The story I produced as part of the Balkan Fellowship for Investigative Journalism, available on Balkan Insight (with Atdhe Mulla’s great photography).
Rushing away from war, the women and children of Krusha e Vogel stepped into the path of a natural peril.
Behind them were the Serbian security forces that had torched their village and rounded up its men. Before them was the river Drini, which they had been ordered to cross.
“The water was very deep,” recalls Violeta Asllani, who was a teenager at the time. “We were stuck but we dared not go back.”
In this corner of south-western Kosovo, the conflict of 1999 offered a choice between the devil and the deep blue sea.
Salvation arrived on a tractor. It was driven by Marta Prekpalaj, a teacher who had watched the raid on the village from the far side of the river.
“All I could see was smoke at first. Then, a huge crowd of women and children,” she says. “I told my brother, I’m going out to get them, start the tractor! I didn’t really have much experience driving it.”
Working with her uncle and brother, Prekpalaj forded the river and brought the refugees ashore.
“We had to go slowly, signalling to each other because there was a bridge nearby with a Serbian patrol,” she says. A short, fast-talking woman in her forties, Prekpalaj has been a teacher for much of the last 20 years.
Her quick thinking saved lives. Asllani says the tractors took hundreds of people to safety, including her.
“I didn’t want to leave my father,” she says. “I started walking back to the village but Marta convinced me to go with her. I’m very grateful.”
Asllani was reunited with her father days later, across the border in Albania. He was lucky. According to war crimes prosecutors, more than 100 prisoners from Krusha e Vogel were executed by Serbian forces, in what is now known to be one of the worst massacres in the Kosovo conflict.
Prekpalaj spoke to the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) at a café near her village. The interview was continually interrupted by local men, offering her their greetings.
Her standing in society makes her an exception. Women are the unsung heroes of the fight for Kosovo, she says, “appreciated at home, but not in public”.
For Prekpalaj and a few others, the national struggle was waged alongside another campaign – for the rights of women.
One of these struggles has succeeded. But 14 years after NATO bombs drove out Serbian forces, gender equality remains a distant dream in this stubbornly patriarchial society.
“I didn’t think that we’d still have so much work left,” says Prekpalaj. “I thought we had reached a degree of emancipation through our efforts in the 1990s. After the war, it should be the state that deals with these issues.”
However, the state that emerged has not repaid the faith of all who struggled for it.
Kosovo’s women are less educated, less gainfully employed, and more likely to suffer violence than men.
Many have yet to feel the benefits of ambitious laws that were passed under pressure from the international institutions – dominated by the US and EU – that have helped administer the territory since 1999.
Quotas for women in the workplace and in politics have been introduced. But where they have been enforced, the results have often seemed tokenistic.
When the territory held local elections in November, women accounted for only nine of 224 mayoral candidates. Although obliged by law to have women in one-third of all seats in national and local assemblies, Kosovo’s political parties are under no obligation to field female candidates for mayor. Those that fight elections rarely win.
Many of Kosovo’s most prominent women leaders – including its president, Atifete Jahjagaa, have been appointed with the agreement of powerful male politicians, rather than as the result of a popular vote.
Public life is still dominated by men, politics in particular by the leaders of the guerrilla factions that fought Serbian forces under the banner of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA).
For many women who risked their lives in the resistance, the gender gap today is the mark of a betrayal.
“During the war and the creation of a [national] movement, men were talking about ‘heroines’,” says Teuta Hadri, a gynaecologist in Pristina who served as a field doctor in a KLA unit. “But the minute we won the war, that support disappeared.”
The surrogate state
While a few hundred women are estimated to have played an active role in the guerrilla campaign, thousands more risked their lives in a civilian capacity.
They were the lynchpins of a parallel state that sprang up during the 1990s in response to the discrimination suffered by the majority ethnic Albanian population.
They worked mostly as doctors, teachers and activists in what would eventually became a surrogate public sector, funded heavily by remittances from the diaspora.
Kosovo’s ethnic Albanians started agitating for greater independence as the communist federation of Yugoslavia fragmented in the closing decades of the last century.
Wary of losing land that was also home to a sizeable Serbian minority, Belgrade tightened its grip on the territory. On the orders of the Serbian leader at the time, Slobodan Milosevic, the Albanian culture and language were suppressed.
Men of military age were singled out for interrogation and imprisonment. Members of the community were purged from public sector jobs. In the early 1990s, the hospitals, courts, broadcasters, schools and municipalities were taken over by Serbs.
Ethnic Albanians were either barred from state institutions or boycotted them. Providing alternative access to healthcare and education became a priority for the surrogate system that was being organised by the resistance. Its recruits included many who had resigned or been dismissed from their jobs in the public sector.
A humanitarian organisation, the Mother Teresa Society, acted as a de facto health ministry. It operated a network of nearly 2,000 doctors, nurses and volunteers, roughly half of whom were women.
Zef Shala, the charity’s current director, says women shouldered much of the burden – raising funds and trekking to remote villages to operate mobile clinics.
The clandestine work of the parallel state carried grave political implications.
“We were distributing medical supplies and endangering ourselves, while under the constant surveillance of the Serbian police,” says Hadri, the gynaecologist and former field doctor. “I expected to be arrested at any time.”
The education provided under the parallel system was similarly seen as a form of resistance. To avoid detection, classes were held in private homes.
“During our lessons, we used to tell students – this is your weapon against Milosevic!” says Igballe Rogova, the founder of Motrat Qiriazi, an organisation that provided literacy and vocational skills to women and girls. Its activists, she says, worked “under the barrels of guns”.
According to Bajram Shatri, a publisher who oversaw the parallel state’s education system, women made up roughly 5,000 of its approximately 20,000 teachers.
Prekpalaj, the teacher who organised the tractor rescue, was one of them. She says she was interrogated for five days in 1996 when she returned from a conference in Albania.
Women also had greater freedom to move around than men – a fact exploited by female activists.
Nazlie Bala, an opposition activist with the Self-Determination Movement, documented the excesses of the Serbian security apparatus during the 1990s.
“We played the role of ambassadors for Kosovo, with our first-hand information about abuses,” says Bala, of her time with a non-governmental organisation, the Council for the Defence of Human Rights and Freedoms. She says ninety per cent of the staff who worked with her were women.
One of her former colleagues at the organisation, Sami Kurteshi, says he could barely leave Pristina in the 1990s without being stopped by the police.
“Every time they stopped us at checkpoints, they would detain us for an hour, two hours, five hours, twelve hours – but the women were able to get through,” he tells BIRN. Kurteshi, who is now Kosovo’s human rights ombudsman, says the Serbian authorities were mainly interested in men of fighting age.
‘Expect a bullet’
A recent government campaign to register the veterans of the fight against Serbia has revived the debate over the role of women in the struggle for nationhood.
A state commission is currently sifting through approximately 60,000 applications for welfare payments and pensions.
Many of the claimants say they fought in the war, even though a 2001 estimate by the international charity, Human Rights Watch, puts the number of KLA members at around 25,000. Other claims are based on injuries incurred in fighting, or on the deaths of family members.
Faik Fazliu, the official in charge of veterans’ affairs, told BIRN the commission would finish its work in 2014. The number of female claimants has not been made public. However, the official association of KLA veterans has told BIRN it has 632 female members.
Some women who served in the KLA wonder if the commission will award pensions on the basis of political affiliation, rather than for sacrifices made.
“People won’t be evaluated as they deserve,” says Mimoza Shala, a former fighter who was injured in the conflict, and who now works for the Self-Determination Movement.
Iliriana Hasaj, a former field doctor with the guerrillas, also has little hope of recognition from the establishment.
“No one wants to talk about what women did during the war,” she says. “We have the respect of our former brothers-in-arms – but not of the people who achieved office through our efforts.”
However, Tine Kadriaj, a lawmaker and KLA veteran, says the commission can still be held to account once its work is done.
“After the veterans’ list is verified and published, citizens can question why a particular individual doesn’t deserve that status,” she told BIRN.
Some critics see the drive to register veterans as another attempt to glorify the armed struggle for nationhood, which was dominated by men. They say the campaign is writing women out of the post-conflict inheritance – by failing to recognise their sacrifice.
Bala, the opposition activist, has pushed for the victims of rape to receive a share of the welfare provisions that have been promised to the veterans of the conflict, its disabled and its bereaved.
The measures have been debated but have yet to be approved. However, the airing of the taboo of rape has already provoked controversy. In March, Bala received an anonymous note, warning her: “Don’t protect the shame. Expect a bullet to your head.”
A week later, she was beaten up by unknown assailants. The police did not answer BIRN’s request to comment on the case, stating only that the investigation had been passed on to the prosecutor’s office.
There is no precise figure for the number of women who were raped by Serbian forces during the conflict in Kosovo, with estimates varying from the low thousands to 20,000.
Even if Bala’s proposals were passed into law, the legacy of wartime rapes is set to remain contentious. It is not clear how many women will come forward to claim compensation, or how those claims will be verified.
Why did women’s vibrant participation in the resistance never translate into political clout after the conflict?
Some fault Kosovo’s international overseers, accusing them of empowering ex-KLA men in the rush to fill the post-war power vacuum.
Lesley Abdela, a former official in the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), a body that worked alongside the United Nations in Kosovo, says her calls for giving more power to local women fell on deaf ears.
“Every suggestion I gave about involving women was met with a bored look and a brush-off,” she says. “I was even told… no woman would be interested in politics here.”
However, others say gender issues could not be prioritised during a broader emergency.
“In 1999, we were faced with an impending winter, and had to get a roof over every house – with 90,000 homes damaged,” says an official from the United Nations mission in Kosovo who did not wish to be quoted by name. “So to imply that you take care of gender singly in that context is incorrect.”
Later on in its mandate, the UN would help push through gender equality laws that guaranteed women representation in politics and the job market.
However, the law has not been implemented effectively, according to Ariana Qosaj Mustafa, an analyst at the Pristina-based think tank, KIPRED.
“Quotas work in real democracies but Kosovo is a patriarchial country. There is no inner system of democracy within the party,” she says. She argues that the quota system rewards women for their political loyalty to male colleagues, rather than for their merit.
Some blame might even lie among the women activists. During the conflict with Serbia, the ethnic Albanian cause took precedence over gender equality. When the conflict ended, the women’s movement arguably failed to move on.
“We didn’t talk about issues like domestic violence before the war, because ‘it wasn’t the right time’,” says Eli Gashi, a veteran feminist activist and the director of Alter Habitus, an organisation that conducts research into gender issues.
“In that sense, the women’s movement never matured – neither before nor after the war,” she says.
For now, the women of Kosovo can expect their sacrifice to be rewarded with a monument in Pristina – an honour they will share with slain KLA commanders and Bill Clinton, the former US president who ordered NATO to bomb the Serbian military.
Alma Lama, the lawmaker who led the campaign for a monument, says the planned sculpture will give women the recognition they have long deserved.
But Shala, the opposition activist and former KLA fighter, is dismissive. “Give legal protection to rape victims,” she says. “Memorials are everywhere, while the status of women is nowhere”.