Report | Teatime: Women in the Kosovo War


Women in the Kosovo War – Complexifying the Discourse

with Drivalda Delia (Graduate School for East and Southeast European Studies, Regensburg) and Furtuna Sheremeti (KU Leuven – Leuven Institute of Criminology)

2 December 2019, 18.30-20.00, Kater & Goldfisch (Berlin)

Event Report by Frauke Seebass

At our Polis-Teatime on 2 December we discussed the diverse roles, experiences and perceptions of women in the Kosovo War with our guests Drivalda Delia and Furtuna Sheremeti. Central topics were the lack of complexity in the discourse, commonly fostering the image of women as victims of sexual violence, and the reasons for this persisting narrative.

As an introduction, the speakers explained the specific context of Yugoslavia during the 1980s and 1990s that ultimately resulted in the eruption of violence and armed conflict. When long-standing president Josip “Tito” Broz died in 1980, he left a power vacuum that was filled by political actors who operated in ever-changing alliances and with varying motifs. In Kosovo, which at this point was still a Serbian province, oppression of ethnic Albanians increased, and various forms of resistance emerged.

The most popular resistance group in the 1980s was the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK), to this day one of the biggest parties in the Kosovar parliament. It was lead by Ibrahim Rugova who is remembered as the ‘father of the nation’ by some and served as first president of the autonomous but not yet independent Kosovo starting in 1992. The group was committed to civil resistance and demanded self-determination, unification with Albania and/or for Kosovo to become a UN protectorate.

Oppression swept across all parts of daily lives, prohibiting the Albanian language, virtually banning Albanian culture in public, and resulting in systematic dismissals of ethnic Albanians advocating for self-determination from jobs. More and more people decided that it was time to take up arms, which is how the Kosovo Liberation Army (UÇK/KLA) was formed. In many cases, people were part of both LDK and KLA, supporting political demands but feeling that oppression could not be ended by passive resistance alone.

Among the ranks of both LDK and KLA were women as well, but their roles were marginalized then and continues to be overlooked today. Interviewing former female fighters for her research, Drivalda found their stories to be highly diverse, ranging from 16-year old teenagers joining the ranks alongside older women with a lot of work and life experience. While some joined the KLA with the interest of women’s empowerment, this was not the dominant motive among the interviewed women. Moreover, the women reported that they were often taken less seriously by their male counterparts, especially when they operated in areas outside their own regions. In order to attract more members, leadership positions were usually given to men from influential families.

After the War, disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration programs often did not reach women or did not meet their needs. When the security sector was reformed, women’s representation in the security forces was considered, but many women left the official forces after some time, feeling like there was no place for them. Today, the number of acclaimed female KLA veterans is around 600, but the list is probably flawed. As the KLA was not very organised, especially in the beginning, there is little documentation – not least for fear of being caught.

In 2012, the role of women during the War was recognized by the Kosovar parliament and it was decided to create a memorial for them. However, despite their diverse roles and experiences, women were recognized only as victims of rape. Eventually, the sculpture “HEROINAT” (Albanian for heroine) was created, which represents a woman’s face made from 20.000 pins (the number of estimated rape victims). While public recognition of the crimes against women was seen as a positive first step, the one-dimensional representation is widely criticized for reinforcing already existing stereotypes. It seems questionable whether the Kosovar government has been willing to take the complexities of women’s experiences into account and look at what survivors actually need. In the official narrative, war crimes more broadly are sometimes instrumentalized for political purposes, but crimes against women play a minor role, as they could be used to accuse the heroized fighters of not having been able to protect ‘their women.’

Even when it comes to women’s victimhood it is often neglected that women were not only affected by conflict-related sexualized violence. Many were tortured or lost (male) family members, some of whom are missing to this day. What is more, only since 2017 victims of rape can apply for the status of ‘civilian victim of war’ and receive reparations, i.e. a monthly pension. While official numbers as well as NGOs claim that some 20.000 women and men became victims of wartime rape, this number is difficult to verify empirically, and less than 500 survivors have so far been granted the status of ‘civilian victim.’ The Kosovo Book of Memory published by a regional NGO is a powerful document of the murders and war crimes committed between 1998 and 200 and calls for a true reconciliation process, but so far there is no strategic plan for this on the state level.

After Kosovo did become a UN protectorate, both the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK, est. 1999) and the European Union Rule of Law Mission (EULEX, est. 2008), together with domestic courts, took up the task of prosecuting war crimes. However, in the last 20 years, only 49 indictments and 40 final judgements were delivered, as Furtuna reported. Given the slow and painful process, many victims therefore decide against legal measures. What is more, as women are often affected by both rape and the murder of close family members, they have to decide which pension to apply for, which further distorts the numbers and perceptions. An issue that has only recently been addressed for the first time are children born of rape, most of whom remain hidden from the public as some consider their existence shameful for their mothers.

To make it clear, women were not only victims or combatants. They fulfilled other important functions during the War, such as teachers, doctors, and various other active roles that are rarely discussed in public. When more and more men were killed or left for the War, women were often forced to take over as sole breadwinners. While this might have resulted in an increase in economic empowerment, many women and children were traumatized and would certainly have wished for a different life.

The role of civil society and especially women’s organisations’ lobbying for bringing gender issues higher on the agenda was another issue of debate. Moreover, we discussed the controversial role of the EU and the UN in terms of advancing women’s political participation in Kosovo, which has resulted in both opportunities and barriers. On the one hand, it has provided (‚forced‘) a language to articulate gender related grievances. On the other hand, being highly gendered themselves (EU and UN), with the average professional in these organisations being male, they have excluded women from post-war decision making, hence undermined what progress women’s movement(s) had already achieved in the 1980s and 1990s. 

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