Remembering Conflict-Related Sexual Violence in Kosovo: Nationalism, Feminisms, Counter-Memory, and Justice
Recent Commemorations & Historical Context
On June 12th, 2015, Pristina unveiled a new monument and temporary exhibition in its city center to commemorate women victims of sexual violence during the Kosovo War. The first of their kind, Heroinat and Mendoj për ty depart markedly from the silencing and stigmatization of survivors common in Kosovo’s ongoing nation-building process.
The creator of Heroinat (Heroines) combined several portraits of women taken during the Kosovo War to depict the face of a single Kosova woman fashioned out of 20,000 brass medals to represent the war’s estimated 20,000 women victims of sexual violence. The “the heroine of Kosovo” is the country’s first monument dedicated to a woman aside from Mother Theresa.
On the same day as the monument’s unveiling, a small group of women hung 5,000 dresses on clotheslines in an installation titled “Mendoj për ty” (Thinking of You) covering Pristina’s soccer field. Collected from across Kosovo, the dresses metaphorized “airing one’s dirty laundry.” Here, they symbolized the mass rape of women during the war, and confronted the lasting silencing and stigma of survivors of these atrocities.
Following several wars in the Balkans, the Kosovo War lasted from February 1998 until June 11th, 1999. On June 12th, NATO officially entered Pristina and Kosovo became a United Nations Protectorate for the next 9 years until it declared independence in 2008. As with all wars, the conflict in Kosovo disproportionately affected women. The total number of women and men who suffered sexual violence during the war will never be known. However, brutal, systematic sexual violence committed primarily by the Yugoslav army and Serbian police and paramilitaries against ethnic-Albanian Kosova women left permanent scars that have never been properly addressed. Rapid escalation and brutality, poor documentation, severe stigmatization of survivors, and a wish to respect the dead all contribute to the lack of certainty, but estimates range from 20,000 to 40,0008. During the 78-day airstrike campaign – in which NATO dropped over 6,000 tons of ordnance – Kosova Albanian women testified that they “feared the Serbian police and paramilitaries far more than the bombing.”
In a country currently involved in transitional justice and nation-building, Heroinat and Mendoj për ty should not be overlooked. Their command of attention at all scales, local to global, indicates an unfolding competition to shape the collective memory of the Kosovo War. Heroinat and Mendoj për ty forward two feminist discourses which depart markedly from the silencing and stigmatization of survivors of conflict-related sexual violence in Kosovo, legitimized by a patriarchal nationalist narrative. But to what extent are these commemorations subversive to Kosovo’s patriarchal nationalist discourse? And what impacts might they have on the future of justice for survivors of conflict-related sexual violence in Kosovo?
Collective Memory, Public Consciousness, and Commemoration
Acts of commemoration organize history and assign significance to events and figures, creating a repertoire of shared experiences and reifying the collective memory of a community – or in the case of a nation, creating a “national narrative.” While “remembering” has played an important role throughout human history, large-scale and top-down efforts to link memory, morality, and identity to “the nation” emerged only within the last 150 years. As newborn nation-states, like those during the collapse of Yugoslavia, struggled to achieve their autonomy and/or imperial ambitions, they found themselves “requiring national narratives of loyalty, timelessness, and belonging beyond the individual or local region.” In order to construct these national narratives, the states have sought to ground collective identity in collective memory: answering the question of “who we are,” in part, by answering the question of “where we come from.” Thus, commemoration can allow states to intentionally construct historical narratives in ways that guide identity formation, sharpen group boundaries, and establish and legitimate political and social order.
Yet, just as states use memory to consolidate power, so too can marginalized groups whose experiences the dominant nationalist discourse may have erased. These “counter-memories” aim to contest the manipulation of the past, as well as provide alternative interpretations of it. Commemorations in this light can constitute a force for resistance, redirecting attention to “forgotten” or silenced histories. The recent rise of memory studies has produced evidence to support commemoration and other memory-based processes (public testimonials, naming streets after the dead) as integral to positive, lasting peace. Heroinat and Mendoj për ty, therefore, can be viewed as part of the imagery of social discourse, a powerful tool to communicate who and what should be remembered, and to ultimately shape popular consciousness by encouraging individuals to accept these messages as their own.
Kosovo’s National Narrative & Stigmatization Survivors of Sexual Violence
Kosovo’s patriarchal nationalist discourse necessitates the erasure of women’s experiences during the war and perpetuates the stigmatization and mistreatment of survivors of conflict-related sexual violence, evident in top-down institutional approaches that deny survivors’ agency.
The end of the Kosovo War gave way to a reasserted sense of nationalist traditionalism (characterized by a fusion of masculinity, militarism, and nationalism) proffered by the former Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) members who then comprised the ruling political elite. Key elements of this discourse included the “admiration of heroism, along with glorification of epic events, values, and figures of the ‘liberation war,’ [and the] honoring of fallen KLA fighters as ‘national martyrs.’” Countless memorials were erected following the war, honoring founding members of the KLA , martyrs, and even NATO. Missing from this surge of commemoration was any reference to the victims of sexual violence during the conflict. This omission is consistent with communicative memory scholar, Aleida Assmann’s, findings that nationalist collective memory “is receptive to historical moments of triumph and defeat, provided they can be integrated into the semantics of a heroic or martyrological narrative. What cannot be integrated into such a narrative are moments of shame and guilt.” In Kosovo’s national narrative, as in other patriarchal nationalist narratives, women remain seen as custodians of cultural and ethnic heritage, whose task is to use their bodies to produce soldiers, implying that their enemy is not simply the othered ethnic group, but its women. Thus, the experiences of at least 20,000 women cannot be neatly assimilated into the national narrative, especially when wartime sexual violence carries the symbolic humiliation and destruction of “nation” and society. In cases when wartime sexual violence is recognized, the political memory of women as victims becomes a tool to further the nationalist cause through a singular focus on the ethno-nationalist membership of the perpetrator and a possible fetus, thereby “dismissing both the raped woman and the crime committed against her.”
This dominant national narrative promotes both the extension of a militarized ethnic conflict and subordination of women to the nationalist cause. This said, it is also important to understand the appeal of joining an ethno-nationalist movement for women. Membership and supporting roles in the KLA gave women opportunities to enter the public, political, and military spheres to which they had previously been denied access. Indeed, women’s roles during the war included active members of the KLA, messengers, cooks, nurses, members of underground networks, and cross-ethnic anti-nationalist peace movements. But these contributions remain absent from the dominant narrative of the Kosovo War because memorializing women as agents in conflict departs from the strict gender roles and order of post-conflict society envisioned by patriarchal nationalist discourses. As Neluka Silva so succinctly summarizes, “interpellating [women] as ‘national actors’ and foisting a ‘nationalist’ label on them as mothers, daughters, educators, workers, and even fighters is not necessarily empowering if it merely reaffirms the boundaries of culturally acceptable feminine conduct and exerts pressure on them to articulate their gender interests solely within the terms of reference set by nationalist discourse.”
This being the case, feminist actors within a national framework have created positive effects for women in Kosovar society. Heroinat and Mendoj për ty were both completed following a decade of international and civil society efforts to recognize and assist survivors of conflict-related sexual violence. In 2014, President Atifete Jahjaga, Kosovo’s first elected president and the first female president in the Balkans, established the National Council for the Survivors of Sexual Violence during the Kosovo War and spearheaded one of the most important amendments to a law securing pensions and services to those harmed in the war. While best known for offering between €144 and €286 per month to survivors of sexual violence, this amendment also accomplishes the following: designates “sexual violence victims of the war” as a distinct category alongside the existing recognized groups KLA martyrs, injured “invalid” civilians, and their family members; establishes rights to receive health services abroad, priority employment in the public and private sector, and residential care and collective social housing; eliminates the requirement to prove degree of bodily harm in terms of percentage; creates a government commission of representatives from the Office of the Prime Minister, the Ministry of Labour, the Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Health, from the Institute for War Crimes, clinical psychologist, psychiatrist, lawyer, and a representative from a civil society organization who has experience in supporting and protecting sexual violence victims; and enables petitioners to apply through multiple channels including the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs, through various NGOs, and as individuals.
While President Jahjaga’s amendment was a critical development towards justice for survivors, the majority of top-down institutional approaches to date appallingly exclude survivors and deny their agency. In a study of the literature on women in conflict, Azza Karam explains that in post-conflict situations, “notions of victimhood and what women have suffered seem to be rallied as legitimate excuses to limit women’s agency in the peace-building process.” This finding certainly holds true in the case of Kosovo. A report published in 2016 by UN Women revealed that survivors were often excluded from justice and peacebuilding processes, largely due to the assumption that their requests for confidentiality and anonymity indicated a desire for non-inclusion. In a broader analysis of Kosovo’s gender relations, the report found that, “despite a strong gender-equality legal framework in Kosovo, in practice, women’s participation remains limited in decision-making processes, especially at the community level.” So, while some of Kosovo’s governing authorities have expressed a willingness to address the needs of survivors, their efforts have been hindered by the larger failure to involve women and survivors in justice and peacebuilding processes.
Moreover, initiatives by the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK), the Kosovo Force (KFOR), and the European Union Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo (EULEX) were largely successful at conflict management, but not at peacebuilding. This failure replicated itself in the various systems of courts, tribunals, and truth commissions established after the conflict, most notably in the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY). In name, these bodies valorized criminal prosecution and administrative reconciliation, yet practically failed at promoting deeper reconciliation between ethnic groups or delivering justice to perpetrators of sexual violence. The limits of these top-down approaches have yet to be remedied: At the time of this writing, the ICTY convicted only four men in connection to wartime sexual violence during the Kosovo War, and Kosovo’s domestic court system convicted none.
Long after the war ended, the day-to-day reality facing survivors remains stark. Once their identities are known, women face intimidation violence, and ostracism from their families and communities. Mistrust in local authorities, combined with a lack of proper documentation of crimes, further compels women to remain silent. Many refrain from seeking mental and physical healthcare due to fear of being identified as a survivor, and therefore fall into a cycle of discrimination in terms of their access to basic services and employment once identified. In 2017, 31 out 40 women interviewed by the U.S. Agency for International Development expressed concern about collecting the government pension extended by President Jahjaga’s amendment for fear that explaining the source of the funds would identify them as survivors. The dynamics of Kosovo’s patriarchal nationalism when codified, ritualized, and embedded in public and private life, perpetuates the lasting stigmatization and mistreatment of survivors of conflict-related sexual violence.
Heroinat and Mendoj për ty
Returning to commemorations as points of power affirmation or contestation, Heroinat and Mendoj për ty represent two significant efforts to combat lasting stigmatization of women survivors of conflict-related sexual violence in Kosovo and to foreground women’s pasts, presents, and futures in Kosovo’s public consciousness. These “counter-memories” keep the reality of mass sexual violence in the public eye and thereby emphasize an ongoing need for justice.
Heroinat illustrates the paradoxes between nationalism and feminism in Kosovo. Its accompanying description states that the monument is dedicated to “ethnic-Albanian Kosova women,” and specifically to those who suffered sexual violence during the war period. It is a narrow focus, but rightly so. Heroinat acknowledges the intersections of gendered violence and ethnic conflict that uniquely affected Kosovo’s ethnic-Albanian women following years of oppression under the Milošević regime. Furthermore, its permanent location in the heart of Pristina’s centralizes the experiences of women that have been silenced and stigmatized, and reclaims a prominent public place in the name of survivors.
At the same time, keeping in mind the government-sponsorship of the monument, elements of Heroinat reaffirm nationalist notions of women as “the mother of the nation, the martyr, and the heroine.” The material composition of the monument – brass medals – carries a militarized meaning of women’s identities, reinforced by the language used to describe the mass rape of women as “contribution and sacrifice,” presumably as soldiers “sacrificed” their lives. By portraying victims’ suffering as akin to “national duty,” the creator of the monument implies a level of consent that sanitizes the atrocity of wartime sexual violence, and refocuses attention on “the nation.” Heroinat’s militaristic tone further embeds ethno-nationalist divisions by reminding audiences of perpetrators’ identities: Serbian police and paramilitaries, and primarily ethnic-Serbian Yugoslav soldiers. In reality, sexual violence continued long after the war’s official end and has since been perpetrated against ethnic-Albanian women as well as minority populations, including “revenge rapes” against Serbian women living in Kosovo.
Finally, following Heroinat’s reveal, the government made no attempt to transfer ownership to the public or to women’s organizations capable of maintaining them, or to involve those affected by sexual violence. Most interviewees of a small study of responses to Heroinat perceived the monument as a “throwaway political gesture rather than an offer of genuine support” for survivors. Additionally, they expressed disappointment in the lack of facilitation of a larger societal discussion accompanying its construction. Unfortunately, these oversights perpetuate the cycle of top-down failures and denial of survivors’ agency. But, despite these shortcomings, Heroinat remains a powerful step towards recognizing and de-stigmatizing survivors of sexual violence during the Kosovo War, even if through a nationalist filter.
Mendoj për ty embodies a more globalized feminism alongside the national feminism of Heroinat. Mendoj për ty symbolically subverts Kosovo’s militaristic, patriarchal national narrative in several ways. First, it utilizes the metaphor of “airing dirty laundry,” yet the clean dresses bore no stain or stigma. Second, Alketa Xhafa-Mripa, the project’s designer and a refugee of the war, collected dresses from multiple regions of Kosovo, thus allowing survivors to participate without compromising their anonymity. Third, the location of Mendoj për ty in a soccer field, a traditionally male-dominated place, challenges gendered, patriarchal notions of public life. Finally, Xhafa-Mripa dedicated the demonstration to survivors of conflict-related sexual violence in Kosovo, and extended solidarity to all survivors, transcending imagined ethno-national borders in opposition to strict ethno-nationalist conceptions of place.
Heroinat and Mendoj për ty embody the heterogenous feminisms active in Kosovo which arose to contest a patriarchal nationalist discourse that both erases the experiences of women during the Kosovo War and perpetuates stigmatization and mistreatment of survivors of conflict-related sexual violence at communal and institutional levels. These commemorations shed light on counter-memories’ potential to catalyze changes in popular consciousness, a necessary condition for meaningful societal change towards ensuring agency of survivors. Heroinat and Mendoj për ty have made clear that nation-building in Kosovo must not come at the expense of justice for its women.