Malsor holding a picture of his father, Avni, as a KLA fighter during the Kosovo War. Gllanasell, Drenica, Kosovo. 2022.

All Our History Is in Kosovo

The new history of Serbia begins with Kosovo – a history of valiant efforts, long suffering, endless wars, and unquenchable glory.

– Cedomil Mijatovic, Serbia’s foreign minister, 1889

Her fate is yet in the balance… Every possible obstacle has been thrown in Albania’s way by those who wish her destruction. The Albanians have elected, last January, a Government of their own, and the Powers have refused to recognize it… But they will not kill the spirit of the Albanian people, who have resisted denationalization for a thousand years, and who beg only for the right to take their place in the Balkans and live in freedom and harmony with their neighbours, and who now at the time of going to press are fighting bravely for Liberty.

– Edith Durham, 1920. Twenty Years of Balkan Tangle.

A small landlocked country in Southeast Europe – bordering Serbia to the North, Montenegro to the West, and Albania and North Macedonia to the South – Kosovo has a population of 1.8 million people (92% are Albanian and 6% Serbian). It was under Ottoman rule for over four centuries from 1455 to 1912 before Serb control as a part of Yugoslavia after WWI. Kosovo went through a tumultuous 20th century marked by political instability, economic crisis, war, and displacement.

Kosovo. 2022.

Between the two world wars, the Yugoslavian government encouraged the settlement of Serbs, expelling hundreds of thousands of Kosovo Albanians and banning Albanian schools. To dilute the power of Serbia, former Yugoslavian President Tito established Kosovo as an autonomous region after WWII. Albanian nationalists suffered brutal crackdown by Serb nationalists, and unrests reached a tipping point after Tito’s death in 1980. Kosovo Albanians began to demand that their autonomous province be granted the status of a republic, starting with the 1981 University of Pristina student protests that led to mass demonstrations throughout the country. It was against this backdrop of brewing tension that the subsequent conflict began.

You will not be beaten again, Milosevic famously reassured Serb demonstrators in Kosovo Polje on the outskirts of Pristina on April 24, 1987, a gesture that “enthroned him as a tsar” according to a protest organizer. Two months later, in Gazimestan (“Field of Blackbirds”) near Pristina where the Serbian Prince Lazar lost his battle against Ottoman Sultan Murad 600 years earlier, the Serbian leader rallied around a million Serbs, invoking the historical claims to Kosovo as the “cradle” of the Serbian nation despite an Albanian majority population. Milosevic’s claim, All our history is in Kosovo, would unleash an all-out war more than a decade later.

The Gazimestan Memorial where Milosevic rallied around one million Serbs, invoking the historical claims to Kosovo as the “cradle” of the Serbian nation. Gazimestan, Kosovo. 2022.

In 1989, Milosevic changed the Serbian constitution, revoking Kosovo’s autonomy. Over a hundred thousand were sacked from their jobs and thousands were tortured and killed. The Kosovo Liberation Army, KLA, was formed in the early 1990s to fight against Serbian persecution. The conflict escalated into a war, beginning on February 28, 1998 and ending only with NATO intervention on June 11, 1999. Over 13,500 people were killed or went missing. Finally, in 2008, Kosovo declared independence but close to 70 countries including Serbia, Russia, China, and five EU states – Spain, Greece, Romania, Slovakia, and Cyprus – still do not recognize Kosovo as an independent state.

Nobody knows who won, because nobody has won. We do not know who lost, because we have all lost, and we have lost a lot.

– Zdravko Grebo, Professor of Law

Once a Kosovo War frontline notorious for civilian massacres, now a nickel mine. Gllanasell, Drenica, Kosovo. 2022.

FRAGMENTS OF WAR is a long-term photography project exploring war and memory in the Western Balkans. “It’s terrible to remember, but it’s far more terrible not to remember,” Nobel Laureate, Svetlana Alexeivich, writes. This project aims to document memories of people from the Western Balkans about the legacy of war and share their vision of hope and peace. Using Lederach’s concept of moral imagination of peace-building (2005), it explores themes of loss, grief, displacement, identity, nationalism, social healing, justice, and reconciliation. If truth is often elusive, we always have the gift our stories. Jennifer Chan is a Chinese Canadian and French documentary photographer currently based in the Western Balkans. Trained as a political sociologist with a focus on social movements, she brings a human rights lens to her documentary photography. She has previously worked with nongovernmental organizations in Lebanon and Thailand on refugee and migrant portraiture. Since 2020, she has been traveling and photographing full time in Africa and Europe. Her first visit to the Balkans dated back to the former Yugoslavia era. In Fall 2022, she returned to the region to document people’s wartime experiences and memory in the context of transitional justice.

Read the stories here:

The Bunjaku Family, Drenica Valley

Ajete: Remembering Bekim

Selim, retired librarian

Remzi, widow

Hysni, mining engineer

Xheva, homemaker

Eset, former NLA fighter

All Content © 2023 by Jennifer Chan