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In Kosovo, Rape Seen as Awful as Death

Tradition-bound families shun victims, forcing women to suffer in silence or speak in euphemisms. For many, suicide or martyrdom in battle are the only alternatives.


KUKES, Albania — Her body savaged, her family wronged and her future ruined, 13-year-old Pranvera Lokaj has taken off for the mountains of Kosovo to seek the only solace her hidebound clan accords a rape victim: to kill or be killed in pursuit of vengeance.

"I have given her to the KLA so she can do to the Serbs what they have done to us," Haxhi Lokaj said of his daughter, who has been sent to fight with the rebels of the Kosovo Liberation Army.

"She will probably be killed, but that would be for the best," the 40-year-old father said with more resignation than sorrow. "She would have no future anyway after what they did to her."

For the untold numbers of Kosovo Albanian women and girls raped by Serbian soldiers in the conflagration of hate consuming the province in southern Yugoslavia, the heartless judgment expected from their backward rural communities may prove the more enduring injury from this most humiliating of war crimes.

While rape has for centuries been committed by soldiers as a tool of terror, its power to destroy women's self-worth in the tradition-bound Balkans is intensified by the patriarchal views of Kosovo villagers who see the savagery as a shame on the victim's entire family.

Even more sophisticated urban Kosovo women say they'd rather die than bear the humiliating brand of a rape victim--a view that threatens to compound the efficacy of the Serbian forces' war crimes by driving survivors to suicide and depleting the ethnic Albanian population of women of childbearing age.

"Rape is a powerful taboo in their society. Kosovar men do not accept the women as blameless victims," said Eglantina Gjermeni, head of an international rape relief project to aid the Kosovo victims of sexual violence. "But that has to change because what has happened in these conditions of war has affected too many women."

Ethnic Albanians like the Lokajs, who are from poor, rural areas, see death as the only honorable future for those raped by the marauding enemies.

In the second week of April, according to Pranvera's parents, Serbian soldiers herded Pranvera and at least 20 other terrified girls into the cellar of an empty house in the nearby village of Bileg and gang-raped them for four nights.

Their screams pierced the floor above them, torturing their helpless mothers and brothers being held there at gunpoint, and reverberated through the wooded hills where Lokaj and other KLA rebels were dug in in hopes of ambushing the Serbs.

Bleeding and sobbing, the girls were shoved back among their horrified families just before sunrise after the fourth brutal night, when all were loaded into tractor-driven carts for the journey into exile, recalls Pranvera's mother, Ajmane.

"We couldn't do anything because we were surrounded by police," said the dazed mother. "We couldn't do anything except listen to their screams."

For the victim's father, the affront remains as raw as an open wound--and fresh inspiration to forever rid Kosovo of the reviled Serbian gunmen. As if the defilement by drunken soldiers and paramilitary thugs had been committed against his own person, Lokaj said he sent his daughter into combat for the greater goal of getting even.

"I too have been attacked because of what they did to my daughter," said the farmer, who is taking shelter with his wife and remaining five children in a malodorous ground-floor room of a schoolhouse in this border town overflowing with 100,000 refugees from Kosovo.

"We will only recover from this when Kosovo is finally free of the Serbs," said Lokaj, who plans to return himself to the rebel front that has so far done little to deter the Serbian gunmen's campaign of "ethnic cleansing."

The wounds inflicted on Kosovo society by the use of rape as a weapon of terror, including reported rapes before the eyes of victims' husbands, brothers and fathers, will leave families and communities in shambles long after the fighting is over.

"When Serb soldiers rape Albanian women, their first aim is to humiliate them. They want to destroy their future and their family lives so they never want to come back to their communities," said Gjermeni, head of the Tirana rape relief project sponsored by the Medica Mondiale group based in Cologne, Germany.

Since 1992, Medica Mondiale has been aiding Balkan rape victims, including those in Bosnia-Herzegovina, where rape was systematically committed against Muslim women to destroy their society and traditions. Bosnian women, however, were less reluctant to share their trauma with fellow victims and rape relief workers than Kosovo women appear to be because the community was more supportive of the women.

Medica Kosovo, as the current relief effort is known, aims to locate and assist raped women because its counselors fear that the victims will never recover or return to their native villages if they continue to repress and distort what they've been through. In addition, a team of UCLA physicians arriving in Albania today includes several rape counselors.

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