PRISTINA, Kosovo — Thousands of women were raped in Kosovo as Serb and ethnic Albanian forces fought for control of the territory two decades ago. Serb leader Slobodan Milošević’s forces used rape as a tool of war — their goal was to destroy Albanians’ honor and identity, according to researchers and activists. It’s a strategy that worked. Even though Kosovo eventually declared independence from Serbia, the war is not over for these survivors who still suffer in silence.
Shame and stigma in Kosovo’s conservative society prevent survivors of sexual violence from speaking out about the assaults. They often rely on doctors and counselors from the few NGOs in Kosovo who work in this area to tell their stories, in an attempt to heal and move forward with their lives. Some, after confiding in their spouses, have agreed to keep quiet; others feel they can’t share their stories even with loved ones.
Sunday, March 24 marked the 20th anniversary of the start of NATO’s 78-day bombing campaign to remove Milošević’s forces from Kosovo. Most of the war crimes — including rapes — happened between March and June 1999, as Serbian forces retaliated against the ethnic Albanian population in Kosovo. Men were also subject to sexual violence.
To date, no individual perpetrator has been jailed for rape committed during the war.
A 36-year-old wartime rape survivor in the woods near the home where she grew up in the Drenica region in central Kosovo. This survivor was 16 when she was raped by eight Serb policemen in the basement of a relative’s home in April 1999. After the end of the war, when she was 17, she married a much older man that her parents found for her, in hopes that marriage would ease her suffering. It didn’t.
She was anxiously waiting for news about the status of her application for a new government pension offered to survivors of sexual violence from the war. The new government pension of €230 a month for the rest of their lives (which is about average for a woman’s salary in the country), has been well received by survivors living in deep poverty and isolation.
To qualify, they must provide details of their assaults during a lengthy application process that requires evidence of rape, including medical records, therapy notes, and witness testimonies. It is a grueling and agonizing process for the survivors that they must face if they want to be legally recognized as a civilian victim of the war. And even then, not all applications are approved by the government’s verification commission. As of January, 119 out of 911 applications had been rejected and 190 had been approved. Only those who were raped between February 27, 1998 and June 20, 1999 are eligible to apply for the pension.
In February, this survivor received news that she’d made it through the application process, almost a year after submitting her application. “It’s almost like a dream for me. If it is, I don’t want to wake up. I’ve never felt better. Even though I can never forget what I [went through] at that time,” she says, “this is still good news. It will help, especially my children.”
Sanije Salihu holds a photo of her daughter, Vjollca, who was raped and tortured during the war. Vjollca disappeared one night in 1998 in her hometown of Gjakova in western Kosovo and it took weeks for her mother to find out that her daughter had been taken to a hospital in the Serbian capital Belgrade. Sanije brought her paralyzed daughter back to Kosovo and cared for her until Vjollca died of her injuries, including a damaged spinal cord, in 2006. Below, Sanije holds a photograph of her daughter before the war.
Two sisters who were raped at the same time during the war hold hands. They did not seek counseling from any NGOs and haven’t told anyone about the rape besides their husbands. Feelings of shame and stigma prevent many survivors from speaking out about their assaults, in fear that their reputations would be destroyed. In some cases, wives and daughters have been kicked out of their homes after their families discovered they’d been raped.
A survivor holds her teenage daughter’s hand. This survivor decided to share her story with her daughter a few years ago, as she could no longer bear the pain of keeping her rape a secret.
Luli (not his real name) is a male rape survivor who has received treatment and counseling from the Kosova Rehabilitation Centre for Torture Victims in Pristina, where he was photographed. This NGO is one of four in Kosovo that helps survivors of sexual violence. He was raped by Serb policemen when he was 21. After the rape, when he returned home bloodied and battered, he told his father what happened. His father’s response: “We cannot tell anyone because the family’s honor would be lost and we would have to leave this place.”
Luli eventually married and after a few years with his wife, he decided to share his story with her. She left him the next day. He has since remarried and still has not disclosed his past to his second wife. Luli also applied to the new government pension for survivors, though he did so in secret.
Vasfije Krasniqi Goodman is the first survivor of sexual violence from the Kosovo war to share her story on television without hiding her identity. Last October, she told an audience in Pristina what happened to her almost 20 years ago when she was abducted and raped by a Serb police officer when she was only 16.
Her talk was televised nationally on Kosovo’s public service broadcaster. Goodman now lives in Texas with her family and returned to her homeland to share her story. She continues to tell her story around the world as part of “Be My Voice,” a campaign launched last June on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women by the the Kosova Rehabilitation Centre for Torture Victims. The aim of the campaign is to raise awareness on fighting prejudice and reducing stigma for survivors of sexual violence from the war. Goodman often shares a platform with other survivors of sexual violence from different conflicts around the world.
A survivor stands by the window in her home in a village in western Kosovo, near the border with Albania.
Kosovo’s first female president, Atifete Jahjaga, holds hands with a wartime rape survivor during a visit to the office of the NGO Medica Gjakova in Pristina. Jahjaga’s term, which ended in 2016, was critical in advancing the recognition of survivors of sexual violence as civilian war victims, demanding more support for them from both the government and society. Today, she continues to support the survivors by sharing their stories around the world.
Survivors participate in a group therapy session with counselors from Medica Gjakova. In many cases, survivors must travel from their remote villages in secret to receive therapy and meet with fellow survivors.
Valerie Plesch is a freelance journalist and documentary photographer focusing on international affairs in post-conflict and transitional countries.
This article has been updated.