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Rape victims find a voice 20 years after Kosovo war

Blurred behind obscured glass, a Kosovar woman, who requested her identity remain anonymous, alleges she was a victim of rape.

TORI FERENC/BLOOMBERG

By ANDREA DUDIK | Bloomberg | Published: April 6, 2019

The 22-year-old pregnant Kosovo Albanian woman thought that wearing a cloth diaper as a scarf would mask her youth and keep her safe from Serb soldiers. Then one evening, she was taken to her father's house in western Kosovo and - just like two of her sisters before her - she was raped.

It was April 1999, less than a month after NATO started a bombing campaign to drive Serb forces out of the former Yugoslav province. Two decades later, the repercussions are still playing out and her story is one of thousands that show why a political reconciliation remains elusive.

While Kosovo's politicians now openly talk about rape victims at public events, their statements are rebuffed by Serb leaders.

The latest such public spat occurred at the Munich Security Conference in February, when Serb President Aleksandar Vucic raised doubts about the number of raped women mentioned by his counterpart Hashim Thaci at the same event. Vucic and Thaci have been in talks to lay the past to rest and try to integrate with the European Union.

Kosovo authorities say 20,000 mostly Albanian women were abused by Serb soldiers. That would mean the victims of sexual violence exceeds the 13,595 people killed in the war. Militants from both sides have been indicted for war crimes.

To this day, the sisters haven't discussed what happened to them and her husband's side of the family has never been told. She had been taken by soldiers when her morning sickness had forced her to go outside to vomit. Her own mother offered little sympathy at the time.

"She said it would have been better if they killed me," said the woman, identified as L.A. at a women's association in the western Kosovo town of Gjakova. A therapist sat by her side.

Indeed, it took 15 years for politicians in Kosovo themselves to break the taboo about raped victims, with then President Atifete Jahjaga taking the first stab at shedding light on the horrors that so many women experienced.

"This topic has been kept under the veil of shame because of the mentality of our country and kept as a taboo," Jahjaga said in an interview on March 11 in the capital Pristina, or Prishtina in Albanian.

It also took several years to set up funds for the victims who can since last year apply to get a pension for life of up to 230 euros ($261) a month if their application is approved by a commission. So far over 1,300 women have applied and some 400 applications have been processed, according to Jahjaga.

"Knowing our mentality, I don't believe that many of them will be stepping forward," she said.

Mirlinda Sada, the executive director of the women's association Medica Gjakova, said her social workers still have to meet with women out in the fields or go for walks to mask their first contacts. She recalled a case from two years ago, when a boy came to ask her to help his mother, a widow who had been kept in her father-in-law's house for 17 years.

"Since the end of the war she was allowed to move just from one room to another," Sada said. "She wasn't allowed to go to the yard." It took them about a year to convince the father-in-law to allow the woman seek help and join therapist-led sessions.

When L.A. appeared in front of the nine-member commission, seeing that a man was also on the panel threw her and she couldn't give out the details she was required to provide. Her case was rejected. She'll try to appeal the ruling.

"The negative response reopened the wounds," said the mother of four, now 42. "Everything started to come back again."
  

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