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CN: this article contains detailed discussion of rape, sexual violence, and war
In loving memory of Arzana Kraja, who helped to bring Kosovars together to support rape survivors through her conceptualisation and design of the Anemone symbol, in collaboration with Dardan Luta.
In a recent panel discussing the prosecution of war crimes during the Kosovo war, prosecutor Drita Hajdari recounted her painstaking efforts to bring to justice a Serb perpetrator to human rights advocates. The victim, whose case she investigated, was among the few out of the thousands of ethnic Albanian women raped during the war by Serbian forces to have come forward to authorities. She was among a handful of rape survivors to pursue justice on a subject that remained for too long embroiled in a veil of secrecy and shame.
The perpetrator, as Hajdari explained to the participants of the conference hosted by the Humanitarian Law Center Kosovo, initially hid in Serbia, but was eventually arrested in neighbouring Hungary. An international warrant was issued by Kosovo authorities, who had worked through bilateral arrangements due to Kosovo’s contested statehood that prevents the country from joining Interpol. Yet, instead of sending him to Kosovo, Hungary extradited the alleged perpetrator to Serbia, which too demanded his extradition on the basis that it had already initiated an investigation against him on the same allegations as the prosecutor in Kosovo.
“Can you imagine a situation in which a victim from Kosovo would travel to Serbia to testify about the rape? It’s impossible,” Hajdari said helplessly. “I even doubt that Serbia opened an investigation into it,” Hajdari added, hinting at Serbia’s reluctance to try its own officers for the atrocities committed in Kosovo amid an ongoing wave of denial and historical revisionism of the 1990s conflicts. “We have failed,” Hajdari concluded.
The failure to access justice for the torture suffered at the hands of Serbian forces during the 1998-1999 war is all too familiar to Kosovo survivors of wartime rape. It is the latest in a string of battles, both long and exhaustive, political and legal, that women survivors, but also men, have had to put up since the NATO intervention halted Serbia’s campaign of ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. But the failure to secure justice for Kosovo rape survivors has broader implications for hopes to deter rape in other conflicts. It demonstrates a failure to treat rape for what it is: a tool of war used as deliberately and as indiscriminately as the mass killings of civilians. This environment discouraged women to come forward to seek justice for their ordeal, leaving them to suffer in silence in a society unable and for a long time unwilling to come to terms with this crime.
There were other factors that enabled the silence on wartime rape. Amid a narrative that highlighted the armed resistance of the then guerrilla Kosovo Liberation Army, the whispering of survivors of sexual violence echoed inside the walls of a few support organisations and through the handholding of a few tireless women who recognised and patiently addressed the war’s devastation upon them.
War heroes had statutes erected, while schools, libraries and streets were named after activists and resistance writers. Families of fallen fighters, considered martyrs, received national gratitude and were afforded recognition. But for the rape survivors, as one of them told us, there was no pride to be found in being raped. The triumphant postwar narrative that prevailed in Kosovo allowed no ‘weakness’.
In Kosovo, rape was not an inevitable crime of war. It did not simply accompany other forms of violence, but it was an integral tool in the strategy of ethnic cleansing. Serb forces targeted their victims based solely on their ethnicity – their class, age, religious or political affiliations did not matter.
Some of the survivors were 14 at the time of the rape. Some were from urban areas, though the majority of those raped were in villages, in ethnically homogenous parts of Kosovo where Serb forces focused their strategy of expulsion. In those parts of Kosovo, the pattern of rape matched the pattern of massacres: gang rape, at times perpetrated on several members of the same family at once. Yet, its sporadic treatment by international and local courts did not grant it the weight it carried for scores of women for whom the war continues.
Immediately after the war, the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia (ICTY) intensified its efforts to bring to justice the masterminds of the Yugoslav Wars. Its investigators scoured refugee camps in northern Albania and in North Macedonia for witnesses to the frequent episodes of mass murders as part of the ethnic cleansing campaign of the Serbian forces that saw over 10 000 civilians killed.
Organisations such as Human Rights Watch, piecing together those same patterns of violence against ethnic Albanian civilians, were quick to establish that ‘rapes were not rare and isolated acts committed by individuals, but rather were used deliberately as an instrument to terrorize the civilian population, extort money from families, and push people to flee their homes.’
The documentation of the terror in dozens of villages in Kosovo, and the eyewitness accounts that accompanied the prosecution’s list went on to form the crux of the judgments that saw Yugoslavia’s and Serbia’s top political and military brass convicted for war crimes, including the killing of hundreds, and the forceful deportation of 800 000 ethnic Albanians from their homes.
Meanwhile, of the all the war crime cases tried in the Hague tribunal, four Yugoslav and Serbian senior military officials were found guilty on the grounds of command responsibility regarding sexual assault. In this verdict, ICTY proved that the leadership knew and did not stop or punish perpetrators even though military courts were functional and ran trials for other crimes, such as desertion.
Testimonies of widespread rape emerged as part of the evidence collected and an early projection conducted by the Atlanta-based Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that 20 000 women in Kosovo’s population of about 2 million at the time were subject to sexual assault. As survivors began to come forward after years of enduring their trauma in isolation, an even clearer picture emerged. As Anna Di Lellio and I showed in 2020, women were raped in large numbers on the same date and in the same site where men were killed.
Take the village of Meja, where Serb forces killed 377 civilians sheltering in the village after they were expelled from their homes and pushed toward neighboring Albania. We were able to verify that at least 16 women were raped in that attack. Similarly in Beleg and Carabreg in western Kosovo, on March 29, 1999 Serb forces separated the men and women of the village. In a span of two days, some 40 men were killed or disappeared, and we have obtained the record of at least 16 women raped in a barn nearby. These examples are part of six cases drawn from a subset of survivors uncovering a pattern of the systematic use of rape as a tool of furthering war aims in Kosovo.
Yet, at the ICTY and local courts, rape was not central to the prosecution and the investigations. Just two rape survivors testified as protected witnesses due to the stigma surrounding rape in Kosovo, and confronted the then Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic with the crimes committed by his forces, acting under his orders.
Years later, they would recount to researchers the horror of facing Milosevic in the Hague’s courtroom, trying to find the strength to describe the assaults they endured. With Milosevic dead after years of prolonged deliberations but before the court could reach a verdict, both victims were left with the feeling that justice for them and thousands of women at the hands of international justice proved elusive. The need to address the impunity surrounding wartime rape did not surface by the time the ICTY wrapped up its work, despite the warning signs that the practice had been so widespread in Kosovo.
Kosovo’s institutions and the society at large eventually came to the aid of victims of wartime rape, largely due to the successful advocacy of support organisations such as the Kosovo Center for Rehabilitation of Torture Victims and Medica Gjakova to name a few, as well as a woman president, Atifete Jahjaga, who was sensitive, sympathetic and accessible to their plight.
As President Jahjaga pushed forward legislation and oversaw the process that enabled financial compensation for the survivors, she lent her voice and the authority of her office to the telling of their story. But she and others who advocated for the inclusion and rehabilitation of survivors through better healthcare access and a confidential pension scheme that Kosovo took on, also always advocated for justice, which remains a missing piece.
Years since, survivors have begun to come forward. Their quest for acknowledgement and recognition by their own society has experienced a paradigm shift, best illustrated by the 2021 election of Vasfije Krasniqi to the National Assembly. Krasniqi is one of the first rape survivors to come out publicly to recount the rape by Serb forces at the age of 15, and she was one of the most voted-for women in Kosovo’s general election. She campaigned on a promise to fight for justice for herself and thousands of women who had their lives shattered by the trauma of rape.
She is not alone in this effort. Support groups continue to mobilise across Kosovo to create joint platforms to document war crimes and make the testimonies of women available to researchers and the wider public. Women leaders in Kosovo across all walks of life sport the symbol of solidarity with rape victims – Anemone, a yellow flower against a purple background – as brooches, on COVID-19 masks, bags and notebooks. Football clubs and their fans have stood in support through public displays of solidarity. The coming forward of rape survivors has begun to change Kosovo for the better. But it has also made frustration at the lack of justice only more visible and urgent.
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All views expressed are the writer’s own.