For #Kosovar war victims, restitution is a long time coming

Two decades on from the Kosovar war, women who were subject to rape and sexual violence during the conflict are finally receiving redress. After years of ignoring the sexual offences committed by Serbian troops, and letting society blame the victims, the Kosovo government has taken action. Women who suffered at the hands of the Serbians have been allowed to claim reparations, a breakthrough which legitimizes their suffering at long last.

Yet thus far, only 600 women have signed up to receive compensation – a tiny fraction of the estimated 20,000 women assaulted by Slobodan Milosevic’s troops. Survivors are reticent to claim the €230 monthly handout because, in Kosovo’s rigid patriarchy, rape is a crime that daren’t speak its name. Sadly, the same is true of many other countries scarred by mass rape: victims are terrified of speaking out for fear of being slut-shamed, and misogynistic governments have little impetus for action.

In Kosovo, Human Rights Watch (HRW) says rape was an “instrument of systematic cleansing” for Serbian troops to bring the ethnic Albanian population to heel. Yet the withdrawal of Milosevic’s soldiers in 1999 did little to alleviate victims’ suffering. Kosovar society remains deeply marked by the kanun, a 500-year-old legal code that reads like a chauvinist’s charter. Sexual violence is considered a stain on the family, and invariably cloaked in secrecy. Rape victims are accused of inviting it, and their male partners are branded cowards for not protecting them.

This toxic belief system ensured that, until last year, not a single wartime rape survivor had spoken publicly, and many communities denied witnessing a single assault. Some survivors even committed suicide rather than go public. Activists spent 10 years lobbying ministers for action, with the government only taking action this year. At one point in the debate, politicians even discussed forcing victims to take gynaecological tests. It’s thus hardly surprising that few survivors have come forward.

Spoils of war

The situation in Kosovo is a distressingly common one: victims of numerous conflicts around the globe still struggle to receive the barest recognition, let alone recompense. The Democratic Republic of Congo, “the rape capital of the world” according to the UN, has routinely ignored victims’ plight during its 20-year conflict. And although a military court ruled in 2006 that the victims of mass rape should receive reparations, the government didn’t authorise the payments until 2014. When the money was finally paid, it ended up with fraudsters.

Perhaps Kinshasa’s stance is motivated by claims that have attributed many rapes to its own soldiers. This is doubly true in Syria, where embattled president Bashar al-Assad is accused of allowing government troops to weaponize sexual assault to punish dissident women and their husbands. Several survivors have contributed to an acclaimed documentary called Silent War, but the prospect of this film leading to recognition for Syria’s survivors is as likely as the war itself coming to an end.

In fact, if the experience of women the world over is anything to go by, Syrian women’s suffering could drag on for decades – and be wholly forgotten. For while Kosovar women finally succeeding in achieving some recognition, victims of rape during the Vietnam War have largely escaped public consciousness.

Many local girls and women were raped during the War by South Korean soldiers fighting alongside the Americans. Instead of receiving support, they were shunned by their own families as if they had seduced the invaders. Their children were dubbed ‘Lai Dai Han’ or ‘mixed blood’, bullied for looking different from their schoolmates. Over 40 years since the war’s end, South Korea has yet to apologize for its soldiers’ conduct, while Vietnam’s government has offered little succour.

Each of these cases has a similar thread: soldiers exploiting warzones to act with impunity, abetted by the blessing of warlords who share their misogynistic views. Often, war rape is part of a wider attempt to subjugate women, to ‘put them in their place’ as the bitter, twisted individuals who join cults like Isis might view it.


There is also a common pattern of governments refusing to acknowledge the issue, which has hindered efforts to assist victims. HRW suggests there is often a correlation between countries scarred by conflict and those which repress women’s rights – not surprising, given that uprisings are often sparked by injustice and autocracy.

Now it’s time for the international community to break this cycle, pressuring conflict-ridden countries to change the way they treat mass rape. The world must consider these acts as a form of warfare, rather than its by-product. Warlords like Milosevic are put in front of war crimes trials for genocide and ethnic cleansing; why not for inducing rape as well? The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court considers rape a crime against humanity, so there’s plenty of scope. There’s precedent, too; although none of Hitler’s henchmen were prosecuted for rape at Nuremberg, a concurrent war crimes tribunal in Tokyo convicted Japanese officers for failing to prevent the horrors of Nanking.

Governments should invest more in taskforces to help women in conflict zones. British minister William Hague set up the preventing sexual violence initiative alongside UN special envoy Angelina Jolie in 2012, assembling a team of 74 experts for dispatch to warzones. However, within three years David Cameron’s government had slashed the team by 50%. Such commitments need to be maintained, not abandoned when no longer fashionable. And governments can publicise initiatives such as Syria’s Silent War documentary, or the work of London-based Justice for Lai Dai Han, which uses Vietnamese women’s ordeal as a call for justice – for all war rape survivors.

The recent initiative in Kosovo is a step in the right direction, but its lack of uptake shows the cultural barriers facing war rape victims, at a local and a global level. It’s time the world stopped treating these women as the authors of their own misfortune – and recognized that they, too, are casualties of war.

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