If dresses could speak

How Kosovo is giving a public airing to the reality of wartime rape.

kosovo NGO dress (Jetmir Idrizi)
Thinking of You features some 5,000 dresses hanging on clotheslines in the city stadium of Pristina. [Jetmir Idrizi/Al Jazeera]

Pristina, Kosovo – It was her long, beautiful braid that made her stand out among the villagers, all women, children and old men.



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When Slobodan Milosevic’s security forces began to separate the women from the group, they immediately selected Besa (not her real name) for their rape camp.

It was March 22, 1999; two days before NATO launched its bombing campaign against Serbia in an effort to halt the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Kosovo.

Sixteen years later, Besa still carries the wounds of what came next. Literally. When I meet her in Kosovo’s capital, Pristina, she shows me the scars that cover her back.

She has come here from her village with other volunteers to help set up an installation by artist Alketa Xhafa-Mripa. Called Thinking of You, it features some 5,000 dresses hanging on clotheslines in the city stadium of Pristina and is intended to honour the survivors of wartime rape.

All of the dresses were donated – by women and men from all walks of life and from across Kosovo, as well as from Tirana in Albania, London and New York. The first donation came from Atifete Jahjaga, Kosovo’s president and the sponsor of the installation.

‘This skirt has been hiding a story’

Thinking of You plays on the notion of airing dirty laundry, because sexual violence is still shrouded in so much silence, stigma and secrecy here.

In fact, Besa is one of the few survivors willing to talk about her experience. Others have worked hard at preparing the installation, but have shied away from public attention.

And this is typical of postwar Kosovo.

Human rights groups estimate that there are about 20,000 survivors of sexual violence here a figure is based on a projection made in 1999 by the US Center for Disease Control after surveying displaced women. But the unwillingness of survivors to share their stories has made it impossible to confirm it. Fewer than 200 have spoken out about their experience. Most have chosen silence in the face of shame, stigma and a growing realisation that they are never going to get justice.

The aim of the installation is to at least elicit the recognition rape survivors have thus far been denied, and the sheer size of it – with thousands of dresses covering the stadium – evokes the enormity of the crime committed against so many citizens. If nothing else, denial will now be more difficult.

Whether survivors will be able to find their voice, after suppressing it for almost two decades, remains to be seen. But what some of these dresses do reveal is a desire to be heard – albeit anonymously.

Two of the skirts feature penciled messages from their former owners. “This skirt has been hiding a story since the spring of 1998,’ reads one. “I have bitter memories,” declares another.

[Jetmir Idrizi/Al Jazeera]
[Jetmir Idrizi/Al Jazeera]

Counting the days, counting the rapes

Besa may not want to use her own name, but she is certain that she wants to talk. She was kept in a house with other women. Her two teenage daughters and her five-year-old son were also held there.

“We were there for 22 days,” she repeats over and over, wanting me to write it down.

She counted the days they were in captivity just like she counted the number of days she was raped and beaten: the tally is the same for both, because she was raped and beaten every day, she said.  

The soldiers covered their faces to conceal their identities. Besa could not tell who they were – whether police, army or paramilitaries.

She still cannot explain their sadism. They bit her all over her body, almost as if trying to tear her flesh. But they also treated her son after they had wounded him in the leg with a hand grenade.

She doesn’t want to talk about what happened to her daughters, other than to say that they did not “marry well” after the war. They, too, carried a stigma.

Praying to be spared

Besa’s husband was hiding in the mountains with the other men from the village when the soldiers came.

This was a common pattern during the Kosovo war, which was nominally Milosevic’s counterinsurgency against the Albanian separatists of the Kosovo Liberation Army, but in reality was a war waged against civilians.

While the men ran to save their lives, the rest stayed behind, praying they would be spared.

There were fighters in Besa’s village, but not among the women who were brutalised and tortured by Milosevic’s men.

[Jetmir Idrizi/Al Jazeera]
[Jetmir Idrizi/Al Jazeera]

Heroes, not victims

The war ended 16 years ago, on June 12, 1999, when NATO troops entered Pristina and the Serbian army withdrew from Kosovo.

During the two months of the bombing campaign, about 7,000 Albanian civilians were killed, and half of the population of Kosovo, about one million people, was expelled to neighbouring countries. More than 1,000 are still missing.

But the suffering endured by civilians has had little place in the psyche of a nation busily rebuilding and establishing itself as the product of a war of liberation fought by heroes, not victims.

As I travelled across Kosovo with Xhafa-Mripa to collect dresses, I heard the stories of many other women like Besa. There was one who was five months pregnant when the soldiers raped her. She lost the baby and has not been able to give birth since. 

Like many other women, she now suffers a series of ailments connected to the violence she endured during the war. And, like other women, she will share her story with sympathetic ears, but not with the public.

This reluctance can have broader ramifications. Survivors of wartime rape in Kosovo are included in the Law of Veterans as a special category, which entitles them to compensation. But it is difficult to identify those who are entitled when the fear of being stigmatised prevents them from coming forward. The president has created a National Council for Survivors of Wartime Sexual Violence to deal with this problem.

It shows that the government is beginning to take notice and things are slowly starting to change. The Kosova Women’s Network appropriately celebrated March 8, international women’s day, under the banner: “We don’t want flowers. We want justice for survivors of wartime sexual violence.”

But it will take time.

The personal and the collective

“We used to have a normal life,” says Besa, but the war put an end to that. She found support in her husband, but many survivors kept their suffering a secret even from their families. Some simply didn’t have families left to speak to.

Many feared society’s judgment – sometimes with good reason. When the first children were born out of that violence, local media sensationalised the news, calling the newborns “children of shame”. The survivors subsequently experienced a second wave of victimisation.

When a couple of women agreed to testify at Milosevic’s trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) as protected witnesses, their identities were leaked and they had to be relocated to a third country.

Up until 2014, there was not a single prosecution of a rape case. That same year EULEX, the EU mission in Kosovo, initiated two cases. 

And yet, Thinking of You has shown that small changes are under way.

As we travelled from town to town and village to village, we saw every stereotype of Kosovo being shattered by the reception we received. Conventional wisdom suggests that rural areas and Muslim societies will be too culturally conservative and concerned with notions of ‘honour’ to show solidarity with survivors of rape. But what we found was the exact opposite.

Men and women gave us dresses that meant something to them.

Vlora Citaku, Kosovo’s ambassador to the US, gave us the skirt she wore when she signed the country’s independence declaration.

Bukirije Gjonbalaj, the ambassador to Italy, gave us the dress she wore at the 1999 Rambouillet peace conference.

Then there were the first activists to report rape cases in the 1990s: Nazlie Bala donated the only skirt she ever owned and wore; Sevdije Ahmeti gave us a flowered dress, her favourite, which she has not worn since the death of her husband. 

Men brought us their mothers’ dresses, simply because they wanted to give something.

It took a work of public art to survey the country’s feelings about wartime sexual violence, but that makes sense because art elicits emotions that are both personal and collective.

Thinking of You is dedicated to Kosovo’s survivors of sexual violence, but also to survivors the world over.

The author is a professor of international affairs at The New School for Public Engagement in New York and at New York University. She was involved in the Thinking of You project and helped the artist, Alketa Xhafa-Mripa, pitch it to the president of Kosovo.

Source: Al Jazeera