Selim, 73, retired librarian. Vushtrri, Kosovo. 2022.

We wholeheartedly wish to live in peace with all our neighbours, Serbia, Montenegro, Greece and Bulgaria… We do not want and do not ask anything of them, but we are all determined to protect that which is ours.

- Excerpt from the League of Prizren’s platform, 1878

On June 30, 1876, Serbia, together with the principality of Montenegro, declared war on the Ottoman Empire and began mass expulsion of Albanians as part of the wider persecution of Muslims in the Balkans, laying down the roots for the subsequent conflict between the Serbian and Albanian peoples in the 20th century. By the time the Congress of Berlin in 1878 recognized Serbia as an independent state with expanded territory, about 60-70,000 Albanian refugees from Serbia relocated throughout the then vilayet/district of Kosovo. This was where Selim’s family story began way back…

A turn-of-the-century old map of areas inhabited by Albanians. Vushtrri Fortress Museum, Kosovo. 2022.

One Family, Seven Places!

In a rainy November afternoon, I venture north of Pristina, mid-way between Vushtrri and Mitrovica, to meet with Selim, a retired librarian. He lives with his son, Besim, daughter-in-law, Elfetja, and their three children in a comfortable two-story house. A pot of çaj rusi/Russian tea is brewing on the Yugoslavia-era wood-burning stove in a typical sparse Kosovar living room when I arrive. Knowing little about Selim’s war experiences, except that he has loads to share, I have come with no expectation. Wearing a welcoming, exuberant smile, he puts me instantly at ease. I know right there and then that he has a great story to share…

Selim, 73, retired librarian. Vushtrri, Kosovo. 2022.

In 1878, my family was expelled from the village of Mehane from Serbia, about 30km from today’s border of Kosovo, Selim began. We were one of the 720 Albanian villages experiencing what we would call today “ethnic cleansing” in the hands of the Serbs. We moved from Mehane to Morina in Drenica, Bokoz, Duboch (where my grandpa was killed), Bchiche, Cazaniche, and now Vushtrri. One family, seven places!

War, displacement, and memory, all recounted over glass after glass of Russian tea. Selim’s life reminds me of the 2021 documentary by Aida Cerkez, the Associated Press war correspondent during the siege of Sarajevo, What’s This Country Called Now?, based on her interview with a 92-year-old retired Sarajevan railway worker, Ismet Tabakovic, who “lived in one house, but five different countries.” Elfetja, his daughter-in-law, now brings out homemade smoke beef jerky prepared in the same antique but highly functional Yugoslavia-era stove…    

War, displacement, and memory, all recounted over glass after glass of Russian tea. Chez Selim, Vushtrri, Kosovo. 2022.
Traditional smoked meat. Chez Selim, Vushtrri, Kosovo. 2022.
Never easy to talk about displacement: Selim recounting his family’s expulsion from the village of Mehane in today’s Serbia in 1878 (overlaid image of an old map of areas inhabited by Albanians). Chez Selim, Vushtrri, Kosovo. 2022.

From 1970 to 1990, I worked as a librarian in Cirez, Selim continues. After Serbia approved the amendments to the Constitution, dissolving Kosovo’s provincial government and taking over management of our schools, media, and police etc., I was fired from my job in July 1990, as I disagreed with the change and left the Communist Party. All ten of us Albanian librarians were sacked (my two Serbian colleagues remained). I was supporting twelve people in my family at the time: my mother, wife, and nine children. To make ends meet, I started selling produce, moving from bazaar to bazaar in the Drenica valley. Vushtrri, Mitrovica, Drenas, and Skenderaj. These were tough times…

Elfetja magically brings out generous servings of trileqe, an Albanian three-milk cake, to help sweeten the bitter past a little…  

Trileqe, Albanian three-milk cake. Chez Selim, Vushtrri, Kosovo. 2022.

When the war broke out in 1998, I was living in the village close to Cicavica, Selim recalls. I became the head of the assembly for emergency to organize food and shelter for six surrounding villages. There were 9,000 refugees from four municipalities: Skenderaj, Drenas, Klina, and Vushtrri-Mitrovica. For example, one school was turned into an emergency shelter for 480 refugees.

The KLA (Kosovo Liberation Army) was nearby. I was less scared of losing my own life than not being able to help other refugees including children, he said. The Serbian police would come look for specific, often KLA, families, and villagers would lie to help out one another. I remember a Bosnian woman try to protect one family by lying that they had fled to Macedonia. With the help of six other villagers, we would transport 25,000kg of flour in five trucks to travel about 20km to the refugees. We also took the injured in minivan to go to Gradica where the KLA had an improvised hospital.

Whenever the Serbian army approached, we would flee to the mountains, Selim continues. Most of the women and children went to hide in the mountains of Cicavica. One day, the Serbian army gave us an ultimatum to leave the village by 5pm. We had two hours to cross into Albania. The border was really dangerous. I was asked for my ID that I had buried in the ground en route. If I said I was from the Drenica valley, there was 99% chance they would kill me. I told them I was from another region and gathered about a total of 200 deutsche mark from the villagers to the border police. They let us pass and I went to Albania as a refugee. A total of 125 villagers were killed and many more wounded. I still have the registry…

I am amazed that I am alive, sighs Selim.

Three women and five girls were taken to the village of Cirez, raped and killed by being dumped alive into a well. The daughter of one of the victims is married to my son.

Selim showing me a registry of war victims he put together after the war. Chez Selim, Vushtrri, Kosovo. 2022.

What do you remember the most about the war? I ask.

There was this Mother Teresa organization that gave us flour, milk, eggs etc. to help us survive, Selim replies. Sometimes I would pass on some canned foods to KLA fighters. I reported to Wolfgang Ischinger, the head of the German Delegation during the Kosovo crisis, and Emma Bonino on the refugee situation.

At the Conference of Berlin, Albanians were told that we could go back to our villages, but no one respected that part of the agreement. After the war, I moved to Cacaviza. Our village, Mehane, was a rich, rich place...

Ardit, Selim’s grandson, 17, sits nearby. Does grandpa talk about the war? I ask him.

Yes, he says, smiling. He talks so much; he helped so much…

“Grandpa talks so much; he helped so much!” Ardit says. Selim with grandson, Ardit. Chez Selim, Vushtrri, Kosovo. 2022.

Three hours fly by and I have the feeling that I have only touched the tip of an iceberg of the family odyssey of Selim, like that of so many other Kosovo Albanians.

Do you think Serbia might want to retain control of Kosovo? I ask.

Dreqit I besoi/Oh hell yes! he replies, laughing. I am a straight person and say what I think! I’d stay here if they don’t come again. But if they do, I will move again!

After the war, Selim returned to work as a librarian in Cirez until his retirement at 65. Currently, he receives a pension of 150 euros a month and enjoys spending his time with his grandchildren.

Selim’s daughter-in-law, Elfetja, and granddaughter. Chez Selim, Vushtrri, 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 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

Remzi, widow

Hysni, mining engineer

Xheva, homemaker

Eset, former NLA fighter

All Content © 2023 by Jennifer Chan