Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Kosovo Rape Victims Suffer Twice
In the thick atmosphere of an overheated room, the woman explained the tragedy that had befallen two families from the Decani region of Kosovo. Last year it had been her job to lead her family's half of the protracted negotiations that traditionally precede the engagement and marriage of a young Kosovo Albanian couple.
But in January the engagement was broken off. A messenger brought news that the bride-to-be, a beautiful 16-year-old from a prominent family in the village, had been snatched a week earlier by three policemen. One of the three had raped her. "We are an honourable family," said the messenger, according to the woman, "and do not wish to cheat you."
"So we did not see them engaged," the woman said. "I hear that she is locked up in a room. She will never again see the light of day, and will die an old woman in her parental house."
Rape victims in Kosovo are victims twice over, a second time as a result of their communities' lingering commitment to the traditional Code of Leke Dukajini, a body of customary law under which the clans of Albania have lived since the 15th century. It still holds in parts of Albania and Kosovo.
The code, which has evolved over centuries, covers all aspects of social activity, from the role of the church and care of livestock through to marriage, and tellingly, honour. It urges men to protect their wives and daughters. A man who fails to exact blood revenge for the dishonour of one of his womenfolk brings shame on his entire family and can leave them isolated from other families in their closely-knit village community. It leads many to think the rape victim has brought shame on her family through her misfortune. Some think the victim is better off dead, and 'encourage' suicide.
But Serb paramilitary forces have used rape to target the families of supporters of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), fully aware of the devastating effect the rapes have on the fighters and their home communities. For a year or more before the onset of the NATO air offensive, Serb forces were routinely detaining women family members of men suspected of separatist activity.
The first reports of this strategy emerged from the villages of Likosani and Cirez in the district of Drenica where women were detained on 27 February and held for 48 hours. A week later, in the aftermath of an attack on the family of well known guerilla supporter Adem Jashari in the town of Prekaz, some 200 people were held in an arms factory in the town of Srbica. There, according to one witness, young women were separated from the group and assaulted.
The reports continued for months. In October a squad of masked Serb paramilitary police surrounded a group of young people from the village of Ljebusa as they picked chestnuts in a wood near the Decani monastery. They beat up the boys and took away a 15-year-old girl.
Released an hour later, there was no hiding her ordeal. She was scratched and weeping, and her hair had also been slashed off with a knife. That last was an offence against honour in itself, in a region where people may judge whether a girl is married, single or engaged by the way she combs her hair. Her entire family packed up and left for the town of Rozaje in Montenegro the following day.
For those families who cannot or will not leave, what then for the victims? According to the patriarchal customs defined by Dukadjini and others, a woman raped in front of her own family is expected to commit suicide and bring the family shame to an end.
If not, the shame ripples outwards: the victim becomes a virtual prisoner of her own home, unmarried girls are normally prevented from ever marrying and even their sisters may end up spinsters because of the humiliation the family endures. Married women victims of rape can be forced out of the home, even if they have children.
In the face of this cruelty, the women of Kosovo fight to keep their ordeals secret - a solidarity in silence.
A woman who helped a neighbour whose two daughters-in-law were raped by three masked policemen in a Kosovan town near Pec last November, vowed to keep the attack and their identities secret. The women's husbands had been forced to flee the country. "I didn't tell anyone, and neither did the mother-in-law. Their husbands do not know about the rape. If they did, they would have forced them out of the home immediately."
Journalists and human rights activists have only lately come to understand the scale of the atrocity. Few realised that the systematic use of rape as a means of ethnic cleansing and gaining military advantage - as practised during the Bosnian war - was being repeated in Kosovo.
Investigators checking out reports of Bosnian-style 'rape camps' run by Serb forces in Kosovo, tend to draw a blank. The young women detained for a day and a night in the village of Jabukovo Polje in Drenica last September will say only that they were 'threatened' and questioned about their fathers and brothers' part in the KLA - nothing more. Some of the victims who have spoken to the media or rights investigators have reportedly been further ostracised, not only by their families, but also by fellow victims.
Even in the village of Vranic, where it is known that a group of women were raped in September last year, the victims strenuously deny the attack. Only one elderly woman would speak. "I saw a lorry-load of raped women taken to the station in the town of Suva Reka. They were dressed in torn-up rags and hiding their faces with their hands in shame. One of the women whom I knew said only: 'it would have been better if I had been killed'."
Finally, what of the perpetrators? Hopes that they may be one day brought to justice are slim.
The thousands of Muslim women held in the 'rape camp' in the Bosnian town of Foca also suffered a second time at the hands of their own people. After being interviewed by countless journalists, many then found themselves ostracised by fellow refugees by the time they reached the relative safety of a camp in Turkey. Many had to move out.
The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague indicted nine of their attackers. One went voluntarily to face trial in The Hague and one was shot dead during an attempt by Western SFOR troops to arrest him.
The others are still at large, freely walking the streets of Foca.
Gordana Igric is a senior editor with IWPR who has investigated rape as a war crime in both Bosnia and Kosovo.
- Europe & Eurasia
- Latin America
- Middle East & North Africa
- Focus Pages
- Training & Resources
- Print Publications
- IWPR Spotlight