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.
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.
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.
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.
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.