Perhaps we humans are stronger than stones.
– Ajete, 77, whose son disappeared during the Kosovo War.
Winter falls fast in Kosovo. In a cold, rainy December evening, I venture once again in the direction of the Drenica Valley, these hills pregnant with stories and memories.
The car twists and turns, following a dark road. I can drive here with my eyes closed, Avni, my interpreter, says. I believe him. As a former KLA fighter and geographer from the valley, he knows each hill and each village like the back of his hands, especially at night. Without doubt, this is his terrain.
I share with him my apprehension about meeting his elderly aunt. How do we remember without triggering trauma? On the phone, she said she had no issues sharing her story, Avni reassures me.
We arrive at a newly looking two-storey brick house completed only three months ago in the village of Obri. Hello, hello, Ajete, frail-looking but wearing a gentle smile, welcomes me in English. Sit here, you will be warm, she says, showing me the seat closest to the fireplace.
Are you cold? she asks.
No, not at all. I am Canadian, I tell her.
Ah, my daughter who lives in Sweden always says the same, she says, smilingly.
From Kosovo to Montenegro and Back
When the war ended, we were in Ulcinj, Montenegro, Ajete begins her story. An end that is also the beginning of a never-ending journey to search for her disappeared son. Like for all other parents who suffer the unspeakable tragedy of losing their children during a war, time stands still. The war – their war – never ends.
We were in our village of Marin near Prekaz when the war broke out, she explains. We fled to the mountains and stayed there for three nights. My husband was sick and we returned to our house. Our five daughters and youngest son, Bekim, went to Terdevc, a safer village than where we were. My two oldest sons had left for Germany before the war. I took my husband to the hospital and then to my brother’s house. Three days later, he died.
Other villagers told me it’s not safe to stay put, Ajete continues. So my whole family went to Kozhica near Cicavica. Bekim, nineteen at the time, fled for his safety and became separated from us in the direction of Shalc. We stayed in the mountains until Serbian police told us to go to Skenderaj where we stayed for three weeks.
We were about 2000 people then. One guy, maybe from the KLA, told us it’s not safe to stay in Skenderaj, so we all went to Prekaz. Then Serbian army came and ordered us to leave. At two, three in the morning, we started walking towards Mitrovica. We heard gunshots of people being killed.
Two of my daughters went to stay with their grandmother in Obri while two others stayed with their aunt in Gllanasell. I took my youngest daughter with me to Mitrovica. Bekim went to pick up his two sisters in Gllanasell and take them to Mitrovica to join us. He didn’t stay.
That was the last time I saw my son. It was May 1999.
If it’s too hard, we can stop here, Avni tells his aunt.
No, I want to share my experience, Ajete insists.
The owner of the house where we were staying in Mitrovica helped me connect with my son, Musa, in Germany, she goes on.
Do you have money, mama? my son asked me. Yes, I have money, I told him. The following day, my daughter went to buy bus tickets for Podgorica. From there, we took a private car to get to Ulcinj. We stayed in a tent at first and then moved to a private house for seven weeks.
Two days after NATO bombing ended on June 10, my son called from Germany and said he had paid a guy 100 deutsche mark to take us all back to Marin.
Our house was completely burned. Nothing remained. No cows, no chickens. Nothing. Everything was destroyed. We went to stay with a cousin whose house was only partially destroyed.
You Remember My Son’s Name
War and displacement, like for over a million other Kosovars, except that Ajete never heard from her youngest son again.
The last time I saw him we were in Mitrovica, Ajete recounts. From what I have heard, he went back to Skenderaj. From there, he went to Terdevc, then to Obri and Llaush. By then he was with ten nephews (sons of my husband’s brothers) and twenty-five others including a famous local LDK leader in Skenderaj as well as a well-known doctor called Adem Ademi. Their plan was to go from Llaush to Montenegro via Kotorr, Kosovo and the Mokra mountains. Someone took 100DM from each of them supposedly to take them across the border. But no one has heard from any of them ever since.
Did you contact the government or NGOs to try to find Bekim?
We did. We tried to see if we could find things like his clothes, but we didn’t find anything. I tried and tried, and asked around. My son came back from Germany to help find his brother, but we found nothing. I didn’t meet with any politicians/NGOs. What’s the use?
How do you feel now? I ask.
I feel I have lost my mind. After my sister and my brother died last year, I feel even worse because I remember how they both always said to me, Don’t be sad, Ajete…
Has anyone offered help to try to find Bekim? I ask Ajete.
You remember my son’s name, she says, with tears swelling in her eyes.
I will never forget your son’s name, I say and hug her. Bekim was my son’s age now when he went missing. No words will ever be sufficient to describe a mother’s grief.
No one. For twenty-three years, nobody has come to my house to ask me about my son. Two years after the war ended, someone from the Red Cross gave me 100 euros, that’s all.
Perhaps we humans are stronger than stones, Ajete murmurs.
More than 1,600 people remain missing in the Kosovo War. Under a policy of No Body, No Crime, the Milosevic government removed hundreds of murdered Albanians’ corpses from Kosovo to Serbia and concealed them in mass graves, a crime that has never been prosecuted in neither Serbia nor Kosovo. There has been no trial, compensation or memorial for the war disappeared in Kosovo.
In addition to her son and ten great-nephews, Ajete also lost her brother, brother-in-law and two nephews. She never found out who were responsible nor has anyone been held accountable for the killings.
Today, Ajete lives with her son in Kosovo and has fourteen grandchildren in Germany, Sweden, Austria, and Kosovo. She continues to remember her youngest son, Bekim.
We still have that pain in our body. Until we find the last person from the village, we will feel that pain.
– Eqrem Hoti, English teacher from Krusha e Madhe, still looking for justice for the 64 people missing from his village.
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 of 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 more stories here:
The Bunjaku Family, Drenica Valley
All Content © 2023 by Jennifer Chan