Conflicts

Thousands of women participated in the wars in the former Yugoslavia, and a few have been convicted of brutal crimes, but female fighters’ role in the Balkan conflicts is often overlooked.

Jovana Prusina BIRN Belgrade

Belgrade Higher Court sentenced former Bosnian Serb soldier Ranka Tomic to five years in prison on Monday for participating in the torture and murder of an 18-year-old Bosnian Army nurse, Karmen Kamencic, in July 1992 during the Bosnian war.

The case was unusual because of the brutality of Tomic’s crimes and the fact that both victim and the perpetrator were women.

According to the indictment, members of Tomic’s unit captured Kamencic and took her to the town of Radic. Tomic then ordered Kamencic to take off all her clothes, crawl around and dig her own grave.

Tomic and other members of the unit also beat Kamencic with sticks, cut her hair off, used a knife to carve crosses into her head and lower back, then cut off the lower part of her ear.

She also pushed Kamencic’s head into cow dung while hitting her with a shovel and urging her to sing Serbian songs.

Finally, the teenage Kamencic was shot dead by another member of Tomic’s unit.

Most of the accounts of the 1990s wars in the Balkans only mention women as victims, mostly civilian ones. However, many women did join military units. The exact numbers are not known, but the Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Bosniak-led wartime force, had 5,360 women in its ranks; some were engaged in logistics and some were fighters.

War crimes trials like the prosecution of Ranka Tomic have also shown that women can be the perpetrators of atrocities too.

First woman convicted by international tribunal

Former Bosnian Serb President Biljana Plavsic at the Manjaca army training camp in October 1998. Photo: EPA/DRAGO VEJNOVIC.

Biljana Plavsic, the former president of Bosnia’s Serb-dominated entity Republika Srpska, was the only woman to be indicted and convicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.

Plavsic was indicted for genocide, complicity to commit genocide, extermination, murders, intentional deprivation of life and other crimes committed during the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

She is also remembered for admitting that she was guilty of persecuting non-Serbs on political, ethnic and religious grounds. She was sentenced to 11 years in prison.

But although Plavsic pleaded guilty, once she served her sentence and returned to Belgrade, she made a series of public statements saying she was innocent and that the purpose of her confession was to get a more lenient sentence.

Professor Jelena Subotic from Georgia State University in Atlanta said that academic research has shown that female war criminals are usually perceived and treated differently both during and after their trials.

“The case of Biljana Plavsic, however, is interesting because it is difficult to determine to what extent her warm welcome back in Serbia and Republika Srpska is a result of her being a woman versus her being a Serb,” said Subotic.

Plavsic was convicted by an international tribunal, which is a very rare phenomenon. For example, the International Criminal Court has never indicted nor convicted a women in its history. There is only one woman on its wanted list – Simone Gbagbo, the Ivory Coast’s former first lady.

Gbagbo is wanted for alleged crimes against humanity during a post-election period of violence in the West African country in 2011. Her alleged crimes include murders, sexual violence and persecution.

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