He gripped the dead man’s shoulder again, as if he wanted to bring him back to life. ‘Why am I doing this?’ he thought. At once he realized that he had bent down over the other man not to awaken him from eternal sleep but to turn him on his back. He simply meant to follow the custom. Around him patches of snow were still there, scattered witnesses.
– Ismail Kadare, Broken April
Haki should be released anytime soon, hopefully next week, inshallah, Remzi says when I went to visit her in the village of Marin in the Drenica Valley. Her 32-year-old son, a law school graduate, has been suffering from mental health issues for the past seven years. A month ago, he entered a bank – where he did not have a bank account – to ask for money, insisting that they had taken his money. When he was being shown the door, he hit the security guard and was arrested. Remzi tried to approach the guard’s family to reconcile but they refused. In this part of Kosovo, it is our customs to revenge. The Kanun, based on honor. Now I am worried sick that as soon as Haki is released, the other family will come look for him, Remzi says.
No one knows how intergenerational trauma works in the long shadow of war. Remzi lost her husband and two children – the two elder brothers of Haki – during the Kosovo War. Haki was nine at the time. According to her family, Remzi spoke often about them in the past twenty-three years.
Do you think Haki’s mental health issues might be related to the war? I ask.
Maybe, she replies. Mama, I am always alone, he would say growing up. What can I do?
On the Run
When fighting broke out in Obri in September 1998, we fled to the mountains, Remzi recounts. After returning to our house for a few days, we had to run again. First we went to the village of Gllanasell, then to Krasmiroc, and then to Resnik with other family relatives [this was one of the villages visited by the then UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Sadako Ogata, where thousands of refugees had gathered by September 1998]. From there, we headed to the village of Shalc and returned to Kasmiroc, Obri, and finally Polacs. We stayed there for four, five months in a private house school. Then we left for Obri again and stayed for 3 nights. Up until this point, we were all still altogether. One night, my eldest son, Gani, 15, came and took all of us to Drenas by tractor. It was safer there. Then my two sons and their father went back to Obri. This was the last time I saw them.
In My Own Prison
The graves accuse through their remains. It is heartrending that perpetrators never face the trial. What we do, is only one part.
– Valon Hyseni, forensic examiner.
I found out much later what happened to my husband and sons, Remzi says.
We can stop here if it is too hard for you, my interpreter tells her.
No, I want to tell my story, she replies.
From Obri, they went to the village of Turshil. On 28 March 1999, they were surrounded by Serbian army and were put to jail in Skenderaj. Two days later, they were ordered to leave and started to return to Drenas on foot. They were stopped in Polacs and were killed. Their bodies, together with others, were put in tractors and dumped in Prekaz. When their bodies were found five months later, some people came to our house to ask us to go to Skenderaj for identification. I saw my husband’s watch and found a tractor key in Gani’s pocket. For my second son, Abaz, 13, I recognized his pants.
How did you feel when they found their bodies? I ask.
Very bad at the time, Remzi replies. When my brother came to see me from Germany, he could not recognize me. It was so hard to accept.
How did you heal over the past twenty-three years?
I still feel bad. I feel I am in prison, my own prison. I can’t get out of this.
Over 1,000 children were killed and 109 remain missing during the 1998-1999 Kosovo War. Remzi never found out who killed her husband sons and no one has been prosecuted for the crime. Today, she lives with her sister-in-law who herself lost her brother, brother-in-law, two nephews, ten great-nephews, and with one son still missing.
They say that there are 1333 children killed in Kosovo. It would be good if they would make a big memorial and write all those 1333 names. There is no war without blood, and freedom heals everything. Freedom is more valuable than anything.
– Bahrie Gashi, whose daughter was killed during the war, in Korab Krasniqi and Ibrahimi Dardan, 2022, Hijacked Childhoods: Accounts of Children’s Wartime Experiences.
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.
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The Bunjaku Family, Drenica Valley
All Content © 2023 by Jennifer Chan