Sana and Violetta, both middle-aged moms with grown children, spend their days embroidering traditional Albanian shirts and scarves.
Under the buzzy flicker of malfunctioning fluorescent lights, they stitch in the drafty classrooms at the Center for Promotion of Women’s Rights in the Drenas municipality in central Kosovo.
The work helps the women relax enough to talk about a deep pain they can’t share with anyone else. They are among thousands of women — up to 20,000 by some estimates — who were raped by Serbian militias two decades ago, during the 1998-1999 war that resulted in Kosovo’s split from Serbia after the breakup of Yugoslavia.
“Being able to talk about what happened is like having oxygen,” Sana says.
“Because we cannot speak to our families,” adds Violetta.
Sana and Violetta are not their real names. They chose these names when speaking to NPR because they don’t want their families, neighbors or friends to know they were raped during the war.
After years of lobbying by women’s activists, women like Sana and Violetta are now eligible for compensation — a government stipend of about $280 a month for the rest of their lives. Thousands of women may be eligible for this stipend, women’s groups say.
“This will enable women to have some independence because they will have their own income,” says Kadire Tahiraj, who runs the women’s center. “But they need more, like better health benefits, because they have not healed from their trauma or their shame.”
Both Sana and Violetta say the money will help them support their families, who believe the payment comes from a salary at the women’s center. Rape is still considered a stain on family honor in this largely traditional, ethnic Albanian society, Tahiraj says. Shame has made many women reluctant to even come forward to claim the compensation.
“When I first got here, women were committing suicide,” says Tahiraj, who’s been running the center since 2012. “They could not deal with their pain anymore because they were keeping it inside. They’re afraid their husbands will leave them. That has happened to some women. They are made to feel like dirt.”
Tahiraj knows pain herself — her family was killed during the war. In her no-frills office, she wipes away tears as she listens to Sana and Violetta.
Sana was 28 and a mother of four when she was raped in a shed near her home. “And every time I passed, I fell apart,” she says. She told her husband, who told her to “bury it” and not speak about the rape again. “But I couldn’t,” Sana said. “I needed tranquilizers to sleep.”
Violetta was 20. She didn’t tell anyone, including the man she later married.
“I would get so upset that I would tear apart the house,” she says. “I broke everything, and my husband would watch me in silence. I wanted to shout out what had happened. And then I’d remember where I lived and shut myself up.”
Sana says the stigma isolates them in the world outside the women’s center.
“We are like orphans, like sisters leaning on each other,” Sana says. “And Kadire is like our mother.”
“The kanun is still there”
Compensation for women who were raped comes after more than a decade of lobbying. One of the fiercest advocates has been Feride Rushiti, founder and executive director of the Kosova Rehabilitation Center for Torture Victims in the capital Pristina.
“They are civilian victims, as other victims of the war,” says Rushiti, a physician who recently received an International Women of Courage award from the State Department. “We don’t need to shame them, to blame them, while they are innocent and couldn’t protect themselves.”
The activists have had to battle an innate sexism and misogyny that has its roots in a centuries-old moral code and set of laws called the kanun, drafted by Albanian nobleman Lekë Dukagjini more than 500 years ago. The kanun gave all power and rights to men but reduced women to “sacks for carrying” children.
“To tell you the truth, I couldn’t stand to read it,” Veprore Shehu says with a sigh. She runs Medica Kosova, a women’s center in the western Kosovo city of Gjakova.
“Because even though we have had modern laws for a very, very long time, the kanun is still there,” she says, pointing to her head. “I mean, it is still in the minds of some people.”
But in the decade since Kosovo has been an independent country, women have hammered away at traditional stereotypes. Women’s activists and international aid organizations, for instance, secured gender quotas in the public sector and politics and helped familiarize even rural Kosovars with women in positions of authority.
And seeing women “get things done without drama,” says parliamentary deputy Vjosa Osmani, has made Kosovars more comfortable with women in power.
“Women in parliament have proven to be less corrupted and corruptible,” says Osmani, a 36-year-old law professor now in her third term in office. “Women have proven that they look at issues in a much clearer way than men. The only headlines that the men in our parliament seem to offer is their fights over who is a donkey and who is a monkey.”
After a nudge by the U.S. in 2011, the male-dominated parliament in this strongly pro-American country selected Atifete Jahjaga, a 36-year-old police general lieutenant colonel, as Kosovo’s first female president, a position she held until 2016.
“I had to prove to all the skeptics that women can do it,” says Jahjaga.
“This is your mother, your sister, your daughter”
Kosovo is a parliamentary democracy, so the president has a largely ceremonial role. Jahjaga turned herself into an approachable advocate for the public, says Igballe Rogova, who runs the Kosova Women’s Network.
“She was not going in these bulletproof SUVs,” Rogova says. “No. She was all the time going in the streets and meeting people having coffee with people. You don’t see other presidents doing that.”
Rogova introduced Jahjaga to rape survivors around Kosovo.
“She would listen for hours to them, looking them straight in the eye,” Rogova says. “And she would put her arms around them. It changed everything.”
Jahjaga used her platform to help activists push the parliament to compensate wartime rape survivors. Lawmakers approved the reparations in 2014. Activists are now pushing for coverage of special medical care and trauma counseling for survivors as well.
“I could not forgive myself, being the first woman president of this country and not putting the light on this war crime, this injustice,” Jahjaga said. “I didn’t want this to be a taboo subject. I told people, ‘This is your mother, your sister, your daughter.'”
With the help of activists, the government set up a program to dispense the compensation in late 2017. Survivors began enrolling in February, though only about 250 women have signed up so far, Rushiti says. She adds that activists are also pushing for free specialized healthcare and trauma counseling for wartime rape survivors.
“Overwhelming sense of injustice”
Many survivors, including Sana and Violetta, the women in Drenas, want justice. A recent report by the human rights watchdog Amnesty International shows that few perpetrators have been prosecuted on charges of wartime sexual violence. The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia convicted three top Serbian officials in 2009 for crimes that included “sexual assaults as a form of persecution.” In Kosovo, three prosecutions for rape resulted in acquittal after appeal.
“There is an overwhelming sense of injustice amongst survivors,” the report says.
Still, awareness in Kosovo has grown. A statue, Heroinat (“Heroines”) — a sculpture dedicated to wartime rape survivors by a Kosovar art and design firm and constructed of 20,000 military-style medals cast with a woman’s face — went up in Pristina in 2015. That same year, a Kosovar artist, Alketa Xhafa-Mripa, hung 5,000 dresses on clothesline in a football field to get people talking about the issue.
“‘Air dirty laundry in public’ is a way of saying ‘Talk about your private issues in public’,” Xhafa-Mripa told the Guardian in 2015, “but in this case, the laundry is washed, clean, like the women survivors who are clean, pure — they carry no stain.”
The campaign to raise awareness has also touched men, including a 70-year-old retired farmer from a village in southern Kosovo who gives only his initials, MP. He doesn’t want to give his full name because he doesn’t want to reveal his wife’s identity. She’s a wartime rape survivor.
“We honor people who were killed in the war or wounded. But we haven’t allowed people like my wife to speak,” MP says. “She blames herself, but I tell her that this is wrong. Rape is like a gun, and she’s a survivor of war.”
When she speaks, he listens. He tells other men whose wives or daughters were also raped to do the same.
Despite these successes, the stigma of rape remains.
Shehu of Medica Kosova sighs sadly when she says that some women are too ashamed to even sign up for the compensation because their identities might be revealed.
“They cannot bear the shame,” she says. “But this is not just about compensation. It’s also about their access to justice and the documentation of sexual violence as a war crime.”
She looks out her office window. A light snow falls. She sees an older woman bundled up in a down-filled coat, walking into Medica Kosova’s offices.
“For some women,” Shehu says, “it’s too late.”
“If she had died during the war, we would have mourned her”
Seventy-year-old Sanije Salihu takes off her coat, settles into the couch in Shehu’s office and immediately pulls out a photo of her daughter, Vjollca, at age 20. In the photo, Vjollca is smiling, her hair is curled. Her gaze is confident.
“She was the rock of our family, the realist, the one who told us to solve problems with logic, not emotions,” Salihu says. “I admired her very much.”
One night during the war, in August 1998, Vjollca told her mother that she was going to try to get some food from a nearby shop. She didn’t come home.
Neighbors told Salihu that Serbian police took away her daughter in a patrol car. Two months later, an ethnic Albanian doctor at a Belgrade hospital phoned Salihu.
“Is she alive?” Salihu asked him.
“It would be better if she wasn’t,” the doctor replied.
Vjollca had been violently raped and beaten. Her spinal cord was damaged and she was paralyzed from the neck down. Her fingernails had been torn out. Her genitals were mutilated. Her body was covered in cigarette burns.
Salihu breaks down when she shows me a second photo of Vjollca, in a hospital bed, intubated, in a neck brace. She’s covered by a pink blanket.
“When I went inside the room, she looked at me, she was crying, and I was crying as well,” the mother says, weeping. “She told me, ‘Look, Mom, look how I have become.’ ‘And I told her, ‘Vjollca, please don’t speak. Please don’t speak.'”
She told Vjollca that she loved her. When she took her daughter home, the neighbors gossiped that she had been defiled. But Salihu ignored them. She curled her daughter’s hair, read her the newspaper, sometimes even told her bedtime stories. She cared for her until Vjollca died at 28 of an infection.
“If she had died during the war, [Kosovo] would have mourned her,” Salihu says. “My heart aches that she wasted away like she was nothing.”