PODUJEVA, Kosovo – Saranda Bogujevci watched without flinching at a cluster of bullets left in the garden wall by a massacre two decades ago that wiped out most of his family and put 16 rounds in his own body.
She said her mind had erased visual memories of the massacre by the Scorpions, a Serbian paramilitary unit. But, she said, “I can still smell the earth mixed with the smell of blood.”
Ms Bogujevci’s unexpected survival – she was left for dead in a pile of bodies in her neighbor’s garden – and her subsequent determination to testify against the men who murdered her mother, grandmother, two brothers and four other parents made her a symbol of extraordinary courage in Kosovo, a land still marked by the trauma of war in the 1990s.
But Ms. Bogujevci, 35, is more than a symbol. It is part of an unlikely wave of elections to the Parliament of Kosovo, which declared independence in 2008, but which remains one of the poorest countries in Europe. When the final February 14 election results were finally announced in the capital Pristina on Thursday, they showed women had won more seats in parliament than ever before – nearly 40% of the total.
This outbreak reflects growing discontent with the rampant corruption and bullying of a post-war order dominated by boastful male veterans of the Kosovo Liberation Army, the now disbanded guerrilla force that fought against Serbia and paved the way for Kosovo’s declaration of independence.
These elected women convinced voters that they can stand up to Serbia, which has refused to recognize Kosovo as an independent state, and also face the corruption, crime and bad governance that have dashed the high hopes that accompanied the end of the Serbian regime.
Nazlie Bala, a women’s activist who was a KLA aide during the war, said Ms. Bogujevci’s strength and determination made her an emblem of the trials and hopes of Kosovo: “She is a survivor. . She is as strong as a stone. It is our truth.
As Ms Bogujevci takes her place in the new legislature, which will select the president of Kosovo, she wants this post, the country’s highest post, to be given to another woman and compatriot war survivor, Vjosa Osmani, 38. .
Ms Osmani – who has been acting president since November, when the outgoing man was arrested for war crimes – should be chosen outright in the coming days. Ms Osmani, who ran for office on the same ticket as Ms Bogujevci, won more votes than any other candidate – and also more votes than anyone since Kosovo started holding elections two decades ago .
Her appeal is especially strong among young people and women, over 60% of whom, according to polls, voted for a slate of candidates she led with Albin Kurti, a longtime advocate for progressive causes.
When Ms Osmani fled as a young girl with her parents from their home in northern Kosovo in 1999 to escape pogroms by ethnic Albanians, they were stopped on the road by Serbian soldiers who threatened to kill his father. She had a pistol barrel stuck in her mouth when she protested.
Such traumas, she said, “have touched all families in Kosovo” and help explain the public’s anger and frustration at the country’s stumbling progress after the war.
Her performance in the election, Ms. Osmani said in an interview, shows that “Kosovo is not only ready for a female president, but has voted for a president,” despite entrenched misogyny and a “patriarchal mentality built over the years. centuries ”.
Ms Osmani was placed in a leadership role in November when the President of Kosovo, veteran guerrilla commander Hashim Thaci, resigned and was subsequently detained to face war crimes charges in court in the Netherlands. Low. She succeeded as Interim President due to her post as Speaker of Parliament.
As a speaker, Ms. Osmani was regularly insulted and threatened by male rivals. When she unplugged the microphone of an unruly lawmaker last year, he rushed over to her, yelling curses. A video of the incident posted online, convincing even skeptics that Ms Osmani, an expert on international law and former professor at the University of Pittsburgh, could stand up for herself and bring about real change.
“It made me realize that we have a chance, that she will not just negotiate for power and that she will fight for herself and for all of us,” said Elife Krasniqi, a Kosovar anthropologist who studies the women’s movements of the Balkans at the University of Graz in Austria. .
A rival future president Ramush Haradinaj, wartime KLA commander and former nightclub bouncer, said during the campaign that Serbia would applaud if Ms Osmani was chosen because she feared a strong male leader like him, preferring a “weak woman”.
An ally of Mr. Haradinaj ridiculed Ms. Osmani as a “fat woman”. After a public outcry, he said it had been misunderstood and meant that she was “big in the brain.”
Such calls for macho sentiments did not help in the election: Mr. Haradinaj’s party won only 7% of the vote.
The challenges facing new legislators are immense. Corruption is rampant, inequalities huge and development scarce. Almost a third of the population is unemployed, with an unemployment rate of over 50 percent for young people and 80 percent for women, according to some figures. Ms Bala, the activist, said that while 60% of university graduates each year are women, 70% of job postings are aimed at men.
Many women candidates explicitly targeted these issues in their campaign.
Doarsa Kica, a 30-year-old lawyer, quit her job to run on an anti-corruption platform, citing court encounters with corrupt judges and anger at politicians “who live in million-dollar homes. dollars when they only have a monthly salary of 1000 dollars. Ms. Kica joined the ticket from Ms. Osmani, her former professor at the University of Pristina, and won a seat.
The emergence of women in Kosovo politics has been a long and painful process.
Kosovo had a female president, but it was the result of a behind-the-scenes deal devised by the United States, which carried out a NATO bombing campaign that broke Serbia’s hold on the territory. in 1999 and has since played a major role in its business.
The United Nations, which administered Kosovo for nearly a decade after the war, also imposed a quota system in 2000 that guaranteed women 30% of seats in parliament.
But with voters now accustomed to women in parliament and disillusioned by many politicians, female candidates are squarely winning representation. Ms Bogujevci, for example, first entered parliament in 2017 under the quota system, but, after doubling her vote count on February 14, she won on her own.
Igballe Rogova, a women’s rights activist, said voters now looked at female candidates “not as quota women, but as politicians who make promises, keep them and deserve votes.”
Mr Kurti, who heads a center-left party that has partnered with Ms Osmani, has a solid reputation for promoting women. Briefly prime minister last year, he gave women responsibility for one third of Kosovo’s ministries. Previous governments have named only one or none.
The joint election ticket he ran with Ms Osmani promised that all state agencies and businesses would be required to uphold equal recruitment. Governments dominated by former KLA commanders have for years resisted giving women who had fought in the war the status and pensions accorded to male combatants.
Ms Bala, the activist, who carried a gun during the war, said many women took part in the armed struggle against Serbian forces, but were later removed from the script. “A myth has been created that only men are strong and can fight,” she said.
Another thorny question is whether rape survivors, who numbered in the thousands during the war, should be recognized as war victims entitled to a monthly allowance from the government.
A law allowing rape victims to seek compensation was passed in 2014 after intense pressure from Ms Osmani. And this despite demands from some male lawmakers that women who were raped in the 1990s get a medical certificate from a doctor – more than 20 years later – to prove they weren’t lying.
Such requests, Ms. Osmani said, were “ridiculous and very insulting to women.”
Ms. Bogujevci’s path to Parliament has also been a long one. “I always said that I would never enter politics,” she said in an interview in her family’s hometown of Podujeva.
She was rushed to Britain for medical treatment soon after the fighting ended and spent almost 15 years building a new life in Manchester, northern England, but began to do more in addition to trips to his home region.
She testified against her family’s killers in court in Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, and exhibited an art exhibition she had created telling her family’s story. She has now returned to Kosovo, where strangers stop her in the streets to express her admiration and support.
Like most towns in Kosovo, Podujeva has an imposing war monument in its center with statues of beefy men with guns. However, when Ms Bogujevci visited before the elections, she immediately became the center of attention, overrun with supporters.
Bokim Gashe, standing in the snow outside his wife’s sewing business, said he would vote “of course” for her.
“She’s stronger than all the men here,” he said.