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Veprore Shehu from Medica Kosova, shows paintings made by survivors of war rape during art therapy. Photo: Kvinna till Kvinna/Karin Råghall.
Veprore Shehu from Medica Kosova, shows paintings made by survivors of war rape during art therapy. Photo: Kvinna till Kvinna/Karin Råghall.

War victims break the silence with art

Is the war in Kosovo really over? Technically, it ended 15 years ago, but for tens of thousands of women, the war is still very present – in their memories, bodies and psyches.

The war lives on in the woman who still has burn marks on her body after being subjected to sexual violence and other degrading abuse.

The war lives on in the women who thought they were crazy, when in fact they have lived for years with trauma symptoms.

The war lives on among the women who have been prevented from marrying, because their beloved’s mother did not want her son to have a wife who had been raped during the war.

The war lives on in the thousands of women who never have been able to tell about the war crimes they suffered, because of the stigmatization of those who talk about sexual violence.

The war lives on in the silence.

Fighting for redress

However, in recent years, women who were subjected to sexual violence during the war in Kosovo have gradually started to receive redress. One of those who long has fought for this to become reality, is Veprore Shehu from The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation’s partner organisation Medica Kosova.

For several years, Medica Kosova has given regular support to over 4 000 women suffering from war traumas. Every day, women come to the organisation’s center in Gjakova. There they can participate in discussion groups, get individual therapy or meet with a gynecologist. Many of them are widows and have long lived in isolation from society.

Since some time, Medica Kosova also provides art therapy for those who have difficulty putting their traumatic experiences into words. The idea came from some of the women who usually visit the center.

“They had discovered that art gave them a way to vent their feelings: ‘We can say more with these paintings than with a thousand words. Canvases and brushes have become our best friends’,” explains Veprore Shehu.

Seen as national shame

Last week, she visited The Swedish Forum for Human Rights in Umeå, Sweden, to talk about Medica Kosova’s use of art therapy, but also about their work to obtain redress for the tens of thousands of women dealing with war traumas. Until now, the sexual abuse that women suffered during the war in Kosovo has mostly been looked upon as shame put on the nation and on their families, rather than crimes that severely harmed the women who survived.

“Silence has eaten these women for 15 years. They have not lost arms and legs, but they have lost something even more important: their soul,” says Veprore Shehu.

But in 2011 came a turning point. One of the women who had been to Medica Kosova’s center decided to go on TV and talk about how she was raped during the war. Medica Kosova has also worked methodically to influence politicians, who among other things got to listen to survivors’ telling their stories. On the International Women’s Day 2012 the women’s movement gathered in front of the government building with the message “We do not want flowers, we want justice for the survivors of war!”.

Gradually, it has become easier for Medica Kosova to gain support for conflict-related sexual violence being treated as a crime of war and the survivors having as much right to be recognized and compensated for their sufferings as other war victims.

Recognized by law

And in March of this year, Kosovo adopted a law recognizing survivors of sexual violence as civilian war victims. Under the law, they are now granted the right to free health care, a monthly pension and education.

“It is high time that we reduce the stigma of survivors of conflict-related sexual violence and restore their dignity. With the law, they have finally received recognition,” says Veprore Shehu.

Together with other members of civil society, Medica Kosova played a crucial role for the law to be passed. The pieces of art work from the therapy have also helped to increase society’s understanding of the serious consequences of conflict-related sexual violence. Almost 80 of them have been exhibited in Kosovo, the United Kingdom, and now in Sweden. High-ranking politicians in Kosovo that have seen the paintings have said that they “now understand how difficult it must have been for women to keep this within themselves”.

“To get public recognition is hugely important for the survivors,” says Veprore Shehu.

Karin Råghall

Updated in: 2014-11-21