In-depth | Sexual Violence

Seeking survivor recognition

By - 07.03.2019

Mixed experiences of official processes for wartime rape survivors.

One day during April 1999, Arta* once again raised her eyes to the blue sky; she thought of her children and tried to calm herself.

The vastness of the sky had been a prominent feature in her drawings during her own childhood. Later, into her adulthood, she had replaced the pictures with gazing up at the sky; it would always bring her a sense of peace and tranquility.

On that early Spring day during the war, she needed every ounce of those feelings. Moments before, she had walked out into the village to try to see if the cattle had survived; she had already attempted to identify the bodies amongst the blood and destroyed houses, remnants of a massacre in her village hours earlier. While searching, she had encountered what she describes as paramilitaries from a Serbian unit.

Now, as she looked up to the skies above, she decided not to ever tell anyone about what she had just endured — two of them had raped her.

But 16 years later, on the anniversary of the traumatic event, she changed her mind about keeping silent. After more than a decade and a half of anxiety and the pain of secrecy, that morning in 2015 she left her village and went straight to Prishtina’s police headquarters, where, for the first time, she told her story of being a wartime rape survivor.

Some survivors of wartime sexual violence have complained about being left in limbo for months while the Verification Commission reviews their application. Photo: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.

After listening to her horrendous story, the police accompanied her to Kosovo Rehabilitation Center for Torture Victims (KRCT), which has been providing her with psychosocial treatment ever since.

“I needed 16 years to come to that point,” Arta says. “Every year I would wait for April in a sad mood and would feel down. I wished I could get lost somewhere, like going and isolating myself on a mountain. I would think that even the month was to be blamed. And I couldn’t endure that feeling any longer.”

Today in her 50s, Arta is one of more than 200 survivors of sexual violence during the war that has applied through KRCT to receive the status of wartime victim of sexual violence. After years of delays, the verification process opened in February 2018 with verified survivors entitled to monthly compensation of 230 euros, paid for from the state budget.

More than 900 survivors have applied in total to date, either through the four main NGOs that provide support to survivors, through a government established office in Prishtina or through 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.

Arta, who today works as a cleaner at one of Kosovo’s private sector businesses, applied in May 2018 and thought that she would receive a response by the end of the summer — however, she is still waiting.

Months ago she asked one of the employees at the company in which she works to call Minire Begaj Balaj, the head of the Kosovo government’s Government Commission on Recognition and Verification of the Status of Sexual Violence Victims, to see when she would receive an answer.

“Before the New Year,” Arta claims that Begaj Balaj told her colleague.

“I was a very strong woman — I never gave up. But I have given up in the face of the Commission. I cannot fight it.”

Arta, survivor

“It’s going very slowly,” she says while sitting in one of the small, comfortable rooms within KRCT’s offices. “It’s going in the direction of [the process for verifying Kosovo Liberation Army] veterans, which ruined the image of everything.”

Despite the horror she experienced almost two decades ago, Arta says she kept her head up but that the experience of waiting for the Commission has become unbearable.

“I was a very strong woman; all my children finished higher education — I never gave up,” she says. “But I have given up in the face of the Commission. I cannot fight it.”

At first glance, the application process looks like filling in any application with the empty boxes asking for information such as dates and a phone number. But it is the history of the rape, where a detailed explanation is required, that is the most important part.

Survivors need to take themselves back to their traumatic and painful past and write down a detailed description of the experience. Applicants are also asked to attach additional documents, such as medical and psychological records, declarations from any witnesses or any other documents such as photos that show physical wounds.

According to the Guide for the Process of Recognition and Verification of the Status of Victims of Wartime Sexual Violence — a document drawn up by government officials and NGOs that work with survivors — applicants should expect to get a response within 30 days of the date of application, and to be granted compensation on the same day that they receive recognition of their status.

However, the document has no legal force and delays have characterized the Commission’s work from the start. Survivors and activists say that the 30-day response time is only on paper and that hundreds of survivors such as Arta have been left waiting for an answer.

Official data from the Commission confirms the worries of survivors and activists. The Commission has so far received a total of 911 applications and has issued a decision on just 323 cases. Out of these responses, 200 persons have been recognized as wartime victims of sexual violence, while 123 persons have been denied the status.

“We are dealing with a very sensitive element of society as well as with the legal obligations of the Commission, so the review of the application itself takes time in order to make a fair and legal decision.”

Jeta Krasniqi, Verification Commission

Jeta Krasniqi, a member of the Commission, says that due to the complexity of the issue it may be necessary to go beyond the timeline set out in the guidelines and that the Commission is working in accordance with the provisions of the Law on General Administrative Procedure, which sets out a 45-day limit for government bodies to respond to administrative requests.

“The Commission, with high professionalism and in accordance with the legislation in force, has devoted each application the time required to review it,” Krasniqi says. “We are dealing with a very sensitive element of society as well as with the legal obligations of the Commission, so the review of the application itself takes time in order to make a fair and legal decision.”

Some activists however question whether the law is being applied correctly, saying that the Commission is taking as its starting point the date that it begins to review the application as opposed to the date that the application is actually received, and that there can be a significant gap between these times.

The delays in the process come as survivors have already been made to wait almost two decades to even be able to apply in the first place. It was only in March 2014 that the right of survivors to compensation, predominantly in the form of monthly monetary support, was recognized in amendments to the existing law that covers the status of victims of war. It took three more years for the Verification Commission, the body responsible for reviewing applications, to be established in April 2017 and another eight months for a budget to be allocated to pay for the compensation.

In light of this, Sebahate Pacolli-Krasniqi from KRCT says that the application process happening at all is ultimately a success story, as the era of institutional denial toward survivors is over. But, she says, the delays are adding to survivors’ burden.

“The biggest disadvantage is the slow process of applications and delays in responses,” she says. “Every limit is passed.”

Pacolli-Krasniqi believes that there are two main reasons that the delays are happening. One is that the Commission members need to keep going back over each traumatic story, reading them many times in order to get the whole picture, which sometimes is very hard for them. The second, she says, is that the Commission members have other primary jobs, which often makes it difficult to create a quorum to review applications.

“Many clients say: ‘I would never have applied if I had known I would be waiting like this.'"

Sebahate Pacolli-Krasniqi, KRCT

The Verification Commission consists of nine members, with five representatives from the government sitting alongside a lawyer, a psychiatrist, a psychologist and a representative from civil society who has experience of supporting victims of sexual violence.

Pacolli-Krasniqi fears that delays are discouraging other survivors from applying because not all of them are ready to initiate application procedures and it adds to their existing concerns about entering a process that might be damaging to them. Many survivors have never even told their close ones about having endured wartime rape.

“Many went on with their lives and they fear that the application process will open new burdens and damage their family relationships,” she says. “Many clients that are waiting [for a response to their applications] say, and I am quoting now: ‘I would never have applied if I had known I would be waiting like this. It was such a dilemma for me to apply and now this is happening, I never thought of this.’”

The early challenges with the applications process also seem to reinforce a longstanding criticism by activists of the law having set a limited time period of five years in which survivors of sexual violence can apply for the official status. Amnesty International has suggested that this deadline may be too short, stating that many survivors are uncertain over whether to apply and will potentially make a decision based on the experiences of early applicants.

Current provisions in the legislation also fall short of those set out by international standards relating to the victims of wartime sexual violence. One such failing is the current provision of support when it comes to survivors accessing free or affordable health care. While other civilian victims of war in Kosovo receive free primary and secondary health care, this is denied to survivors of wartime sexual violence, who are eligible only for the largely impractical option of receiving treatment abroad.

The law also provides no access for psychological and psychosocial assistance, both critical to recovery and provided to date by NGOs.

For Arta, her current monthly salary of 100 euros isn’t even enough for the medical treatment that she needs for the frequent pain she has in her back and breast — wounds still present from the sexual violence. Most of her income is instead necessary for simply traveling from her village to Prishtina for work and back.

Besides helping to pay for her heath care, she already knows what she will do if and when she receives her first compensation payment: She will get a gift for the Roma woman who sheltered her and her children after the massacre.  

“I’ve never been to see this woman at her house because I never had money to buy anything for her,” she says. “She looked after me and my children for one week. She cared about me, as though I was her daughter. After what happened I was in such a bad condition and she was so helpful in that moment.”

Re-living the trauma

While Arta is coping with the agony of waiting, Vjollca’s world has been shattered into pieces — for the second time in her life.

The first time was when was raped by Serbian forces during the war. The second was recently after the Commission gave a negative response to her application to be a verified victim of wartime sexual violence — even after she appealed.

Sometime in 2017, amidst heightened media coverage about the allocation of a budget for compensating survivors of wartime rape, Vjollca received a phone call from her brother.

“After the application process starts, you need to apply,” the other voice on the phone said.

Confused, Vjollca couldn’t believe what she had heard. But as she tried to make sense of her brother’s words he cut her off mid-sentence. “I know what happened,” he said. “I was young, but I do remember. That compensation is your right. You need to ask for it.”

Back in 1999, her house had become a shelter for KLA fighters. During the war her husband would bring the wounded soldiers, helping them with food and medicine. Vjollca had gone to her parents’ house in order to avoid the noisy house full of soldiers — at the time, she was pregnant.

Her life took a different twist when Serbian forces raided her parents’ village, turning the place into a typical example of an ethnic cleansing campaign: The men were killed in the massacre, and the women and children placed in houses and held captive for three days.

Vjollca covered her hair with her first child’s diaper cloth in order to look “older” and “uglier” in front of the Serb forces. At other times she would pinch her child to make them cry in order to look “occupied.” She saw other women and girls being taken out and heard their screams for three days in a row.

But pregnancy sickness eventually took her out of the house; she vomited, then saw a group of paramilitaries waiting for her. “I wish I was dead; what they did to me!” she said to her mother after being returned to the room.

Her brother was there, together with her sisters. But the family never mentioned that day.

“I wanted to have an abortion after I reached Albania,” she says. “Even the baby seemed to have become bad, but my husband didn’t let me.”

The process of applying for the status of wartime sexual violence victim has been criticized by some survivors and activists as requiring too many unnecessary details. Photo: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.

She told her husband about the rape after meeting up with him again in Albania after the war. But years later, when she decided to apply for the status, her husband was sceptical. The endless problems with the process for verifying war veterans, which has been marked by alleged irregularities and wrongdoing from the start, made him think that history might be repeated.

“‘There are KLA people who deserved the status and didn’t get it — it might happen to you,’” she recalls her husband saying. “He was offered the veteran [status] but he didn’t accept it. He didn’t fight; he helped. And his words are true.”

However, despite her husbands initial reservations and her own doubts, Vjollca decided to apply for the status, and in March 2018 she filled in her application at Medica Gjakova, where she had been receiving psychosocial support for 16 months.

It took her around eight hours to write down the details of the rape. Activists say that this is a fairly standard amount of time that survivors need for completing their application.

Much to the surprise of officials at Medica Gjakova, her initial application received a negative response. She decided to follow the appeals process, which gives denied applicants 15 days to submit an official appeal; after that, the Commission may ask for further evidence or it may call the applicant in for an interview.

During the summer, Vjollca was called for an interview by the Commission to verify the truthfulness of her story.

“Don’t those people know how much courage is taken just to come to the [survivor support] organization and get treated,” she says. “[After] what I experienced in that village it’s enough that I talked to [the psychologist] — just imagine talking in front of unknown people. It’s so difficult.”

“We have 15 women who are survivors of sexual violence that happened in the village. After they reached Albania, women talked about being held captive. What further evidence is required?”

Shpresa Frrokaj, Medica Gjakova

Having gone through that experience, the Commission subsequently asked her to send any witness declarations she had. Her mother, brother and sisters signed declarations about her case.

But at the end of 2018, many months after submitting her original application, Vjollca’s appeal was ultimately rejected.

“I was surprised [because] in her appeal we collected witness declarations,” says Shpresa Frrokaj, a psychologist at Medica Gjakova. “And there were three or four witnesses, with written phone numbers and IDs, but nobody was contacted. There is her mother stating, ‘Serb forces took my daughter away from me.’”

Frrokaj says that Vjollca’s story should be beyond doubt and that the massacre and detention of the women in her village is well known.

“In this place alone we have 15 women who are survivors of sexual violence that happened in the village, from a girl who was 13 to a 65-year-old woman,” she says, adding that everything is documented. “After they reached Albania, women talked about being held captive. What further evidence is required? The story of their village is a true story.”

Vjollca believes that her interview in front of the Commission may have been the reason her application was rejected. When she arrived, she discovered that one of those interviewing her would be a man. It was this psychiatrist who asked her to recall details of the rape; for Vjollca, it was too much to handle.

“Maybe it’s my fault, I might have changed details from what I wrote and what I said there,” she says, referring to very intimate elements. “But there are things I feel so ashamed to say — I felt so ashamed in front of that man. I feel ashamed even now talking about it.”

“How can I recall everything correctly in a 15 minute interview? It’s like being in court; like appearing in front of someone higher than you.”

Vjollca, survivor

Now, she says she has been left feeling close to despair.

“What they [the Commission] did is so unjust,” she says. “I’m so exhausted. They need to understand that it’s not easy to talk about that enormity done to your body.”

Activists and survivors particularly mention the difficulty of recalling the details of rape since most survivors have never gone into these even with their psychologists.

“I tried to forget what happened for 20 years,” Vjollca says. “How can I recall everything correctly in a 15 minute interview? It’s like being in court; like appearing in front of someone higher than you.”

Activists from KRCT and Medica Gjakova say that there are a number of survivors who have complained of feeling uncomfortable, and in some cases of feeling thoroughly interrogated and intimidad.

Vjollca says that the experience in front of the Commission made her feel humiliated, and as though she was being teased.

“It’s like renewing the wound,” she says. “Everybody knows and still they make fun of you. We were raped and judged. We were silenced and again we are judged.”

Frrokaj doesn’t believe that the Commission should need to go into so many details of what was such a traumatic experience.

“It’s enough for the survivor to be there,” she says. “It’s enough she took the courage to appear in front of the Commission and to tell the story in front of people that she has never met. Do you know how difficult it is psychologically to tell the story in front of people you have never met.”

The psychologist is particularly worried that Vjollca wasn’t given any explanation as to why her application was refused.

“The Commission need to take a reflective stance, not a protective one,” she says. “They need to step into the client’s shoes and understand what happened in the world of traumatized clients who have been keeping a secret for 19 years.”

To date, 100 applicants such as Vjollca have gone through the appeals process after having had their initial application rejected, with half of those appeals still under consideration.

“Every applicant’s concern is a concern of the Commission, so the members of the Commission are in every way committed to making this experience easier for all persons who have applied.”

Jeta Krasniqi, Verification Commission

Vjollca says that she never expected the whole process to be a such an anxious burden on her, and that it would extend beyond filling out the application. While she was waiting for a reply and returning to the anxiety, trauma and sleeplessness that she had needed 17 years to challenge, her feeling of support was also shaken; afraid of any leak of confidentiality during the whole procedure, Vjollca’s husband became sceptical as to whether the “secret” would stay between the two of them, and pressured her to give up on the application.

“Now, my husband is also an issue, because he supported me [despite his initial doubts],” she says. “He said they would mistreat me and that then somebody might found out.”

Commenting on complaints from survivors, Krasniqi from the Commission urges anyone who has applied or who is considering to apply to believe in the mechanism, despite the difficulties in such a sensitive issue.

“It’s a delicate process and it is definitely not an easy process for the applicants, and that is understandable,” she says. “But every applicant’s concern is a concern of the Commission, so the members of the Commission are in every way committed to making this experience easier for all persons who have applied, not only because of the legal responsibility but above all due to the moral responsibility that they have taken on in this process.”

Recognizing the suffering

While there have been complaints at the way the process has been handled in some instances, there are also dozens of cases where survivors of wartime sexual violence have received a positive response to their applications and now have their status officially recognized.

Linda was aged 23 when, in March 1999, Serbian forces held her captive for a night, raped her, and then threw her in the middle of the road. She told her family that she had just been questioned at the police station and, like a large number of other survivors, immediately destroyed the medical record of her check-up in order to hide any trace of the traumatic experience.

Around six years ago, while taking her child for a routine medical visit, the doctor read subtle signs in her body language and suspected that she might be a survivor of sexual violence; he very discreetly put her in contact with Medica Gjakova. Linda was surprised at the doctor’s perceptiveness, as she had never before spoken of the rape, not even to her husband.

Many survivors of wartime rape are already receiving monthly compensation of 230 euros after having their status verified by the government Commission. Photo: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.

After a number of visits to the organization on the pretext of discussing her son, she opened up about her experience; since that day, she has been receiving psychosocial support to help her in her recovery.

Linda applied for the status of wartime sexual violence survivor on the very first day that the application process opened, on February 5 last year. But even her application was refused in the first instance.

“It was so difficult to recall the event. You know, you do not talk to anybody [about it] for so many years and then you need to recall the details,” she says. “We spent all these years trying to forget and not to remember.”

After appealing and being asked for more evidence, she sent a video from one of the numerous meetings and conferences on sexual violence during the war that she had attended an in which her face is seen.

Linda wasn’t called for an interview but instead, a few months after having submitted her initial application, she was notified that she was being recognized with the official status.

“We didn’t have arms. We couldn’t protect ourselves and our bodies were used in the most terrible ways.”

Linda, survivor

She remembers being breathless when she received the phone call, which happened to be while she was together with other survivors on a trip to Albania that had been organized by former President Atifete Jahjaga; initially, she had hesitated to go on the trip for fear of receiving bad news. “I thought I was going to have a heart attack from the excitement,” she recalls of the time.

But it was also a sad day for her.

“I was happy, but then it’s difficult to receive the pension and not to be able to share it with your husband and children because they don’t know,” she says, adding that the day when the pension is delivered into her bank account each month brings back horrific memories.

On balance though, Linda is glad that she went through the process of having her status as a survivor verified.

“It’s not about the money, it’s about the recognition,” she says. “We didn’t have arms. We couldn’t protect ourselves and our bodies were used in the most terrible ways. This suffering needs to be recognized. This is what that status is about.”K

Feature image: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.

* The names of all the wartime rape survivors in this story have been changed to protect their identities. The images are for illustrative purposes and do not depict the characters in the story.