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Bosnia and Rwanda: Connections Between Memory and Sexual Violence

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Abstract

The conflicts in Bosnia and Rwanda in the mid-90’s are examples of the destructive power of collective memory of political violence, in both caes resulting in campaigns of ethnic cleansing and genocide characterised by extreme sexual violence and rape. Sexual violence and rape were recognised as being culturally, psychologically, symbolically and physically powerful weapons: indeed, campaigns of sexual violence were waged to avenge the wrongs of memory, and to forge new memories. In both countries a deep-rooted cultural memory of the ‘other’ became inextricably entwined with memories of colonial and post-colonial violence and crimes from both of the world wars. Political machinations recycled memories and symbols embedded in these memories to achieve contemporary political and economic objectives. This resulted in memories being renovated - even manufactured - and super-imposed over the present: the Hutus of Rwanda and the Serbians of the former Yugoslavia were filled with anger and hatred over wounds that now felt fresh. It is difficult to determine where state-imposed memories end and collective cultural memories begin. These histories had never been discussed fully and collectively in either country, leaving them vulnerable to manipulation by politicians and the media. Identities, real and manufactured, from WWII and older were brought back to life. Ethnicities became clear and rigid identities that embodied good and evil. Memory was a primary factor in starting these wars and in pushing the perpetrators over the edge of civil war onto a path of ethnic cleansing and genocide, resulting in vicious and intimate violence, and ultimately the perpetration of mass rape and sexual violence as strategies of war.