The New York Times June 22, 1999
Kosovo Victims Must Choose to Deny Rape or Be Hated
By ELISABETH BUMILLER
ZRZE, Yugoslavia — The 22-year-old woman, married four months ago,
said she was taken from this small southern village by Serbian forces, held for
a day in the local police station, beaten, then threatened with death. But
she was not, she said, raped.
Her husband, Behan Thaqi, thinks differently. “I am 100 percent certain
that they raped her,” said Thaqi, 34, a farmer imprisoned by the Serbs for
supplying weapons to the Kosovo Liberation Army, the Albanian guerrillas who
fought Serbian forces. “I know that when women get in their hands, there is
no chance to escape.”
Thaqi says his wife denies the rape because “she doesn’t dare tell that
kind of story.” If she admitted it to him, he said, “I would ask for a
divorce — even if I had 20 children.” As his wife listened, silent and
shamefaced, in a corner of their empty home, looted of all furniture and possessions by the Serbs, Thaqi added: “I don’t hate her, but the story is before my eyes. I feel very cold toward her.”
Kissing her, he said, “is like kissing a dead body.”
There are few more harsh illustrations of the difficulties in getting
Kosovo Albanian women to talk about being raped by Serbian forces than these words from Thaqi, a rough-spoken man with an eighth-grade education. Not all Kosovo Albanian men share his attitudes, but the majority of male villagers do.
A horrific social stigma accompanies rape in Kosovo, bringing lifelong
shame to a woman and her family. It is the biggest problem that human rights
organizations face as they begin to collect information on whether Serbian
forces used rape as a premeditated tactic. The act has been classified
as a war crime by the international war crimes tribunal for the former
Yugoslavia in The Hague.
In interviews over the past two weeks, dozens of women and men in Kosovo
and in refugee camps in Albania told stories suggesting that sexual assault
and intimidation, if not rape, were widespread, used by Serbian forces to
strike at the heart of a Muslim society in which the virginity and fidelity of
women are central.
So far, there is no solid evidence of systematic rapes by the Serbs, as
was reported in Bosnia, and not a single woman said in the interviews that
she was sexually penetrated by a Serbian soldier. But one woman, Vase
Racaj, 35, said she saw women being raped. She said that on the afternoon of April 27, Serbian paramilitary forces in black masks pulled 10 young women out of a refugee convoy of trucks, cars and tractors that she was in. It had
been heading toward the town of Prizren and the Albanian border.
Ms. Racaj, who is from the small southern town of Kline, said 10 men
then raped the women in an open field about 30 feet from the road, in view
of the women’s families, who were held at gunpoint by Serbian soldiers.
An hour later, Ms. Racaj said, the paramilitary forces slashed thewomen’s pants around their thighs, then put the women on a large truck heading toward the border with her and the women’s families.
“They were crying and saying, ‘Better dead than what they did to us,”‘
Ms.Racaj said, as her own eyes filled with tears.
A 28-year-old teacher from the city of Mitrovica, who agreed to be
identified only by her last name, Avdullahi, said she was threatened
with rape on a bridge while a Serbian soldier held a gun to her
father-in-law’s throat, but she eventually was allowed to go free.
Another woman, who asked that only her first name, Zyrafete, be used,
said that she was sexually assaulted at knifepoint in the village of
Dragacin in southern Kosovo. Both Zyrafete, 23, and another woman from the same village, Sherife Trolli, 48, said that about 300 women were held in three houses for three days in the village, with about one-third of them in each house.
Every night Serbian soldiers dragged three to four women out of each
house for an hour or two each, Zyrafete and Ms. Trolli said. The women were
returned to the house sobbing and refused to tell the other women what
had happened to them.
Other refugees told of Serbian soldiers who took away the most beautiful
women from the groups driven from their homes, and five men from Mitrovica
said Serbs had written on a wall at a city high school, “We’re going to
rape your women, and they will give birth to Serbian children.”
So far, there is no solid proof in Kosovo of the kind of systematic
rape of tens of thousands of women that was reported in Bosnia, or of Bosnian
“rape camps” where women were held captive for days, repeatedly assaulted and often killed afterward. Nor was there any mention of rape in the war crimes tribunal’s indictment last month of Slobodan Milosevic, the Yugoslav
president, for crimes against humanity, although the chief prosecutor
has said she expects to expand the charges.
But just as in Bosnia, investigators expect that more evidence and
testimony from women will come to light over the next months, after one million refugees settle back home and bury their dead.
“It’s too soon,” said Valentina Gjuraj, a 24-year-old journalist in the
western city of Djakovica, where one of the worst massacres of the
Serbian terror campaign occurred. “I found five bodies yesterday,” she said.
“They were the bodies of my best friends.”
For now, State Department officials in Washington say they have
received refugee reports that Serbs were using the Hotel Karagac in the town of
Pec and an army camp near Djakovica as rape camps. Human Rights Watch has
reported the rape of two women in Dragacin. And the United Nations
Population Fund has released a report that Kosovo Albanian women “were
individually raped by many men,” and “sometimes even for days.”
But the report did not specify the number of women raped or
interviewed; nor did it give details of specific cases.
Djakovica, once beautiful, is a city in the shadow of the Accursed
Mountains where last week shocked citizens asked reporters they met on the street to come see the burned bodies in their backyards. Virtually everyone who was questioned there reported hearing talk about the existence of a rape
camp, either near the Serbian army barracks by a stadium or near additional
barracks next to a church.
One woman said she had heard that 12 women committed suicide after
being in the rape camp. But no one had any real information, either because they had just come back from refugee camps, had been hiding for two months intheir homes or, perhaps, were afraid to speak.
Yet at the Djakovica offices of the Kosovo Liberation Army, the rebels
who only days ago moved into the city’s cultural center to operate as an
unofficial local government, there was no uncertainty at all.
“We know there was a camp,” said Shkendije Hoda, 28, a slight woman
with a revolver in her back pocket who described herself as the commander for information and who said she had just come out from hiding in the hills
two days before.
Ms. Hoda based her assertion on information from women she knows,
describing them as witnesses to the camps, and she said that the rebels would soon be collecting their own information on rape. For now, Ms. Hoda said the
women’s stories are “secret.” She added that rape was a strategy of war by the
Serbs “to destroy the spirit of the brave soldiers of the Kosovo Liberation
The Serbs, she said, left many raped women alive as psychological
torture. Women “are not as afraid of death as they are of rape,” Ms. Hoda said.
“This is the weakest side of women.”
Over in Cabrat, the once-lovely neighborhood that is Djakovica’s oldest
— where house after big house was burned to ashes and rubble — Afrim
Domi spoke in a neighbor’s still-standing home about his daughter, Yllka,
17. He said she shouted, “Better to kill me than to rape me,” while running
out of the family house and into the woods after Serbian soldiers surrounded
the family on May 17.
Domi said his daughter was shot in the leg while fleeing, and that he
has not been able to find her. She ran, he said, because Serbian soldiers
had tried to rape her days earlier, though she escaped at that time, after
she witnessed the rape of another Djakovica teen-ager in front of the
But that girl’s father, whose hands trembled in an interview, said the
Serbs had not touched his daughter, who was at that moment safe with him at
home. As he spoke on the family porch, his brother, the girl’s uncle, came
out to loudly interrupt that there were no rapes in Djakovica, but, “If rape
was going on here, they only raped women from other towns.”
One of the most extensive accounts of sexual assault was given by
Zyrafete, the woman who was held with the 300 others in the village of Dragacin.
Zyrafete, 23, the mother of a four-year-old boy, was herded with a
large group of women and children into a central area of the village on April
20. After she wound up with 100 other women held captive for three days in
a house, Serbian police pulled her out of the group one morning, she
said, and ordered her to make them coffee.
When she told them she wanted to bring along her son, they said no,
then pushed the 4-year-old into the basement with some other women. Her son became hysterical, Zyrafete said, and cried out to his mother, “Do they
want to kill you?” Zyrafete told him not to worry, that she would be back.
The police took her into another room, she said, demanded money, asked
if her husband was a member of the rebels — she said no — then ordered
her at gunpoint to wash dishes, make coffee and clean their rooms.
“When I finished all these things, one policeman said, ‘Take off your
clothes,”‘ Zyrafete said. “I said, ‘Better that you should kill me.”‘
She said the policeman kicked her, slapped her in the face, then ordered
others to continue beating her. One policeman, she said, put a knife to her
throat.”He said, ‘Take off your clothes or I will kill you,”‘ Zyrafete said.
At this point, Zyrafete said, she fainted, and regained consciousness
later, lying on the floor in only her underwear. “I was crying,” she said. “I
didn’t know what had happened to me.” She put her clothes back on, and
a policeman returned her to the room with the women.
Despite the crucial missing details of her account, Zyrafete said she
is convinced that she was not raped. Two weeks after the assault — when
it isunclear how much physical evidence there might have been — Zyrafete
said she went to the gynecologist at her refugee camp in Kukes, Albania.
“The doctor said I hadn’t been raped,” Zyrafete said. Then she added: “I
think alot of women have been raped. But women don’t want to talk about it.”
Officials at the maternity hospital in Kukes, Albania, the grimy
mountain border town where 120,000 refugees made their temporary home during the war, say that abortions tripled after the refugees began arriving in April, going from around one a day to three. But the director of the hospital, Safet Elezi, said no refugee woman had said she had been raped and that many sought abortions because their husbands were missing and they were
living in tents.
Last week, across the border in Zrze, the 22-year-old woman who said
she was not raped, and whose husband said she was, had just arrived home from Kukes. The neighbors had been asking her, she said, what happened when the Serbian soldiers took her away. She told them she was beaten, not raped, but said she is still ashamed that she was the one the soldiers singled out.
To her husband of four months, everything is “black,” and the future
with his young wife is grim.
“I have no will,” he said, “to have children.”