Kosovo can no longer ignore the ghosts of past violence
The coronavirus pandemic has taken its fair share of blame for the recent disintegration of Kosovo’s ruling coalition, as government figures disagreed over which legal mechanism should be used to enforce lockdown-like conditions to fight the epidemic. The dispute, which saw Prime Minister Albin Kurti’s main coalition partners vote to topple their own government, however, was also rooted in a much-older clash. Kurti had come under severe pressure from the United States after opposing a Washington-brokered plan to resolve the bitter dispute between Kosovo and Serbia, from which Pristina unilaterally declared independence in 2008.
One outspoken critic of the proposed scheme—which might have seen parts of Kosovo handed back to Belgrade decades after the brutal conflict which killed hundreds of thousands came to an end—warned that it would “turn the Balkans into a powder keg”. The strong reactions provoked by the suggested deal illustrate that, even as neighbouring Albania and North Macedonia move into the EU waiting room, the Balkans’ ghosts are not buried far beneath the surface.
Indeed, only weeks before the no-confidence vote in his government, Albin Kurti gave a speech for International Women’s Day touching on one of the most sensitive bones of contention between the two countries. “Without punishment for war crimes, there can be no reconciliation”, Kurti—who remains in office as caretaker PM— declared. Speaking alongside survivors of the atrocities, he vowed to take Belgrade before the International Court of Justice for alleged acts including widespread wartime sexual violence.
As many as 20,000 Kosovar women, as well as some men, were raped by Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic’s forces as part of what Human Rights Watch characterised as a deliberate instrument “to terrorize the civilian population, extort money from families, and push people to flee their homes”.
More than twenty years after this appalling campaign of sexual violence, rape charges brought this month against two former Serbian officials has only highlighted how slowly the wheels of justice have turned. Kosovo has yet to jail a single perpetrator for rape committed during the war, while many victims have not come forward due to pervasive stigma.
Such stigma surrounding conflict-related sexual violence is not unique to Kosovo’s conservative society—indeed, it is often a fundamental part of the logic of using rape as a weapon of war. As UN officials noted, “Stigma kills […] aggressors understand that this crime attacks individual and collective identity, social relationships and status.”
Cases in other countries have illustrated how the devastating effects of this exclusion are even passed down to the next generation. Countless Vietnamese women, for example, were raped by South Korean soldiers during the Vietnam War, a situation recently profiled in the March 24th BBC programme “Ghosts of the Vietnam War”. With the support of high-profile figures such as 2018 Nobel Peace Prize winner Nadia Murad, herself a survivor of conflict-related sexual violence at the hands of the Islamic State, the roughly 800 Vietnamese victims still alive today are fighting for acknowledgment and reparations—not only for themselves, but for the children conceived from their rapes.
These children, pejoratively nicknamed the “Lai Dai Han”—meaning “mixed blood” in Vietnamese—grew up amidst a “living hell”. They were beaten and berated by their Vietnamese neighbours and teachers, who taunted them about their parentage. Many were shut out of education, healthcare and other social services. Meanwhile, South Korea refuses to recognise the children and continues to deny that its troops engaged in wartime atrocities.
After decades of enduring this ostracization, the Lai Dai Han and their mothers are making a concerted push for an apology from Seoul. A campaign group, Justice for Lai Dai Han, is advocating for the UN Human Rights Council to begin a formal enquiry. “In some cases, in order to look forward you’ve got to settle things in the past”, explained the group’s international ambassador, former UK foreign secretary Jack Straw.
The past is very much not settled in Kosovo, where—similarly to the Lai Dai Han—countless “invisible children” were born to Kosovar sexual violence victims and Serbian soldiers. Many of these children were rejected by their families and adopted or raised in orphanages. Some were even killed.
As one medical NGO in Kosovo remarked, it’s incredibly difficult to determine the number or the whereabouts of these children, given the cultural stigma surrounding their mothers. Out of the thousands of women believed to have been assaulted as part of Serbian soldiers’ attempt to “destroy [ethnic] Albanians’ honor and identity”, only a handful have come forward publicly.
The first and most prominent of Kosovo’s survivors to tell her story on television without hiding her identity is Vasfije Krasniqi Goodman, who was raped by a Serbian police officer at the age of 16. Goodman’s rapist was sentenced to 12 years in prison back in 2013—only for the verdict to be overturned at the Supreme Court. Undeterred by the unsatisfying conclusion to her own case, Goodman has continued to urge her fellow victims to demand justice, while calling on her countrymen to show greater support for survivors of wartime sexual abuse.
“Where were you 21 years ago? Were you hiding in the attic while the woman was raped? Where did you find the courage to abandon her?” Goodman asked lawmakers on March 9th, at a special session of the Kosovo Assembly to dedicated to raising awareness of conflict-related sexual violence. “All of Kosovo society should be ashamed, you who victimise us every day.”
Lawmakers during the special session seemed receptive to Goodman’s emphatic call. One MP proposed the creation of an annual day to commemorate the victims of wartime sexual violence, while assembly speaker Vjosa Osmani decried the atmosphere of mistrust and the slow march of justice as an “unforgivable error” silencing thousands of Kosovar women.
The fall of Kurti’s government only weeks later has put any efforts to hold Serbia accountable for its alleged war crimes on the back burner. At the same time, it has made it clearer than ever that neither Pristina nor Belgrade can move forward until the horrors of the past are acknowledged and addressed.