Following years of silence and stigmatisation, Kosovo’s parliament passed a law in 2014 that recognises the victim status of those women and offers them pensions of up to 220 euros a month.
At the end of April, the government established the Committee for Verification and Recognition of Violence Victim Status, which will implement the legal procedures to enable the process to start.
“The law recognises their status, but they do not enjoy the same benefits as other war victims, although their needs are often greater,” Veprore Shehu, from Medica Kosova, a Gjakova-based organisation that acts on behalf of rape survivors, told BIRN.
The main benefits that war victims are entitled to are family pensions, free healthcare, advantage in employment, release from court, administrative and public taxes, including property taxes, and cheaper electricity.
The new law allows rape survivors to apply for reparations in writing, without having to testify in person about what they endured. The survivors are not obliged to, but may, submit medical or police records as proof of their rape.
The government selected Shehu’s organisation, along with three others, to collect applications from survivors, to ensure their confidentiality, so that they do not have to face the committee members in person.
Arban Abrashi, Kosovo’s Minister of Labour and Social Welfare, whose ministry will implement the scheme, says the level of support will only be modest. “Moreover, it will not provide the justice that is missing,” he told BIRN.
Fearing stigmatisation and exclusion, thousands of women victims of wartime sexual violence have silently lived with serious health problems.
Fata’s family saw the teenager’s rape as a great stigma. “I could not continue my education. It was difficult to get medical treatment. My family suffered because many people knew that I had been raped, and that they had taken my eye out deliberately,” she explained.
The psychological toll has been even worse, Fata says. She suffers from depression and from headaches and severe migraines.
The negative perceptions of society and the difficulty in getting medical treatment in a poor country like Kosovo has resulted in several of these rape victims committing suicide.
“A number of these victims also died as a consequence of domestic violence, which was carried out in the name of honour,” says Siobhan Hobbs, who in 2016 led a UN team that published a report on the plight of sexual violence victims in Kosovo.
This is because, among many families like Fata’s, rape is seen as a stain on the family’s honour.
“I decided to marry, not because I wanted to, but to stop being a burden on my family. However, it grew even worse. My husband’s family found out that I had been raped and had lost an eye. They threw us out of the house,” Fata recalls.
Since then, along with her husband and two children, she has lived in collective shelters or abandoned houses, battling with severe poverty.
Some rape survivors were not only ostracised by their relatives but deserted by their husbands as well.
Marginalised and excluded, they carry the weight of the blame for what happened to them.
Another woman told BIRN that both she and her sister were raped in a house in Decan, in western Kosovo, during the Kosovo war.
“When her husband found out, he left my sister with two children and married someone else,” she said.
Fear of further violence and ostracisation has made many women reluctant to seek support, especially as regards healthcare, employment and training.
This is also why some, like Fata, hesitate to apply for the status of a wartime victim of sexual violence.
Many say they do not know how they will explain the payments they may receive to their families.
“Only a few victims will apply,” Feride Rushiti, head of the Pristina-based Centre for Rehabilitation of Torture Survivors, predicts.
Rushiti also argues that the law is discriminatory.
The current law offers survivor status to those assaulted in the war between February 27, 1998, when armed conflict in Kosovo started, and June 20, 1999 when Serbian forces withdrew from Kosovo following NATO bombing.
But some Serbian victims associations note that this timeframe actually means that Serbian rape survivors – who also endured sexualviolence, following the withdrawal of Serbian armed forces, will thus not be eligible to apply.
“Rape was not only carried out by Serbs and not only during the war,” Rushiti said. “There were victims on all sides.”
Blagica Radovanovic, head of the Santa Marija, an NGO which deals with victims of domestic violence in the northern Kosovo Serb town of Zvecan, says the Kosovo Serbian community has not been included in the drafting of the law and remains unfamiliar with it.
“Our recommendation is to research the actual number of victims sexual of violence, which will include all the communities affected by the war. There is no information regarding sexual violence during [Kosovo Albanian] revenge attacks,” Radovanovic said.
Veprore Shehu says they have provided care for three raped women from the Roma community.
Hobbs also argues that the legal framework of the 2014 legislation needs to be amended.
“The law should be more inclusive. The timeframe needs to be changed because it does not cover victims of sexual violence committed after the conflict. The establishment of the Commission should nonetheless continue, and any amendments to the law can be done in parallel, or after,” Hobbs said on Skype.
In a report in 2000, the rights organisation Human Rights Watch said rape in Kosovo was “used as a war tactic to humiliate, intimidate, and displace by force civilians of a certain ethnic community and as a means of changing the demography of a territory.”
But, while the war fades into history, it remains a permanent reality for the thousands of women who were raped during those years.
One woman who gave birth as a result of wartime rape said paramilitary units held her for two days in a private house in a village near Peja.
“I didn’t even know I was pregnant. When a medical doctor told me about the pregnancy, I wanted to commit suicide. I was 17. They told me the pregnancy was in the sixth month and it was too late for an abortion,” she said.
In a short, difficult conversation at one of the centres providing support to victims of violence, she shared her story of the baby’s delivery.
“A doctor and a psychologist arranged with an urologist to write a diagnosis, showing allegedly that my belly was growing because one of my kidneys wasn’t working,” she said.
A German NGO paid the rent for a flat where she could hide from her family until she gave birth. She said her son was a healthy baby: “He didn’t cry at all.”
But she only breast fed him once – and then gave him up. “I don’t know where he is. I didn’t want to know about him. I still don’t want to know,” she replied briefly, declining to offer more details.
While the tall, dark woman said her life was better now, she was reluctant to talk more about the present, or about herself, or about whether she might apply for victim status.
With or without this status, she will always feel haunted as the mother of an abandoned child.
The number of children born to women raped during the war in Kosovo will never be known. Organisations that help rape survivors of have obtained data only on four or five cases.
That information came from medical centres in Albania and Montenegro, where refugees sought support.
“Twelve of 120 women treated at our centre underwent abortions in Kukes, in Albania – all pregnancies that happened as a consequence of rape; only one woman gave birth, and she abandoned her baby,” Veprore Shehu of Medica Kosova said.
Neither hospitals nor shelters for abandoned children in Kosovo have any data about childbirths as a consequence of rape or about abandoned children during 1998-1999.
The current reparation scheme does not provide access to healthcare, educational or other services to children of the survivors who have indirectly been affected by violence.
“A way should be found to make sure that children who were born as a result of rape are included in the reparation measures,” Hobbs said.