Kosovo offers welfare payments to survivors of sexual violence during the 1998-99 war – but some women are afraid to register in case their relatives or neighbours find out and they are ostracised because of the enduring stigma.
Besa is 55, and she has been living with a secret for the past 21 years.
Her children don’t know about it, and she would rather keep it that way.
Besa was raped during the war in Kosovo in 1999.
Fear of social stigmatisation has been preventing her from applying for the official status of victim of wartime sexual violence, which would grant her a benefit payment of 230 euros a month.
“I am afraid that someone will find out. In my area, everybody knows me,” she told BIRN in a written statement, because she was too scared to meet in person or even talk on the phone.
“I am afraid of being humiliated. Nobody would want to spend time with me anymore,” she explained.
Besa – which is not her real name – is not the only one who feels this way about public exposure.
The government’s Commission on Recognition and Verification of the Status of Sexual Violence Victims During the Kosovo Liberation War has been receiving applications from survivors since February 2018, and will be doing so for another three years.
According to the commission’s data, 1,239 people have applied for status recognition for far, although the number of new applications has been dwindling. Eight hundred applications have been approved, 239 have been rejected, and the rest of the cases are still being assessed.
The Medica Gjakova women’s association from the city of Gjakova/Djakovica is one of four Kosovo NGOs licenced by the Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare to help people file applications to the commission.
Medica Gjakova has been offering psychosocial counselling to survivors of wartime rape for several years now, and its head, Linda Sada, told BIRN that about 4,500 women have used its services, the majority of whom were the victims of sexual violence.
However, only 300 of them applied for status recognition. The reasons for this are numerous, Sada explained.
“One of the reasons is that not everyone in their family knows about the traumatic experience that happened to them. Then, new life circumstances – there were cases when they got married after the traumatic event, and it is the family that doesn’t want to know anything about what happened,” she said.
In addition to this, “there are cases in which women, although their husbands know what happened to them, fear the stigma”.
Justification of the pension money to family members who don’t know why it is being paid is another reason, she added.
The head of the government commission that verifies sexual violence victims’ status, Minire Begaj-Balaj, recalled cases at the beginning of the process in which applicants were wondering if they should not have applied in order to avoid problems at home.
“I would get a phone call in which she would be crying on the other line, asking me how to explain the pension she received,” Begaj-Balaj said.
“Sometimes they would tell us: ‘I am here today [at the commission’s office], but I can’t come again,’” she added.
‘In survivors’ minds, the war was still fresh’
No official data exists on exactly how many women were raped during the 1998-99 conflict. The issue was a taboo subject in Kosovo society for years, mainly because it was considered shameful for the victims and a dishonour for their families.
“Due to strong social taboos, Kosovar Albanian victims of rape are generally reluctant to speak about their experiences,” noted a report by campaign group Human Rights Watch in 2000.
The report, entitled ‘Rape as a Weapon of “Ethnic cleansing”’ said that during the war, “rapes were not rare and isolated acts committed by individuals, but rather were used deliberately [by Serbian and Yugoslav forces] as an instrument to terrorise the civilian population, extort money from families, and push people to flee their homes”.
When Atifete Jahjaga was president of Kosovo from 2011 to 2016, she did a lot to break the silence around the issue by advocating on behalf of survivors.
“While we all enjoyed freedom and independence, in the minds and souls of these survivors – maybe even up until this moment when we are talking about it – the war was still fresh,” Jahjaga explained to BIRN.
“Unfortunately we, as citizens of Kosovo but also as leaders of the country, haven’t treated them as a priority as we have done with other categories [of war victim],” she said.
While Jahjaga was in office, debates began in parliament about what official status survivors of wartime sexual violence should have.
Some MPs argued that they should be included in an existing law that regulates the status and rights of military casualties, invalids, veterans and members of the Kosovo Liberation Army. Others said that KLA veterans should not be mixed up with victims of rape.
Women’s rights activist Nazlie Bala received a death threat after calling for rape survivors to be included in the existing law on KLA veterans and civilian victims. In March 2013, an anonymous letter was slipped under her door which said: “Do not defend what is shameful, because you will have a bullet waiting for you.”
A few days later, she was attacked and beaten up in front of her apartment.
In 2014, Jahjaga established the National Council for Survivors of Sexual Violence During the War in Kosovo, a coordinating body involving ministries, civil society organisations and international institutions aimed at finding legal solutions to assist rape survivors.
That same year, Kosovo’s parliament adopted legal amendments that recognised rape survivors as civilian war victims. The legal changes led to the creation of the commission for status recognition.
“It was both an institutional and a social obligation for us to contribute to changing this momentum, to support the survivors and to mobilise to address the stigma [suffered by] survivors of sexual violence,” Jahjaga said.
“It is no longer taboo as it used to be, it is a not a topic that is only discussed in closed circles,” she added.
Although the stigma has been fading ever since the legal amendments, survivors still don’t feel comfortable applying for status recognition, and Jahjaga pointed out that it is not easy for anyone who survived such a crime to gain the courage to talk publicly what happened to them.
“Stigma is not something that can be addressed within a month, a year or two years. Stigma is something that needs to be worked on and dealt with constantly, in society but also within [state] institutions,” she said.
“We must continuously build this narrative, in order to continue to build survivors’ trust in the institutions but also in the process itself,” she added.
‘Everything is stored in a safe’
The process of verification used by the governmental commission has been criticised by NGOs in Kosovo for being too slow and discouraging for survivors. The Commission insists however that it treats each case with proper care.
Anyone who was subjected to sexual violence between February 27, 1998 and June 20, 1999 can apply via the secretariat of the commission, or via four NGOs that assist in the process of application (the Kosovo Rehabilitation Centre for Torture Victims, Medica Gjakova, Medica Kosova and the Drenas Centre) as well as seven regional offices of the Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare’s Department of Martyrs’ Families, War Invalids and Civilian Victims of War.
Using a six-page application form, applicants have to describe in detail how the incident occurred, answer questions about the place and the time at which it happened, who were the perpetrators (if known), and detail the consequences for their health and life in general.
The main part of the application is the narrative – the story of the assault, usually written by hand. In some cases, these recollections have stretched to as many as 20 pages. Applicants can also attach additional documents to make their case stronger.
Minire Begaj-Balaj, the chairperson of the commission, said that its focus is the survivor, who they strive to treat with dignity. Begaj-Balaj told BIRN that that due to the sensitivity of the issue, the process of status recognition and verification is confidential; the identity of the applicants is coded and all their personal information is protected.
There is only one copy of the application form, and so far “nothing has leaked from the commission nor was any damage done to anyone”, she said.
“Everything that is inside the commission remains inside and is stored in a safe,” she continued. “We decide on cases without knowing the name [of the applicant].”
Begaj-Balaj explained that each case is examined at least three times, sometimes up to six times, and often the applicant is invited in for an interview in order to avoid mistakes and misjudgements.
Certain cases have been problematic, she said.
“The application might have been short of some information, [or] there were contradictions. Even though we invited [the applicant] for an interview, we weren’t convinced that the event actually took place. These kinds of problems happen and it has cost us time,” she explained.
“There were cases which had 200 pages which had nothing to do with the application, but we had to review them one by one,” she added.
But calling applicants in for interviews can also be problematic, said Linda Sada of Medica Gjakova. Not everyone is prepared to explain their traumatic experiences in person and there have been incidents in which victims have been retraumatised and have had to start their rehabilitation all over again.
Although most of the applications so far have been approved, two have been rejected.
One of the rejections was caused by inconsistencies between statements given in writing and at an interview. Sada said this happened when the applicant had to explain what happened to a male member of the commission; an incident that was confirmed by the Medica Gjakova’s psychosocial counsellor who was present at the interview.
“This is very traumatic. This brings them back into trauma again, it is like a flashback,” Sada said, adding that her NGO tries to prepare victims for such interviews as well as possible.
Despite such challenges, Sada said that she feels good about what has been achieved, and even more so about the fact that “our country and our society has accepted what happened”.
Begaj-Balaj agreed that the progress has been made, but said that more must be done to raise public awareness.
Victims of such violence still need support, but by being granted recognition, survivors are being given back their dignity, she said. She appealed to those who have no done so yet to contact the commission.
“Despite all the challenges, we are writing history, [establishing] that this crime really happened,” she argued.
Besa, who does not dare to apply to the commission for fear of being found out and ostracised from her local community, nevertheless urged other survivors to come forward.
“I would advise every raped woman to apply; to talk,” she said. “It is not good to keep it inside.”