To fully grasp the women’s stories, it is helpful to have some background knowledge about the Kosovo War. Kosovar Albanians sought independence following the death of Communist Party leader Josip Boroz Tito on 8th May 1980 after two decades of oppression by Serbia. However, their political initiatives were brutally struck down when Serbia declared war against Kosovo in 1998, resulting in the killings of over 10,000 people, with the majority of victims being Kosovar Albanians killed by Serbian forces. In addition, 90 per cent of the population was uprooted with 863,000 civilians forced into refuge outside Kosovo and 590,000 internally displaced.
Throughout the war, torture, looting, pillaging and extortion were regular occurrences. More than 3,000 Kosovar Albanians, most of them males but also many women and children, disappeared at the hands of the Serbian police, paramilitary and military forces. Most did not return home alive; rather, their mortal remains continue to be found in mass graves located all over Serbia and Kosovo. During the war, rape and other forms of sexual violence were employed as strategic instruments of terror to desecrate individual bodies and deliberately undermine moral space and community bonds, and weaken resistance to aggression. Groups of Kosovar Albanian women were forcibly kept for several days in Serbian strongholds or public places, forced to cook, clean and endure rape or other forms of abuse by Serbian military and paramilitaries. The actual number of victims of rape and sexual assault remain contested due to the reluctance of survivors to speak due to fear of stigmatization and reprisal.
Their silence spurred me to investigate how Kosovar Albanian women living in rural areas experienced the war and its aftermath. I conducted ethnographic research in the villages of Krusha e Madhe and Pastasel both of which had been almost completely destroyed and exposed to large-scale massacres. During the war, between March 24 and 27, 1999, the village of Krusha e Madhe had been under constant attack by Serbian military, paramilitary and armed civilians. 241 civilians were killed, among them five women, seven children and many of the elderly. While the surviving population fled to Albania, Serbs destroyed over 790 houses, burnt the mosque and cultural center and demolished the school and various historical monuments. Another major atrocity was the massacre committed by Serbian forces in the remote village of Pastasel on March 31, 1999. 120 men were separated from the women and children, mistreated and shot with machine guns. 13 men survived the massacre but were seriously injured. Women and children were sent by Serbian soldiers to Albania on foot while most of their houses and stables were burnt, agricultural equipment destroyed and livestock killed.
These events provide the backdrop for the intimate and powerful accounts of the women survivors of Krusha e Madhe and Pastasel. It is their stories, and those who share their lives with them, that I will tell.