On the evening of March 24, 1999, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) began bombing the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. As Serbian police and Yugoslav Army forces continued brutal attacks on civilians, more than 800,000 ethnic Albanian refugees poured out of Kosovo, mostly into Albania and Macedonia. Exhausted and traumatized, they carried what few belongings they could grab before fleeing or being expelled. They also brought eyewitness accounts of atrocities committed against ethnic Albanian civilians inside Kosovo by Yugoslav soldiers, Serbian police, and paramilitaries.
Witnesses and victims told of summary executions, mass murders, destruction of civilian property, and other war crimes. In more hushed tones, refugees also spoke of rapes of ethnic Albanian women. These instances of sexual violence are the focus of this report.
Human Rights Watch began investigating the use of rape and other forms of sexual violence by all sides in the conflict in 1998 and continued to document rape accounts throughout the refugee crisis in 1999. After NATO troops entered Kosovo in June 1999, Human Rights Watch returned to Kosovo to continue researching war crimes, including the use of sexual violence before, during, and after the NATO conflict. In total, Human Rights Watch researchers conducted approximately seven hundred interviews between March and September 1999 on various violations of international humanitarian law.
The research found that rape and other forms of sexual violence were used in Kosovo in 1999 as weapons of war and instruments of systematic "ethnic cleansing." Rapes were not rare and isolated acts committed by individual Serbian or Yugoslav forces, but rather were used deliberately as an instrument to terrorize the civilian population, extort money from families, and push people to flee their homes. Rape furthered the goal of forcing ethnic Albanians from Kosovo.
In total, Human Rights Watch found credible accounts of ninety-six cases of sexual assault by Yugoslav soldiers, Serbian police, or paramilitaries during the period of NATO bombing, and the actual number is probably much higher. In six of these cases, Human Rights Watch was able to interview the victims in depth, and their testimonies are contained in this report. Human Rights Watch met two other women who acknowledged that they had been raped but refused to give testimony. And, Human Rights Watch documented six cases of women who were raped and subsequently killed.
The ninety-six cases also include rape reports deemed reliable by Human Rights Watch that were compiled by other nongovernmental organizations. The Center for the Protection of Women and Children, based in Pristina (Prishtina), interviewed and provided assistance to twenty-nine rape and sexual violence victims after June 1999. The Albanian Counseling Center for Women and Girls, an NGO in Albania, documented an additional twenty-eight rape cases through direct interviews with victims. The Yugoslavia-based Humanitarian Law Center provided testimony to Human Rights Watch about four cases. And the Council for the Defense of Human Rights and Freedoms, Kosovo's largest human rights group, provided information on an additional four cases. To the extent possible, Human Rights Watch corroborated these accounts through interviews with dozens of nurses, doctors, eyewitnesses, and local human rights and women's rights activists.
Médécins Sans Frontières (MSF), with offices in Kosovo before and after the war, reported four cases of rape, and other medical personnel working in Kosovo and Albania confirmed an additional eight cases. Physicians for Human Rights, a U.S.-based human rights group, interviewed four victims of sexual violence, and Amnesty International documented another three cases of rape, although two of these three cases were also counted by Human Rights Watch.
It is important to note that some of these cases may have been double-counted by local and international organizations. Despite this, Human Rights Watch believes that the actual number of women raped in Kosovo between March and June 1999 was much higher than ninety-six. Kosovar Albanian victims of rape are generally reluctant to speak about their experiences, and those who remained in Kosovo throughout the conflict may not have had an opportunity to report abuses. At the same time, it should be noted that Human Rights Watch was not able to confirm the allegations of rape camps in Kosovo that were presented during the war by the U.S. and British governments, as well as by NATO.
In general, rapes in Kosovo can be grouped into three categories: rapes in women's homes, rapes during flight, and rapes in detention. In the first category, security forces entered private homes and raped women either in the yard, in front of family members, or in an adjoining room. In the second category, internally displaced people wandering on foot and riding on tractors were repeatedly stopped, robbed, and threatened by the Yugoslav Army, Serbian police, or paramilitaries. If families could not produce cash, security forces told them that their daughters would be taken away and raped; in some cases, even when families did provide money, their daughters were taken away. The third category of rapes took place in temporary detention centers, such as abandoned homes or barns.
With few exceptions, the rapes here documented by Human Rights Watch were gang rapes involving at least two perpetrators. In several cases, victims and witnesses identified the perpetrators as Serbian special police, in blue or blue-camouflage uniforms, or Yugoslav Army soldiers, in green military uniforms. The majority of rape cases, however, were evidently committed by Serbian paramilitaries, who wore various uniforms and often had bandanas, long knives, long hair, and beards. These paramilitary formations worked closely with official government forces, either the Serbian Ministry of Interior or the Yugoslav Army, throughout Kosovo.
The Serbian and Yugoslav authorities knew that their paramilitaries had used rape and other forms of sexual violence in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Yet, the paramilitaries were deployed to or allowed to operate in Kosovo by the Serbian and Yugoslav authorities apparently without any precautions being taken to prevent their committing further such war crimes.
The participation of Serbian and Yugoslav forces in gang rapes renders it unlikely that senior officers were unaware of the assaults. Rapes occurred frequently in the presence, and with the acquiescence, of military officers. Several rape victims actually reported the crimes to Yugoslav military officers. Yet there is no evidence that the Yugoslav Army or the Serbian Ministry of Interior made any attempt to apprehend or punish those responsible for the attacks. Despite this seeming dereliction of duty, many leading police and military officers from the Kosovo campaign have been honored or promoted within the Serbian and Yugoslav forces since the end of the conflict.
There is also no evidence that the Yugoslav Army or Serbian Ministry of Interior took any measures to prevent rape and other forms of sexual violence, such as issuing orders or warning troops that they would be punished for these crimes. Moreover, soldiers, police, and paramilitaries often raped in front of many witnesses. In addition to actual rapes that took place in front of others, the process of pulling women out of refugee convoys often occurred in full view of other internally displaced persons (IDPs).
Although the terror of imminent and actual violence is behind Kosovar Albanian women, many now face its devastating consequences and a struggle for justice. Kosovar women sexually assaulted or raped by Yugoslav soldiers, Serbian paramilitaries, and police have suffered war crimes, torture, and some abuses that may have constituted crimes against humanity. The international community must now respond by seeking to identify and by indicting those responsible for these violations of humanitarian law. Without serious investigations of rape and sexual violence, and indictments and arrests of those with command responsibility and individual responsibility for these crimes, rape in the region will continue with impunity. Kosovar Albanian women are waiting for justice.
The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) has jurisdiction over the crimes committed in Kosovo. ICTY Prosecutor Carla Del Ponte has outlined a prosecution strategy that "focuses on leadership investigative targets, as well as perpetrators of particularly serious crimes or sexual violence in relation to the armed conflict."1 The Office of the Prosecutor issued indictments against Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic and three other top Serbian leaders and a general in the Yugoslav Army on May 24, 1999, for crimes against humanity. Not one of the indictments lists charges relating to the use of rape and other forms of sexual violence by their forces, although the investigations are ongoing.
Since the entry of the NATO-led Kosovo Force (KFOR), rapes of Serbian, Albanian, and Roma women by ethnic Albanians, sometimes by members of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), have also been documented.2 Human Rights Watch condemns these human rights violations and continues to document post-conflict abuses for a future report.3 However, rapes and other crimes of sexual violence committed since the entry of KFOR are beyond the scope of this report.
Specifically to investigate rape, Human Rights Watch visited the cities of Pec (Peje), Djakovica (Gjakove), Podujevo (Podujeve), Mitrovica (Mitrovice), Decani (Decane), Vucitrn (Vushtrri), and Pristina, as well as many other villages throughout Kosovo.4 Human Rights Watch interviewed rape and sexual assault victims, witnesses to sexual violence, medical personnel, representatives of nongovernmental organizations, United Nations officials, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) experts, and human rights activists in Kosovo and Albania. Human Rights Watch drew its findings on rape and sexual violence from interviews with victims and eyewitnesses and the credible reports of human rights and other service organizations. Whenever possible, Human Rights Watch collected several accounts of the same event for purposes of corroboration.1 Press Release, "Statement by Carla Del Ponte, Prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia on the Investigation and Prosecution of Crimes Committed in Kosovo," September 29, 1999 (www.un.org/icty/pressreal/p437-e.html). 2 See Kosovo Human Rights Flash #50, "Violent Abuses by KLA Members," June 25, 1999, for information about the rape of an ethnic Albanian woman by five men believed to members of the KLA. See also Kosovo/Kosova: As Seen, As Told Part II, June to October 1999, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) report, December 1999; and European Roma Rights Center, Press Release, "The Current Situation for Roma in Kosovo," July 9, 1999. 3 See Human Rights Watch, "Abuses against Serbs and Roma in the New Kosovo," A Human Rights Watch Short Report, vol. 11, no. 10, August 1999. 4 For the purposes of consistency and clarity, this report uses the Serbian spellings for all places in Kosovo. Also, although Human Rights Watch knows the identities and locations of all of the victims and witnesses interviewed in this report, we have concealed identities and names of villages where identification of names or locations would endanger the women involved.