In-depth | Sexual Violence

Survivors speak in the wake of Vasfije

By - 20.12.2018

Wartime sexual violence survivors share their own experiences.

One of Medica Gjakova’s spaces is arranged to provide the atmosphere of a cozy living room. Couches surround the curtain covered windows, which serve their traditional function: to create the amount of intimacy desired by those inside.

A group of women often sit around the low table, a classic symbol of coffee and conversation. But conversations are rarely lighthearted at Medica Gjakova.

Most of the time they recall painful experiences and the struggles to find the comfort missing from the living rooms in their own homes.

When K2.0 visited in November, around 10 women, all survivors of wartime sexual violence, were having their regular meeting with a psychologist.

The organization offers psychosocial services to survivors of wartime rape from different parts of the Dukagjini region, but they are also often visited by survivors coming from other parts of Kosovo; for these women, the greater distance from their homes ensures better confidentiality, and therefore more comfort.

Located not far from central Gjakova’s landmarks, entering the organization provides a kind of third space to every survivor who steps inside. Victims of rape during the Kosovo war become a sisterhood of survivors, providing a pillar of support to each other.

Vasfije Krasniqi-Goodman

Vasfije Krasniqi-Goodman is seen as an inspiration by many survivors of wartime sexual violence in Kosovo for her courage in publically telling her story of being raped when she was just 16.

In front of a full studio audience, she exposed the two perpetrators — a Serb policeman and a non-uniformed man — and her long fight to seek justice in a complicated and much criticized trial. Despite the fact that she identified the two perpetrators, the courts declared the accused not guilty; the Humanitarian Law Center, which monitors war crimes trials, says that the court failed to prosecute the perpetrators as a result of improper investigations and not due to lack of evidence.

Krasniqi-Goodman’s case has shed a light on survivors being denied any sort of justice, as only a handful of those accused of wartime rape in Kosovo have ever faced prosecution. In the wake of her public appearance, Special Prosecutor Drita Hajdari told BIRN Kosovo’s Jeta ne Kosovë TV show that she had re-opened the investigation into the case.

During November’s visit, K2.0 had the opportunity to meet with survivors from a single village near Peja. Within the organization they are known as the group named after their village. Most of the women, who are today aged in their 40s, 50s and 60s were raped in their houses by Serbian forces during an offensive into their area; some were raped in front of their family members.

As they have known each other for many years now, they have become each other’s comfort and a shoulder to rest on while revisiting the common experiences of trauma, stigma and ostracization; conservations with the psychologist and each other remain the only ways in which they can peel back the layers of silence and shame.

In the past couple of months, a new topic has often come up in their meetings: Vasfije Krasniqi Goodman.

On October 16, the 36-year-old woman, who currently lives in Texas, U.S., came out publicly on Radio Television of Kosovo to tell her story of wartime rape when she was just 16 years old.

As the first survivor to publically narrate her trauma in such detail, Krasniqi-Goodman brought momentum to the topic of sexual violence, a topic that for years has been brushed under the carpet. Almost two decades after the end of the war, sexual violence became, for a few days at least, a top topic in the media; supportive reactions came from civil society organizations, members of the public and politicians, the latter being met with much criticism for being hypocrites, with evidence pointing to years of failure by institutions to support survivors.

While Krasniqi-Goodman was narrating her story, a lot of attention was paid to two people present in the audience: her American husband, and her brother. The support given by the two men, particularly her brother, was highly praised amongst a culture where survivors have often struggled to receive any support from their own family members, particularly the male ones, only adding to their stigmatization and isolation.

K2.0 spent the day talking to survivors of wartime sexual violence in order to get their perspective on Vasfije Krasniqi-Goodman coming out about her personal trauma publicly, the impact it may have on their own empowerment and the importance of having family support.

"We were about to drink tea at a neighbor’s house..."

We were about to drink tea at a neighbor’s house and I said, “Look at her, well done!” Then [the neighbor] stopped me and said: “Switch it over, switch it because they’re just lying.”

Vasfije was on TV.  I never expressed any anger at them, but they just stopped my words in my throat. And I said, “How can you say that?” They stared at me because my reaction was very bad. There are weeks when I don’t visit that family anymore.

I just gained strength right there and then. And it’s so good that she came out. And to see all that support.

I didn’t know all the details, that she is in the United States, or that her husband is American. I know that her circumstances are different, but I still feel stronger. When we saw Vasfije, we supported her. We weren’t as courageous as she is, but there is that strength she left behind.

Here in Kosovo, our [society’s attitudes are] well known. Circumstances are different [to in the U.S.]. We still don’t have that security.

I myself feel stronger. At times I want to cry, but I think of her and I regain my strength. She took such a step forward and this is what has given us courage and opened our mouths.

I wasn’t kind to myself. I wasn’t nice to people around me, to my friends and family. I hurt them. When I started coming here in Gjakova I became calmer. But we need some security. Here [in Kosovo] some people understand us and some don’t.

At least me and my five children have a common language. My husband supports me and my children as well. [It was] just one son [who didn’t]. My life was like hell because he didn’t talk to me for years. At times I even forgot what happened to me in 1999, compared to how difficult it was to have your child not talk to you.

They did it in front of him.

I called him in Germany and asked him if he saw Vasfije Krasniqi. I told my daughter to send him the video. She did and asked him to read the comments on what was written. That happened, and me and my son are now on good terms. Everybody needs to know this, that my son today supports me. Imagine, my son supports me since the video and he says, “Mom, forgive me!”

For years we didn’t talk to each other, and then this day comes. Because it happened in front of his eyes. And the young child remembers everything.

One of our sisters talks publicly, the whole world sees her and all the suffering gets better. I think in one year I could do the same as Vasfije. But the circumstances are different. It could set me back, and make me worse than I was. It’s a problem here in Kosovo, particularly in the village where I live. I’ve always been targeted. Everytime I go out … my children’s school days weren’t good … there were always some words.

And now I stop and think and tell myself: ‘That happened and this is me.’ It would be awesome if the five of us could come out publicly, because you know when they say ‘there are facts’ [but] with time passing [without survivors speaking publicly] you start to forget the details.

It needs to be us fighting for ourselves. Not having our mouths silenced. When we don’t fight with ourselves nobody can take us down. And Vasfije was like a therapy to me. Just like the organization [Medica Kosova]. It’s very difficult, everything that happened to us during the war. But Vasfije tried to take us out from that darkness and that pity where we had been.

There were times when I said, ‘I want to go to the police and talk.’ I stopped myself and said, ‘Slow down because I have children.’ But as you see, it’s all about time. Just four years ago I was in a terrible state. The time comes to feel stronger and be one step forward. And I am there now. Just one more year to take the courage and come out. If I don’t fight for myself, who will fight then?

And now more than ever we need to be hand in hand.

"I didn’t see Vasfije while she was telling her story."

I didn’t see Vasfije while she was telling her story. I saw the news when she got the decoration by the president. I’m not free to talk or comment on anything. My husband doesn’t know about me. Our son knows but he never mentions it — he was there.

But I don’t feel free [to talk about what happened] with my husband, neighbors, extended family or even our son. And our son just hears the news and never talks about it. He never opens that topic.

Once, me and my husband’s sister were talking and there was something on TV. She said, “They are exhausting. They just exaggerate things.” I’d like to hear and follow the news as much as I can but I can’t oblige others to do so.  

When there are stories about rape on TV, they are not usually discussed. When I see any news on TV, or something about Vasfije, I’m glad that the topic is talked about. That somebody is seeing that, or hearing about what happened. But when the room is full of people, my husband and sons immediately switch the channel. They start watching a movie or anything else. I cannot watch until the end because I’m not allowed.

It’s a burden but when I get together with women here I feel better. Because [at home] I never wanted anybody to start that conversation, to be told anything.

I’m sure that it would be so much better if my husband would support me. But first I need to talk to him. To see how he reacts. And I cannot say anything until that time. There are husbands who have been supportive and those who haven’t. I’m not sure how he’ll react. And that’s why I have to continue like this.

"My husband was killed in the war."

My husband was killed in the war. And since then I’ve been living with [family members].

I don’t think my children know about it. They were were very young. They were there but in a different space. So, I don’t know how much they might know.

I have felt more free since I started coming here. Thanks to the psychologist who has given me such support.

When my children became grown ups, my daughter would kiss my hands and plead with me to not come here [to Medica]. She would plead with me many times and say, “Please don’t go there because I don’t want you to be seen there.”

My first son lives [abroad]. My second son — I don’t know how much he knows. When there is news about [wartime rape] he says: “Mom, go over there.” He nods at me to go to the other room to watch the news. Then I go to the other room and watch what’s happening.

The only support that I’ve ever had in my life is from [my family member], who opened the door for me and the children when my husband was killed.

My father doesn’t know. But he’s older and conservative and I don’t feel comfortable saying anything. I’d also never dare to [talk] about it in public. I’m free to go out and everything, but I wouldn’t dare do that. The environment is like that in the village where I live.

But I loved it when Vasfije came out. It made me feel good. I wish I had that support — maybe I would also [speak] out. The mindset is so different. When you have your husband’s and family’s support and you live abroad it’s different. But not like this.

I wish I could tell my children and have their support. I wouldn’t care about the others that much. I’m thinking of talking to my children when all of us get together.

All my brothers are abroad. Nobody has mentioned anything to me. But I think some might know because my relative was there when it happened. There were many witnesses. I think women there might have talked to their daughters or other people. I think there are people that know about me but nobody has said anything. I just wish to be able to talk to my children one day and have their support.

"I haven’t seen my brothers in years."

I haven’t seen my brothers in years. They left Kosovo after the war and we’ve never had contact since. My children are grownups, either married or at the age of getting married, and then you have new links with new families and it makes it even more difficult.

Nobody knows anything about me. My husband knew but he was killed after the war. He found me in a bad situation after that happened.

Also a cousin knew. When they [the Serbian forces] entered the village for the first time, it was her house that they entered first. And then they entered my house. But she died as well. My children never knew anything. I don’t dare to talk. It’s so difficult. It’s like being mute and not knowing anything.

We have many problems with my sons and their wives. If they knew they would throw me out of the house. Without my husband there I would be kicked out immediately. Because they would say, ‘You did this’ and it would be enough to throw me out. They already treat me badly. I’m being told to shut up all the time.

I can’t tell them that I’m coming here [to Medica]. I tell them that I’m trying to find out if there’s any news about my husband, if I can get any help from the state. This is what I say every time I’m asked where I’m going. If my daughter in-law were to learn about it she would say, ‘You old lady, you whore.”

What could I benefit from it? Then I wouldn’t have any kind of relationship with any of them. There would be no life anymore. Now I feel trapped because I can’t talk to anybody. There are so many people around me, but nobody knows where I go when I go out.

I didn’t see Vasfije. I heard about her here. I didn’t see her because I never have the remote control in my hands or am asked what I want to watch. The only place that I have a good time is here with friends. We’re very connected and get along with each other. But not with others.

"I didn’t see Vafije."

I didn’t see Vafije. And didn’t know anything about it. I just heard about it later. My situation is very grave. Only my husband knows — he found me after that happened. Nobody else knows anything.

I can’t do anything inside the house. I live with my husband and children and my extended family live close by. I always come here [to Medica] secretly. I say that I’m going to visit a doctor. Then I tell my husband to cover for me up if he’s asked [where I am] by his brother or anybody else.

[My family] just love to interfere in others’ business. They keep asking where I’m going, where I’m heading.”

As soon as I’m out they say, “Where were you rrugaqe [floozy]?” My husband’s brother calls me rrugaqe all the time.

The neighbors know what’s happening in the house before us. That’s why I was always afraid to talk. They would behave even worse. I remember when we were [refugees] in Albania and TV cameras were there, I thought ‘If I’m on TV I would be so disgraced.”K

These personal accounts have been edited for length and clarity. The conversations were held in Albanian.

Feature image: K2.0.

This article was produced by Kosovo 2.0 as part of the Equal Rights for All which is an EU funded project managed by the European Union Office in Kosovo.  

The contents of this publication are the sole responsibility of the project and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of the European Union.