5,000 Hanging Skirts: How Women Remember War Rape in Kosova

By Frances Trix | (Informed Comment) | – –

On 12 June, 5,000 skirts and dresses were hung on 45 clotheslines in the football stadium in Prishtina, capital of Kosova. “The laundry is washed clean, like the women who are clean and pure—they carry no stain,” asserted artist Alketa Xhafa-Mripa, the Kosovar originator of the art installation. The football stadium was chosen as the place of installation for the contrast with its masculine association, its centrality in Prishtina, and for the clear visibility of the skirts and dresses on the field.

In the 1998-1999 war in Kosova, an estimated 20,000 Albanian women and girls were raped by Serbian soldiers and especially Serbian paramilitary. Until now, there was no effective way of remembering this. Albanian culture is traditional and such matters could not be mentioned for fear of the social stigma. Almost all Albanians in Kosova are Muslim and this adds to the social conservatism.

The International War Crimes Tribunal in the Hague was particularly ineffective in dealing with rape in Kosova. Kosovar women who had been raped by Serbian forces and who had been convinced to testify as anonymous witnesses found that while their identities were protected while at the Tribunal in the Hague, they were revealed back in Kosova by Milošević’ team. They felt betrayed by the Tribunal, and some reportedly threatened to commit suicide rather than return to Kosova.

Sevdije Ahmeti, who had convinced the women to testify, said she would never again counsel women to testify under such circumstances. “If the Tribunal had understood the importance of family honor in Kosova, it would never have requested them to testify, or at the very least, it would have worked harder to maintain anonymity.” Sevidje Ahmeti later explained that only women with no close living male relative would even consider reporting a rape (Trix, F. “Underwhelmed”— Kosovar Albanians’ Reactions to the Milošević Trial,” in Timothy Waters (ed.) The Milošević Trial: An Autopsy. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013, 229-248).

Earlier, in the 1990s during the Bosnian War, Turkish women had sent white crocheted head scarves to Bosnian women who had been raped as symbols of purity and that they were martyrs. Again the attempt was to counter the social stigma that accrues to women who have been violated through no fault of their own.

What is more memorable and impressive about the Kosovar installation is its public nature. Even before it was put up, Alketa Xhafa-Mripa spent a month going around to different towns in Kosova hearing stories of survivors and encouraging people to donate skirts. Xhafa-Mripa who is Kosova-born but now lives in London got Tony Blair’s wife to make a donation. President Atifete Jahjaga, the first woman president of Kosova, also made a donation and supported the installation throughout.

More important are the local donations. A red satin dress with a rosebud pattern was donated with the message on it: “This dress has a bitter story.” And most important, fathers, husbands, and brothers brought dresses and skirts and helped in the installation.

As President Atifete Jahjaga said, “This is a call the break the silence, to fight the stigma, a call to act, a call to raising awareness, and a call for acceptance.” The fact that the clean skirts and dresses were hung out clothes-lines on 12 June, the 16th anniversary of the entry of NATO into Prishtina, a day of commemoration in Kosova is meant to bring the sacrifices of the women into a positive sense of community.

Frances Trix is professor of linguistics and anthropology at Indiana University.

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Related video added by Juan Cole:

AJ+: “Kosovo Artist Hangs Dresses For 20,000 Wartime Rape Victims”

7 Responses

  1. Brilliant, Dr. Trix! Thank you for the reminder just before Ramazan. Something to add to our meditations.

  2. In this article Dr. Trix writes about 20,000 rapes allegedly committed by Serbian forces in Kosovo, but to this date, no Serbs have been convicted of war time rape in Kosovo. There are very few comprehensive reports about rape in 1998 and 1999 and during the NATO bombing in Kosovo. The most comprehensive report I have read about rape in Kosovo is Kosovo: Rape as a Weapon of “Ethnic Cleansing”. This report documents 96 rapes during the NATO bombing. This Human Rights Watch report states that there would be more than 96 rapes, but these are the documented cases.

    On the other hand, much larger numbers are reported in the media all the time, for instants when Vlora Citaku, Kosovo’s Minister for Integration told Balkan Insight that there were about 20,000 rapes. To this date, I have not been able to find one single scientific report that support such an inflated figure. Where are your sources for such an outrageous claim? What kind of statistical methods have been used to estimate thousands of rapes? How many of the victims have been systematically interviewed? How many rapists have been indicted by international courts and courts in Kosovo? If there were 20,000 rapes, names of alleged rapists would be relatively easy to find.

    • Dear Kristian Kahrs,
      As you are a journalist, I hope you will go to Kosova yourself. People in Belgrade where you are now living rarely do that.

      You also should learn Albanian. Serbian is not enough. I speak Albanian fluently and have been going to Kosova since 1987. I went there without preconceived ideas when it was part of Yugoslavia. I had learned Albanian in the US from southern Albanians.

      Think for a minute about the internal expulsion of 300,000 Kosovar Albanians in 1998, and the external expulsion of 800,000 Kosovar Albanians in 1999 by Serbian soldiers and especially Serbian paramilitary thugs like those of Arkan’s Tigers. Only an estimated 20,000 rapes is probably an underestimate judging by the experience in Bosnia.

      You ask for names? When soldiers rape young girls do you think they tell their names?

      Albanian Kosovars are socially conservative and do not report such things and if they did, to whom would they have reported them? I worked with Bosnian and Kosovar
      refugees. They usually would not talk directly, but I know that many of the women, young and old had been assaulted. They did not mention it due to social stigma
      in their own societies. But sometimes we needed to get medical help for them.

      As for international courts in Kosova, they did not really get started until 2009, thanks to UNMIK. However the EU judges only come for six month periods which is not long enough to begin to grasp anything. And no one even considered dealing with rape.

      Do you know anything about traditional Albanian culture? Muslim culture? Spend a year in a Kosovar Albanian village and broaden your horizons.

    • Yeah, because we’ve really done a great job finding the names of the Imperial Japanese soldiers who raped untold numbers of women in China, Korea, and Southeast Asia. Or Soviet soldiers who did the same to Germans. Or really any soldiers in any war to the present day.

      Rape is the norm in war. Prosecution is a facade.

    • Juan,
      Why do you continue to allow Prof. Trix onto your otherwise fantastic site? A commenter asks where she gets her data, and she responds that he should “go to Kosova…(and)…learn Albanian”! These are terrible issues, but a dispassionate analysis of the crimes of the balkan wars is as necessary as it is difficult. Prof. Trix is clearly not capable of anything near this type of analysis.

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