In 2017, Vasfije Krasniqi-Goodman wrote an open letter to the men who sexually assaulted her and published it on her Facebook page.
Her rapists, two Serb policemen, abducted and raped her when she was 16 during the Kosovo War. They were indicted for the crime but then acquitted by Kosovo’s Supreme Court in 2014.
She had lived in Texas, United States since the end of the war, but in 2015 travelled back to Kosovo as the first wartime rape survivor to share her story publicly, on national television, without hiding her identity.
Since then, she has been on a mission, advocating for survivors in Kosovo and around the world, demanding justice for the crimes committed during the war in her country.
To this day, not a single perpetrator in Serbia or Kosovo has been sent to jail for rape.
Earlier this year, she decided to run for a seat in Kosovo’s parliament during the February 14 election.
“I never saw myself as somebody that will run for office. I was happy to be an activist. I was happy to tell my story, spreading the word of what happened in Kosovo during the war,” said Krasniqi-Goodman, a former insurance agent.
She and the party she joined, the left-wing opposition Vetevendosje Party (Self-Determination Movement), won by a landslide with 48 percent of the votes.
Krasniqi was among the top 10 with the most votes, receiving 61,885 votes.
During the 1998-99 Kosovo War, various sources estimate that 20,000 women and men were raped and tortured by Serbian police and the Yugoslav army.
Shame and stigma surrounding the topic of wartime rape prevent survivors from publicly talking about what happened to them 22 years ago.
Rape as a war weapon ‘not discussed at all’
Last year, Krasniqi-Goodman gave a speech in the Kosovo parliament, lambasting MPs.
“You have to change because we have had enough. We do not forgive you for what you have been doing to us for the last 20 years,” she told Kosovo’s lawmakers on March 9, 2020.
After winning a seat in the parliament, Krasniqi-Goodman, now 38, left her home in Texas and moved back to Kosovo.
She hopes she can bring some necessary changes during her four-year term when it comes to wartime rape survivors.
“I think the first and most important one is fighting for justice. We still don’t have one perpetrator behind the bars when it comes to the rape crimes. So, we have to see how the government and institutions can push Serbia to turn over the criminals.”
She also wants to bring more changes to the monthly government pension of 230 euros (about $270) that became available in 2018 for survivors to apply for.
“I want that changed, where survivors have more benefits than just a pension itself. I want to have medical coverage just for survivors, because most of us, we need medical attention quite often. Some of the survivors cannot even afford to go to just the primary doctor.”
Bringing change and raising awareness to break the shame and stigma in post-war Kosovo has been difficult.
Nazlie Bala, 53, a prominent women’s rights activist, who is also a political activist with Vetevendosje, understands this well.
During the war, she collected thousands of testimonies from rape survivors in the refugee camps in Macedonia. After the war ended in 1999 and as Kosovo started to rebuild, she said Kosovo society was not ready to accept the truth about wartime rape.
“The UNMIK [United Nations Mission in Kosovo] administration and also the local politicians somehow tried not to hide but to bury it so that this issue would not come up in discussions and debates in Kosovo,” she said, adding that it took more than 12 years to finally address the issue of rape. “And the issue of rape used as a tool of the war – that Serbia used during the war in Kosovo – was not touched or discussed at all.”
In 2013, she started to raise the issue of wartime rape and publicly supported and debated on national television that the existing law recognising and compensating civilian victims and veterans of the war should be amended to also include survivors of sexual violence from the war.
Bala received death threats for her support for survivors and once found a note on her apartment door that read: “Do not protect the shame, otherwise we kill you.”
A week later, she was brutally attacked by two unknown assailants outside her apartment in Pristina.
“I didn’t take it as a personal attack on me, but through me, it was a message to all those women and girls to stop asking for the law and for their voices [not to be heard], and to not to discuss any more about the rapes in Kosovo,” Bala said.
The amendment was finally passed in 2014.
Since Krasniqi-Goodman came out with her story, many survivors have contacted her to share their stories – some have not told anyone except her.
“And that takes a toll on me too. Because it’s not only that I have my own pain, but I also carry the others’ pains around with me too. I just wish I could get through their family’s head that they have to support them, they need to give a free space for them to be able to share their stories.”
She recognises that fellow survivors believe in her to be a strong voice in the parliament for Serbia’s war crimes.
“While I’m in the parliament, if at least one perpetrator goes behind the bars, to be able to just celebrate the joy with the victims, for me it will be good enough, because I don’t want to die without justice. Even if it’s too late for my case, I just want to be able to see a survivor receive justice,” Krasniqi-Goodman said.
“Our soul is not going to heal at all without justice. With justice, we will at least heal some, because justice is what will help others know the truth.”