What has happened to victims of wartime sexual violence in the last 20 years is double victimization. Today, we cannot allow them to be victimized again.
Campaigns like ‘Be my voice’ are very important to put the suffering of wartime sexual violence victims on the collective memory map of this society, in which monuments of male war heroes have dominated in the past two decades.
On the one hand, they are important for showing that there was nothing heroic about the war and that victimization is NOT heroism, it’s a crime. On the other hand, they create a space in which victims tell their stories to raise awareness about society’s responsibility to take care of victims and people who were traumatized by the war.
What has happened to victims of wartime sexual violence — most of whom are girls and women — in the last 20 years is double victimization. And anyone who knows anything about this issue has no doubt about this.
Today, we cannot allow them to be victimized again. I am afraid that, in the cases of many victims, the treatment they are receiving in the application process for obtaining financial support (not reparations), which people who receive the status of victim are entitled to, could represent a third form of victimization. As a society, we cannot allow this to go on any longer.
‘Be My Voice’ should challenge the system that risks re-victimizing women who were raped during wartime. It should not embrace that system.
We cannot allow this campaign to be utilized as political rehabilitation for presidents or former presidents or whoever else, but neither can we allow it to be drenched in civil society’s diplomatic rhetoric, which throughout the years not rarely set aside it’s responsibility to serve the people in order to follow the affinity for befriending ambassadors and politicians, and travelling the continent.
Civil society donors in Kosovo are mostly entities that follow the political interests of the countries they represent, but Kosovo’s civil society should serve the people, not their donors, because they have a political responsibility toward their own country. This service should be conducted with dignity, by protecting the integrity of people in the name of whom they fight for justice — by being the voice of the people.
The number of victims of sexual violence is estimated to be around 20,000. Many are presumed to be dead, but undoubtedly many more are alive, and very few of them have applied so far for the status of victim that would entitle them to the financial support that has recently been made available to them by the government. As a society we must be very concerned if even those that do apply to receive formal victim status face senseless barriers, such as being asked for medical certificates or documentation that proves that they were raped.
The damage that can be inflicted on victims if they are unjustly denied is so great that it is not worth 'preventing' misuse.
Not to downplay the importance of the process of finding and documenting facts or evidence of crimes, but before the system was created, they should have also thought about the circumstances in which these victims found themselves during the war, and that access to health care institutions at the time was minimal; in most cases, there was no access at all. Unfortunately, it is too often the case that this is not being considered.
It has been said that in some cases people are lying to obtain the status of victim. Around 80 applicants have been denied the status of victim to date. This approach jeopardizes the already fragile trust — and that fragility is justified — that the victims have in the system that was allegedly created to help them.
If what we have learned from the inflation in the number of war veterans is to fear that some woman might misuse the system, might go and lie that she was raped during the war, just to receive 230 euros in financial support, then we have learned nothing. This is pure hypocrisy that serves as a third victimization. What woman would lie that she was raped during the war (war, not conflict) for a benefit of 230 euros in a country in which there are still calls in the Assembly for Kanun justice to be applied? No woman.
I believe that none would do it. Every case must be accepted. Without any doubt. I am sure that, unfortunately, we will not reach the figure of 20,000 people who will apply for this support, let alone surpass it. So the male dominated government should not fear that the budget will be emptied by this. At the end of the day, even if we do get 20,000 applications, if there are funds in the budget for Ramush Haradinaj’s ties, no one can tell me that there are no funds for women who were raped during the war.
If cases are refused as a result of the evaluation committee having doubts regarding their veracity, of women not having medical certificates and “additional documentation” that prove that they were raped, or whatever similar reason, the risk of refusing a case that is true is much greater than the probability of preventing misuse of the system in this way. And the damage that can be inflicted on victims if they are unjustly denied is so great that it is not worth ‘preventing’ any misuse.
But considering where we live, considering the reality of our mentality that has enslaved these women in their suffering for years on end, and considering that this mentality will not change overnight as a result of awareness raising messages, we cannot allow ourselves to deny even one case, because only this way can we help all of them. Above all, no person, especially people who work in these help centers, should be allowed to express doubts, let alone say that some applicant is lying.
Moreover, I see a number of other problems in the application process that concern me.
Seeing that this financial support has come 20 years late for men and women who were victims of systematic wartime rape, I am afraid that the period of five years that has been determined for applications is very short. Seeing that the victims were stigmatized and waited in silence for 20 years, and that this support now gives them new hope for having their pain recognized, I think we should give them more time to gather the strength they need for the step of applying, not limit them within a symbolic period, just to say that we’ve done something.
Because five years is too short a time for someone to decide to take this step. Especially when you consider that these people were disparaged and forgotten for 20 years by society and the state, spending all these years hiding their pain as best as they could; because of society’s mentality, but also because of their sense of responsibility toward new generations, fearing that they might, for example, traumatize their children. They need a lot of courage to take a step that requires them to put so much trust in the state that has treated them as if they didn’t exist for the past two decades. Even worse, for centuries they have been treated as a stain on the pride of this nation.
In Germany, people came forward with their cases many decades after the end of World War II. That’s how long they needed. And seeing that the treatment of victims should not be seen as a political agenda that starts and ends with media campaigns, it is very important to give victims all the time they need. Victims of wartime rape in Kosovo need to know that whenever they are ready to talk, we are ready to listen and help them — they might need that more than they need the 230-euro pension.
That is why the deadline that has been set in the application process is a mistake. Because more than anything it is reducing this whole attempt for rehabilitation of victims to financial accounting and legal justifications.
The stigmatization of wartime rape victims that forced them to keep quiet about their wounds for years is a cultural product that has extended its roots for centuries.
You cannot put a price on the suffering and pain of rape victims. Two hundred and thirty euros will help some greatly, while others will not need it too much, and others still won’t need it at all. But each and every one of them needs to know that there will always be someone there to listen to her, when she is willing and ready to talk.
Not only within five years from now, or 15 or 50 years. The stigmatization of wartime rape victims that forced them to keep quiet about their wounds for years is a cultural product that has extended its roots for centuries. So, ending a program that has been created for this after only five years is just another slap in the face, and it cannot be called a fight against stigmatization.
To fight stigmatization, you need time. To build trust, needs time. So time we must give them.
It goes without saying that such an initiative, which for many victims implies being forced to dig into old wounds and deep pains, cannot happen without professional psychosocial support. This support must be systematic and integrated within a range of functional health care and education institutions with adequate programs that contribute to this objective — and it must be nationwide.
This support should not have been left in the hands of only four NGOs, and it should not be left only in their hands in the future. With time, different psychosocial services should have been institutionalized throughout Kosovo.
In Kosovo there are many cases in which women who were raped during the war have never met a person who they could talk to. Not one. In 20 years — not one! And when you consider Kosovo’s small size, and the figure of around 20,000 raped men and women, little Kosovo immediately transforms into one big wound.
Don’t tell me that Kosovo cannot afford a sustainable, permanent, supportive and nationwide psychosocial program for war victims. Sustainable and permanent support, because sooner or later this society will have to deal with transgenerational effects of war-related trauma. This implies that there will still be a need for such centers for many years and generations to come. Please, just don’t tell me that there are no funds for such a nationwide program. There are funds!
Psychosocial inclusion for all of Kosovo
At the moment, victims can turn to the following organizations and institutions for help with the application process for obtaining the status of wartime sexual violence victim: the Kosova Rehabilitation Centre for Torture Victims (KRCT), Medica Kosova, Medica Gjakova, the Centre for Promotion of Women’s Rights — Drenas, the government-established Verification Commission office, and the regional offices of the Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare’s Department for Families of Martyrs, War Invalids and Civilian Victims of the War.
To reach out to as many victims as possible, I think that we need more than four NGOs to offer the service of supporting the victims with the application process for obtaining the status of victim. We must urgently seek additional independent partners all over Kosovo. I cannot stress this enough.
The offices of public institutions are not reliable, even if we say that they are because they have undergone preparation. They do not enjoy the trust of the people for such complex and sensitive issues. In the best case scenario they serve as an excuse, just to say that they were there.
That’s not to say that they don’t receive cases. They do, and they will. But these public institutions — unless they function within a psychosocial program as mentioned above, one that protects victims and does not deny them the recognition of victims status — risk seriously damaging victims’ welfare.
Politicization of the issue
The way we talk about the war and war victims is very important for a healthier psychological confrontation with war-related trauma. The terms ‘reparation,’ ‘justice’ and ‘heroine’ should not be used carelessly. In cases relating to financial support for wartime sexual violence victims, and the suffering of victims, even more so.
Above all, a sincere public discourse is one that would be more beneficial for people who are traumatized as a result of the war. One in which the victim is not called a heroine, but a victim, because that is what she is.
Where there are victims, there are crimes. Crimes for which, in the case of Kosovo, no one is being held responsible for, still. And by transforming victims to heroines, we are accepting that it is OK to rape and massacre during wartime. We are accepting that wars require victims. No!
Have you ever heard of war crimes? Rape is a war crime, not a heroic sacrifice. On the other hand, heroism is not a form of rehabilitation from these crimes. But I can see how, politically, it can serve as a form of rehabilitation for criminals. If victims are heroines, then let us write a letter to Serbia, thanking them for making us heroes.
The financial support is rightful and necessary, but it does not equate to legal justice.
In most cases, war victims themselves define lawful punishments for the criminals who raped and tortured them as justice. They also consider that justice would be if Serbia, as the main aggressor, were to accordingly be held accountable for the crimes committed during the war in Kosovo. The financial support is rightful and necessary, but it does not equate to legal justice, because if we equate financial aid with justice it implies that justice can be bought. Or in other words, that legal justice is being deceived by moralization and discourses of heroism.
Financial support for wartime sexual violence victims in Kosovo cannot by any means be equated to reparations. Reparations are when a state that has systematically used rape as a weapon of war legally recognizes the aggression that it has exercised against a civilian population, and pays victims so as to ‘indemnify’ them. So, in this case they would be reparations if Serbia were to pay the victims after exhausting all legal avenues for prosecuting and punishing the criminals.
However, as with many other issues, Kosovo has failed to demand that Serbia recognize the war crimes that it committed against the people of Kosovo, and that they legally prosecute the criminals that were responsible for the crimes. But on the other hand, Hashim Thaçi kneeled before 14 Serb victims’ graves, the memorial plaques of which called Albanians terrorists.
So, in short, since Serbia is not paying, and Kosovo is, and Kosovo is no longer part of Serbia, this welfare payment can simply be called ‘financial support for victims.’
The misuse of these terms by some politicians may not be coincidental. They have a tendency to try to use this issue for their political agendas in new or old missions of manipulating the narrative of war and justice to escape the shadows of their past.
I don’t care about politicians or what they do — they can all go to hell — and I would never even mention them, but I am aware that our ignorance toward their games can translate into more pain and suffering, not only for these victims today, but even for future generations. So I cannot accept this without protesting. It is my obligation not to accept it. Call it a debt if you want.
Game of words in the pursuit of the flag bearer
The appropriation of causes is a dangerous thing. You cannot appropriate them even if you try, but the tendency to try to position yourself as their flag bearer is dangerous. Because our activism today will serve as inspiration in the future. No one is inspired by things that are done incorrectly, especially if they are done so because of the nepotism, unprofessionalism and careerist agendas of certain individuals.
The shadow of these individuals hampers the work of those who truly didn’t spare themselves when fighting or by being the voice of others, and didn’t give up even when no one wanted to listen, when the political ‘pumpkins were still unripe.’ So unripe that they demanded to see vaginas as proof. Now that they have allegedly ‘ripened’ in the gardens of international diplomacy, these careerists transform into fictive protagonists that save the homeland and protect victims to reap the merits that smell of the sweat of others.
As a society, we must protect people who truly fought, even in times when they were not supported and are today surrounded by old politicians like hungry hyenas! Our support strengthens them and helps them to liberate themselves from the hyenas.
Ultimately, the main objective should be the truth. Because causes can be appropriated for career objectives. Some people are very good at doing just that. But people cannot be appropriated, and their suffering cannot become a golden medal to be worn by careerists. The victims are people, not the property of anyone.
Prishtina is the capital of Kosovo. From Monday to Friday, it can feel as though the whole of Kosovo lives there. But Prishtina IS NOT all of Kosovo. Rubbing shoulders in its narrow circle in order to get medals of achievement is dangerous. We must learn to fear all this responsibility that we ascribe ourselves as a merit.
Not because some NGO will criticize — don’t worry about that. But because someone somewhere, because of this monopoly over the cause, which usually makes noise in Prishtina’s bubble, might be dying to be heard.
‘Be my voice’ must be a campaign that aims to raise awareness among society for victims of systematic wartime rape in Kosovo, with no distinctions.
Sexual violence victims of other ethnicities have not been taken into consideration by these NGOs, despite the fact that they campaign in three languages. On the other hand, the foreigners (international community) closed their eyes and pretended not to know that there were victims who experienced rape after June 12, 1999. This much about selective justice.
When politicians commit such a crime, I understand their motive, because I know who they are. But when civil society stays silent and marches with them in this parade, that I cannot understand. Maybe I don’t want to understand it, because it is much more painful.
‘Be my voice’ must be a campaign that aims to raise awareness among society for victims of systematic wartime rape in Kosovo, with no distinctions. It should not be a campaign for new heroes, on the back of the victims. We have had enough of those in the past 20 years.
When a campaign that aims to raise a voice for war victims is led by Hashim Thaçi, I’m concerned by the idea that all this might ultimately be a campaign of political rehabilitation for all the political crimes that they have committed against war victims in the last 20 years, more than it is a campaign that genuinely aims to help victims.
I want to believe that I don’t need to justify myself, however I do want to say that this fear of mine is a genuine concern that stems from the feeling of responsibility to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves. I hold this responsibility with the burden that, when being someone else’s voice, first and foremost I have the obligation to protect them from my own ignorance, denying myself the right to say tomorrow, “I didn’t know better.”
Kosovo urgently needs a new discourse that challenges the status of NGO directors acting like private business owners: Boards are formed by close friends; donors become friends (and as such, reports lose credibility); the strongest among them have created a monopoly around the cause (being the main beneficiaries of funds that are now distributed like crumbs to local NGOs) for which they allegedly work, through the help of foundations and local and international political authorities (with which they are friends), filling the void with a lot of noise and media image.
Meanwhile, under the surface of the billboards, on which their logos shine bright, the hole in which victims fall is still a big one. That is the problem. This is the case for victims of war, as it is for victims of education and health care, for peacebuilding efforts, for women’s rights, etc..
I’ve seen it outside of Prishtina. I’ve seen it where everything is missing. Besides that Prishtina is not all of Kosovo, it is also worth considering that what we see on TV is mostly Prishtina. Sometimes it makes you feel like you’re not in Kosovo. Turn off that damn TV and go out and speak to people in the field!
While we’re on this subject, it’s worth going back to awareness raising campaigns, to say that we must not tolerate them being derogatory and pathetic, despite their good intentions. When I say this I’m thinking about media campaigns for raising awareness against the discrimination against victims of sexual violence, violence against women, etc., in which certain public figures convey awareness raising messages to society, often unaware of who they are speaking to and what the message is.
Leaving aside their content, I have the following question: Why, for example, Sarah, and not Sarah-2? Because Sarah-2 is considered to be a redneck by the bubble experts of civil society’s flag bearers in Kosovo, meaning Prishtina. If with such campaigns they aim to have an influence in the name of popularity, this influence must reflect the needs of the people, not the bohemian wishes of a capital city in which civil society’s ‘criticism’ produces more close friendships, or on the other side factions that are at war with each other, rather than constructive discourse and progressive movement.
My hope would be that a new discourse related to the role of civil society in Kosovo takes us to a point in which we understand the importance of activism and of strengthening civil society in other cities and towns across Kosovo. This can be done by decentralizing the distribution of funds to local organizations in different communities. Together with the funds, they must also be granted the leadership for developing projects, the needs of which are known best by the locals themselves. Not everything should be led by Prishtina.
Maybe I’m wrong for not aligning with the majority in this case, but I’m taking the call to be her voice very seriously, and I do not know any other way to be her voice in this society, without first being her loneliness.
The place in which I’m writing this from is dark, but this darkness is consoling me, because the light that I seek, I want it to belong to the future as well. And for the sake of the future, we must all be her voice today. But it must be a voice that first and foremost protects her from our ignorance.
Feature image: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.
This article was originally published by Dialogplus, and has been republished here with permission.