Courtesy Photo
Courtesy Photo

reported by Erica Rivera


In April 1992, war broke out in Foca, a diverse Bosnian town where Serbs, Croats, and Muslims had once co- existed peacefully. Serb militants attacked the Muslim residents and separated the men from the women. Men were killed or detained in a camp.

Many women were warehoused in Partizan Sports Hall. Soldiers took the women — and girls as young as 12 — to abandoned apartments and houses to rape them. Some of the women were held for months and gang-raped, kept as sex slaves, or sold to other soldiers. Those who survived and made it to refugee camps reported the rapes. Some shared their stories with journalists.

In 1993, the United Nations founded the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) to address the atrocities. One of the prosecutors was Peggy Kuo, now a magistrate judge in New York, who spoke about her role in May at a World Without Genocide event in St. Paul.

“I had enough experience to make a contribution,” she says.

Born in Taiwan, Kuo came to the U.S. at age three. It was the 1960s, and the civil rights and women’s movements were in full swing. Kuo was taught by progressive teachers who pushed for racial and gender equality. “I grew up believing that individuals could make a difference in the world. I kind of took it for granted that barriers would fall if you tried hard enough,” she says.

As an adult, her career as an attorney included prosecuting local crimes in Washington, D.C., and civil rights crimes in the Justice Department. In 2016, she became the first Taiwan- born judge in the United States.

At ICTY, Kuo was part of a team focused on the town of Foca and three specific indictments. One of them, involving mass rapes, was the first of its kind. Kuo was tasked with reading statements and documents, writing briefs, and talking with witnesses in Europe and the U.S.

Witness stories confirmed that rape is “used as a way to control, to terrorize the population, to make sure that people don’t come back, to humiliate, to show superiority,” Kuo says.

“It’s a power thing. It’s one of the weapons of war. You can kill people, you can terrorize them, and you can rape them.”

In the trial courtroom, Kuo made oral arguments, and questioned and cross-examined witnesses. Though many women were willing to talk about the horrors they’d experienced in Foca, not all of them wanted to testify. Many told of excruciating abuse by Serb soldiers. Many witnesses had never heard of the tribunal; it was a new institution and they had no reason to trust it. In addition, they would have to travel to the Hague to give testimony.

“Some people didn’t see the point of doing it, because [the experience] was very traumatic and they weren’t sure that [testifying] would result in anything,” Kuo says. “And then there were people who were afraid of retribution.”

There also were women who hadn’t told their families about the rapes. The shame surrounding rape kept them silent. Those who testified told of excruciating abuse by Serb soldiers.

The tribunal lasted almost 25 years, until 2017; Kuo participated from 1998 to 2002. Of 161 individuals indicted during the tribunal, 90 were sentenced.

One of the major victories of the tribunal — a legal precedent — was that it was the first ever to make the charge of “sexual slavery.”

Kuo believes that the tribunal provided a clearer picture of what happens to women during war. Rather than depicting war as a series of military battles, victories, and defeats, the tribunal highlighted the cruelty experienced by civilians.

“The atrocities being committed against women often don’t get highlighted. Until recently, it has been downplayed as just being a natural part of war,” Kuo says. “There is something you can do about it, and talking about it can lead to results.”