Perspectives | Human Rights

Survivors’ needs should be at the very heart of the rape photos debate

By - 17.05.2019

People’s lives and traumas should never be part of a political game.

The brandishing in the Assembly of Kosovo on Thursday of a photo depicting a woman being raped has triggered significant controversy and debate. No doubt that was the point.

For those unfamiliar with the facts, the unredacted photo was displayed to media by PDK deputy Flora Brovina during a day of debate in the Assembly that centered around an Assembly resolution on declaring Serbia’s actions in Kosovo a genocide, in addition to being crimes against humanity and war crimes.

Brovina claimed that it showed the rape of an Albanian woman by three Serbian soldiers during the Kosovo war as the woman’s family members were forced to watch — the deputy implied that she was showing it in order to get justice for the victims. The image was quickly published by various media and on social media, despite pleas from victims’ support groups to hold back.

Subsequently, a media outlet claimed that the first photo is not even from Kosovo but is actually lifted from an Iraqi porn site, a claim that Brovina has latterly appeared to accept.

After revealing the first image to media, she later held up another photo in front of deputies in the chamber that she said showed a 7-year-old girl who died while being raped, declaring: “Whoever wants [to be] — let them be traumatized, but let the truth reach where it needs to.”

The survivors of such atrocities and the families of victims should be right at the heart of any discussion of what they suffered.

There will no doubt be much to still emerge from the whole affair as the fallout continues in the coming days. The course already appears to have been set that this will largely revolve around the political scandal and how it will affect PDK in elections, whenever those may fall.

But the real significance of this reckless action is contained in that statement by the elected deputy: “Let them be traumatized.”

She may not have been referring directly to survivors of wartime rape, and she has subsequently apologized to survivors after accepting the first image was likely not from Kosovo, but this was not some minor error of judgement. Such a statement shows callous disregard for the wellbeing of those who were inevitably triggered by those images.

The survivors of such atrocities and the families of victims should not be disregarded in such a flippant way, but should instead be right at the heart of any discussion of what they suffered. If a greater institutional focus had been placed on the rights and needs of survivors over the past 20 years, nobody would have felt the necessity to show those images in that way.

There are those who vocally support the publishing of the photos (or, at least, did so before the revelation that one of the photos was not actually from Kosovo), claiming that “proof” is needed as a testimony of atrocities committed by the Serbian state during the Kosovo war.

But ultimately, what end was doing so possibly going to serve? In the best case scenario, what was waving that unredacted image in front of the cameras 20 years after the war ended ever going to achieve?

It wasn’t done for the sake of the survivors. The overwhelming condemnation from survivor support groups is surely testament enough to shut that argument down. Those working within such organizations reported numerous phone calls from survivors on Thursday requesting urgent psychological support as seeing the image was like experiencing the rape all over again.

The most prominent public voice amongst survivors, Vasfije Krasniqi Goodman, has also called out those who are using their suffering for their own political purposes.

The fact that thousands of women and men were raped during and after the war in Kosovo is by now well documented fact.

Was it done somehow for “Kosovo”? What does that even mean, if not for the citizens who live there? Even if the image were to have been real, what tangible benefits do the citizens of Kosovo gain from a brutal image that re-traumatizes vulnerable people being widely shared?

Or was it done to “let people know what happened”? Well, who exactly?

The fact that thousands of women and men were raped during and after the war in Kosovo is by now well documented fact — it happened 20 years ago, and there have been a number of high profile initiatives, as well as direct survivor testimony, to begin shedding light on this horror. It is not breaking news that challenges a predominant narrative or that reveals something previously unknown.

That is not to say that wartime rape should not be discussed, condemned and ultimately prosecuted — it most certainly should. But the framework in which this conversation takes place is of fundamental importance, and it must be one that puts the empowerment of survivors right at its very core.

Years of hard work by support groups have helped to ensure that this “taboo” topic has begun to be opened up in wider public discourse. They have gone about this often with little or no institutional backing from those same people who are now making bold statements about “justice.”

It took two decades to establish a functioning mechanism to provide financial compensation to victims of wartime sexual violence. Two decades of hard work from people working on the ground. And two decades of setbacks as politicians — including Flora Brovina herself — blocked and delayed the support for which survivors were desperately calling out.

Rather than ad hoc politicized statements when it is politically convenient, wartime rape survivors need practical provisions such as access to quality and specialized health care.

In that time, various groups have been working with survivors and the families of victims providing the complex day-to-day support of counselling, support groups, truth-finding research and economic opportunities. Those working directly with survivors know that they live with the trauma they experienced every day and that their needs are many and complex.

And they know that rather than ad hoc politicized statements when it is politically convenient, wartime rape survivors need an end to their stigmatization, and practical provisions such as access to quality and specialized health care for their physical injuries and mental health needs.

The power of survivors such as Marte Tunaj and Vafije Krasniqi Goodman speaking out, on their own terms, has provided a little bit of hope and inspiration to other survivors of atrocities.

But what now for those women who have begun, in recent years particularly, to finally feel able to speak up in their own voice, to own their own narratives?

How are these women that were finally beginning to take the first steps into being empowered to talk about something so traumatizing going to feel now after this circus? Will the tangible steps taken by women’s rights activists and support groups to bring back some hope and strength into survivors’ lives be reset to square one?

And who will dare to come forward now? Efforts to make women feel able to come forward and be believed without being submitted to medical examinations and interrogation have been long and ongoing; this fragile progress is placed at unacceptable risk by such brazen actions that publicly — and falsely — serve to undermine the perception of survivors’ credibility.

Such considerations are sadly still a footnote in the bravado-show of competing to demonstrate who is the biggest “hero,” who has done more to defend Kosovo, who has protected Kosovo’s borders — and even who has done most for the wartime victims.

In the news coverage and TV debate shows that followed, various media helped to perpetuate this same narrative through their choice of invited guests and the consequential predictability of the topics of discussion that followed. Where were the representatives of survivors’ groups? Where were those who have been documenting the war and its associated crimes? Where were the psychologists, sociologists and women’s rights activists? Who was talking about the multiple needs of survivors?

It certainly wasn’t in the multiple displays of men politicizing women’s lives and histories as the usual panels of self-appointed political analysts and commentators demonstrated how intelligent they are while focussing on issues such as where the KLA had been during all of this and whether they could/should have done more to protect “their women.”

The pace at which so many media unquestioningly published graphic — and unverified — images, shows that a vital consideration of ethical standards was missing from editorial decision making.

 

Overall, the media must accept its share of criticism. A media’s role is to inform and hold power to account. To do that, it must ensure it has its own house in order, otherwise it undermines its own purpose, and leaves itself wide open to condemnation — both valid and manipulated.

Of course, in the day-to-day bustle and deadlines of a newsroom, editorial mistakes can be made. But the pace at which so many media unquestioningly published graphic — and unverified — images, shows that a vital consideration of ethical standards was missing from editorial decision making. And the idea of “public interest” (as opposed to “of interest to the public”), which should be right at the heart of everything a media does, was sorely lacking.

Just because a media has access to an image and permission to publish it does not mean that it automatically should. Not only should media take steps to verify the authenticity of an image, but it must also consider its own position of relative power and the potential harm it may do to people by publishing.

This is not leadership but populist and ungrounded politics that callously plays on people’s traumas for the sake of political advantage.

The most important lesson here though equally applies to Kosovo’s institutions: Survivors of grave crimes should be treated with dignity and respect, not as some political commodity or clickbait source.

The revelation of the two photographs was part of the wider political act of declaring a genocide in Kosovo and somehow establishing an international court: This is not leadership but populist and ungrounded politics that callously plays on people’s traumas for the sake of political advantage. People’s suffering should not be exploited for the sake of some political vanity project or through attempting to avoid the ever-looming Specialist Chambers indictments.

Earlier in the week, the opening of a new exhibition in Prishtina dedicated to the 1,133 children who were killed or are still missing from the war in Kosovo was characterized by an overwhelming sense of powerful emotion. The families of the children, who had been invited to the opening, had been involved in the process of putting the exhibition together from the start, had donated their precious keepsakes, and were proud to be part of something that had helped contribute to individual and collective memorialization of their tragic losses.

There was also power in the words spoken by Vasfije Krasniqi Goodman, and in the testimony given by Marte Tunaj before that. These women went through their own journeys, in their own time, and subsequently felt able to speak out, empowering other women and letting them know that they are not alone.  

Truly seeking justice for victims is a delicate process in which survivors must be placed at the very center. It is not a game in which to play the “hero.”K

Feature image: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.

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