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Silent shame of women's wounds of war

"DO YOU want to meet a girl who was raped?" asked a woman, as we interviewed Albanian refugees living rough in the fields around the village of Svecla, north of Pristina. Reluctant to draw still more attention to a crime that dares not speak its name in Kosovo, we followed the woman to a house.

"Call Shqiponia," she shouted, as dozens of people poured from the house to see the visitors. After a few minutes a shy girl with a sweet smile came forward, accompanied by her mother, Makfire.

"I came here on 6 June. A Serb civilian and a soldier came to my house and killed my father - I saw it with my own eyes - and my sister. She was only 12," Shqiponia said. "They beat my sister before killing her. She tried to run to me but then the civilian killed her. They made her lie down." We shuddered at this last phrase.

"Did he rape her?" the translator asked gently, fearing that 12-year- old Kaltrina must have suffered greatly before her murder. "No," Shqiponia cried, in great agitation. But as the ultimate taboo for women in Kosovo it would have been almost impossible for her to tell us anything else.

Makfire listened as her daughter detailed the family's experience of war, culminating in the killings of her second husband, Jusuf, and her daughter.

The horror began shortly after the start of the Nato bombing, when all four were taken by force to Kursumlija, in Serbia, and held for three days at a barracks. The women were held in one room away from Jusuf, who was beaten, made to dig graves, and forced to kneel on concrete, hands above his head.

"They asked me, `Why did you make Albanian children? We will kill every one of you'," Makfire recalled. And from the vehemence of Makfire's denials, the almost hysterical response to a suggestion that brings ultimate shame on a girl, it seems likely that Shqiponia and possibly Kaltrina, were raped during their stay.

After three days in custody, the family was released and took a bus home to Kosovo. For the next two months the family struggled on, alone in the village, except for the Serbian forces stationed nearby, and a Serbian family. "Many times Serbian soldiers and police came inside our house - once there were Russians who threatened to kill us," Shqiponia remembered. "They asked us, `Why did you burn all these houses?' even though we had seen them setting houses ablaze."

On 5 June, a couple of strangers walked past and Jusuf, thinking they must be Albanians, sent one of his step-daughters to fetch them home. But they turned out to be Serbs, and it seems that they reported Jusuf for harbouring other Albanians - that is the only explanation the family can come up with for what happened next.

That evening, at about 8.30pm, a car drove up carrying one uniformed Serb, who was drunk, and a civilian. Shqiponia and the others were sitting in the garden. "They just came in and grabbed my father," she said.

"The soldier said, `Do you love Ibrahim Rugova [the moderate Kosovo Albanian leader] and Nato?'... For 10 minutes they beat my father." Makfire added: "The little girl was crying, and saying `don't beat my father' and for that they killed her.

"Kaltrina was shot first, in the head, and then Jusuf. The killers were there for no more than 20 minutes," said Shqiponia.

Did they try to assault her, we asked? "Oh yes, they tried to rape me, but I had my period so they left me alone," she replied. Once again a Kosovar woman, said by others to have been raped, tells of the miraculous, last-minute escape. Did this happen in Kursumlija or at home, we asked. Shqiponia replied, quickly: "Both places." This seemed to us confirmation that the girls had been raped.

Kosovo is a harsh place for unmarried women who have lost their virginity. Many Kosovar men do not believe in the concept of rape - they think that if a woman is penetrated sexually, it must be with her consent. A woman who admits to being raped will not find a husband - and husbands have been known to discard such "tainted" wives. It is one reason why so many rapes were witnessed in Kosovo during the past three months while so few were reported at first hand.

That night, Shqiponia and Makfire tried to flee but were caught by Serb policemen and held overnight in the station in Podujevo. In the morning, they were ordered to leave, and made their way to Svecla, a nearby Albanian village whose wartime population swelled from 3,000 to 30,000. "I want to go back home but I don't know... We don't know if the bodies are in graves or still in the garden," Shqiponia said.

After our interview Shqiponia and Makfire made the journey home, accompanied by Jusuf's sister, Mihane. In the garden, just where they had fallen, they found the bodies of Jusuf and Kaltrina. "Dogs had eaten them. I could not even recognise him as my brother," Mihane said.

Shqiponia is now searching for her only male relatives: a son that Jusuf had with his first wife, and her 15-year-old brother Flamur, who left home last year.

She and her mother will try to persuade one of them to come back and rejoin the shattered family. But they will never forget what they saw when they returned home. "What land, what grass, what beauty," Mihane said. "Then we looked around and saw the bodies."