UNITED NATIONS – Secretary-General Antonio Guterres put a spotlight on the forgotten children born to wartime rape victims who are often shamed and excluded, issuing a cautionary statement Tuesday on the International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict.
In a message marking the annual commemoration, the U.N. chief said these children "often struggle with issues of identity and belonging for decades after the guns have fallen silent."
"They may be left in a legal limbo, or at risk of becoming stateless," Guterres said. "They are vulnerable to recruitment, trafficking and exploitation, with broad implications for peace and security, as well as human rights."
Pramila Patten, the U.N. special representative on sexual violence in conflict, said at a news conference that she wanted this year's focus to be on the children born of rape because not enough attention is being paid to their plight and their rights.
Recounting a trip to Maiduguri in northeastern Nigeria, where the Islamic extremist group Boko Haram has been active, Patten told of meeting 200 girls who had been raped, talking with them in a room that held 162 babies.
"I was really disturbed by the fact that these young girls and their babies were not only rejected by their families, by their communities, but also by the very people they were living with inside the camp," she said.
Patten said that during a visit to Sarajevo in Bosnia-Herzegovina last year she met Alen Muhic, who was born to a rape victim in 1993 during the Bosnian war, and was "very impressed by his resilience, by the work he was doing within the organization Forgotten Children of War."
Muhic, who sat next to Patten at the news conference, described how his mother abandoned him at a hospital two days after giving birth. He remained there for seven months until the hospital's janitor decided to adopt him and take him home to join his wife and two daughters.
"The family who took me in treated me as their own," he said. "I never felt being adopted."
But Muhic said when he was 8 years old a neighborhood boy called him "a really bad name" and told him his mother and father weren't his real parents and he was the result of a rape during the war.
"I punched him before I ran home to ask my parents what was the real story," he said.
"This is when my father hugged me and then he told me the whole story from the beginning and that's the first time I learned what stigma meant — and what it meant to be recognized by the society for the way I came into the world," Muhic said.
Over the years, he said, kids were cruel and called him different names, and he didn't know if he was a Bosnian Serb, Croat or Muslim.
"Effectively, I was a child with three identities," he said.
When he was about 11, producers asked to do a story about him and children born of rape, and when he was 18 they approached him again to do a second part.
As a result, he met both his real parents.
Muhic said he couldn't judge his mother. "I am not sure what I would have done if I were in her place," he said. "So I completely understood that she needed to move on."
As for his real father, Muhic said even though he was prosecuted for a war crime, "he still denies it."
"He's still not able to admit what he has done and the wrong that he has done my mother," Muhic said.
Muhic now works as a medical assistant in the hospital where he was born. He met his wife, who is also a medical assistant, at the hospital, and they have a 2-year-old son, Brian.
For Muhic, his adopted family is what matters most.
"I am so grateful to my parents who have given me everything," he said. "I am grateful for all the love and being part of the family and one day when they are gone there will be a huge part of me that will go forever."