Post-war compensation and its impact on gender and citizenship

Oliwia Berdak
War veterans

This is an extended summary of a longer paper that was originally published in the CITSEE Working Papers Series and is available for download here.

War can have a huge impact on citizenship, changing the boundaries of communities and expanding or limiting political rights within them. War is also inherently linked to citizenship through the figure of the citizen-soldier. Ever since the French Revolution, states have conscripted their male citizens under the guise of national duty. In return, they have sometimes offered greater citizenship rights and social rewards to the veterans, contributing in the last two centuries to the rise of the welfare state.  

However, post-war compensation remains contentious, since through specific policies it makes value judgements about what kind of citizen duty is deemed most important and why. Feminists in particular have raised questions about seeing combat as the ultimate citizenship duty in a situation where the female half of the population is often barred from entry. They have also challenged the notion that fighting and killing should be raised above any other form of contribution to a community.

Showering the veterans with entitlements has frequently been the way to deal with formerly violent men to avoid any future instability. Yet post-war compensation is also irrevocably linked to narratives about the war and the nation. Where the war is cast as a national war of liberation, rewarding the heroes of that war becomes part and parcel of that narrative. And once the myth is there, the veterans will be eager to uphold it, lest their role in the war and any subsequent compensation are challenged.

All these tensions are visible in post-war compensation in the former Yugoslavia. The results for veterans who all participated in the same conflict have been very different depending on which army they joined, and which war narrative prevailed in their place of residence. Yet because these wars were mostly fought by men, where the citizen soldier has been rewarded, this has created gendered post-war social citizenship.

The Yugoslav Wars 1991-1995 and their aftermath

Between one and one and a half million combatants fought in the Yugoslav Wars between 1991-1995. Some entered the war as conscripts, professionals and volunteers in the Yugoslav National Army (Jugoslovenska narodna armija – JNA) and its remnants. Others joined the newly formed national armies, police forces, semi-criminal paramilitaries and groups organised locally to defend a particular town. However, what is important from the perspective of gender and citizenship is how this apparent fragmentation was consolidated throughout the war and then translated into specific war narratives. It was the political processes of state and nation building that made all the difference, creating powerful war narratives and corresponding veteran identities or, in the case of Serbia, failing to do so.

In Croatia, for example, the war has from the beginning been referred to as the 'Homeland War' (Domovinski rat) – a defence of and struggle for the Croatian homeland. Those who participated in it have always been cast as defenders (branitelji), heroes (heroji) and knights (vitezovi). Generous veteran policies followed, translating into a system that still encompasses financial, medical, housing, educational, employment and tax benefits and which is more comprehensive in its treatment of veterans than that existing in Australia, Finland, France, Israel, South Korea, Germany, Russia, the U.S., Slovenia, Spain and the UK (Ferenčak et al, in Žunec, 2006, p. 31). Of course, because of the strong national basis of this policy, the benefits are only given to those who defended the Croatian nation. The Serbian rebels who took up arms against the growing independence of Croatia lost their struggle. Because they won no territorial autonomy and failed in their efforts to remain a part of Yugoslavia or join Greater Serbia, their military involvement has not been rewarded by anyone. Although this seems logical, it is not the only possible solution, as the case of Bosnia and Herzegovina shows.

The Dayton Peace Agreement solidified ethnic divisions in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The country was effectively split into three sub-units, giving extensive autonomy to each: the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (FBiH), Republika Srpska (RS) and the Brčko District. The country’s fragmented political system has allowed differing war narratives to co-exist and compete with each other. The nationalist parties associated with the Croats, Bosniaks and Serbs have rushed to gain the support of the veteran population and to justify the many years of fighting which left the country in ruins. The two main entities, Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Republika Srpska, define the war differently and accordingly also its heroes and victims. Yet both use a large chunk of their fiscal resources to provide for the ex-combatants and their families.

Veteran policies in BiH are multifaceted and have aspects relating to healthcare, taxation, housing, transport and employment. The number of veterans could be as high as 500,000. In RS, the only men who are legally excluded from claiming compensation are those who committed war crimes – but only if at the time they were fighting on the ‘enemy side’, that is against Serbs. All other indicted war criminals are entitled to veteran payments. In practice, this leads to a bizarre situation where even those who fought against the state are now rewarded or compensated by one of its components. The importance of the citizen-soldier and politicians’ fear of unrest amongst former combatants have prevented any major change to the system of compensation.

The significance of the national narrative for post-war compensation is clearest in the case of Serbia. Whilst recognised by Croatia, FBiH and the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) as one of the war’s aggressors, the state of Serbia still denies having been at war throughout the 1990s, insisting that any engagements of the Yugoslav National Army were simply ‘manoeuvres’ within Serbia or conducted by volunteers not related to the Serbian state. As a result, there are no official estimates of veteran numbers nor compensation even for those who were forcefully conscripted. This denial and a lack of a clear narrative of the war have translated into a lack of mobilisation of the ex-combatants. In fact, one could say that the identity of a veteran has not been formed at all. It is not only the state that would like to forget about these men but also the wider society, for whom they are a symbol of the wars and the defeat in them, or potentially war criminals.

Gender contribution, gendered reward

Post-war compensation linked to narratives of a liberation war in Croatia and BiH has had a significant impact on gender relations and citizenship in these countries. Valorising the citizen-soldier has a long tradition in the region, going back to the National Liberation War and the figure of the Partisan borac (fighter). This provided a model that political parties eager to embrace the warriors in their new nationalist discourse could easily draw upon. As a result, mostly combatant roles have been rewarded for their contributions to the nation. Yet few of those were filled by women. Thanks to Yugoslav militarism combined with male conscription and the gendered discourse of citizen duty during the conflict, these particular wars were fought almost exclusively by men. Women constituted only approximately 5 per cent of all Croatian forces during the recent war. This was even less in the case of Bosnia and Herzegovina, where women amounted to between 2 and 3 per cent of the Army of Republika Srpska. As for the Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina, at the end of the war, in December 1995, women numbered only 5,360 out of a total force that could have been as large as 260,000.

Women are more likely to be found amongst the civilian victims of war. Yet the number of claimants of benefits for civilian victims of war is much lower in BiH and Croatia than that of military victims. No equivalent to the ‘register of the defenders’ exists for the civilians, and there is little data about their numbers. The incentive to apply is also smaller because the group simply lacks a programme that could match veteran policies in scope in both BiH and Croatia. Veterans there have been much more successful in drawing on the state-sponsored war narratives to make claims on the state. Even where the civilian victims of war have organised around the symbol of victim, the citizen-soldier has been given preference.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, for example, veteran invalids receive higher payments than any other invalids, even for the same level of disability. The situation is similar in Croatia, where civilian war victims receive on average 15 per cent less and have only access to 14 different reintegration programmes, as opposed to 25 for military war victims. In BiH, civilian invalids also need to demonstrate much higher levels of disability (60 per cent as opposed to 20 per cent for military invalids) to gain access to benefits in the first place. This rule is particularly significant for women rape survivors, of whom there could be between 20,000 and 50,000 in BiH. In Republika Srpska, rape survivors are treated like any other civilian victims of war, who all have to prove 60 per cent disability in order to be able to claim any war-related payments. This is of course difficult because of the nature of the violation. In the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, a special status and compensation for rape survivors was established only in 2006, prompted by a legal ruling.

However, women’s social citizenship is affected not only in their position as civilian war victims. With such a huge chunk of state resources devoted to veteran benefits, other areas of social welfare suffer. Since women more often rely on welfare as those at higher risk of poverty (due to lower employment, lower wages, lower pensions or as single mothers), they are inherently affected. In BiH veteran benefits amounted to 2.4 per cent of the country’s GDP in 2010, as compared 1.5 per cent of GDP spent on all other benefits combined, including those not related to the war (World Bank, 2012). Additionally, re-routing so much of welfare through the figure of the citizen-soldier contributes to the re-traditionalisation of gender relations. Women often now access welfare as wives or daughters of veterans, highlighting their status as dependents, and in practice reaffirming the male status as a provider and head of the household. This of course puts women in an odd position where they are likely to support these deeply gendered schemes since they have become so reliant on them. Precisely because of their wide coverage, the veteran benefits can seem like the last modicum of social protection in countries which since the collapse of Yugoslavia have experienced a severe curtailment of social welfare.

In BiH and Croatia, veteran entitlements are justified on the basis of the special contribution made by the soldiers to the nation-state. There seems to be an implicit assumption that if a man spent that time with a gun in his hand, this was an act for the benefit of state or society. It is argued that the preparedness of a soldier to sacrifice his life for the community is priceless and cannot be compensated. Yet the idea of soldier sacrifice can be quite romanticised, considering that in this particular war (as perhaps in many others), enlisting offered some soldiers chances of empowerment and enrichment through looting, smuggling and other criminal activities such as rape. Criminal but also social networks established during the war also determined access to jobs, positions and connections in the post-war period. Moreover, the distinction between the civilian and military lives during this kind of war is easily blurred. As highlighted by the anthropologist Ivana Maček, in besieged Sarajevo, ‘combatants and civilians were largely confronted with the same dangers, the same material difficulties, and the same moral dilemmas' (in Bougarel, 2006, p. 483).

The future of social citizenship

The weakness of all three states in the face of global economic competition has increasingly put pressure even on the revered model of citizen-soldier. In times of indebtedness and austerity, there is a greater competition for state resources and contestations of the current schemes of redistribution. The pressure to contribute economically is very much present, and the perfect citizen is no longer the soldier-citizen but the working and consuming citizen. The implications of this statement go much beyond the former Yugoslavia. In the age of corporate soldiers and wars fought by drones, there is a risk that states stop caring about the quality of their ‘stock’, adding yet another reason to shed state responsibility for their populations.



Bougarel, Xavier (2006). ‘The shadow of heroes: former combatants in post-war Bosnia-Herzegovina’, International Social Science Journal, 58(189), 479-490.

World Bank (2012). Bosnia and Herzegovina: Challenges and Directions for Reform: A Public Expenditure and Institutional Review, Report No. 66253-BA.

Žunec, Ozren (2006). ‘Apsolutna žrtva i relativna kompenzacija: Proturječja društvenog položaja veterana i državne skrbi za ratne veterane i invalide’ [‘Absolute Sacrifice and Relative Compensation: Contradictions in  the Social Position of Veterans and State Care for War Veterans and Invalids’], Polemos, 9(2), 11-41.