"I Came To Testify" is the first film airing in the PBS series "Women, War & Peace." The series begins on October 11th and runs through November 8th. This powerful documentary tells the story of the Bosnian women who were raped, held at gunpoint and tortured as part of the Serbian strategy for ethnic cleansing in the 1990s. The women who came forward not only brought their attackers to justice in front of an international court, but the case was prosecuted with sexual assault against women as a crime against humanity for the first time.
This landmark case required witnesses to come forward and testify against men in their community, men who were neighbors, men with power in the town. "I Came To Testify" focuses on Witness 99, who testified at The Hague in front of the international tribunal. She also came face to face with her attacker. Another witness Z.R. was not part of the international case. Instead, she is still waiting for her day in a local court.
I spoke with writer/director Pamela Hogan about making "I Came To Testify" and she shared some of her experience and stories that didn't make it into the film. We started off talking about how change happens and what she's seen through her work:
I think I would never be that pessimistic [to say that change can't happen]. I'm not optimistic either, but profound change happens all the time. It usually doesn't happen because the international community is providing sanctions, or wagging a finger, or the U.N. is coming up with a resolution. It usually happens because of the people in those countries and in those hellish situations who say, 'This has got to change.'
That's what happened in Bosnia. Women had never testified in a court of law before about their experience in war. Rape wasn't prosecuted as part of the Nuremberg Trials. They could say that that would never change, why would women ever step forward and speak about something that was so shameful and that we just perpetuate that trauma, but they did and they changed history.
But changing history meant retelling and reliving the horror they had been through and as Hogan relates, it almost didn't happen. The witnesses started dropping out, saying they wouldn't testify.
A part of the story that we don't tell in the film, but the back story is that when the court found out that these women had changed their mind, so much time had gone by between the time that they had agreed to be part of the trial and then the trial had to be delayed because they were trying to get more evidence. By the time the trial came, and these young women ... were trying to get on with their lives. They had maybe a new boyfriend or maybe they had a young child by now. They're just trying to move on and not be defined by what happened. It kind of went into this ripple effect. The other one said, "No," and then they all started saying, 'No, I can't come.'
So actually, some people from the court, some of the women who worked at the unit went down and just said, 'You know, let's find out what's going on here. Let's talk with them.' They sat down with them, drank coffee, found out what was going on and it just became a conversation. And then at one point, it was a Bosnian woman herself who turned it around. She was a neighbor and she was older and ... kind of a mother figure for some of them. She said, 'All right ladies, I'll tell you what's going to happen. If you don't want to go to The Hague, you don't have to go to The Hague. That's completely up to you. But I don't want you to keep coming into my kitchen and drinking coffee in my house and complaining. Either go there and do something about it or we're not going to keep having this conversation.'
The investigators on the case had a strong connection with the women coming forward to testify. What I find so impressive is that they didn't assume they knew the reasons the women were hesitating about testifying. They showed respect for the witnesses and the whole process. One of the investigators, Tejshree Thapa, ended up sitting in a front seat in the courtroom every day the women testified because they trusted her and just her presence was supportive. These are the moments Hogan filled in for me as we talked. This is what I want to share -- a more full picture of how this movie was made because the material is intense. I didn't make it through the film without crying and even got choked up as Hogan and I talked. But I can still hear the voices of the two witnesses.
[Deborah's interview with Pam Hogan continues in Part 2 of this article. For more on the PBS series "Women, War & Peace," go to the PBS site. There you'll find information on the entire series, updated reports, podcasts and more.]