Seeking justice in Kosovo for wartime rape survivors

A survivor sits in her living room in central Kosovo. She never received therapy after the war, even after two suicide attempts. Today, the struggle to keep the rape a secret from her children is an unending war.  She said she would die if her children and grandchildren knew what happened to her.

While I was based in Prishtina, Kosovo from 2014-2019, I pursued a photo documentary project that explored the lasting legacy of sexual violence from the Kosovo war and the shame and stigma survivors continue to endure two decades years later. I photographed and interviewed rape survivors from the war that killed more than 13,000 people – they want to be heard and accepted by their families, communities and nation. 

A 36-year-old wartime rape survivor in the woods near the home where she grew up in the Drenica region in central Kosovo. She was 16-years-old when she was raped by eight Serb policemen in the basement of a relative’s home in April 1999.
The grave of Marte Tunaj in a village in eastern Kosovo. Tunaj was raped at her home by a Serb soldier. Shortly after the war, she came out with her story and fought for justice. At the hearing for her war crimes case in 2000, she told the judge: “I want everyone to listen to me, including my husband, my family and journalists.” She died in 2016 and her perpetrator was acquitted and is now free.

The world has seen little of the war’s aftermath in Kosovo and through my attempts to unveil the hidden scars left behind from the war, it is my hope that the survivors’ testimonies can finally be shared with a wider audience and not be forgotten.

A survivor sits in her living room in central Kosovo. She never received therapy after the war, even after two suicide attempts. Today, the struggle to keep the rape a secret from her children is an unending war. She said she would die if her children and grandchildren knew what happened to her.
A survivor of sexual violence from the Kosovo War holds a scarf given by a stranger to cover a wound on her head after she was raped 21 years ago.

Even though Kosovo eventually won its independence from Serbia after NATO strikes ended the war in 1999, the war is not over for the rape survivors who continue to suffer in silence. “We will always live with the traumas from the war,” a 38-year-old survivor told me. Kosovo is small country – a population of only 1.8 million people – and most survivors have not told their children, husbands and other relatives about what happened to them. As Kosovo continues to move forward as a new nation while continuing to deal with its recent wartime past, society should embrace the survivors who continue to suffer in silence. I am motivated to continue on with this project so the international community and Kosovo government can put more pressure on Serbia to bring forward the perpetrators of these war crimes so they can finally face justice. 

A survivor from the Roma community in Kosovo sits in the kitchen of a NGO that provides her with counseling and other services.
A survivor of sexual violence from the Kosovo war stands next to her husband at their home in a town in western Kosovo.

To this day, not a single perpetrator has been sentenced to prison for rape.

This is a global story that continues to unfold in all wars where rape is used as a weapon of war. It is my hope that my visual documentation from Kosovo can provide a glimpse into the lives of survivors as they continue to heal.

Vasfije Krasniqi Goodman was abducted and raped by a Serb police officer when she was 16-years-old. Goodman is the first survivor in Kosovo to share her experience about being raped during the war on television without hiding her identity. She now lives in Texas and works as an advocate for survivors of sexual violence in conflict.

For this year’s International Women’s Day #ChoosetoChallenge, I would like to recognize the survivors in Kosovo who continue to fight for justice. 

Valerie Plesch is an independent first-generation American-Vietnamese-Argentine photojournalist, documentary photographer and writer currently based in northern Virginia. From 2014-2019, she was based in Pristina, Kosovo where she focused on the aftermath of war, including the legacy of sexual violence, and covered breaking news, human rights issues, religion, sports, politics, and culture. 

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