Eset remembering his double war experience in Kosovo and Macedonia. Drenas, Kosovo. 2022.

The true religion of the Albanian is his national ideal.

– Albanian poem

A chilly, rainy evening in central Kosovo. I have come to Drenas to meet up with Eset who not only survived the Kosovo War but went on to fight another one in North Macedonia. Slender and soft-spoken, he hardly fits the image of a guerrilla fighter. There is definitely a story behind his long journey home.

I was in my house in Verboc when the massacre in Likoshan happened on 28 February 1998, Eset begins. Serb army killed eleven men through heavy artillery fighting. It was the beginning of a war for us in the valley. KLA fighters were nearby and we were able to stay in our house until September.

On September 22, Serb forces launched a big offensive throughout the Drenica Valley, he continues. We fled to the nearby Cicavica mountains where over 4000 villagers had gathered. Three days later, we returned home to find everything destroyed. Our house, cars, tractors, crops, corn and grain reserve. Everything was burnt to the ground.

One of the few remaining family photos. Eset (top second right(), his father (lower left) and Eset (center), and youngest brother (lower right), both killed during the war. Family photo archive.

When the NATO bombing started, we stayed in our house until April 3 when Serb army ordered us to leave. On Friday, April 30, we fled to the mountains and our family was separated.

I met with a group of people and stayed with them. The following evening, I found my uncle’s body, 50 metres from where we were the day before. After hurriedly burying him, I fled to another village with other family members.

Then on Sunday, I found the dead bodies of my father, youngest brother, and uncle, and buried them. I had spotted one of my uncle, Elbasan, several times at night, but was not sure whether he’s still alive. Give me some water, all of a sudden we heard him say, some twenty meters away from the body of my uncle. He survived the massacre. We took him to the mountains first for safety and then to a house in a village where an old man took care of him.

Paintings of Eset’s father, Ibush, and brother, Avdyl.

Eset’s Double Wars

For five decades in the previous system, there was a declarative emphasis on equality between Macedonians, Albanians and other communities; that they are equal, that they have equal rights to education and work. But the actual situation has shown that over the past 50-60 years there has been great and evident discrimination against minority communities, especially the Albanians.

– Vlado Popovski, Professor of Law, North Macedonia

Eset shuffled between the Cicavica mountains and his house till the end of the war. Unlike most of his family members. he never left Kosovo and remained in his home village to rebuild his family. Meanwhile, in neighbouring Macedonia, tensions between a Macedonian majority and Albanian minority continued to brew. In 1997, the Constitutional Court further restricted the use of the Albanian flag in public institutions to state holidays. When fighting broke out in North Macedonia in March 2001, Eset did not tell anyone in his family and left to join the National Liberation Army/NLA, a paramilitary organization of Albanian rebels. I knew what was happening and went to help, Eset explains. During the Kosovo War, Macedonian Albanians came to help us. It’s normal that I went to help them.

I took a bus to Prizren alone where I stayed for about two weeks to meet up with other fighters for some basic training, he continues. As a group of about 100, we crossed the border into North Macedonia. I was twenty-four then, unmarried and free, and joined the NLA. I helped prepare the battle line and bunkers in Gurikuq near Skopje. Attacked by Macdeonians with grenades from helicopters, we tried to defend our battle line. After staying in Gurikuq for three weeks, we moved to Novosell and Bugovin, and stayed till September.

A collage of Eset’s NLA photos (second from left and second from right) in North Macedonia in 2001.

When I ask Eset why he didn’t tell his family he took off to fight in North Macedonia, he almost had a mischievous smile, like a young boy being caught for a misdeed. No one would have let me go, for sure, after all that we went through during the war! When I was in Prizren, I told my family I was in Peja, he says still with a sense of exploit. For three weeks, no one found out until some friends told them, Your nephew is in Macedonia!

During the Kosovo War, he continues, I had no ability to protect my family and country. I feel good to be able to help in Macedonia. After the war, we gained some rights for Macedonian Albanians. But so much more needs to be done. The so-called equal rights exist mostly on paper!

The Ohrid Framework Agreement, signed in August 2001, stipulating more rights of ethnic Albanians in Macedonia including being recognized as one of the official languages, put an end to the armed conflict. To the relief of his family, Eset returned to Kosovo.

“No one would have let me go, for sure!” Eset says, about joining the NLA in North Macedonia. “When I was in Prizen, I told my family I was in Peja. For three weeks, no one found out until some friends told them, Your nephew is in Macedonia!” Eset today. Drenas, Kosovo. 2022.

When Freedom Came

How does one find healing after such traumatic experience and without justice? I put the question to Eset.

I can neither forget nor forgive, he says. It could have been worse. Thank God it’s peace now and we have freedom. Life goes on…

Like for so many Kosovars, life goes on for Eset even without a sense of closure. Today, he lives with his wife and three teenage children in Verboc, Kosovo.

“I can neither forget nor forgive,” Eset says. “It could have been worse. Thank God it’s peace now and we have freedom.” Pristina, Kosovo. 2022.
Eset’s two daughters and their friend in traditional Albanian dress. Family photo archive.
Eset’s family, Verboc, Kososo. Family photo archive.

The wounds of the 2001 conflict have still not healed. The bodies of eight of the kidnapped Macedonians have still not been found, and it remains unclear why the seven Albanians were murdered. Both Macedonians and Albanians continue to mourn their loved ones.

– Zoran Andonov

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

Ajete: Remembering Bekim

Selim, retired librarian

Remzi, widow

Hysni, mining engineer

Xheva, homemaker

All Content © 2023 by Jennifer Chan