When British-Albanian artist Alketa Xhafa Mripa unveiled her installation Thinking Of You (Mendoj Për Ty) in Pristina’s football stadium. Jahjaga, whose council sponsored the artwork, describes it as “a #MeToo moment” that made headlines around the world. Thousand of dresses donated by survivors and others were hung on washing lines, a powerful reminder of the war, as well as the symbolism of washing away stigma.
When the war in Kosovo began, Feride Rushiti was studying medicine at the University of Tirana in Albania. After she qualified, she volunteered to treat civilian victims of the conflict. In March 1999, she travelled to Kukës on the Albanian border, where hundreds of thousands of refugees had gathered, fleeing a campaign of ethnic cleansing by Serbian forces. It was desperate, confusing, utterly heartbreaking, she says of the largest forced exodus in Europe since the second world war.
Rushiti, an ethnic Albanian from Gjilan in eastern Kosovo, worked by day with the UN’s children’s agency and at night with Doctors Without Borders. Amid the chaos of those first days, she met a woman whose story would change her life, and with it the lives of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of other women.
The woman had just miscarried. “And she didn’t have a chance to bury the child,” Rushiti says. “It was difficult to know how to support her. I asked where her husband was. She said, ‘They took my husband.’ At that moment, I started to cry and so did she. But her cry was unimaginable – I had never heard such a sound. I was holding her, and with the other hand trying to close the tent, as there were people outside. She had been raped.”
After the peace agreement of June 1999, Rushiti founded the Kosovo Rehabilitation Centre for Torture Victims (KRCT). The following year, Human Rights Watch described the widespread use of rape, often gang rape, by Serbian police, paramilitaries and soldiers led by Slobodan Milosevic as an “instrument of systematic ethnic cleansing”, to humiliate, terrorise and displace ethnic Albanians. Many survivors were thrown out by their husbands; even child survivors were isolated and silenced by their families. Estimates vary, but some sources have claimed that up to 20,000 women (and some men) were victims of sexual violence during the war.
In the years immediately afterwards, nobody wanted to talk about it, Rushiti says. “I would go to communities, but everyone would say, ‘Nobody was raped here – why are you talking about it?’ The stakes were too high. Men didn’t want their wives or daughters to talk because of the stigma, and because it would be admitting that they had been unable to protect them.”