NOEL KING, HOST:
Nearly 20 years ago, thousands of women in the Balkan country of Kosovo were raped during the war with Serbia. After the war, a lot of these women said nothing. In Kosovo, many consider rape to be a stain on family honor. But now, after years of lobbying by women's activists, survivors are eligible for compensation as victims of war, and they started enrolling last month. Still, some of these women are too ashamed to tell their own families. Joanna Kakissis has the story.
JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Sana and Violetta are middle-aged moms who live in the Drenas municipality in central Kosovo. We're at the women's center here, and they're showing me some shirts they've embroidered.
VIOLETTA: (Speaking Albanian).
KAKISSIS: "I can relax here," Violetta says. "I can get out of my head." Violetta is not her real name. She and Sana chose these names when speaking to NPR because they don't want their families to know they were raped during the war. Violetta was 20, Sana, 28. Sana only told her husband.
SANA: (Through interpreter) And he said we should both bury it, but I couldn't. I needed tranquillizers to sleep. I was raped in a place not far from my home, and every time I passed it, I fell apart.
KAKISSIS: Violetta didn't tell anyone, including the man she later married.
VIOLETTA: (Through interpreter) I would get so upset that I would tear apart the house. I wanted to shout out what had happened, and then I'd remember where I lived and shut myself up.
KAKISSIS: And then in 2012, Kadira Tahiraj, who lost her family during the war, opened a women's center here.
KADIRA TAHIRAJ: (Speaking Albanian).
KAKISSIS: "When I first got here," she says, "women were committing suicide."
As we settle into her no-frills office, Tahiraj explains why most wartime rape survivors have not confided in their families.
TAHIRAJ: (Through interpreter) They're afraid their husbands will leave them. It has happened to some women. They are made to feel like dirt.
KAKISSIS: Sana says the stigma isolates them.
SANA: (Through interpreter) We are like orphans, like sisters leaning on each other, and Kadira is like our mother.
KAKISSIS: Sana and other wartime rape survivors can now access another form of support - about $280 in monthly compensation. It comes after more than a decade of lobbying by women's activists, including Feride Rushiti of The Kosovo Rehabilitation Centre for Torture Victims.
FERIDE RUSHITI: They are civilian victims as other victims of the war. We don't need to shame them, to blame them, while they was innocent. They couldn't protect themselves.
KAKISSIS: The issue got a huge boost after 2011 when a former police general named Atifete Jahjaga became president of Kosovo.
ATIFETE JAHJAGA: I could not forgive myself being the first woman president of this country and not putting the light on this war crime and this injustice that has been done towards over 20,000 victims.
KAKISSIS: Jahjaga pushed Parliament in 2014 to recognize rape survivors as war victims, entitling them to state pensions. But for some, it's too late.
SANIJA SALIHU: (Speaking Albanian).
KAKISSIS: On a snowy day in the western city of Gjakova, 70-year-old Sanija Salihu describes her daughter Vjollca as a casualty of war. She cries as she shows me two photos of Vjollca at age 20. In one photo, she's smiling. Her hair is curled. In the other, she's bruised and in a neck brace covered by a pink blanket.
SALIHU: (Through interpreter) She looked at me. She was crying, and I was crying as well. She told me, look, Mom. Look how I have become. And I told her, Vjollca, please don't speak, please don't speak.
KAKISSIS: In 1998, Sanija says neighbors saw Serbian police detain her daughter. Vjollca turned up in a hospital two months later, paralyzed, her genitals mutilated and body covered in cigarette burns. Her mother cared for her until she died eight years later.
SALIHU: (Speaking Albanian).
KAKISSIS: "If she had died during the war," Sanija says, "we would have mourned her. My heart aches that she wasted away like she was nothing." For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis in Gjakova, Kosovo.
(SOUNDBITE OF LABRADFORD'S "P") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.