April 14th—the day for survivors of sexual violence in the Kosovo war

More than 20,000 survivors of sexual violence in the Kosovo war are still waiting for justice, after almost 20 years. One of them is Vasfije Krasniqi Goodman, who was the first survivor to openly talk about the crimes committed against her.

Kosovo. Photo: Driton Paqarada
Kosovo. Photo: Driton Paqarada

It is early morning in Dallas, Texas, when we talk to Vasfije Krasniqi Goodman. She has lived in the United States since she was 18 years old, when she moved there together with her husband. Over 20 years has passed since the war in Kosovo, and her memories of childhood before the war has blurred over the years.

“I don’t remember that much of my childhood. Life was normal—my dad worked and my mom took care of us kids. Then, in the early 1990’s, the war broke out in Bosnia and Herzegovina and we knew we had to watch out since we were Albanian,” says Vasfije.

“My dad and my oldest brother were wanted by the Serbian forces and fled to Germany. They left me, my mom and youngest brother behind.”

Dragged out of the house by Serbian forces

Being alone with her mother and brother was tough, taking care of the house while the others were away. The Serbian forces would come searching for her father and brother, destroying or stealing everything of value in the process. Despite not remembering much of her childhood, she remembers one day as clear as it was yesterday—April 14th, 1999.

“I remember my mom had made Burek, which to this day still is my favourite food. I was out to get water from the well when I heard someone at the door. You knew when someone was at the door it was never a guest, it was the police,” says Vasfije. ”I remember it like yesterday, we opened the door and he asked for our IDs. When he looked at mine, he never gave it back. He kept it for himself.”

The Serbian police officer demanded to know where the rest of the family was. When they told him everyone else were in Germany, he demanded Vasfije to follow him to the police station to give a statement.

“My mom begged him to take her instead. But he said ‘No, she’s a child, she won’t be able to lie’ and dragged me out of the house. I tried to hold on to my mom but he pulled me by my hair and threw me in the back of his car.”

Subjected to several rapes

The police officer never took Vasfije to the local police station. Instead, he brought her to an abandoned house in the outskirts of a neighbouring village populated with mostly Serbian people. He forced her to take her clothes off and raped her at gunpoint.

“I remember that he had a band-aid on his left arm and he told me that KLA [Kosovo-Albanian army] fighters had injured him and I had to pay for what they did,” she says.

She was scared for her life, not knowing if he was going to let her go or kill her. He stopped at a convenience-store on the way back. While he was in the store, another man came and forced her to follow him to a house nearby. She was raped again and then dragged back to the car.

A while later, a Serbian military officer noticed her in the car and went into the convenience-store to collect the police officer, who drove her back to her village. Vasfije remembers the car stopping in the middle of the road next to a cemetery for her to get out.

“I wanted to die. I remember I begged him to kill me. But he said ‘No, you’ll suffer more this way’. He told me to never tell anyone what happened, or they would hurt my family.”

The aftermath

After that day, everyone who knew Vasfije remembers her being changed—her fun and outgoing personality had disappeared. She recalls feeling judged by everyone who knew what had happened.

“Rape destroys families. Not only did I suffer afterwards, but my family and the whole country also suffered from the consequences of [war time] rape,” she says.

After the war, Vasfije moved to the US together with her then husband. In 2014, almost 15 years later, the two perpetrators were prosecuted in Kosovo’s Supreme Court. Unfortunately, they were both acquitted of their crimes.

The first to come forward

It was not until a couple of years after the verdict that Vasfije decided to openly speak about what happened to her—becoming the first person from Kosovo to do so. The social stigmatisation around sexual violence is widespread in Kosovo and speaking about these types of crimes demands that you first ask your family for permission.

“I was in touch with an organisation in Kosovo and who said that no survivors had shared publicly about what happened to them. So, I told her that I wanted to come forward. She asked me ‘what about your family, are they not going to disown you?’ But my family knew everything already, and they would never disown me,” she says.

On the day of her coming forward with her story, Vasfije and her husband flew to Kosovo and gathered with family and friends at her brother’s home to listen to her interview. Beside some critical voices, she received a lot of positive feedback. Amongst those who have praised her for her bravery is the current President of Kosovo, Vjosa Osmani.

“Ever since then, I’ve never stopped advocating for survivors. Now I speak to survivors daily, both from Kosovo and other countries.”

Being a voice for the voiceless

For Vasfije, it took 19 years to publicly come forward with her story. Before her, the reporting about sexual violence during the war consisted of covered faces and altered names—you never knew the person behind the story and how it affected them.

This year, April 14th was declared the day of survivors of sexual violence during the war in Kosovo, to stand with the survivors. This was only made possible thanks to long and persistent advocacy from the platform “Be my voice” that seeks to challenge the stigma surrounding sexual violence. Kosovo still has a long way to go and the discourse about survivors must change.

“It means a lot to have a day where we are remembered, but I wished more survivors would come forward to tell their story. But I understand that it’s not easy to do in Kosovo where everyone’s opinion matter,” says Vasfije.

Hopeful for the future

Today, sexual violence in war and conflict is considered a war crime—largely thanks to the efforts of women’s rights organisations. Despite this, many perpetrators remain unpunished in conflicts across the world.

In Kosovo, it is estimated that over 20,000 people were victims of sexual violence during the war and only a few perpetrators have been convicted of their crimes. But Vasfije remains hopeful for the future.

“I want survivors to never give up, never to lose hope. It’s not our fault—it’s the perpetrators that should feel shameful of what happened, not us survivors,” says Vasfije. “Even if I lost my case, someone else will win and it will feel almost as good for me, because this means that more perpetrators are behind bars.”

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