It was July 20, 1998, and "Drita" was traveling with her younger sister to visit family in a rural part of Serbia-controlled Kosovo.
"They stopped the bus, made us come out and asked for ID," Drita, who did not want to be identified by her real name, told VOA's Albanian Service. "They asked my sister to get out first, and I immediately went after her because I have always been close to her and she is two years younger."
Like most ethnic Albanian women caught up in Kosovo's two-year fight for secession, neither Drita nor her sister possessed official documentation, so the soldiers began herding them, along with three other female passengers, toward an abandoned house without doors or windows.
Watching as the frightened women were dragged away, Drita's husband jumped from the bus, demanding to know where they were being taken. Insistently grabbing a soldier by the arm, he was shoved to the ground and battered with an iron rod.
Once inside, Drita could still hear his screams.
"And right in front of me, I could hear and see my sister," she said, choking back tears as she struggled to describe the scene. "I was torn whether to run to my husband or my sister, [who] was there in front of me."
With troops restraining her arms and grabbing at her knees, Drita thrashed about in panic as two others raped and beat her sister unconscious. Drita bit a chunk of flesh from a soldier's hand, only to be struck by a scrap of discarded lumber, a protruding nail plunging into her arm.
"I still have the mark," she said. "I tried to stop them, but I was beaten so hard because I tried to fight them like a man, and outside, I was hearing my husband scream."
International humanitarian organizations and local NGOs have collected an estimated 20,000 accounts of systematic rape and torture perpetrated by Serbian forces loyal to former President Slobodan Milosevic, whose bid to repress Kosovo's fight for independence in the late 1990s left at least 11,000 Kosovars dead and 700,000 displaced.
Many survivors kept quiet for decades, fearing the shame that a rape can bring upon an extended family in a historically patriarchal society. Now, they are starting to find their voices, following a decision by the government to provide reparations for victims of sexual war crimes under a law that compensates veterans of the Kosovo War.
They welcome the lifetime monthly compensation of $275 for the physical and psychological trauma — about 90 percent of the average salary for Kosovar women. But many say justice remains elusive.
Two kinds of suppression
As Kosovo struggled to rebuild and secure international recognition in the wake of its 2008 declaration of independence, the issue of sexual violence remained largely on the back burner.
The reason, said Vlora Çitaku, Pristina's ambassador to the United States, is because in Kosovo, as in many societies, "it is often the victim that gets blamed, not the perpetrator."
Çitaku, herself a former refugee, said her family has long honored a late uncle lost in the battle for independence.
"Unfortunately for children of the survivors of sexual violence, the experience is completely the opposite," she told VOA. "They don't live with pride like I do. They have fear, they feel shame, and they are worried that they will be excluded, that their families will be excluded, that their mother will suffer if her story comes out."
Drita, for example, said no one in her extended family knows what happened to her.
"These victims," Çitaku said, "have carried on their shoulders not only the pain but also the shame" of an entire war-racked generation.
The emotional weight was so leaden that many Kosovar rape victims committed suicide or fell prey to family "honor killings," leading some analysts to suspect that the roughly 20,000 documented accounts of rape by Serb forces in Kosovo are just a small fraction of the actual number.
No role in negotiations
Aside from Kosovo's regional cultural norms, Shirley DioGuardi, who wrote about Kosovo in Women and Genocide, identifies another reason for the suppression of rape accounts: the international community's exclusion of female victims from postwar discussions.
"We have so many qualified Kosovar women, and they were not allowed by the international community to be part of the negotiations," she told VOA, referring to the fact that peace talks were led exclusively by men.
Some experts say this twofold suppression of accounts of conflict-driven sexual atrocities — on both domestic and international fronts — means that stories such as Drita's are not only under-reported but also underprosecuted.
Despite numerous high-profile war crimes prosecutions by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), a recent report by London-based Amnesty International said only a handful of perpetrators had been convicted of sexually motivated war crimes — and those exclusively by regional Serbian courts.
Because neither ICTY nor the European Union Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo has brought any perpetrator to justice, accounts such as Drita's may be the only remaining historical evidence.
"Now, 18 years later, very little evidence survives, and the main evidence actually is what the survivors have to say," said Sian Jones, an Amnesty International Kosovo expert.
That's why, she added, "we are calling for reforms within the judicial system that will protect witnesses if they will come forward, which will give them support if they decide to go through the process of a court case at this stage."
Amnesty International lauds the monthly stipend as "a just and dignified amount," noting that the reparations law recognizes rape survivors as victims of the conflict, providing them benefits similar to those of war veterans. But critics say the law still falls short of international standards by excluding the predominantly Kosovo-Serb, Roma and Albanian women who were raped after hostilities formally concluded.
Rape as genocidal act
It wasn't until 1994 — 46 years after the United Nations unanimously passed the Genocide Convention — that rape was officially categorized as an act of genocide, a step vital to including Kosovar women in the war victims category.
"I think it has to do with the fact that the act of rape is a mechanism of war against the female population of the world, and we can no longer accept that, just as we wouldn't accept any other form of murder and torture that men were involved particularly," said DioGuardi, who has written extensively about rape as a tool of warfare.
No amount of financial compensation or redefinition of war crimes can restore what Drita lost — specifically because the burden of trauma is passed on to future generations.
"I feel bad for my son, because I was never able as a parent to give him that joy, that cheerful smile that a child needs," Drita said.
Although she survived the assault, she lost an unborn child, and three years later her husband died of complications from the beating.
"I have waited so long to be able to tell someone, to tell that we also fought — maybe not with weapons, but I confronted an over 6-foot-tall man," Drita said. "I was raped and beaten, and I don't even know how have I been able to make it to this day, but I am very strong and I don't know how."
The compensation means she will no longer need to beg, even if she'll quietly continue to pray for the kind of emotional and psychological support from the broader community that would enable her to maintain the semblance of a normal life.
"Even if we receive millions, what happened to us will remain with us for the whole life," she said. "It is etched in our souls because it is something that cannot be erased from our brain."
As Kosovo advances into the future, having largely secured a stable postwar foundation, there still "cannot be peace," said Çitaku, "if there is denial."
This story originated in VOA's Albanian Service.