POZAREVAC, Serbia – There was the time he smashed her head against the concrete floor and collected the gushing blood in a bucket, Mica said, apparently just for fun. And the beating that left a wall so splattered the family spent a whole day repainting it. There were the rapes that left her numb and the insults of "whore" that filled her with helpless rage.
She called police again and again. The officers, whenever they turned up, let her husband off with a warning and went away.
Things might not have ended up the way they did, Mica said, had she just gotten some help.
One autumn day, Mica snapped. She grabbed a can of gasoline, doused the man she had once loved with all her heart — and set him on fire. He died a week later in the hospital.
"I must have broken down," Mica, whose full identity is protected by Serbian law, told The Associated Press in a prison interview.
Serbia is in the grips of a crisis of domestic violence that experts say is being fed by chronic poverty, the trauma of wartime atrocities and a culture where brutality against women is traditionally hushed up. Official foot-dragging often means that husbands feel they can get away with beatings — and in increasing cases murder. Reports of domestic violence, declared a crime in Serbia only in 2002, have rocketed in recent years, an indication both of increased willingness by women to speak out and of a stubborn, possibly deepening tragedy.
Official figures compiled by a network of social care centers showed 9,325 reported cases in 2012, compared to 3,441 in 2006. Police records showed criminal complaints at 2,730 in just the first nine months of 2013, against 317 for all of 2002.
"Violence is widespread," said Brankica Jankovic, a senior official at the Labor and Social Care Ministry. "It is one of the biggest problems of our society."
Perhaps most alarmingly, women are increasingly dying at the hands of their husbands and partners — indicating that, while trends in the frequency of attacks are hard to gauge, they are growing in brutality. Figures compiled by a network of women's rights groups showed that 41 women were killed by domestic violence in the first 11 months of this year — compared to 32 in 2012, and 29 in 2011. The Women Against Violence network said women are being killed with knives, guns, axes or shotguns — the legacy of the Balkan wars that militarized this country along with the rest of the region.
"This means that the number of women murdered in the family-partnership context is constantly on the rise," the women's group asserted in a report.
In April, a Serbian veteran from the 1991-95 war in Croatia went on a shooting rampage, killing 13 relatives and wounding his wife, whom he had beaten for years. The family lived in a remote village in central Serbia, where everybody kept quiet for years about the ex-soldier's violence until it was too late.
The U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women also expressed concern in its July 2013 report on Serbia over "the increasing number of women murdered by their husbands, ex-husbands or partners and women victims of other forms of violence."
Meanwhile, Serbia's justice system continues to treat wife beaters with kid gloves. Justice Ministry data showed that out of 1,857 convictions for domestic violence in 2012, the vast majority — 1,273 — have been suspended sentences. The U.N. report noted "the significant disparity" between the number of criminal complaints of domestic violence and the number of convictions that result from them.
Women's groups have pointed to the lack of a systematic approach to domestic violence as a key problem. There is no central data base, so rights groups, police, social services, hospitals or the justice system keep their own patchy records, depending on where the victim sought help. Jankovic, of the Labor and Social Care ministry, conceded in an interview with AP that "the weakest link is lack of integrated response" by state institutions.
A study released in 2013 by independent experts associated with the Women Against Violence network analyzed the response to domestic violence by the justice system, police and social services. It found that only 2 percent of more than 8,000 complaints of domestic violence in 2010 in Serbia, a nation of 7 million people, resulted in measures to protect the victims. The report also said that "punitive policies by the courts are extremely lenient" — with most perpetrators only given warnings or suspended sentences.
A U.N.-commissioned survey from 2010 found that as many as 54 percent of women in Serbia have faced either physical, economic, psychological or sexual family violence — much higher than the global average of 30-40 percent or the European average of 25 percent.
Vesna Jaric, from the U.N. Development Program in Serbia, praised the Serbian government for taking steps to boost the legal framework for fighting domestic violence and raising awareness — an important first step. But Jaric warned that Serbia faces a tough road to reach the standards of France, for example, where one in ten women are victims of abuse. The U.N.-commissioned report stressed that poverty and traditional family structures in Serbia, where several generations often live together, also increase the risk of violence.
The case of 58-year-old Mica underscores how the plight of abused women is routinely ignored by authorities. But the trial that convicted her of murdering the father of her four children also gave a glimpse into how domestic violence may slowly be generating more sympathy in Serbia, one of the reasons cited for the increasing willingness of abused women to come forward.
The judge expressed strong understanding of the horrors Mica lived through and showed leniency with a 5-year sentence — the minimum in a murder conviction — citing "many years of harassment, beatings, insults and sexual abuse."
The Higher Court in Pancevo, north of Belgrade, heard several witnesses — including her children and next-door neighbors — who testified to the 30 years of abuse she suffered. Mica herself told the court that she silently put up with the violence, raising the children and hoping her husband, a former factory worker, would change. When the attacks became too much to bear, she fled to live with her brother in Bosnia for a while. She came back home to claim her right to the house in a divorce procedure. The beatings resumed.
"The police would come, tell him to stop," Mica said in her prison in the central city of Pozarevac. "He would calm down for a few days and then start again."
Sociologists and human rights activists said that one of the key reasons for abuse of women in Serbia lies in centuries-old patriarchal traditions: Men call the shots, and women keep quiet and obey. Another problem is Serbia's prolonged social and economic crisis, linked to the Balkans wars of the 1990s that erupted in the breakup of the former Yugoslavia. The wars seared horrific atrocities — including the massacres of women and children — on the collective imagination. Millions of pieces of weapons were left behind. More than 100,000 people were killed and millions uprooted in the upheaval.
Sociologist Tijana Rolovic, describes a vicious circle of trauma, economic misery and violence.
"The longer the frustration, the higher the level of violence," Rolovic said. "The healing process will take a long time."
Then there's the outsized influence of Serbian warlords pursued by international justice for crimes against humanity — but who remain heroes to many Serbs.
Jaric, from the U.N. Development Program in Serbia, described such battleground chiefs as the model for the new Balkan male: "a macho-man who is dominant, aggressive and superior."
"That model is destructive for everyone," she said, "including the men themselves."