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'You remind me of the worst day of my life' - Bosnian war baby told

by Katie Nguyen | Katie_Nguyen1 | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 10 June 2014 08:00 GMT

Children born of rape face stigma from their families and society, and sometimes rejection by their mothers

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A baby is born in the midst of war on Christmas Day, 1992.

It should have been a happy story, but the baby's mother, a Bosnian Muslim, had been raped by a Serb - one of up to 20,000 women raped during Bosnia's 1992-95 ethnic war.

After giving birth in a hospital in Sarajevo, Lejla Damon's mother refused to see the baby. "If anyone wants that baby they can take it. I heard her crying but I told the nurses not to show her to me. If I saw her I would strangle her," a TV report from the time captures her saying, her face partially visible.

Barely a week after the birth, Lejla's mother agreed to give her daughter up for adoption to the British journalists, a husband and wife team, who had come to the hospital to film the story.

They eventually managed to smuggle Lejla out of Sarajevo - a city that came under siege by Bosnian Serbs during the war - back to Britain where she grew up.

"I found out at the age of 18, the circumstances of my being adopted," Lejla recalled.

"It was at this point that my parents said my mum had been raped in a concentration camp and that she couldn't look after me because it reminded her of her ordeal and also the people that did this," she told Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Lejla said had her parents not adopted her, she would have been sent to an orphanage.

"She (my birth mother) hadn't been in to see me apparently at all since I was born. It was clear that the way she was going to deal with it and the only way she knew how, was to shut down," she said.

In the past, investigators have told the Hague-based International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, how in their quest for ethnic dominance, Bosnian Serbs made Muslims pregnant then held them in prison camps until abortion became impossible, forcing them to bear Serbian children as a living memory of war.

Today, some of the hidden victims of sexual violence in war are the children born of rape, experts say. Not only do they face stigma from their families and society, but also rejection from their mothers who cannot cope with being reminded of their sexual assault.

"If your future generation isn't well-received because of the past that's happened to them, I think it's really hard because you can't choose what your past is. It's really difficult for them to progress," Lejla said.

It's a message she hopes to convey at this week's global summit on ending sexual violence in conflict as part of a youth group working with UK-based charity War Child.

Encouraged by her adoptive parents, Lejla, a spirited young woman who has just finished a degree in advertising, has returned to Bosnia several times.

She is trying to understand the war that killed 100,000 people and its impact on a country where ethnic and religious tensions continue to simmer.

"Most people in Bosnia won't talk about the war. They'll just say it was bad," said Lejla, who has made a documentary of her story. "Someone said to me in the documentary, this press officer for the hospital, 'It's so weird, you remind me of the worst day of my life'. It's so odd how I create different feelings in other people in Bosnia."

Just months after she completed her documentary, she heard from the Bosnian embassy. The authorities had traced her birth mother, who has agreed to meet Lejla.

"I don't think I can really move forward with my life (without meeting her)," Lejla said, adding that she did not expect any "happy ending" but rather the answer to some important questions.

"Do you still feel the same as you did 21 years ago? Do you know who raped you?" Lejla wants to ask her birth mother. "How severe is the scar left on you? How were you treated afterwards, in post-war? Have you been able to move on with your life?"

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