Feature 29 May 17

The Enduring Agony of Wartime Rape in Kosovo

Women who have suffered in silence for years in Kosovo, after being tortured and raped in the war, are being offered a reparations scheme – but the stigma of rape means many of them may not apply for it.

Serbeze Haxhiaj BIRN Pristina
Thousands of other women were victims of sexual violence during the Kosovo war of 1998-99. Photo: Pixabay

Fata restlessly twists her fingers, as if she were suffering some great embarrassment. She can hear footsteps in the corridor so she stops speaking and waits until it becomes quiet again outside.

Eighteen years have passed since the day of NATO shelling in May 1999 when she was pulled out of a refugee column, raped and tortured by Serbian forces in a private house in the northern Kosovo town of Mitrovica. She lost her right eye. She was only 16 years old.

“I remember they kept us for three days. They kept 15 of us in the same room. When I came to, I saw that my right eye was bandaged and that I could not move,” she recalled.

Since that day, Fata [the name she gave herself for the interview] has been permanently scarred, as well as maligned and stigmatised by her own community.

“My aunt told me that I should not tell anyone what happened; I’d be better off killing myself,” she said.

Thousands of other women were also victims of sexual violence inflicted by Serbian forces during the Kosovo war of 1998-99, which NATO brought to an end by terminating Serbia’s rule over Kosovo.

Fata says the place where she was confined had become a centre for rape and murder by Serbian forces.

“I remember that on the first day, we were raped continuously. They took turns with us, while wiping away our blood,” she said.

Despite this horrific experience, she fears to apply for the status of a wartime victim of sexual violence in a reparation scheme set up those who were raped during the war, which the government of Kosovo intends to introduce this year.

“My family does not want my name listed anywhere. Now they have become a big family. Their sons and daughters have got married, and so the family has grown. They do not want anyone to talk about it,” she explained.

She tends to let a lock of her dark hair drape over her right eye, a habit she developed a long time ago to cover the empty socket. It was only three years ago, with support from an NGO, that she got a prosthetic eye.

Suffering in silence

A monument to war heroines in Pristina. Photo: Kallxo

Following years of silence and stigmatisation, Kosovo’s parliament passed a law in 2014 that recognises the victim status of those women and offers them pensions of up to 220 euros a month.

At the end of April, the government established the Committee for Verification and Recognition of Violence Victim Status, which will implement the legal procedures to enable the process to start.

“The law recognises their status, but they do not enjoy the same benefits as other war victims, although their needs are often greater,” Veprore Shehu, from Medica Kosova, a Gjakova-based organisation that acts on behalf of rape survivors, told BIRN.

The main benefits that war victims are entitled to are family pensions, free healthcare, advantage in employment, release from court, administrative and public taxes, including property taxes, and cheaper electricity.

The new law allows rape survivors to apply for reparations in writing, without having to testify in person about what they endured. The survivors are not obliged to, but may, submit medical or police records as proof of their rape.

The government selected Shehu’s organisation, along with three others, to collect applications from survivors, to ensure their confidentiality, so that they do not have to face the committee members in person.

Arban Abrashi, Kosovo’s Minister of Labour and Social Welfare, whose ministry will implement the scheme, says the level of support will only be modest. “Moreover, it will not provide the justice that is missing,” he told BIRN.

Fearing stigmatisation and exclusion, thousands of women victims of wartime sexual violence have silently lived with serious health problems.

Fata’s family saw the teenager’s rape as a great stigma. “I could not continue my education. It was difficult to get medical treatment. My family suffered because many people knew that I had been raped, and that they had taken my eye out deliberately,” she explained.

The psychological toll has been even worse, Fata says. She suffers from depression and from headaches and severe migraines.

The negative perceptions of society and the difficulty in getting medical treatment in a poor country like Kosovo has resulted in several of these rape victims committing suicide.

“A number of these victims also died as a consequence of domestic violence, which was carried out in the name of honour,” says Siobhan Hobbs, who in 2016 led a UN team that published a report on the plight of sexual violence victims in Kosovo.

This is because, among many families like Fata’s, rape is seen as a stain on the family’s honour.

“I decided to marry, not because I wanted to, but to stop being a burden on my family. However, it grew even worse. My husband’s family found out that I had been raped and had lost an eye. They threw us out of the house,” Fata recalls.

Since then, along with her husband and two children, she has lived in collective shelters or abandoned houses, battling with severe poverty.

Some rape survivors were not only ostracised by their relatives but deserted by their husbands as well.

Marginalised and excluded, they carry the weight of the blame for what happened to them.

Another woman told BIRN that both she and her sister were raped in a house in Decan, in western Kosovo, during the Kosovo war.

“When her husband found out, he left my sister with two children and married someone else,” she said.

Fear of further violence and ostracisation has made many women reluctant to seek support, especially as regards healthcare, employment and training.

This is also why some, like Fata, hesitate to apply for the status of a wartime victim of sexual violence.

Many say they do not know how they will explain the payments they may receive to their families.

“Only a few victims will apply,” Feride Rushiti, head of the Pristina-based Centre for Rehabilitation of Torture Survivors, predicts.

Rushiti also argues that the law is discriminatory.

The current law offers survivor status to those assaulted in the war between February 27, 1998, when armed conflict in Kosovo started, and June 20, 1999 when Serbian forces withdrew from Kosovo following NATO bombing.

But some Serbian victims associations note that this timeframe actually means that Serbian rape survivors – who also endured sexualviolence, following the withdrawal of Serbian armed forces, will thus not be eligible to apply.

“Rape was not only carried out by Serbs and not only during the war,” Rushiti said. “There were victims on all sides.”

Blagica Radovanovic, head of the Santa Marija, an NGO which deals with victims of domestic violence in the northern Kosovo Serb town of Zvecan, says the Kosovo Serbian community has not been included in the drafting of the law and remains unfamiliar with it.

“Our recommendation is to research the actual number of victims sexual of violence, which will include all the communities affected by the war. There is no information regarding sexual violence during [Kosovo Albanian] revenge attacks,” Radovanovic said.

Veprore Shehu says they have provided care for three raped women from the Roma community.

Hobbs also argues that the legal framework of the 2014 legislation needs to be amended.

“The law should be more inclusive. The timeframe needs to be changed because it does not cover victims of sexual violence committed after the conflict. The establishment of the Commission should nonetheless continue, and any amendments to the law can be done in parallel, or after,” Hobbs said on Skype.

Abandoned children

The number of children born to women raped during the war in Kosovo is unknown. Photo: Pixabay

In a report in 2000, the rights organisation Human Rights Watch said rape in Kosovo was “used as a war tactic to humiliate, intimidate, and displace by force civilians of a certain ethnic community and as a means of changing the demography of a territory.”

But, while the war fades into history, it remains a permanent reality for the thousands of women who were raped during those years.

One woman who gave birth as a result of wartime rape said paramilitary units held her for two days in a private house in a village near Peja.

“I didn’t even know I was pregnant. When a medical doctor told me about the pregnancy, I wanted to commit suicide. I was 17. They told me the pregnancy was in the sixth month and it was too late for an abortion,” she said.

In a short, difficult conversation at one of the centres providing support to victims of violence, she shared her story of the baby’s delivery.

“A doctor and a psychologist arranged with an urologist to write a diagnosis, showing allegedly that my belly was growing because one of my kidneys wasn’t working,” she said.

A German NGO paid the rent for a flat where she could hide from her family until she gave birth. She said her son was a healthy baby: “He didn’t cry at all.”

But she only breast fed him once - and then gave him up. “I don’t know where he is. I didn’t want to know about him. I still don’t want to know,” she replied briefly, declining to offer more details.

While the tall, dark woman said her life was better now, she was reluctant to talk more about the present, or about herself, or about whether she might apply for victim status.

With or without this status, she will always feel haunted as the mother of an abandoned child.

The number of children born to women raped during the war in Kosovo will never be known. Organisations that help rape survivors of have obtained data only on four or five cases.

That information came from medical centres in Albania and Montenegro, where refugees sought support.

“Twelve of 120 women treated at our centre underwent abortions in Kukes, in Albania - all pregnancies that happened as a consequence of rape; only one woman gave birth, and she abandoned her baby,” Veprore Shehu of Medica Kosova said.

Neither hospitals nor shelters for abandoned children in Kosovo have any data about childbirths as a consequence of rape or about abandoned children during 1998-1999.

The current reparation scheme does not provide access to healthcare, educational or other services to children of the survivors who have indirectly been affected by violence.

“A way should be found to make sure that children who were born as a result of rape are included in the reparation measures,” Hobbs said.

Disputed figures

Atifete Jahjaga, former President of Kosovo. Photo: Kallxo

Atifete Jahjaga, when she was President of Kosovo from 2011 to 2016, was the first political leader in Kosovo to advocate legislation to help the survivors and to challenge the stigma surrounding them.

“During my mandate, I tried to leave no stone unturned to enable them to gain recognition. About 20,000 women victims still do not enjoy freedom of body and soul,” Jahjaga told BIRN.

She established a National Council for Violence Survivors, and one of the initiatives it promoted was a strategy for access to justice.

The figure of 20,000 rape survivors that Jahjaga quoted comes from several sources. The WHO’s Kosovo Health Sector Situation report published in 2000 that said: “Local organisations estimate that approximately 10,000 to 20,000 women were raped between February 1998 and June 1999.”

A local NGO, the Center for Protection of Women and Children, CWPC, also estimates that at least 20,000 women and girls were raped. However, the figure was never verified and the number remains a matter of dispute.

Jahjaga insisted that the figure was based on investigations conducted by specialist organisations and experts. “I strongly believe that the figure is accurate,” she said.

But Hobbs, who was involved in a UN report wartime sexual violence in Kosovo, questions it.

“The estimate of 20,000 is based on an incorrect application of a formula, but that was done in good faith with the limited data that was available. It is not the case that this was a deliberately misleading figure. The fact is no one knows for sure,” she said.

What is known is that women were raped in houses, at military posts and in police stations. As well as being raped, some were beaten, their genitals were mutilated, and they were stabbed with knives, burned with cigarettes, even killed.

No convictions

Over the past 18 years, the local courts in Kosovo have not found anyone guilt of wartime rape. Photo: Joe Gratz/Flickr

Like many others who have never been able to share what happened to them, Fata has suffered in silence, and has not seen justice done.

Only a few of these women have testified in cases before the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, ICTY.

As of September 2016, the ICTY had found four men guilty in connection with crimes of sexual violence in Kosovo, among other crimes.

They were Vlastimir Djordjevic, a former Serbian assistant interior minister, Nikola Sainovic, former Yugoslav deputy Prime Minister, Nebojsa Pavkovic, Former Yugoslav Army General and Sreten Lukic, former Serbian police general.

The ICTY website says that Sainovic and Lukic were “found guilty of crimes of sexual violence through participation in the Joint Criminal Enterprise, but no conviction [was] entered for these charges.”

Over the past 18 years, the local courts in Kosovo have not found anyone guilt of wartime rape.

Sanija Salihu remembers the evening in August 1998, when her 20-year-old daughter did not return home. A police car patrol in central Gjakova took her away, at a time when fighting was going on in many areas of Kosovo.

Vjollca Salihu was taken somewhere and raped by Serbian policemen. As a result of her torture, her spinal cord was damaged.

“She went to close up the shop. It was 8pm. She did not return. We looked for her everywhere. We went to ask the police and they told us that they had no knowledge of her,” Sanije Salihu said.

Two months later, a telephone call from a hospital in Belgrade revealed her daughter’s whereabouts.

“The doctors told me that she was taken there from a hospital in Pristina and she had been tortured. They said she would not live long,” she recalled.

“I saw her whole body had been burned by cigarettes. Her genitals were mutilated with knives and covered in scars. The doctors showed me another thing which I had failed to notice - her fingernails had been torn out,” she added.

One thing she does not know is how her daughter was taken to the Pristina hospital. Izet Hima, the doctor who referred Vjollca to the Pristina hospital, was himself killed a few days later.

While browsing through her daughter’s medical reports, pictures and documents, she points her finger at the date of her birth. The day after she gave this interview, April 28, Vjollca would have been 38.

“All that she knew was the name of a policeman. She explained that she had been tied up, raped and beaten. You could see the rope marks on her legs. She had tried to commit suicide in the toilet. She remembered that they twisted her neck, and then nothing else,” she said.

Three years later, Vjollca died at home in Gjakova. Her mother has been seeking justice ever since. But the law does not include reparations for families of the victims who died as a result of their rape.

The Kosovo reparation programme design is based on general frameworks established by several other countries and their experiences, including Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Unlike in Bosnia, however, the process of verification and recognition of war rape survivors in Kosovo does not provide that their testimonies can be used simultaneously by the prosecutor’s office.

Besim Kajtazi, head of the legal department at the Kosovo President’s office, who led the team drafting the legal framework on reparations, said that would be too uncomfortable for many of the survivors.

NGOs that will compile survivors’ testimonies and lawmakers explained that Kosovo had opted not to follow Bosnia’s example, where testimonies are automatically shared with police and prosecution, because it might worsen the trauma for survivors and potentially deter some who fear they might have to go public, from testifying and being publicly identified as a rape victim.

“Nevertheless, that does not in any way impede the Prosecutor’s Office from investigating cases,” Kajtazi told BIRN.

Bakira Hasečić, head of the Women Victims of War association and a wartime victim of sexual violence herself, from Visegrad, Bosnia, says there can be no complete recovery for survivors of rape without justice done to the perpetrators.

Inger Skjelsbaek, a psychology professor at Oslo University in Norway, specialising in sexual violence in conflict, argues that reparations should closely linked with other initiatives for justice.

“Wherever sexual violence was used in a war, a high non-punishment culture still prevails. Nevertheless, in recent years, it has begun to change,” Skjelsbaek said.

But while justice remains distant, and revenge is impossible, for many of the survivors and their families, hate stays fresh.

“I’d like to rip their bellies open with a knife. I will never be satisfied otherwise,” Sanija Salihu said.

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