Serb police found only women and children when they took over the western Kosovo village of Dragacin in late April. All the men had fled or joined the Kosovo Liberation Army. So the Serbs crammed the 150 women, plus their children, into three houses. At night the captors would come and shine flashlights in the women's faces, discussing who was pretty and selecting a few to take away. Hours later the chosen women would return. Nothing had happened, they said; the Serbs had only wanted them to serve coffee. Mothers even got chocolate for their kids.
So "Anita" (not her real name) wasn't too worried the night she was picked--at first. The Serbs didn't want coffee. One policeman raped her while four others sexually abused her. After they finished, they handed her some candy. She threw it away. Back at the house she told the other women what had happened. "I said, 'Why didn't you tell us?' But they all said they just made coffee."
She was glad to learn she wasn't pregnant. The unmarried 20-year-old got her period early in May, a week after the Serbs shipped the women of Dragacin to Albania. Many villagers demanded immediate vacuum abortions, without waiting for a pregnancy test. Some had been raped within the previous three days; they got morning-after pills in special U.N.-produced kits. The Vatican last week reiterated its condemnation of all such efforts, no matter how desperate the women are. "The 'morning-after pill' does not exist," declared Msgr. Elio Sgreccia. "This is an abortion." Most of the Kosovar rape victims are Muslims, not Roman Catholics, but that detail doesn't alter the church's stance.
The church also ignores the furious reaction from women's groups. "The Vatican is out of touch," said Samantha Guy of Marie Stopes International, a group that provides birth control and abortion counseling in Third World countries. Ingar Bruggemann, executive director of the International Planned Parenthood Federation, adds: "It's a control mechanism, what centuries ago led men to impose female genital mutilation."
Meanwhile relief workers are only slowly determining the scope of the Serbs' crimes against women in Kosovo. Much of the problem has been kept hidden by victims too humiliated to talk. Albanians, with their strong sense of family honor, tend to ostracize women who have been raped. "Our counselors see women all the time and know they were raped," says Valentina Lefkaj of the Albanian Family Planning Association. "They have black eyes and bruises, they're withdrawn, all the classic symptoms. But they're just unable to talk about it." Guy recalls that many rape victims in Bosnia kept silent for months or even years before telling their stories. "It's going to be a while before it's clear how big the problem is," she said. "There is evidence of systematic rape, planned in advance," says one human-rights worker who has been interviewing women in refugee camps in Macedonia.
Despite the Kosovar women's reticence, a monstrous pattern has begun to emerge. NATO has alleged the existence of "rape motels," which Serbs also used in the ethnic cleansing of Bosnia, and last week a U.S. State Department report said soldiers were conducting mass rapes of women at an army camp in Djakovica, and at the Hotel Karagac in the city of Pec. Some of the 150 women of Dragacin have told counselors that Serb occupiers forced them to work as housekeepers--and to do the job naked. Many claimed to have been merely humiliated, not raped--but they still wanted to see a doctor as soon as they reached Albania.
Physicians with the refugees also see evidence of a rape epidemic. Dr. Femi Bojaxhiu, a gynecologist and a refugee from Dragacin himself, is working at a prenatal clinic in Kukes, the first stop for most Kosovo refugees. His clinic, one of eight serving refugees in the area, has recorded 16 cases of rape since he began working there a month ago. At the Kukes Maternity Hospital nearby, Dr. Safet Elezi says 60 Kosovars have come to him for abortions since refugees began arriving in Kukes on March 26. Many of the women were rape victims, he suspects. "But," he says, "I haven't had a single declared case of rape."
Many Kosovars were gang-raped or raped repeatedly, increasing the risk of conception. Among the 16 rape cases Bojaxhiu examined, four women had become pregnant. All four chose to terminate their pregnancies. "For these women," said Dr. Eva Sahachi of Marie Stopes in Tirana, "it's better to die than to have a child from rape." Lefkaj tells of a 16-year-old girl in Malisevo who said she was gang-raped by Serbs in front of her younger siblings. "They were doing the worst thing they possibly could to these women," says the family-planning official. "What could be worse than bearing the child of the Serbs who murdered your husband and brothers?"
The Vatican disagrees. "We must distinguish between the act of violence and the reality of new human beings who had no control over how their lives began," says Sgreccia, a close adviser to the pope. During the Bosnian war John Paul II took a similar stance against abortions for Muslim women who had been raped by Serbs. In Kosovo the church has gone further by explicitly denouncing the morning-after pill as an abortion-inducing treatment. The World Health Organization and most physicians insist the pill is a contraceptive, since it works before the fertilized egg has been implanted on the wall of the womb. Although the Vatican ordinarily opposes artificial contraception, an exception was made for nuns in the former Belgian Congo during the upheavals of the 1960s. "In the Congo, it truly was a defense against the very real possibility of rape," Sgreccia told NEWSWEEK. "In this case, it is not a defense--it is an afterthought. After the pregnancy has occurred... after the life has begun."
The church's aggressive stance has galvanized pro-choice groups throughout the world. More than 130 nongovernmental groups have signed a petition asking Secretary-General Kofi Annan to review the Vatican's status as an "observer state" at the United Nations. Far more is at stake than abortions for Kosovo's refugees. Since the 1995 Cairo Conference on Family Planning, the church has been using its U.N. office to lobby hard against any United Nations support for abortion or birth control. The pope has some unlikely allies: hardline Muslim states like Algeria, Libya and the Sudan. "The Vatican is an outsized and inappropriate voice in this case," says Frances Kissling, of Catholics for a Free Choice, a leader in the drive to oust the church.
The pope's warnings aren't easing pain in the Balkans. "The women of Kosovo need our support and care, not condemnation," says Nafis Sadik, executive director of the U.N. Population Fund, which supplies the morning-after pills. Many villagers from Dragacin snubbed Anita after the night she told them she had been raped. Even in the refugee camps, many former neighbors continue to insist they did nothing but make coffee for their captors.
Honesty can hurt. Penelope Lewis of UNICEF has counseled many of Dragacin's women but spoke to only three who admitted they had been raped. "These women have been ostracized by their families, and are terrified of their husbands," says Lewis. "For them, there's no comfort even in the solidarity of women." While the other women from Dragacin stuck together, Anita became an outcast. Now she has disappeared. But silence offers no real comfort to women who have been raped. When Bosnia's sex-crime victims began coming forward at last, their newfound sense of community helped many of them to cope with the horrors they had survived. Some of the perpetrators have been identified publicly. For Kosovo's victims, however, that sort of solace is a long way off.