Healing the scars left by the Kosovo War
It’s now been two decades since NATO began bombing Kosovo, a campaign designed to end the ruthless repression ordered by Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic. Serbian troops had been waging a campaign of ethnic cleansing for months, designed to drive the ethnic Albanian people from their homes. The bombs were supposed to provide relief.
Twenty years on, however, many of Milosevic’s victims are still living their ordeal. Serbian troops raped an estimated 20,000 women during their cleansing campaign, and the survivors have been almost completely ignored by their own government. Not until 2014 did the Kosovar government recognize these women as war victims, entitling them to a state pension. The committee created to register them didn’t open until last year.
This indifference has condemned the survivors to suffer in silence, shunned by the deeply conservative Kosovar society which views rape as a stain on family honour. Some women refused to tell their partners, others were abandoned when they came forward. Many survivors even committed suicide rather than go public.
The plight of the Kosovar women is a sadly familiar story. Rape has been used as a weapon of war since the days of the Vikings, and it remains commonplace in conflict zones across the world, from Myanmar to Burundi. Soldiers commit rape to prove their masculinity and humiliate their victims, actively encouraged by commanders who see it as a way to destroy rival communities and reward their fighters.
Such crimes constitute a clear breach of international law, yet they have long gone woefully unpunished. The International Criminal Court didn’t convict a single person of war rape until 2016, and even that conviction was later overturned. This indifference has been mirrored by a succession of national governments, which routinely refuse to support their own war rape victims because they lack the resources, or the will, to do so.
Ray of hope
At least the women of Kosovo can finally claim some form of reparation. The verification process has been criticized for being excessively harsh, and several applications have been rejected since registration opened last winter. But it’s a start.
There’s hope elsewhere, too. Last year’s Nobel Peace Prize went to a pair of activists, Dr Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murad, who have dedicated their lives to fighting sexual abuse in conflict. Their work is doubly significant because their respective homelands, Congo and Iraq, are among the world’s most dangerous countries to be a woman.
Mukwege, a gynaecologist known as ‘Doctor Miracle’, founded his hospital in 1999 and has since treated more than 80,000 sexual abuse survivors. Yet, in a country dubbed ‘the rape capital of the world’, over seven times this number suffer sexual violence every single year. Rape is used as an instrument of terror in the country’s chaotic ethnic conflict, and victims are stigmatized by a patriarchal society which often blames them for their own ordeal. It’s a combination Kosov0’s survivors know all too well.
Murad began her activism after enduring three months as an Isis sex slave in 2014. She was just one of thousands of women and girls from the Yazidi community to be cast into captivity, her body used as a tool to reward the Isis fighters and punish her community for their perceived apostasy. After escaping her captors, she set up her own eponymous charity, Nadia’s Initiative, striving to help the Yazidi people rebuild their shattered community.
Both Mukwege and Murad are now campaigning on a global level, championing the cause of rape victims around the world. In addition to running his hospital, Mukwege has spoken at a string of events, including the World Economic Forum summit in Davos in January, where he told delegates “What is keeping rape in our society is silence. The silence [of women] is… a strong tool of rapists, so they can go on destroying girls and women.” Oscar-nominated actor Djimon Honsou is now slated to play Mukwege in a biopic of his life, which begins filming this summer.
Having released an autobiography, The Last Girl, in 2017, Murad is now the subject of an acclaimed documentary, On Her Shoulders, which made this year’s Oscars shortlist. She’s been invited to advise the G-7 group of nations on matters of sexual violence, and she’s maintaining a frenetic schedule of meetings and keynote speeches. One of her most recent engagements was in London, where she demanded justice for Vietnamese women raped by South Korean troops during their country’s war for independence.
This cause is sadly apposite, because it illustrates the size of the barriers facing sexual violence victims. Scores of Vietnamese women were beaten and jailed after the war for the crime of sleeping with the enemy, their children condemned as Lai Dai Han, or mixed blood, a label which brought relentless bullying. But, more than 40 years on from the cessation of hostilities, these atrocities have yet to be recognized by the South Korean government.
The way forward
How can we ensure that future generations of war rape victims don’t survivor a similarly agonizing wait? Well, we can start by bringing perpetrators to justice, starting with the Isis abusers. Despite the pleadings of activists such as Murad, the global community has shown no enthusiasm for putting the abusers on trial. This must change.
Beyond Isis, the international community needs to start prosecuting the soldiers who commit sexual atrocities in conflict, treating rape as the war crime it truly is. But the courtroom is only part of the answer. The world’s NGOs must ramp up their efforts in war-riddled countries, providing physical and therapeutic support to sexual assault victims. At government level, the world’s wealthiest countries must apply pressure wherever survivors are not being compensated effectively.
Above all, we need to recognize that war rape is merely a symptom of a wider problem. Until the world’s outdated patriarchies are brought into the 21st century, women will continue to suffer – in times of peace as well as war.