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Children born of rape come of age in Bosnia Add to ...

It is a lonely yellow building, like a small apartment complex, along the main road on the edge of the industrial town of Tuzla, in northern Bosnia-Herzegovina. In the evening, the faces of children stare out from the upstairs windows, gazing into the middle distance. Among them are a surprising number of older children, whose ages range between 10 and 14 years.

They're typical young teens and pre-teens, self-conscious and exuberant. On this particular morning, a gangly boy has knocked a painting off the wall and two girls are helping him pick up the pieces of the frame. Others, in denim jackets, chat quietly with an adult about their homework.

These kids are here for life. There are 25 remaining without any known relative willing to take them in. You are warned not to ask them how they got here. That's a subject of therapy and of a national self-examination that has just begun to consume the people of Bosnia.

Their ages tell the story: They are part of a huge wave of newborn babies who showed up during the years of the Bosnian war, 1992 to 1995, born to traumatized mothers.

"Before the war, we had between 150 and 170 children in the orphanage at any time," says Kada Pandur, the pleasant older woman who runs things here. "But in the years of the war, we had at least 700 children at any time, mostly babies. We had to build an extra ward, and open a special baby department. . . . Mothers would simply give birth, then leave the hospital without telling anyone."

She avoids mentioning the circumstances of their conception and any question of ethnic identity.

Most of them are the children of mass, military-conducted rape, a practice that was used widely during the Bosnian war by Serb paramilitaries to drive away Bosnia's Croatians and Muslims and render much of the country ethnically and politically Serbian.

The rapes, in prison camps and safe houses, took place on the orders of Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb general who is currently hiding in either Serbia or Bosnia, wanted by the United Nations war-crimes tribunal in the Hague for crimes against humanity that include mass rape. The Serbian government was warned this week that it will be excluded from European commerce and aid unless it can arrest him and fellow leader Radovan Karadzic.

The war is very much alive in people's minds here: This week, Bosnia launched a lawsuit against Serbia in the UN's war-crimes court, attempting to get judges to confirm that more than 100,000 people had been killed by Serb forces in events such as the Srebrenica massacre of more than 7,000 boys and men, as part of an effort to bring justice and reconciliation along faster than the sluggish war-crimes trials.

The number of women raped will never be known -- estimates range from several thousand to tens of thousands -- nor will the number of children born to victims, though hundreds are known to exist.

The children have long been an embarrassment to all sides, rarely mentioned in public. Now, as they come of age and begin to seek their independence and place in society, they are falling into the centre of Bosnia's debate over nationhood.

"Bosnia has a problem with identity, you cannot be a citizen in Bosnia unless you have a fixed ethnic identity, and these children pose a huge problem," says Mujesira Hasanovic in her office at Vive Zene, a centre for traumatized women not far from the orphanage. Her centre has dealt with hundreds of women who were raped in prison camps near here. While many had illicit abortions, a significant number had children, who were often given away or put up for adoption.

"How are they ever going to tell these children who their fathers are? How are they going to settle their ethnic identity? It's a huge problem."

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