April 20, 2019 is a day that I will never forget. I was speaking in Prishtina, Kosova at a ceremony remembering the thousands of women who were raped by Serbian military and paramilitary forces during the brutal war of 1998. Several hundred women were in attendance. In the crowd, I could see the unimaginable pain on their faces.
When we speak of conflict-related sexual violence, we frequently refer to data. We use numbers and statistics to tell a story. However, what we often fail to portray is that we are speaking of people. People with lives that have been changed forever. I have seen the misery and stigma that they live with. But I have also witnessed their strength, courage and spirit.
Such a brave person is Vasfije Krasniqi, who was only 16 years old when she was taken from her family and raped by Serbian forces. “We will not kill you” they told her, “because you will suffer more if we keep you alive.” What these criminals failed to realize is that Vasfije would survive and become an incredible person who fights for justice, not only for herself, but for all the victims and survivors of wartime sexual violence. As I stood next to her that day in Prishtina, I committed myself to helping these survivors in their fight for justice.
There are approximately 70,000 women that were raped by Serbian forces in Kosovo, Bosnia and Croatia during the 1990s war. Astonishingly, nearly 20 years later, the perpetrators of these crimes remain unpunished. Although, article 27 of the 1949 Fourth Geneva Convention explicitly prohibits wartime rape and UN resolutions clearly categorize rape and other forms of sexual violence as war crimes, international and local courts and government alike have failed to hold the perpetrators of these horrible crimes accountable. Wartime rape and sexual violence continues to be treated as a ‘normal’ consequence of war. These institutions continue to behave as if these women are merely a casualty of war. As if their rights, suffering and lives do not matter.
Whether you talk to women activists in Bosnia, Croatia, or Kosova, they will tell you the same thing. The survivors of these horrendous crimes feel abandoned in their quest for justice.
While I will always support reconciliation between warring nations, we should not aim to achieve peace at the expense of the victims. Peace without justice is not a true peace nor is it a sustainable one.
We must make sure that the perpetrators of these crimes, in Serbia and around the world, realize that these women are not alone. That the use of rape and sexual violence as a weapon of war will not be tolerated.
That is why on Tuesday, October 29 I call on all my fellow New Yorkers to come and rally for justice for survivors of sexual violence in front of the Serbian consulate general in New York on 62 W. 45th Street. How many times must we say Never Again before we finally take action? Now is the time for justice. Now is the time to fight injustice.
We must be relentless in our fight against all forms of sexual violence, whether it be in our own home, community or anywhere in the world. That responsibility lies with each of us. If you or someone you know needs assistance with escaping an abusive environment, please contact my office at (718) 931-1721. We have staff, resources and organizations that are ready to help.
(Mark Gjonaj represents the 13th District in the Bronx.)