How a Dress Display Broke Wartime Rape Taboos
By Natalia Zaba
Seventeen years after NATO’s air strikes ended the Kosovo war, there is still no confirmed data on how many civilians were the victims of sexual violence during the conflict, with the lack of information compounded by the fact that for women in Kosovo, speaking out remains taboo.
Alketa Xhafa Mripa, Kosovo Albanian artist based in London, decided to break the silence with an installation that she created in Pristina last year, which has now been documented in a new film.
In a tribute to the victims, Xhafa Mripa collected 7,000 dresses, intended to symbolise fragility and purity, and hung them on washing lines at Pristina’s football stadium, a symbol of masculinity, in June last year on the anniversary of the end of the NATO air strikes in 1999.
The process of putting together the installation was filmed for the documentary Thinking of You by Fitim Shala and Ana di Lellio, which was given its Belgrade premiere at the Miredita, Dobar Dan! festival on Saturday.
The documentary shows how Xhafa Mripa and di Lellio, an academic and former UN consultant in Kosovo, travelled all over the country in order to collect dresses for the installation.
Di Lellio told BIRN that despite the fact that wartime sexual violence remains a taboo in Kosovo, Xhafa Mripa’s project was widely supported, not only by the vast majority of the general public but also by top Kosovo politicians.
“People were touched, all the scenes in the movie are natural, we didn’t ask people to comment, yet many of them felt that they want to share with us the reason why they came and donated dresses,” she said.
The documentary is full of touching scenes, as people — both men and women — come and donate clothes, often leaving comments such as “We don’t want them [the victims] to feel alone” or “It could have been one of us too”.
Di Lellio said that the project invoked a lot of painful but positive feelings. One survivor came and donated her wedding dress. After she was raped, her husband had abandoned her. She said she didn’t need the wedding dress anymore, di Lellio recalled.
“Sometimes survivors would come and donate a dress, and quietly whisper to us, ‘I’m one of them’, and just leave,” she added.
Many women and men donated their favourite clothes to show support and empathy for the victims and their families.
“It’s hard to say what the direct impact of this initiative is, but I’m pretty sure that it showed survivors they’re not alone,” said di Lellio.
Victims of sexual violence during the Kosovo have been living with the trauma for many years now, often compounded by the fear of being exposed and the stigma attached to rape victims by society.
At a panel discussion at the Miredita, Dobar Dan! Festival after the screening of Thinking of You, Milica Kostic from the Belgrade-based Humanitarian Law Centre said that wartime sexual violence is often ignored because the victim remains alive.
Kosovo implemented a new law on the issue last year, but so far it only applies to those who were raped in June 1999, although there are plans to broaden the timeframe.
In Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia, feminist networks have campaigned successfully for special laws to ensure the rights of wartime sexual violence victims, but the problem remains unaddressed in Serbia, Kostic said.
“Sexual [violence] victims don’t have any rights, [judicial] proceedings are not effective, they do not get any help and they’re not recognised as the victims of war due to the fact that you need to have 50 per cent bodily injuries, and mental wounds do not count,” she explained.
She said that although there was no open warfare in Serbia like there was in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo, a lot of Serb victims of wartime sexual violence returned to the country in the 1990s as refugees.
Serb women who were raped in Kosovo also have no way to seek help because Serbia is not dealing with the issue properly and in Kosovo they are neglected because of their ethnicity, she argued.
“There’s a lot of things to be done, and in Serbia, it is necessary to change everything,” she said.