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Yugoslavia: Kosovar Women Suffer The Wounds Of Rape

  • Alexandra Poolos

As the women of Kosovo join in the rebuilding of their war-torn province, many must also overcome the wounds of sexual violence suffered during the war. In part one of a two-part series, RFE/RL correspondent Alexandra Poolos examines the obstacles these women face as they return to Kosovo and work to rebuild their lives.

Prague, 13 August 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The ethnic Albanian women of Kosovo have a unique set of challenges. Not only must they carry the loss of husbands, brothers, fathers, and sons as they return to the province. Many of them also carry the wounds of rape.

Martina Vandenberg of the Women's Rights division of the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch says rape was used as a weapon against a large number of ethnic Albanian women in Kosovo.

"We found really that there were two very common scenarios. The first was women being raped in their homes. Sometimes in front of their families. Sometimes dragged into another room. Sometimes killed after they were raped. The second [scenario] that we found was women being pulled out of line. So when the huge lines of deportees were heading towards Macedonia and Albania [during the war], women would be pulled out of line and raped."

No one knows the number of women who have been raped in Kosovo, but human rights groups believe sexual violence was widespread. Human rights workers say the difficulty of determining the number is compounded by the fact that rape is rarely discussed among its victims, many of whom fear being shunned by their families. But activists like Vandenberg -- who spent time in Kosovo documenting rape testimonies -- say Kosovars' cultural reluctance to discuss rape has been overemphasized in press reports:

"Anywhere in the world, women are afraid to speak of rape and rape is considered in every culture to be shameful. I think that if you walked up to a woman on the street in New York and asked if she had been raped, it would be unlikely that she would answer yes or no."

Vandenberg says Kosovar women did have difficulty talking about rape. But she says women who are treated with dignity and who receive psychological and medical support were able to tell their stories.

Medica Kosovo is one of the front-runners of a handful of women's organizations attempting to do long-term work with victims of rape and other sexual violence in Kosovo. Magrit Spindeler, a Medica spokeswoman, says the recent media reports that Kosovar women face rejection if they admit to being raped are exaggerated:

"It's too easy to make a religion or a certain culture responsible for that. ... It's dependent on the individual, how the women react. ... There are families where women can tell their husbands and the husbands try to cope with it. And they can cope with it in the end in a very hard work process that both go through. And we've experienced such good cases. And we've experienced other cases where the women couldn't cope ... and their husbands couldn't either, so they split up. Or we've experienced where the family was shocked at the beginning and then they decided 'she's a part of this family and we support her and she will always be a part of the family.'"

It is Medica Kosovo's policy never to force a woman to talk before she is ready. Spindeler says rape leaves deep psychological wounds that often re-open when a woman discusses the experience. Pushing a woman to talk when she is in an unstable living situation -- such as a refugee camp -- can easily do permanent damage.

"One day a guy from a humanitarian organization went through [a refugee] camp and he had a loud speaker with him and he spoke through that loudspeaker and said, 'O.K., all the women who have been raped come up to me and [fill out] a form and tell me.' You can imagine that nobody came up to him. The women were really shocked by that."

Medica has just opened the doors of a crisis center in Djakovica, a town in Kosovo's far west. Gisela Endel, the clinic's director, says it is one of the few non-governmental organizations now operating in the area. She says many women there face rebuilding life alone because many men from the area are missing.

"Djakovica was one the most attacked places during the war. ... There are 2,000 men missing, nobody knows where they are, are they dead or alive, are they in prison in Serbia? Another [important fact about] Djakovica is that there are 800 or 1,000 children without parents. ... And women who are not used to deciding to take decisions or to be active in another way or as men have been, they have to have help."

So far no women in Djakovica have admitted to being raped. Instead they tell stories of friends, sisters, and neighbors. Endel says these are loosely veiled accounts of personal experiences that reflect the need the women have to talk out the trauma. She says the ones who don't talk at all, the ones who are silent and withdrawn, have the stories written in their eyes and in the slow and guarded way in which they move.

"The women say, 'better killed than raped.' But it is only one part of the story, it is a traditional meaning. But the other part of the heart must be very happy that their daughters are not killed -- this is clear. And it is also clear that the young women, or women who have been raped, [are glad to be alive]. They have to have a future and they can have a future."

Endel says that for now, Medica Kosovo will concentrate on providing housing, food, childcare supplies, and medical help to the women of Djakovica. She believes that by respecting their basic needs, Medica is building a reputation as a "safe place" where the women can seek psychological help later on when they are ready. According to her experience in Bosnia-Herzegovina, it usually takes two or three months before a woman is ready to talk about sexual trauma.

Endel also says that, although there has been a lot of suffering in Kosovo and although a lot of challenges remain, there is also hope. She says that by and large the women of Kosovo survived the war and can begin their lives anew.

But, as with all things in Kosovo, the healing of the wounds will take time.