Women sexually assaulted during Kosovo's war have been battling for recognition for nearly two decades. Now they’re on the brink of getting it – but to do so, they’ll have to overcome years of stigma.
- By Kristen ChickKristen Chick is a journalist based in Kosovo, and writes about the Balkans and the Middle East.
DRENAS, Kosovo — For nearly 17 years, K.T. has been living with a secret. In 1999, during the conflict in Kosovo, she was gang raped by Serbian forces.
When her son found out, she says, he had a question for her: “Why didn’t you ask them to kill you instead?”
If that was the reaction of her own family, what would the neighbors say? Fearing the humiliation, she suffered in silence. She says she tried to commit suicide. When she talks about that day, she still sometimes says it would have been better if she had been killed.
Thousands of survivors of the wartime sexual violence in Kosovo that took place when Serbia fought against an independence movement here in the late 1990s still suffer from stigma like K.T.. So it was a significant step when the country’s parliament moved in 2014 to recognize them as war victims, entitling them to a state pension, after years of refusing to acknowledge them. Nearly two years later, the government is expected to soon form the commission that will begin accepting applications.
The country is trying to avoid many of the stumbles that hindered similar laws in nearby Bosnia and Herzegovina, where poor design and implementation meant only a fraction of the victims were recognized and compensated. Kosovo officials spent more than a year designing an application and verification process that is — on paper — confidential, sensitive, and accessible. They consulted survivors, local organizations that work with victims, international experts, and representatives from Bosnia. The result has been roundly praised by local advocates who work with survivors.
But it still might not be enough. The shame Kosovar society heaps on victims means many are afraid to apply for benefits, lest they expose their secret. Members of Kosovo’s ethnic Serbian minority say they have been excluded from the process. And advocates say there are signs the government may set the benefit amount much lower — potentially less than half — of what they had hoped. A low pension not only trivializes the suffering of survivors, they say, but increases the chances that few women will even apply because the risk will outweigh the reward.
K.T., who asked to be identified only by her initials, said she plans to apply, encouraged by the Center for Promotion of Women’s Rights in the town of Drenas, where she meets with other survivors and receives therapy. In a pink headscarf that’s knotted under her chin and a pleated navy skirt, she looks the part of kindly rural grandmother, which she is. The support that she receives here helped her overcome depression, and now she tries to encourage other survivors to reject society’s blame. But she says many of them are not ready even to come to the center, much less apply for the pension.
“I’m trying to convince other women who were raped to register, but very few will do it,” she said. “They’re afraid it will cause problems with their families — many are afraid their husbands would divorce and leave them. They say it’s been 17 years and we’ve gotten nothing, so why register now? The risk is too big.”
In 1998 and 1999, Serbian forces fought an ethnic Albanian insurgency in the then-Serbian province of Kosovo. Serbian police, soldiers and paramilitaries deliberately and systematically used rape as a weapon of war, to terrorize the population and aid in ethnic cleansing, according to a report in 2000 by Human Rights Watch (HRW). After a 78-day NATO bombing campaign drove Serbian forces to withdraw, Kosovo’s guerilla forces and Albanian civilians were also accused of raping civilians. Kosovo declared independence in 2008, but is not recognized by Serbia.
No one knows how many women were raped during the conflict. The HRW report documented 96 cases of rape by Serbian forces, but said the real number of victims was likely far higher. Therapists who treat survivors say that while there are likely thousands, only hundreds have come forward for confidential treatment. Men were also raped, according to counselors working with survivors, but that fact is almost never acknowledged publicly.
It took years for Kosovo to include victims of sexual violence on the list of those given government benefits for their wartime service or suffering. The stigma against sexual assault stemming from traditional beliefs that link a man’s honor to the sexual purity and physical safety of his female family members, still runs deep here. In 2013, when an opposition politician advocated such legislation, she was attacked outside her home. In parliament, lawmakers argued the government couldn’t afford to make payments to victims of sexual violence, or that there was no way to prove their claims.
When the law finally passed in 2014, the government was tasked with writing the regulations that would govern the application and verification process. And they had a nearby example: At least 20,000 women are thought to have been raped during the 1992-1995 war in Bosnia. Both of Bosnia’s political entities, the Republika Srpska and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, passed laws allowing survivors to be recognized as war victims and receive government benefits. But the application of these well-intentioned laws was full of missteps.
One key problem is that the process differed significantly by entity. In Republika Srpska (RS), it was extremely difficult for applicants to gain recognition, and the monthly pension was far lower than in the Federation — most recipients in RS receive 100 marks ($57), though they could receive up to 350 marks ($200), while those in the Federation receive 563 marks ($321). Applicants were required to produce medical documents to prove that they had suffered physical injuries, and had to prove they had lost 60 percent of their physical ability to qualify to be recognized as war victims and received the pension. “If you think about the kinds of consequences that women faced, it’s difficult — how do you quantify, in terms of percentage,” the damage suffered by survivors, said Stephanie Barbour, a war crimes expert who worked on sexual violence issues in Bosnia. “This was something that, anecdotally, kept women from even applying. It was a great hurdle.” Some women didn’t even have medical documents, because at the time they were victimized the stigma or the ongoing conflict kept them from visiting a doctor or police.
While it was easier to be recognized in the Federation, the process there was also not without serious problems. Survivors were required to have their cases certified by a victims’ association, which interviewed applicants about their assaults. According to a 2009 report by Amnesty International, those interviews — in which survivors had to recount the details of their assaults to a group of strangers without a therapist present — left many women traumatized.
And many women were deterred from applying, because they felt the association’s office was not discreet, and because it raised the possibility of offering survivors’ testimony to a state court for use as evidence in criminal proceedings. Because of the poor state of witness protection in Bosnia and a lack of trust in the justice system, many women did not wish to pursue criminal cases against their rapists.
Todor Gardas, a campaigner on Amnesty’s Balkans team, said only around 800 women were recognized as war victims in the Federation. Part of the problem, he said, was “there were no incentives to come forward. The Federation … did not proactively try to approach communities and find victims. So really [victims] were only able to access this through a couple of intermediaries, a couple of NGOs who’ve been there in the field providing psychological support and trauma therapy. But that was very, very limited, so the reach was very limited.”
And even those whose applications were accepted, he says, were “marked.” When they approached institutions in the country for medical or other services promised under the law, their status as rape victims was apparent.
In Kosovo, officials set out to design a process with as few barriers as possible, and sought input from civil society, international experts, and survivors. Avoiding the re-traumatization of survivors was first priority, said Jeta Krasniqi, a political advisor to president Atifete Jahjaga who coordinates the National Council on Survivors of Sexual Violence During the War, which helped shape the regulations. “We wanted to make sure that we were drafting a document that would be in line with civil society’s requirements, and would heed the ‘do no harm’ principle,” she said. “We needed a mechanism that would be responsible but easy. …. that gains the trust of survivors.”
The regulations they drafted create a commission with members from both government and civil society. All members are obliged to have been trained in interacting with victims of sexual violence; survivors can submit written applications that don’t automatically require an in-person interview, and while they may attach supporting medical or police documents, such evidence is not required.
If the commission decides an interview is necessary, it can ask the survivor to appear before a three-person panel (rather than the entire commission), and the applicant can bring someone for emotional support. The commission won’t send applicant testimonies to police or prosecutors, and all of the application materials will be classified.
It’s too early to know whether regulations that look good on paper will be well-implemented — such failures are a common problem in Kosovo. But organizations working with survivors were emphatic in their praise for the government’s consultative process and the result. “For the first time, the voice of civil society and the victims was heard,” said Feride Rushiti, head of the Kosova Rehabilitation Center for Torture Victims. “To a certain extent, I think we need to see the implementation. But we as civil society had full access to interact and intervene.”
Yet while organizations working mostly with ethnic Albanian victims say the process was inclusive, members of Kosovo’s ethnic Serbian minority say the opposite. In drafting the guidelines for the application and verification process, the president’s council didn’t invite input from the Serbian community, said Dusan Radakovic, head of the Advocacy Center for Democratic Culture (ACDC). Deep divisions remain between Kosovo’s majority population and its Serbian minority. ACDC is located in North Mitrovica, a majority Serb municipality in north Kosovo where ethnic Serbs still rely on the Serbian government, not Kosovo, for many services.
Radakovic said the law to recognize survivors of wartime sexual violence discriminates against minorities because of its time frame — only those raped between February 27, 1998, and June 20, 1999 are eligible to apply. Serbian forces withdrew from Kosovo in June 1999, and Radakovic said that many rapes of ethnic Serbs and other minorities by members of Kosovo’s guerilla force, the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) and Albanian civilians, took place afterward, meaning the victims are ineligible to apply for recognition. Sexual violence against minorities after the withdrawal of Serbian forces was documented in a 2001 HRW report.
“If they’re not included, it’s breaking their rights,” said Radakovic. “These women cannot apply for reparation.” He said he sent a request to the president for the time frame to be extended, but received no response. “We would have really appreciated if we had a chance to participate in the council and give our point of view.”
Blagica Radovanovic is director of Santa Marija, which works with victims of domestic violence in the majority Serb municipality of Zvecan. She said the organization works with survivors of wartime sexual violence, but that the government in Prishtina hadn’t reached out to include them. “There was a conflict on both sides, not just theirs,” she said, referring to Albanians. “They didn’t take into consideration the Serbian women.”
Veterans of the Kosovo Liberation Army are widely venerated among the majority population, and accusations against them are highly unpopular. When four former KLA members were charged in 2013 with the rape of two ethnic Albanian women in 1998 and 1999, their trial was met with angry public protests. They were acquitted the following year.
Krasniqi, the coordinator of the president’s council, disputes the Serb community’s objections. She said the application process will be open to members of all ethnic groups and outreach will take place in all communities. “When the president formed the council she made it very clear that this is for everyone, women and men and all ethnic groups, not leaving anyone behind,” she said. The president’s council includes an ethnic Serb member, she said, adding that she had personally invited Radakovic to join the council or suggest another member. She points out that the application is available in Serbian as well as Albanian, as required by law for official documents in Kosovo, and that the regulation requires language assistance to be provided for any applicant who needs it, though Kosovo Serbs complain that the Serbian translations of laws are often so poor that they can be difficult to comprehend.
Kosovo’s other ethnic communities have not voiced complaints. Medica Gjakova, a group that supports survivors in western Kosovo, including those who belong to Kosovo’s Roma and Egyptian minority communities, has been involved in the deliberations of the president’s council. Fehmije Luzha, head of the psychosocial department at Medica Gjakova described leading group therapy sessions including members of those minority groups and Albanian women without problems, and said she doesn’t anticipate problems for them if they choose to apply for recognition from the Kosovar government.
But there are other challenges. As in Bosnia, it will be difficult for the government to reach a large number of victims. It will have to rely on groups like KRCT or Medica Gjakova to act as intermediaries, but most women who were raped have never even approached such organizations. Rushiti says she doesn’t anticipate more than 1,000 applications at the outset.
The president’s council plans to hold events throughout the country to raise awareness and encourage survivors to apply, and NGOs are already discussing it with their clients. “We’re working with our clients a lot to try to convince them, telling them that confidentiality is a priority, “ said Luzha. “Confidentiality is their biggest issue.” Many were fearful at first, but have begun to accept the idea. Still, Luzha, a soft-spoken counselor who conducts group sessions as well as individual therapy, said each time she meets with survivors, they come up with new questions about the application process. If they do apply, those who haven’t told their families about the trauma have to come up with an explanation for the sudden extra income. One client told Luzha she’ll tell her husband that her brother, who lives abroad, began sending her money.
At the group’s office in Gjakova, a meeting room is warmly decorated with sofas, hand-drawn pictures, and group photos. One of Luzha’s clients is a mother of two who asked to remain anonymous. Her husband was killed during the war, and she raised her children on the pension she receives for war widows.
She asked Luzha if the benefit she already received would preclude her from receiving the pension for survivors of sexual violence. Luzha assured her it would not, but she’s still hesitant about applying. One of the fears many women have, she said, is that in opening the bank account and withdrawing the pension every month, they’ll be outed as rape survivors. “They will point at us and say ‘look, she came for her money.’ So the fear about stigmatization is stopping women,” she said. Mirlinda Sada, director of Medica Gjakova, said it’s imperative that the amount of the pension for survivors of sexual violence is identical to another category of victims so they aren’t inadvertently identified.
Atifete Jahjaga, Kosovo’s president, has made a small dent in the stigma faced by rape victims through a national campaign to raise awareness of wartime sexual violence. She has visited survivors across the country, speaking out on their behalf, and participated in an art installation in the capital last summer that brought attention to the stigma. Organizers collected thousands of dresses and skirts across the country, then hung them on clotheslines in Pristina’s soccer stadium to symbolize the thousands of survivors. Sada and Rushiti say more women have come forward to seek treatment since the president began raising the issue. Jahjaga’s actions don’t just make survivors feel acknowledged, said Rushiti, but also show they are not to blame. By honoring those who are usually shamed, she elevates their status in society. “She went to Drenas and all the ladies wanted to make a photo with her because they wanted to show it to their families, their husbands, to say ‘look, she cares for us, and you don’t,” said Rushiti.
But now Rushiti is worried that progress will be undermined. The government has yet to decide on the size of the pension. But last year it put the monthly benefit for KLA veterans at €130 to €170, and Rushiti says it’s highly unlikely they would give sexual violence survivors more, and may actually give them less. She had been hoping for €300.
“I was very optimistic until recently. Now I have little hope,” she said. “For some of them, their lives were broken in that moment. There is no chance for them to rebuild their lives with this amount. With this amount we’re afraid some of these victims won’t even want to apply. … Knowing what victims are facing in daily life, what they fight to go through, this amount is a denigration.”
The pension is not just symbolic. Many survivors are living in poverty and dealing with long-term health problems from the violence they endured. K.T., a widow with no income, lives with her sons and is entirely dependent on them for money. Because they disapprove of her visiting the women’s center in Drenas, a 15-minute bus ride from her village, she only visits once a month. With a monthly pension, she could afford the bus fare on her own and decide to visit whenever she likes.
Now survivors are left wondering whether the amount will be enough to justify the risk of applying. One of them is M.H., a tall woman with short blond hair who is also from the Drenas area. She was four months pregnant when Serbian paramilitaries raped her, and the assault caused her to have a miscarriage. She was never again able to become pregnant.
Her husband knows what happened, and she’s lucky — he’s supportive. But his family doesn’t know. A pension would help M.H. pay for the medical care she requires for problems stemming from her assault. But she says a monthly benefit of €100 or €170 is too little, compared to what survivors went through and what they risk in applying for it. “Every time I do an interview or come to the center, it means [my husband’s family] might find out. And I’m worried about what they would do if they did,” she said “Right now my husband supports me, but no one else. If [his family] finds out, there will be no place for me there.”
Yet even if the benefit falls short, she will cherish the recognition. “It’s like healing for us,” she said. “Because it shows we are war victims. Every day we think about it. When we get support, we heal little by little. Maybe the shame will touch us forever, but we know we are not guilty.”