Spring Comes Early to Kosovo
The bones of Kosovo are turning blood-red…
Red poppies burst into flower
In the smoke of battle.
– KLA song.
On 28 February 1998, Serbian forces tortured and executed eleven men in Likoshan. Intended to terrorize villagers in the Drenica Valley against sheltering KLA fighters, the massacre produced the opposite effect of galvanizing Albanian resistance. Over 100,000 people attended the funeral, which would become the turning point in the conflict in Kosovo.
I was in my home village of Gllanasell when the massacre happened in Likoshan, Hysni recounts while brewing çaj rusi/Russian tea and baking pumpkin bites in his village house. You know, those days, back in the 1990s, things were really bad. We had no jobs and couldn’t really go anywhere. We could do farm work and play soccer and that’s about it. Two days after the attack, I went to bury my friends I grew up and played soccer with. But still for us, the war had not started yet. I was twenty-three at the time.
On May 5, the Serb army came and occupied the nickel factory near our village, he continues. KLA soldiers were around, giving us some protection. I stayed in the village, doing support work for the KLA like digging trenches in the battle line and distributing food. For five months, the KLA resisted well against Serbian advance along the battle line until Sep 22. During the big offensive, we fled first to Cirez and then to Krasmiroc in the Cicavica mountains. We returned to find our house completely burnt down.
With a major offensive underway, then-Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic took advantage of the NATO bombing to implement a plan to crush the rebels and their base of support among the population, as well as forcibly to expel a large portion of Kosovo’s Albanian population. No one predicted the speed and scale of the expulsions… More than 80 percent of the entire population of Kosovo-90 percent of Kosovar Albanians-were displaced from their homes. Areas with historic ties to the KLA were hardest hit. The municipalities of Glogovac (Gllogofc) and Srbica (Skenderaj) in the Drenica region, the cradle of the KLA, were the scene of multiple massacres of civilians.
– Human Rights Watch. 2001. Under Orders: War Crimes in Kosovo
When the NATO bombing started in March 1999, Serb army ordered us to leave our village, Hysni remembers. We went back to the Cicavica mountains, running from woods to woods.
On April 30, he continues, I was with my oldest brother, Bedri, and my cousins when a grenade hit our village early in the morning. We fled our home in different directions since my big brother thought it was safer to separate. My father, uncles, cousins, and nephew went as a group somewhere at first. Then my injured father and another old man returned to the village to stay with the women for safety. Four of us stayed put in one position to protect ourselves until it became too dangerous at around noon and we decided to move, spending the night in the mountains. Two evenings later, my cousin found the body of my brother, Bedri, 50 metres from the place where we had stayed with four, five other people.
Serb forces committed more “revenge” war crimes during the 78 days of NATO bombing between March 24 and June 10, 1999 than the rest of the war. Many mass graves were discovered in the aftermath of the war.
We didn’t know what happened to my brother until much later, Hysni says. He was separated from us and was killed in the village of Verboc together with two of my uncles.
He remained in the mountains with some relatives till the war ended. Finally, on June 23, he left for Macedonia to join his family in the Chegrane refugee camp where over 50,000 refugees were living. He stayed behind in Macedonia to work for three months before returning to his village to rebuild their house.
After the War
I met up with Hysni a month later in a glitzy cafe filled with Christmas decorations in Drenas where he now lives with his wife and two children.
How did you feel about losing your big brother? I ask.
It was really hard at the time, he says, drawing on a big cigarette puff. My eldest brother was like a father to me. He was 47 when he was killed. I still remember everything…
Did anyone come to investigate about your brother’s death? I inquire.
In June 1999, four, five days after the war ended, I went with Slovenian KFOR members to Shavarina where 168 people were massacred, he remembers. People were afraid to go because of mines that had already killed two people. We saw shoes and body parts of the massacre victims. For my brother, uncle, and cousin, no one came. We knew it’s the Serb forces for sure, but it’s impossible to know who. Before the war, one Serb family lived in Drenas and the guy used to work with my brother in the same compan. He became a commander during the war and then left to live in Nis after the war. As far as I know, he is now with the police force in Serbia. I guess we could have gotten some information if we wanted to, but we never did.
Would you want to know who was responsible for the killings? I ask.
Of course, I do, Hysni replies. I would love to know who killed my father, uncle, and cousin, and to have justice. But we didn’t have any opportunities to do that. After the war, survival was our top priority when everything was destroyed. Also, no one was informed about any procedure to pursue justice. As far as I know, in the Drenica Valley, no family got any justice.
How do you feel now? I ask.
When freedom finally came after the war, I felt better, Hysni remarks. I have had many opportunities to go abroad but I choose to remain in Kosovo to honour all those including my brother who sacrificed for our independence. I would feel like traitor if I leave.
Today, Hysni works as a mining engineer in the nickel factory once occupied by Serb forces during the war. Except one brother who lives in Canada, his five siblings remain in the Drenica Valley. His brother, Bedri, leaves behind a wife and their eight children in Kosovo.
Listen to the ancient flute
An eerie beast is sniffing about
Many a song is sung
But only one song never ends
The song of freedom.
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