When the newly-elected president of Serbia, Aleksandar Vucic, went to the White House recently and met with Vice President Mike Pence, a statement was issued calling for “further progress in normalizing the relationship with Kosovo.” What was not mentioned was the continuing impunity for those in Serbia who were responsible for ethnic cleansing and other war crimes in Kosovo almost two decades ago and who today hold high office in Belgrade.
Mr. Vucic has been described as a reformer, for he speaks of democracy, peace and stability in the Balkans, and no doubt he was received as such in Washington. But as I watched the news of his visit here in Drenica, where I live in this hilly central region of Kosovo, I see only the daily reminders of the brutal campaign that in 1998 and 1999 was ordered by the dictator Slobodan Milosevic and killed thousands of civilians, saw women raped, and destroyed homes. Mr. Vucic was then an aide for Milosevic and his cronies.
Nowhere was the killing and destruction and rape and torture more brutal than here in the Drenica valley, for this was the birthplace of the Kosovo Liberation Army. Serbian forces hunted down Kosovo Albanians with ferocity, and they raped thousands of women.
Today, we have largely recovered from the physical losses, because we are resilient and are determined that our children must have a different and better future. But the women who were raped are still deeply affected; their future was stolen from them.
So Mr. Vucic should be reminded that the progress he promotes must hinge on his and Serbia’s recognition of the war crimes committed in Kosovo, which included an estimated 20,000 rapes. Most of the rapes were during the 78 days of the 1999 NATO air campaign, led by the United States to halt Milosevic’s ethnic cleansing.
Women were in their homes when they were raped, often in front of their families and children. Many were held in rape camps, and many were in their early teenage years. Some lost pregnancies and their chance to become mothers. They could have been the lucky ones, for they were not killed after being abused, but today they do not consider themselves lucky. When their families abandoned them because the stigma of rape was too hard to bear, or when they still cannot sleep at night because of their nightmares, survivors die a little every day.
We have sought justice for 18 years, and justice, including that of international tribunals, has failed us. Cases have been taken to the International Criminal Tribunal For The Former Yugoslavia, where there has been an occasional admission of responsibility for sexual violence, but there have been no convictions and the perpetrators continue to walk free.
Their leaders included the current Chief of the Serbian Army, General Ljubisa Dikovic, who was commander of the forces which burned down our villages, raped us, killed our loved ones and then engaged in coverup by taking away their bodies. The Belgrade-based Humanitarian Law Center has amassed damning evidence against him, but he remains untouched. What’s even more offensive to us, he has been promoted, and like him other officials of the criminal Milosevic’s regime.
To us, the image of Mr. Vucic from the 1990s is that of a valet to the Serbian leaders who ordered the war crimes. First as Serbian prime minister and now as president, Mr. Vucic speaks of reconciliation, but in practice he has done little to change the image we have of him as serving war criminals. Mr. Vucic has consistently tried to avoid admitting Serbia’s responsibility for war crimes by throwing a blanket of culpability over Kosovo and the former Yugoslav republics..
President Vucic often pleads with the U.S. and others for understanding how difficult it is for Serbs to relinquish Kosovo. In doing so, he ignores the fact that he is talking about a country whose people still wear the wounds inflicted on them in the name of Serbia. He continues to obstruct Kosovo’s development, and he has no political will to address his country’s brutal past.
We will continue our quest for justice and we count on the United States, which came to our defense in 1999 because of the very horrendous crimes committed against us and has helped us build the foundations of a democratic country since then, to demand that Serbia ends the impunity over the crimes it committed in Kosovo.
Kadire Tahiraj is director of the Center for Promotion of Women’s Rights in Kosovo.