The Kosovo government this week decided to amend the law to extend the deadline for survivors of sexual violence during the 1998-99 war to apply for official recognition from the state as victims.
The deadline for applications to the government’s Commission to Recognise and Verify Survivors of Sexual Violence During the Kosovo War was due to expire on February 5, marking the end of a five-year process of registration.
But campaigners lobbied the authorities, arguing that this five-year period was not long enough, given widespread unease among survivors about coming forward to register. However, no new applications will be accepted after February 5 until the law is amended.
The move comes amid concern about what is seen by some activists in Kosovo as a low number of applications by survivors to be officially registered as victims and therefore become eligible for welfare benefits.
Kosovo officials and civil society organisations dealing with survivors have repeatedly cited an estimated statistic of more than 20,000 wartime rape victims. But so far, only around 1,870 people have applied to the government commission.
Vasfije Krasniqi Goodman, one of the very few wartime rape survivors to have spoken publicly about her ordeal, said she is deeply disappointed by the amount of applications so far.
“The number of victims who have applied is very small. I expected much more,” Krasniqi Goodman told BIRN.
“It’s painful. It seems that there was not enough encouragement for them to apply,” she added.
She also expressed concern that some applicants have not been dealt with sensitively enough: “Based on the victims’ statements, not every case has been treated humanely by the governmental commission [assessing the applications],” she said. “Many of the victims have been asked to come in for interviews, and a significant number have expressed dissatisfaction with the way they were treated.”
During the war in April 1999, Krasniqi Goodman was taken by two Serbian police officers from her home to an abandoned house, where she was assaulted. She was 16 at the time. She spoke out four years ago after two suspects were acquitted of raping her by Kosovo’s Supreme Court.
Since then, she has been advocating on behalf of other survivors, encouraging them to come forward, tell their stories and apply for the official status of victims, which not only bestows official recognition of a victim’s suffering but also makes them eligible for a monthly payment of 230 euros.
‘Harsh environment’ for survivors
Vasfije Krasniqi Goodman addresses the Kosovo Assembly about justice for sexual violence survivors. Photo courtesy of Vasfije Krasniqi Goodman.
Kadire Tahiraj, the director of the Centre for Promotion of Women’s Rights in Drenas/Gllogovac, which has also been advocating for the rights of survivors of sexual violence during the war, said one of the main factors that discouraged potential applicants wasthe governmental commission’s attitude toward victims.
“The verification process was plagued by the prolongation of the procedures by the commission and lack of a proper approach to the survivors by the commission,”Tahiraj told BIRN.
“The commission could have done more to encourage victims. But when they started to call in victims in person, asking them for witnesses or medical reports, this scared them,”she added.
Butthe head of the Kosovo government’s Commission to Recognise and Verify Survivors of Sexual Violence During the Kosovo War, Leonora Selmani, insisted that the process had been a success.
“Taking into consideration the harsh environment for them in Kosovo and the time that has passed, these figures are encouraging,” Selmani told BIRN.
Selmani said that the social stigmas that continue to affect victims of wartime rape, particularly in rural areas, are still a major problem, as is the lack of family support. This discouraged many from applying, she explained.
“The history of all wars tells us that very few victims of rape come forward and asked for recognition. This was the case in Germany, Japan and Rwanda. Kosovo is not an exception,” she said.
When the verification process opened, many were hesitant to apply, fearing they could be ostracised by their families or communities.
In May 1999, Hysa (not her real name) was pulled out of a refugee column and raped and tortured by Serbian forces in a private house in the northern Kosovo town of Skenderaj/Srbica. Since then she has been vilified by her own family members.
Despite her horrific experience, Hysa said she feared applying for the status of a victim in the scheme set up by the government.
“My family does not want my name listed anywhere,” she explained.
“Some of the women I was with have applied and obtained the status, but I myself couldn’t,” she said. “I am trying to work instead, cleaning in private houses, markets or hotels all the time.”
Victims wary of reliving trauma
Slobodan Milosevic, who was charged with responsibility for sexual violence during the Kosovo war, in court in The Hague, February 2002. Photo: EPA/AP POOL/FRED ERNST.
Veprore Shehu, the head of Medica Kosova, which provides support for victims of wartime sexual violence, said she sees several reasons why the number of people who have applied for recognition is lower than expected.
“The process, based on the detailed description of the traumatic event and often supported by evidence, was an additional factor that discouraged victims,” Shehu told BIRN.
She said a large number of victims are close relatives of civilians or Kosovo Liberation Army fighters who were killed during the war and because the scheme doesn’t allow a family to receive two war-related welfare payments, many victims didn’t apply for the status.
Shehu was among the activists who supported survivors who gave statements that made it possible for charges of sexual assault to be included in the indictment of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, ICTY.
“It was the ICTY’s treatment of victims and witnesses that contributed in the first place to the silence of victims,” she said. According to Shehu, two women who gave evidence in court at the Milosevic trial at the ICTY had their identities indirectly revealed during their testimonies and suffered negative consequences after they returned home.
The ICTY tried several cases in which the charges included rape alongside other wartime crimes. Responsibility for sexual violence during the Kosovo war formed part of the ICTY indictments of six senior Yugoslav and Serbian officials in addition to Milosevic, who died before the verdict in his trial.
Four of the defendants – Yugoslav Deputy Prime Minister Nikola Sainovic, the Serbian Interior Ministry’s chief in Kosovo, Sreten Lukic, Yugoslav Third Army commander Nebojsa Pavkovic and the commander of the Yugoslav Army’s Pristina Corps, Vladimir Lazarevic – were convicted of not preventing incidents of sexual violence.
In Kosovo itself, in a landmark verdict in July 2022, Pristina Basic Court sentenced former Serb policeman Zoran Vukotic to ten years in prison for committing rape as well as participating in the expulsions of ethnic Albanian civilians from the town of Vushtrri/Vucitrn during the war in May 1999.
Feride Rushiti, the head of the Pristina-based Kosova Centre for Rehabilitation of Torture Survivors, which provides medical, legal and financial support to wartime rape survivors, said she believes there are more reasons for the unexpectedly low number of applicants to the government committee.
Among those who could not apply are “many victims who have passed away, some who are among the missing, and others who live outside Kosovo”, she said.
Rushiti argued that five years was a short time in which to convince all the surviving victims to apply.
“The stigma and shame that persists made it hard to create an environment in which survivors will find the courage to apply for legal recognition,” she said.