Pristina, Kosovo - Atifete Jahjaga, the president of Kosovo, had barely finished her speech about the status of women raped during the 1998-1999 Kosovo War when, at the back of the conference room, some women began to cry.

The room grew silent.

"I immediately knew [then] that there were women [survivors] of sexual violence during the wartime in the room," Jahjaga recalls.

It was November 25, 2012, and she was attending a conference in Pristina for the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. She hadn't known that victims of wartime rape would be present.

"I want to close here," she told the audience of about 40, which included officials from the British embassy, the ministry of health, members of parliament, and civil society organisations.

Then she asked her assistant to arrange a meeting with the survivors in a separate room.

Four women came to meet her and they sat down to talk.

"Can you tell me what happened?" Jahjaga asked the women.

"First, you have to see my body," replied one woman in her late 40s.

She began rolling down a knee-length nylon stocking. "Oh my God, what am I seeing here? Unbelievable. Unbelievable," Jahjaga recalls thinking.

She takes a deep breath before describing what happened next.

The woman had four S's - representing the Serbian cross - branded on her leg, seemingly cut with a knife, along with a trail of cigarette burns. She then rolled up her blouse to reveal a bright white scar with the same symbol and more cigarette burns on her stomach.

Jahjaga would later find out that the woman's husband and three-year-old daughter had been killed on the day that she was raped.

"This topic is the only topic that, every time I think about it, no matter what kind of moment I am in, my goose bumps go up," explains the 40-year-old president, her usual upbeat tone growing sombre.

That day marked a turning point in Jahjaga's presidency. She would become a leading figure in addressing the plight of the estimated 20,000 women - and men - raped during the war in her country.

"How did we allow, as a people, to keep this as a taboo theme and how could we stigmatise them for over 10 years at that time?" she asks.

"The war is not over in their minds, in their hearts," she adds. "This has to stop."

President Jahjaga visits a cemetery in a village where 113 boys and men were killed on March 26, 1999. Village members invited the president to come to their village to express their anger over an incident in which representatives of the European Union Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo, called EULEX, exhumed the graves of bodies a week prior to the president’s visit without giving proper and advance notice to the families. The president invited representatives of EULEX to her office a few days later to discuss the incident [Valerie Plesch/Al Jazeera] 

An oppressed generation

It is on a recent late morning in September, during the president's hectic two-day, 800-kilometre trip for her first state visit to Albania, that she describes this meeting. We are sat in the backseat of her car.

Albanian police sirens wail in the background as they escort the black Audi along the highway from Albania's capital, Tirana, to Berat, one of the country's UNESCO World Heritage sites.

Scenes from the Albanian heartland blur in the distance. The president's close protection officer sits silently in the front seat, occasionally turning to ask Jahjaga if she needs anything.

The previous day, Jahjaga had darted across downtown Tirana in a smartly-tailored skirt suit and high heels, attending back-to-back meetings with the country's top leaders and addressing Albania's Assembly.

But this isn't a position Atifete Jahjaga ever expected to be in.

Growing up during the 1980s and 1990s in Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, she belonged to a generation that lived in fear of what she calls the "dictatorship and regime from Serbia". Its grip extended to all aspects of life in the decades leading up to the war in 1998.

"It was a horrible situation," she says."[My generation] was not allowed to live our own life. We were not allowed to live like our peers from that time in the region or in Europe. We were simply not allowed to dream big because we didn't know what was going to happen tomorrow."

When the war broke out between the ethnic Albanian majority fighting for an independent Kosovo, the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA),and Slobodan Milosevic's brutal security forces, Jahjaga was 23 years old and nearing the end of her law studies at the University of Pristina.

She lived with her parents and older brother
in a modest apartment in the city. Her family decided it was safer to stay in Kosovo than attempt escape to neighbouring Macedonia or Albania. When NATO started its air campaign to drive out the Serbian troops, Jahjaga was forced to stop her studies.

After a 78-day air campaign, the Kosovo War finally came to an end in June 1999. The bombs stopped dropping; abandoned homes in villages no longer burned. Up to 800,000 civilians, mainly ethnic Albanians who became refugees after being expelled by Milosevic's troops, started to return to their newly-liberated country over a period of three weeks - making it one of the most rapid repatriation processes in history.

The war left an estimated 1
3,000 people dead, and more than 1,600 still remain missing, believed to be buried in mass graves in Kosovo and Serbia.

President Jahjaga walks alone during a wreath laying ceremony at the Mother Albania monument, located at the National Martyrs Cemetery of Albania [Valerie Plesch/Al Jazeera]

Rebuilding Kosovo

Those who had stayed behind during the fighting emerged from their homes and tried to to pick up from where they had left off before the war. For Jahjaga, that meant completing her studies and helping rebuild her country.

After the war, the Kosovo police force was being rebuilt as a completely new institution, which included the recruitment of female police officers - something that was unheard of during the Serb occupation.

"That made me change the course of my career, going from law to law enforcement," she says with a smile as her car cruises along the Albanian highway.

Jahjaga's parents supported her decision and, after completing nine weeks of basic training at the police academy, she joined the Kosovo police force in February 2000.

She still remembers her first days patrolling Pristina's streets with other newly-sworn in officers.

Kosovars looked at them with a sense of pride, she explains. "Because it was their own, it was their police, which was not the police which was beating them … because in the former time, the police was a tool of the state, a tool of repression and most of the crimes were conducted by the police and [Serb] paramilitary organisations."

During the next decade of Kosovo's post-war reconstruction period, Jahjaga moved up the chain of command - starting as a patrol officer and finishing as deputy director with the rank of lieutenant colonel general. That was the highest position held by a woman in southeastern Europe at the time, Jahjaga says.

By the spring of 2011, a six-week long political crisis troubled the young nation, which had unilaterally declared independence from Serbia in 2008. President Behgjet Pacolli, who had been elected by parliament, was forced to resign after Kosovo's constitutional court deemed his election invalid. For more than a month, Kosovo was without a president.

Then, on April 6, Jahjaga received the call that would change her life.

Speculation about who the caller was remains a popular topic in Kosovo and a recurring question in interviews with the president. She won't reveal the name, but credits Christopher Dell, the then US ambassador to Kosovo, for stepping in and rallying the three leading political parties to reach an agreement on nominating her as the consensual candidate.

"I was asked by the political parties to step up and take this challenge, which was in a very difficult time for my country, for our citizens," she says. Citizens' mistrust of their institutions was deepening, Jahjaga explains. "To me, there was nothing else to think, only how to serve to the country, how to serve to the institutions and how to serve, mostly, to our people in the most crucial moment in our country."

A friend and one of her biggest supporters from her early police days remembers Jahjaga's reaction to that call.

Igballe Rogova, the executive director of the Kosovo Women's Network, recalls her saying, "If it was for the benefit of Kosovo, I will do it. I don't care about the consequences."

A photograph of President Jahjaga with US President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama taken in September 2011 in New York City hangs on the wall of the president's cabinet [Valerie Plesch/Al Jazeera]

Kosovo's first female president

Less than 24 hours later, Kosovo's Assembly held an evening session to vote for their new president. Jahjaga received 80 of the 100 votes, making her the first female president of Kosovo – a nation roughly the size of Connecticut with a population of 1.8 million people - and one of the world's youngest leaders, just shy of her 36th birthday.

Jahjaga became Kosovo's first non-partisan president.

Rogova knew that Jahjaga's overnight transition from policewoman to the fourth president of Kosovo would stun the nation and raise questions about her eligibility – after all, this was a woman without a political background.

"Wow, this woman is not scared of anything," Rogova recalls thinking.

Despite being recognised as a rising and prominent figure within Kosovo's respected police force, most Kosovars hadn't heard of her.

"She [Jahjaga] knew she had to face mocking, but she didn't care," Rogova says.

But, Jahjaga explains, "m
y name had not been unknown … [at] the decision-making levels in the country".

While helping to build the Kosovo police force "from zero," she says, "I have been fortunately always valued for my managerial skills and my leadership skills."

Valbona Cerkini-Bivolaku, who works in a children's clothing shop in Ferizaj, Kosovo's third-largest city, was at first doubtful about her country's new leader.

"To be honest, knowing that she was a policewoman [without a political background], I thought she wouldn't do much, but the opposite happened," says Cerkini-Bivolaku.

"Compared to what we had before 1999, this [presidency] is a big achievement for her and for women," she continues, referring to the pre-war era when women had few rights or political leadership roles.

On the morning of April 8, 2011, President Jahjaga reported to her modest office on the first floor of the parliament building on Mother Teresa Boulevard in downtown Pristina.

Hikmete Imeraj, the president's long time close protection officer, stands in front of the entrance to the Bunk'Art exhibition, during the president's visit to the bunker turned museum [Valerie Plesch/Al Jazeera] 

Kosovo still does not have a presidential palace and Jahjaga's office today remains an open space that she shares with three members of her team.

A large glass wall serves as a partition separating the shared office space from a small waiting area with two chairs, a place where the president often has one-on-one meetings with guests, and then there's a brightly-lit room where Jahjaga normally holds high-level meetings. A small collection of heels, flats and slippers lay neatly hidden beneath her nondescript, small black desk.

On the first day of Jahjaga's presidency, she brought with her one of her closest confidants from the police force, Hakide Kida, known as 'Kiki' within the president's circle, as an adviser. She also brought Hikmete Imeraj, her trusted close protection officer, who was Jahjaga's driver when she was with the police.

Both women had joined the Kosovo police force shortly after the war and worked closely with Jahjaga in different capacities over the last decade. Imeraj was the only woman in the close protection unit when the president was deputy director of the police force.

Imeraj has worked with many dignitaries over the past 15 years, but says no one comes close to the president.

"She was very kind with people, not just with me, but everybody. You never saw something like that before. It's something special," explains Imeraj, whose platinum blonde pixie cut, a rarity among women in Kosovo, is easily spotted when she's out protecting the president.

On any given day, Jahjaga's cabinet is a flurry of activity as she meets and greets ordinary citizens, members of the diplomatic corps, and government officials. It isn't uncommon for the president to walk to a lunch meeting or grab a macchiato with her advisers at the new café that has opened up near her office. Her enthusiasm for being out of the office and talking to people may be a residual trait from her police days.

"What amazes me most, and many people who know her, [is that] despite her new job ... as president, she remained the same Atifete," says Arbene Abrashi, one of the president's closest friends for more than a decade.

Another longtime friend, Shpresa Muharremi, who worked with Jahjaga when she had just entered the police force agrees. "She adapts very well to every part of our society because of her personality."

President Jahjaga waits for members of the National Anti-Corruption Council to arrive before beginning the meeting. The president established the Council in 2012 to prevent and combat corruption in Kosovo. It is one of three councils that she heads [Valerie Plesch/Al Jazeera]

Promoting Kosovo

With less than six months of her presidency left, Jahjaga is still helping rebuild Kosovo and its image.

Her fluency in English, charisma and warm personality have allowed her to rub shoulders with world leaders and to be invited by leading institutions around the globe to promote Kosovo outside the region. In 2014, she received the award for Leadership in Public Service from the Clinton Global Initiative in New York and was welcomed onto the stage by former US Secretary of State Madeline Albright.

"Her work to bring women to the forefront of political, economic and social life has given me the single greatest hope for Kosovo's lasting democracy," Albright said of her.

Bill Clinton acknowledged Jahjaga in front of hundreds of world leaders and business executives in his opening remarks at this year's annual meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative.

"The fact that Kosovo has a young female president, who is here, shows how much progress has been made there," he told the crowd.

But despite this international recognition, Kosovars have differing perceptions of how she has represented her country, and her leadership has faced criticism.

"It puzzles me that people in Kosovo don't see across the spectrum at how positive the image she projects abroad [is] and how important that is for them," says Anna di Lellio, a professor in international affairs from the New School in New York City and a known authority on Kosovo.

Jahjaga's presidency came at a time in Kosovo's post-independence period when citizens, especially the youth, had high expectations for their new government and country.

"The political leaders of Kosovo, before independence, were promising people that if we got independence everything would change. We are going to have development, economic development, and we will reduce the rate of unemployment, we will fight corruption," explains Arbër Kadriu, a youth activist and executive director of the Initiative for Progress, a Kosovo-based NGO that monitors local governmental institutions.

"So people idolised the future by saying, 'okay, so if after independence we will have this, we believe those things are going to happen because they are in power and they're going to do something'."

Though Kadriu agrees that Jahjaga has done a good job of representing Kosovo at an international level and pushing important issues, such as women's and victims' rights, he believes she could have done more to unify the political parties during the crisis that, earlier this year, left the country without a coalition government for more than six months.

President Jahjaga gives an interview with local media after visiting a girls' club in Fushë Kosovë, a town outside of Pristina that is home to a large Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian community [Valerie Plesch/Al Jazeera]

Mass exodus

Yet another crisis that unfolded in early 2015 was the mass exodus of up to 50,000 Kosovars who left their homeland for the EU, largely to seek out better economic opportunities in countries like Germany and Austria. The majority left on buses from Pristina's downtown station for Belgrade, Serbia. From there, they made their way to the border with Hungary. Seven years after independence, the youth unemployment rate of roughly 60 percent remains among the highest in Europe.

In March of this year, the UNHCR ranked Serbia and Kosovo as having the fourth-highest number of asylum seekers, after Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Considering Kosovo's small population, the outflow of Kosovars was significant.

Confronted with this crisis, Jahjaga felt that she had to face her people.

"When I saw those pictures and videos of thousands of people leaving the country, I knew I couldn't stay in the office," she says. "Something is wrong if they are leaving the country. I need to know what is going on there."

Over a period of two weeks, she left her office and took to the streets to talk to people in six towns across Kosovo that were experiencing an outflow of people bound for the EU. She wanted to find out what was happening and to try to convince them to stay.

No other politician went out to confront those leaving, she says.

On one occasion, the president travelled in early February to the small northern town of Vushtrii – where up to 5,000 residents had left - during the height of the exodus.

With an umbrella to shield her from the rain, she walked through the town with the mayor and faced crowds of frustrated residents who gathered around to talk about the crisis and the country's economic situation.

"Find me a job and tomorrow I won't leave," shouted one man from the crowd. She listened, patiently, before being led away by the mayor.

"It was not that pleasant but I had to do it," she admits. "We are forgetting sometimes where we have been 15 years ago. We came out of the ruins of the country, the totally destroyed country."

"I cannot afford to lose my citizens because I need my people in the country to continue building our country," she adds.

The young nation is on a path towards gaining membership of the European Union and the UN, some of whose members still do not recognise Kosovo's independence. Only 110 out of the 193 UN member countries, including the US, France, and the UK, which are also permanent members of the UN Security Council, have recognised Kosovo's independence. Serbia and Russia do not recognise Kosovo's sovereignty.

President Jahjaga attends a meeting at an agricultural cooperative in Krushë e Madhe, also known as the village of widows as a result of the massacre that took place here during the Kosovo War [Valerie Plesch/Al Jazeera] 

Rights for wartime rape victims

Since her first meeting in Pristina with the four female survivors of wartime rape, the president has met women in the villages most affected by the war, often in private to protect the identities of the victims. She has vowed to be their voice and to recognise them in the eyes of the law as victims of the war.

In March 2013, this was met with harsh criticism by some politicians, who debated how rape victims should be examined in order to ensure that they qualified as civilian victims of the war and were eligible to receive the same benefits as others already covered by the law, like members of the KLA, veterans and invalids. Jahjaga was outraged. It made my "brain just blow up," she says.

"As a woman I will never forgive myself if I will not do that for those women. If I will not do it now, nobody will do it in the future because I know this region, I know the mentality here and now is the time."

In March 2014, she established the National Council for the Survivors of Sexual Violence, one of the three councils she heads. The other two address European integration and corruption.

Jeta Krasniqi, one of the president's political advisers and the coordinator of the Council, described the establishment of the body as an example of how Jahjaga wants to "put this issue on the highest level possible … and talk about it as a national issue".

The first Council meeting was held on Women's Day, March 7, in 2014. A few weeks later, the Kosovo Assembly finally amended the law on war veterans to include survivors of sexual violence as civilian victims of the war

When asked how she is able to prioritise this issue alongside matters such as European integration, visa liberalisation, so that Kosovo's citizens might travel more freely, and UN membership, the president responds: "How are we going to have economic growth and economic prosperity if 20,000 people [rape victims] of my country are not believing in justice?"

Rogova, the president's longtime friend and a Council member, says things are moving quickly. Without the Council, she believes it could have taken another 15 years for women's organisations to fight for the legal amendment.

"She did it in one year and a half," Rogova says.

President Jahjaga hangs a dress at Pristina's football stadium in preparation for the unveiling of the art installation called 'Thinking of You,' which she sponsored. Over 5,000 dresses and skirts hung on washing lines as part of the installation [Valerie Plesch/Al Jazeera] 

Thinking of you

On June 12 of this year, Pristina's football stadium was transformed into an art installation called 'Thinking of You'. On that sunny Friday afternoon, the 16th anniversary of Kosovo's liberation by NATO, 5,000 skirts and dresses hung on washing lines as a tribute to the women raped during the war.

The producer of the project, Anna di Lellio, had pitched the project to the president a few months before, and received an enthusiastic response in less than a day.

For the next month-and-a-half, di Lellio and the art installation's creator, Alketa Xhafa-Mripa, a Kosovo-born artist and British national, collected dresses from Kosovo and abroad.

The first dress they collected was a black and white dress from the president, the exhibition's sponsor. Di Lellio believed Jahjaga's donation "would give people a strong signal of her support, or institutional support, to survivors".

This installation sent a message to the outside world, says Jahjaga, about what happened to those women and how they are still seeking justice.

Now, Jahjaga and the Council are working on the verification process for the survivors so that they can start receiving benefits and a monthly compensation under the amended law.

Talks on how to conduct the verification process in a confidential manner are scheduled to take place this month.

Of course, she also has other pressing matters to attend to.

In recent weeks, violence has erupted on the streets of the capital, as MPs from opposition parties released teargas in the Assembly chamber to protest against Prime Minister Isa Mustafa's plan to go ahead with an EU-brokered deal with Serbia that would give more power to Serb-dominated areas in Kosovo, as well as a border demarcation with neighbouring Montenegro.

Confronted with this latest political crisis, President Jahjaga started the week by inviting the three main opposition parties for a meeting in an effort to find a solution.

"It is my mandate as the president of the country to guarantee the democratic functioning of the institutions and to serve as a factor of unity, and upon these grounds, I call upon Kosovo's parliamentary political spectrum to accept this invitation for dialogue related to disagreements of these last few weeks," Jahjaga said in a statement released by her office on Monday.

Jahjaga will be just 40 years old when she leaves the president's office next April. Although she won't say what is next for her, she is certain about one thing: she won't be forgetting the survivors of wartime sexual violence.

"I will be the watchdog of things and how they are being implemented. I will be their biggest voice, no matter where I am," she says. "I am there for them. I have been there for them, and I will continue to be there for them."

You can follow Valerie on Twitter at @ValeriePlesch

Source: Al Jazeera