Victims tell harrowing tales of rape

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SABIJE HAD almost made it out of Kosovo when she was abducted from the ranks of refugees by Serb soldiers and raped. She was 14 and a virgin.

She has been too traumatised to tell doctors in Albania how many times she was violated or by how many men, but her trauma is being shared by her father. He was forced to march on at gunpoint as they took his daughter away.

This is one of a growing number of harrowing stories stored in a shiny red dossier by Silvia Miria, a psychologist and director of the Counselling Centre for Women and Girls in the Albanian capital. Her crusade to bring the rapes to the attention of war crimes investigators is being run from a grimy apartment block south of central Tirana. Relying on donations from aid agencies, she and 14 other counsellors, psychiatrists and social workers are visiting refugee camps to offer help and to document claims.

In the past few weeks she has gathered the testimonies of more than 100 witnesses to Serb acts of rape and sexual violence. She also has six victims who have come forward with personal testimony, and this is a rarity in the Kosovars' overwhelmingly rural Muslim community, where any discussion of sex, let alone rape, is seen as shameful.

Ms Miria believes that for every known case, there are many more that will go unreported. "It takes a great deal of courage to speak about it," she said yesterday. "But these women believe they have been victims not only of rape, but of a war crime. It is the only thing keeping them alive."

Another reason for women's reluctance to testify is theirabysmal plight. The victims are living in poor conditions, either in overcrowded refugee camps at Kukes, in northern Albania or in municipal buildings in Tirana that include former gymnasiums, basketball halls - even a disused mental hospital.

"There is the stigma," said Ms Miria, "but there is also the trauma of the war. They're simply too devastated to come forward yet." Clutching the dossier, she added: "I am keeping their testimony and gathering more evidence for the war crimes investigators."

Accounts of the rape of up to 30 young women at the border crossing of Vermice between Kosovo and Albania emerged yesterday in the Italian media. The reports spoke of a family who claimed to have seen women dragged from a convoy and into a nearby field where their screams could be heard by passing refugees. One witness, Burbuqe Kastroti, a 17-year-old from Dushanov, said she escaped because she and her sister, Libode, 15, dressed in their father's old clothes and put mud on their faces.

"We tried to make ourselves look horrible," she said. "I thought, `If they rape me, then I'll kill myself'." Burbuqe's account tallies with statements given to Ms Miria. "There appear to be two methods emerging," she said. "Women are either taken from lines of refugees at borders - usually because they are young and attractive - or they were taken away during the ethnic cleansing, when the men were separated from the women."

No one knows what the future holds for Sabije (not her real name) or others like her. In any society, her recovery would be hard. Today, it has to be made in a tent on a muddy campsite beside a municipal swimming pool in rain-soaked Tirana.