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Wartime rape is no longer kept under wraps in Kosovo

Two recent milestones in Kosovo – an official monument recognising women’s suffering during the Kosovo War, and an art installation commemorating wartime rape – shows that change may be coming to a topic long taboo in the country.

“Everywhere in Kosovo, memorials or statues are dedicated to male war heroes – I didn’t see women’s contributions mentioned anywhere,” claimed Alma Lama about the time she spent working as a journalist in Kosovo. This year’s June 12 – celebrated as Kosovo’s liberation day – marked a milestone in this perspective. On that day Heroinat (the Albanian female plural of heroes), a memorial devoted to women’s contribution during the Kosovo War initiated by Lama, was inaugurated in Prishtina. Not far from the new statue, Alketa Xhafa-Mripa and Anna Di Lellio opened their art installation Mendoj për ty (Thinking of you) addressing the continued stigmatisation of wartime rape in Kosovan society.

'Heroinat' memorial. Photo via Alma Lama.

Built by Kosovo’s ministry of environment and spatial planning, Heroinat is the first monument in the country highlighting women’s sacrifices during the war. It is situated in the green area across from the ‘palace of youth and sports’ in Prishtina’s centre. Meanwhile, the initiator of the project, Alma Lama, is a parliamentarian for the political party LDK. Thanks to her commitment, Kosovo’s national budget of 2013 included this war memorial dedicated to women that has now been constructed. Lama wanted to change the situation in which commemoration is reserved solely for killed soldiers, which occurs to the disadvantage of women. “Everybody who saw what happened during the war is aware of the fact that women carried a heavy load on their shoulders, maybe the heaviest one,” she said. 

By filling the whole football stadium in Prishtina with clothes lines of 5000 dresses donated by Kosovar men and women all over the country, the art exhibition Thinking of you helped to fight the grievance Lama sensed in Kosovan society. The project was implemented under the aegis of the National Council for the Survivors of Wartime Sexual Violence and the Kosovo’s President Atifete Jahjaga – the first woman to become a president in the post-communist Balkans. 

A raped women is not to blame for what happened to her

Airing dirty laundry in public is a way of saying “talking about your private issues in public”. However, on Prishtina’s football pitch no dirty laundry was hung – the clothes were clean. Metaphorically these dresses stand for the women who survived the wartime rape. “They are clean, pure, they carry no stain,” said artist Xhafa-Mripa. In this way, Mendoj për ty speaks a very clear language with the aim of fighting the prevalent stigma of these women: in the traditional family conception, a raped person dishonours their family and once somebody finds out what happened, she has to fear exclusion from society. That way, society makes a guiltless person who survived a rape guilty, and the reason why survivors who talked publicly about the rape often said that they would have preferred to have been killed than to live on as a raped person. 

'Thinking of you' exhibition to commemorate survivors of wartime rape in Kosovo. Photo via author.

The exhibition evokes the 11,541 empty chairs displayed in the centre of Sarajevo in 2012 to remember the city’s dead. Hence, it had not only an artistic value but also a commemorative component and an activism potential, which will be hopefully exploited. It would be a disappointment for the concerned people if the debate on Kosovo’s society’s treatment with wartime rape victims ends once the hype of Thinking of you draws to a close. To put it in Anna Di Lellio’s words: “We hope that besides making the survivors feel more accepted during this past month, the installation will produce a more permanent shift in attitude.” Di Lellio is well aware that this “will not happen automatically.”

The Serbian government of the 1990s knew that once they were to touch an Albanian woman, they would offend her family’s honour and would provoke the traditional-minded man to cast out his wife (if he were to find out that his spouse was raped). The unscrupulous military tactics had two objectives: to traumatize the raped woman and to cause family dramas, once the rape turned out. “Rape was used as an instrument of war in Kosovo,” emphasised Regan E. Ralph, the former Director of the Women's Rights Division of Human Rights Watch in 2000.

International organisations like the World Health Organisation and the US-based Centre for Disease Control estimated that as many as 20,000 Kosovar women fell victim to wartime rape. Considering the secrecy when it comes to this topic, it is unclear how accurate this figure really is. Instead of memorising the figure one should bear in mind that rape during the Kosovo War was a phenomenon on a tragically large scale.

“Rape was used as an instrument of war in Kosovo” 

According to the International Criminal Court Statute in Rome, sexual violence in war is codified as a war crime and crime against humanity (art. 8. 2. and art. 7. 1.). Even though rape was a weapon of ethnic cleansing for the Serbs fighting for the dictator Slobodan Milošević, nearly every one of them was acquitted of this crime at the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague, Netherlands. To date, there have been only two convictions: Vlastimir Đorđević, Serbia Assistant Minister of the Interior, and Nebojša Pavković, a former Serbian army general. 

15 years after the end of the war, Kosovo’s assembly has amended the Law on War Veterans and added survivors of sexual violence among recipients of compensation – including a monthly payment of about 350 Euros.

To this day, the law is not functioning. The government does still not know how to verify the survivors of wartime rape, as the famous Kosovar journalist Flaka Surroi wrote. It also remains questionable how many raped people will actually draw this assistance provided by the state. For in order to receive the money, the concerned person has to confess to their family what happened to them. Paradoxically, in the traditional family understanding this would mean isolation for the raped person.

More interesting is that Kosovan politicians rejected a similar law in 2013. From this perspective, Thinking of you not only recalled to society’s mind the terrible fate of so many women during the war. The art installation was also a reminder of the government’s ignorance: 12 years had to pass until a first legal attempt was undertaken – and refused – in order to de-stigmatise the victims.

Civil society in Kosovo offers help to the victims

The biggest achievement of Mendoj për ty is maybe that it transformed wartime rape for a short time from a stigmatised topic to an issue the whole society was confronted with. Yet, it would be wrong to say that Kosovar civil society has done nothing for the victims so far. The Kosova Rehabilitation Center for Torture Victims (KRCT), Medica Kosova, the Center for the Promotion of Women’s Rights and Kosova’s Women Network are contact points for raped women in search for professional help. The problem is that most of the concerned women are too reluctant to make use of this help. Medica Kosova, for example, is in charge of only 143 outspoken survivors. 

The patriarchal deadlock is especially desperate for these people – men are not excluded as they were certainly also raped during the war. Too many fear – not without good reason – Lushe’s fate, the main protagonist in Isa Qosja’s Three Windows and a Hanging. She spoke publicly to the newspaper about her rape and was excluded and terrorised by her fellow villagers. Even from this angle, Thinking of you was successful in engaging men in the promotion of their project.

Via twitter and facebook, the Kosovar rapper BimBimma called on his fans to go to the art installation. If one knows the songs of Burim Kursani, his civil name, it is not that surprising that he campaigned against the stigmatisation of wartime rape in his society. He is not known for misogynistic lyrics; he prefers to use his raps in order to point to the problems of his society. In Çu !!! (Wake up !!!), he for instance portrays the apathy of his fellow citizen towards Kosovo’s political and economic stagnation since the independence in 2008. 

“Finally the time has come to support our sisters, mothers and daughters and to tell them that it was not their fault.”

In contrast, the support of Rifat Jashari, the brother of the Kosovar war hero Adem Jashari, for Mendoj për ty was unexpected, but very laudable. His participation is unexpected in the sense that he is not exactly part of Prishtina’s alternative scene. Rifat Jashari is an old man with handlebar moustache and a plis – a white brimless felt cap, a part of the traditional costume of Albanians – on his head. When Di Lellio and Xhafa-Mripa went to Drenas, a provincial city, in order to collect cloths for their art installation, they met him accidentally in a restaurant.

When they told him about their project, he said: “finally the time has come to support our sisters, mothers and daughters and to tell them that it was not their fault.” Rifat Jashari’s words does not mean that in the following days thousands of Kosovar women will tell their families about the rape. Yet, his words and the entire society’s reaction surely gave hope and consolation to the concerned ones. This year’s June 12 showed that Kosovo is able to take on its own giant strides towards a society with a higher equality between men and women.


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