This week, the City Stadium in Prishtina, Kosovo, has undergone an incredible transformation. Some 5,000 dresses hang in neat rows over the stretch of turf typically dominated by male athletes — a powerful visual reminder of an aspect of The Kosovo War that is seldom recognized or discussed.
In the years of conflict between the Albanian separatist group Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY, or Serbia and Montenegro), it is estimated that 20,000 Albanians, mostly women, were victims of sexual violence at the hands of the Serbian army, police, and paramilitaries. June marks the 16th anniversary of the end of the war, but discussing wartime sexual violence remains taboo. Hanging clean and crisp over the field, the dresses challenge that taboo, bringing new meaning to the idea of “airing one’s dirty laundry.”
Italian journalist and New School professor Anna Di Lellio, who has been working in Kosovo since the early 1990s, is the woman behind the project. Di Lellio teamed up with artist Alketa Xhafa-Mripa to organize the exhibition. Kosovo’s president Atifete Jahjaga donated the first dress on May 8, 2015, and from there, thousands more were donated from people in cities across Kosovo and abroad. Di Lellio hopes the dresses will reduce the stigma that has surrounded and silenced victims of rape since the war’s end. In a society that has been focused on moving forward and rebuilding, the project serves as a reminder that acknowledging sexual violence is a vital step towards Kosovo’s future. Women int he World spoke with Anna Di Lellio as she completed the installation at the stadium in preparation for the opening event on Friday, June 12.
Women in the World: How has society in Kosovo dealt with wartime sexual violence in the aftermath of the war?
Anna Di Lellio: When the Albanians were expelled from Kosovo, women were taken aside and raped. But after the war, there were no prosecutions, until last year. So society really focused on surviving, rebuilding, and maintaining independence. After the war, what dominated was the narrative of the heroism of the KLA, which was true. They were fighters who sacrificed and fought, but there were also hundreds of thousands of civilians who suffered. And their suffering has never really been dealt with. There’s not much talk about it in society. They’ve forgotten what happened here. The women were the last to be talked about, because it is an intimate and delicate issue.
WITW: How have people in Kosovo responded to this project, and the idea of discussing sexual violence?
AD: There are lots of stereotypes of Kosovo being patriarchal, masculine, and more conservative culturally. It’s really only partly true. What we found in this campaign to collect dresses is that society is much more open than people suspected, and than we ourselves suspected or imagined. We even found a lot of acceptance in rural areas. There is an Islamic party here called “The Party of Justice,” and they came as a group and donated dresses. Dresses were even donated from an office in the north of Kosovo, which is overwhelmingly Serbian. I was really impressed.
WITW: Where did the dresses come from, and how did you collect them for this installation?
AD: All the dresses are from people in Kosovo, and from women we know — activists, writers, and people who asked us if they could contribute. Even a Bosnian neighbor of one of my friends donated a dress. We got in touch with organizations that had been working with survivors since the end of the war, providing psychological and medical help. Then we got in touch with friends, acquaintances, activists. We held events in every city of Kosovo, and invited citizens to give us dresses. And we organized it with the president to start on May 8th, when she gave the first dress. We established collection points in all the cities, and shared the project through the media. As we were hanging the last dresses, people were coming to donate dresses.
WITW: What statement are you hoping these dresses make to the people of Kosovo?
AD: What the survivors have said is that they’re happy with this. That’s a big word, because they seem to feel that they’ll never be happy again. But they have been pleased. They said before this, “We talked about this issue only every once in a while, or never. Now we’ve been talking about this every day.” What they want is recognition, and not to have to hide or feel ashamed, but that’s how they’ve been feeling. From the point of view of survivors, we hear that this has made people talk about something that they’ve been keeping secret. The other thing is the impact of the size of it, if you think about what it means, the number of women who were raped during the war, provokes a really strong emotional reaction.
WITW: Why is it important for civilian victims to speak more openly about sexual violence that occurred during the war?
AD: There is now a campaign to encourage more survivors to talk more openly about what happened. This moves in that direction. There are new laws to compensate civilian victims, and there is a category for sexual violence. So, in order for victims to receive a pension, they need to say that they’ve been raped. Many don’t want to say it. Sometimes their families know. Many times they were raped in front of their families, but they don’t want the village to know, especially in rural areas. Rape is a crime, so politically it doesn’t make sense to address rape outside of this framework. It’s important thought that society accepts these women, and starts talking about it. It’s a way for them to deal with what they went through during the war, because they haven’t been reassessing it. They’ve been too busy building, too busy living, but there is a lot of trauma that hasn’t been dealt with.