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  • Signs of Rape Scar Kosovo

    By Peter Finn
    Washington Post Foreign Service
    Sunday, June 27, 1999; Page A1

    PRIZREN, Yugoslavia, June 26 At 8:15 on the evening of June 9, three days before NATO troops arrived in this city, a drunken Serbian paramilitary waving a gun entered a house where 13 ethnic Albanians were sheltered. He corralled the frightened people in a single room, and started looking over the women.

    There were three young women a 25-year-old hairdresser; her sister, a 29-year-old schoolteacher; and a 24-year-old new mother, a neighbor of the sisters who held in her arms a 4-month-old daughter. The paramilitary settled his eyes on the hairdresser and said, "You, out."

    In the hallway, he forced her to strip and threatened to kill her if she shouted, the woman recalled in graphic detail during an interview last week. "He put his finger inside me to see if I was a virgin," she said, and then he raped her. She was later returned bleeding to the room where the others, including her mother and father, sat helpless and horrified.

    "I want fresh girls," the paramilitary, who was wearing a light green uniform, said in fluent Albanian. The sexual assaults would continue for another hour before a Yugoslav soldier came upon the scene and, enraged by what he saw, beat and drove off the militiaman as he attempted to rape the new mother.

    "Only when I'm sleeping is there silence in my heart," said the hairdresser as she sat in her home. Her parents remained outside during the interview because they cannot bear to hear her talk about what happened.

    Ever since ethnic Albanian refugees began streaming out of the province in late March at the start of a Serb-led Yugoslav offensive and NATO bombing campaign, there have been allegations of systematic rape by Yugoslav and Serbian forces. During the war, the State Department reported evidence that two locations in Kosovo a Yugoslav army camp in Djakovica in the southern part of the Serbian province and a hotel in the western city of Pec were used as rape camps.

    Reporting across Kosovo since the arrival of NATO troops has yielded no conclusive evidence to support the existence of such camps or the use of rape by Yugoslav forces as a systematic weapon of war, as it was during the conflict in Bosnia in 1992-95. Although there are indications that women, as well as other refugees, were held at facilities the State Department claimed could be rape camps, visits to the locations turned up no testimony or physical affirmation that rape occurred.

    However, it is clear on the basis of interviews with women and evidence left at several sites by departing Yugoslav forces that sexual violence was common in Kosovo during the war. In some cases, private homes taken over by security forces after the expulsion of their ethnic Albanian owners and police stations occupied by Yugoslav forces were used to detain women and carry out assaults and sexual torture.

    At a home in Orahovac, for example, refugees returned to find women's blood-stained clothing, restraints, used condoms and other signs that the basement and attic had been used for sexual assaults. A number of women who were detained by Yugoslav forces in Orahovac remain missing. Elsewhere, such as in the provincial capital, Pristina, war crimes investigators have found evidence of rape at police stations and are examining stains on mattresses.

    Rape is a deeply sensitive subject in ethnic Albanian Kosovo, a Muslim and largely traditional society, where a sexual assault can permanently stigmatize a woman, shaming her family and ruining her marriage or prospects of marriage. Gathering first-hand accounts of rape has proved very difficult for war crimes investigators, and the scale of sexual assaults here may never be fully known.

    "Women lie and say nothing happened," said Vjolca Kastratit, a nurse at the hospital in Djakovica. "It is very embarrassing for them and for their families."

    Yet the anger that many ethnic Albanians feel over of the destruction of their lives is propelling some, like the women in Prizren, to speak to strangers about the most intimate of violations. Indeed, the two sisters who were interviewed said that if it were not for their father's anguish, they would gladly allow their names to be published. The Washington Post does not identify victims of sexual assault without their permission.

    "I am proud to tell my story," said the older sister. "I would like to tell everybody I was raped so people will know what that Serb did. But my father doesn't allow it. . . . He is drinking all the time. It is very tough on him."

    Across Kosovo, the extent of the horrors that occurred under Yugoslav repression is being revealed as refugees race home, and this has been the case with allegations of rape. In the yard of her mother's home in Orahovac last week, Labimote Shabani, 20, burned pornographic magazines, used condoms, bloody rugs and torn women's underwear. Shabani returned to her home from Albania, where she was a refugee, and discovered what appeared to be a sex dungeon in her mother's basement.

    In a corner of the basement, a steel stake has been driven into the dirt floor and ropes formed into nooses are tied to the stake. Women's makeup, a sheer blouse and stockings litter the floor. A mattress has been thrown into the corner, and outside, a blood-soaked sheepskin rug lies on the ground. In the attic, Shabani found noosed ropes tied to the beams and chains. Pornographic pictures were tacked to the walls.

    "This is my mother's home and we cannot live with this stink," she said, explaining why she was burning what might be evidence of crimes. "I can't stand to see this."

    At least four women are missing from Orahovac, according to residents. In late April, Hajdije Spahiju, 33, a tall, gregarious woman, was picked up by security forces who arrived at her mother's house in a jeep. She was dragged away as family members screamed. Hajdije had no political affiliations, relatives said, although she may have dated a member of the Kosovo Liberation Army.

    "Only Hajdije was taken that day," said Zejnepe Spahiju, her cousin. She has not been seen since.

    If physical evidence of rapes existed at the sites identified by the State Department, it has been swept away. Farmers in Djakovica who live near a former shelter for Serbian refugees from Croatia that later became a military staging area said that women were held there and could be heard screaming. But a walk through the compound, which has been destroyed by NATO bombs, produced no physical evidence. The buildings were littered with the traditional clothing of ethnic Albanian women, children's toys and coloring books. Other army facilities in the area also lacked evidence of abuse.

    The Kosovo Liberation Army, the ethnic Albanian guerrilla force, now occupies the Hotel Karagac in Pec the other site named by the State Department and fighters there said they had found pornographic magazines, condoms and women's clothing when they entered the hotel. But they said that had discarded the evidence.

    Shpesa Gashi, who lives down the street from the hotel, said that on the day before NATO troops arrived in Pec, two Yugoslav soldiers entered her house and hustled her and her 17-year-old sister, Shqipe, into a jeep. The soldiers, whom Gashi said were from Bosnia, told her family the women were being taken away for questioning.

    The women said they were driven around for about an hour and the soldiers threatened that if they didn't agree to have sex with them, they would be taken to some majors who would rape them. The soldiers asked if the women had boyfriends and if the women were virgins.

    The more senior soldier, Gashi said, was alternatively nervous, polite and threatening. The women said they begged him to let them go in the name of the cross he wore around his neck. After driving around Pec and its surrounding countryside, the women said, they were released untouched.

    In Prizren, the rapes at the home where the two sisters and their neighbors were sheltered occurred in a neighborhood surrounded by Yugoslav forces during a nighttime operation. But the paramilitary who carried out the assaults appeared to be acting without the approval of his comrades.

    When the Yugoslav soldier arrived, according to the women, he started to kick and punch the paramilitary and threw him out of the house. The soldier, whose name they recalled as Vladan, then started to cry, the women said.

    "He said, 'I'm so sorry. I have sisters. I have a wife. I have children,' " said the young mother, Lumturije, who said he kissed her hand and held her baby as he wept. "One was so bad, and one was so polite, like an angel. He saved us." Military police later took the women to the Prizren hospital where they said they received a perfunctory examination from a Serbian gynecologist.

    The three women, who saw a German military doctor for their first full medical examination on Friday, have recently torn hymens and irritated vaginas, the physician said.

    Other wounds were also evident. Their moods shifted suddenly between defiance and fear. They said they wanted to find journalists to tell their story, but they rarely leave the house because they think everyone on the street is looking at them. And the effect on their families is also profound. The father of the sisters is quiet and withdrawn; their mother holds visitors in a long, needy embrace, tears staining her cheeks.

    "I would like to go and identify that man," said the younger sister. "If I find him, I will kill him. I am praying for that chance."

    Correspondent Molly Moore contributed to this report.

    © 1999 The Washington Post Company

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