The process of verification used by the governmental commission has been criticised by NGOs in Kosovo for being too slow and discouraging for survivors. The Commission insists however that it treats each case with proper care.
Anyone who was subjected to sexual violence between February 27, 1998 and June 20, 1999 can apply via the secretariat of the commission, or via four NGOs that assist in the process of application (the Kosovo Rehabilitation Centre for Torture Victims, Medica Gjakova, Medica Kosova and the Drenas Centre) as well as seven regional offices of the Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare’s Department of Martyrs’ Families, War Invalids and Civilian Victims of War.
Using a six-page application form, applicants have to describe in detail how the incident occurred, answer questions about the place and the time at which it happened, who were the perpetrators (if known), and detail the consequences for their health and life in general.
The main part of the application is the narrative – the story of the assault, usually written by hand. In some cases, these recollections have stretched to as many as 20 pages. Applicants can also attach additional documents to make their case stronger.
Minire Begaj-Balaj, the chairperson of the commission, said that its focus is the survivor, who they strive to treat with dignity. Begaj-Balaj told BIRN that that due to the sensitivity of the issue, the process of status recognition and verification is confidential; the identity of the applicants is coded and all their personal information is protected.
There is only one copy of the application form, and so far “nothing has leaked from the commission nor was any damage done to anyone”, she said.
“Everything that is inside the commission remains inside and is stored in a safe,” she continued. “We decide on cases without knowing the name [of the applicant].”
Begaj-Balaj explained that each case is examined at least three times, sometimes up to six times, and often the applicant is invited in for an interview in order to avoid mistakes and misjudgements.
Certain cases have been problematic, she said.
“The application might have been short of some information, [or] there were contradictions. Even though we invited [the applicant] for an interview, we weren’t convinced that the event actually took place. These kinds of problems happen and it has cost us time,” she explained.
“There were cases which had 200 pages which had nothing to do with the application, but we had to review them one by one,” she added.
But calling applicants in for interviews can also be problematic, said Linda Sada of Medica Gjakova. Not everyone is prepared to explain their traumatic experiences in person and there have been incidents in which victims have been retraumatised and have had to start their rehabilitation all over again.
Although most of the applications so far have been approved, two have been rejected.
One of the rejections was caused by inconsistencies between statements given in writing and at an interview. Sada said this happened when the applicant had to explain what happened to a male member of the commission; an incident that was confirmed by the Medica Gjakova’s psychosocial counsellor who was present at the interview.
“This is very traumatic. This brings them back into trauma again, it is like a flashback,” Sada said, adding that her NGO tries to prepare victims for such interviews as well as possible.
Despite such challenges, Sada said that she feels good about what has been achieved, and even more so about the fact that “our country and our society has accepted what happened”.
Begaj-Balaj agreed that the progress has been made, but said that more must be done to raise public awareness.
Victims of such violence still need support, but by being granted recognition, survivors are being given back their dignity, she said. She appealed to those who have no done so yet to contact the commission.
“Despite all the challenges, we are writing history, [establishing] that this crime really happened,” she argued.
Besa, who does not dare to apply to the commission for fear of being found out and ostracised from her local community, nevertheless urged other survivors to come forward.
“I would advise every raped woman to apply; to talk,” she said. “It is not good to keep it inside.”
This article was produced as part of BIRN’s Balkan Transitional Justice grant scheme, supported by the European Commission.