If you tell someone that in times of war
you want love
your friend will think you are stupid
but a soldier, even in the fiercest fights
never stop thinking about love…
In times of war only God knows
It is known that there is love and there is war.
– Jeton Kelmendi, Love in Time of War, November 1999.
A fine autumn evening in Pristina, the capital city of Kosovo. Malsor has arranged for me to meet his parents at their home in the back of the Goddess on the Throne Hostel. I had mentioned that I would like to meet Kosovars who went through the war.
You’re at the right place, he said. Do you know my family history?
No, I replied. We are from the Drenica Valley and my dad was a KLA fighter, he explained. Drenica is a hilly region in central Kosovo known for its tradition of strong resistance to outside powers, dating back to Turkish rule in the Balkans. By 1997, the city was considered as “liberated territory” due to strong KLA presence and the government considered the region a hotbed of “Albanian terrorism.”
When the door opens, I see a crowd has gathered in the living room. Everyone stands up to shake hands, beginning with the eldest, in accordance with Kosovar tradition. Xheva, their neighbor, and her daughter, Valbona. Avni and Taibe, Malsor’s father and mother, and Avni’s three younger sisters: Zyla, Elfetja, and Zadja. There is a spread of drinks and sweets on the coffee table, like in any casual family gathering. It is never easy to talk about the war. I know it first-hand. My parents who went through the Chinese civil war in the 1930s never broached the subject, and my extended family in Cambodia who went through the genocide under Pol Pot remains completely silent. The Kosovo War is recent, the memory must be still so fresh.
Love and War
If I get killed during the war, take our children with you and get married again. Avni begins his story by recalling his farewell message to his pregnant young wife before taking off to join the KLA at the start of the Kosovo War.
Mom, do you remember? Iliriana, their daughter, asks.
How can one forget that? Taibe replies.
Avni was twenty-five when he joined the KLA on Mar 25, 1998. Not at all political, he was a typical Kosovo Albanian village youth, doing farm work in his family village of Gllanasell in the Drenica Valley.
The happiest day of my life was when I overcame my fear and decided to take up arms to fight, Avni says. Before that, any Serbian could kill us and I didn’t know what to do. Now, I became capable of protecting myself and others. I felt human.
I felt I had no choice, he explains. From 1990 to1998, everyone was expelled from school, so we couldn’t go to school. Teachers were killed when Serbian military knew they were teaching Albanian. We couldn’t go to work either.
It was hard, he says about the fighting. He remembers, in particular, the second offensive on September 22 1998 near Cicavica. We were ambushed in Shavarina with very little ammunition. Only 20m from our enemy, I was less scared of dying than not having ammunition. Luckily, the Serbs retreated.
The Yugoslav Army and Serb police and paramilitary 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. On April 30, when Serbian military rounded up all children and the elderly in the village of Cirez where 99% of my family was, it was really hard for me, Avni adds. I didn’t know what happened and was worried sick about my wife and daughter. They killed my father and my cousin. One of my brothers, Elbasan, thirteen at the time, survived by pretending to be dead. ‘Give me water’ was what he said when he saw a villager who thought he was dead three days later…
Everyone Needs a Psychologist after the War
The city is asleep
the people and the night are asleep
the silence rests.
– Jeton Kelmendi
I was seven-month pregnant with Malsor when the war began, Taibe says. I left my daughter, Iliriana, two at the time, with my sisters-in-law and walked with other villagers for 50km in the mountains until I fell unconscious...
For two months, we women and children stayed in a school in Cirez. One of the teenage boys was hiding with us and we dressed him up as a woman to try to protect him. Unfortunately, the Serb soldiers found out and killed him. Serb military also came to take girls away. I smeared mud on my face and my daughter asked me to remove it, she continues.
What I remember the most was our time in the woods, she recalls. Every time my husband went to search for flour so that we could make bread, I would put a white cloth to signal that it’s safe for him to enter. We survived on bread and sweet corn, and gave a little milk and bread with sugar to little Iliriana. Only the elderly and pregnant women stayed in the mosques, everyone else slept outside. But I didn’t want to stay in a mosque for fear of losing my daughter if we had to flee suddenly. One time, the Serbian military was approaching when Iliriana, sitting on my lap, said, he’s my dad. I was so scared, because If they heard us, they would kill us, as my husband was in the KLA.
Taibe, from the village of Dritan in the Drenica Valley, attended middle school in the nearby town of Drenas until 1990 when Albanian schools were banned under Milosevic’s new policy. Like many Albanian students at the time, she completed her high school years in private homes. Taibe’s father and elder brother, both KLA fighters, were both killed.
Mom cried a lot after father was killed. She had to raise us nine children by herself, Taibe remembers. And I miss my brother so much. We were very close to each other. What can we do? Everyone needs a psychologist after the war…
Displacement and Trauma
Over a million Kosovars were displaced during the war and tens of thousands fled as refugees and settled abroad. Avni’s three brothers all settled in the US. One of them, Shpetim, joins the conversation from Maryland.
I was only 19 years old at the time, just a young man. We were about 500-600 people, all civilians, and walked over 80km for five days to cross over to Macedonia, Shpetim recalls. I was carrying an injured villager. He was a heavy guy. Yes, I saved his life but never met him again.
What do you remember the most? I ask.
The danger and April 30, 1999, the day when my father got killed, he replies. My brother survived but a cousin got killed as well. I don’t have any PTSD but my younger brother, thirteen at the time, does…
Everyone suffers from the legacy of war but we don’t say it’s trauma, Avni’s daughter, Iliriana, adds. Psychotherapy is uncommon here in Kosovo and few see therapists about their war trauma. People confuse psychology with psychiatry and mix up PTSD with madness…
I think I managed to overcome the trauma, Avni says. How? By reading. After the war, I went on to pursue a Bachelor’s degree in political science and a Master’s in geography. I think of the future instead of the past. I am the eldest in my family. When my father died, I had to think of everyone: my wife, children, sisters, and brothers. I had to be like a father for everyone…
We take a coffee and baklava break before Avni’s sisters tell their stories.
I don’t know where to start. There’s so much… Zyla, twenty-one at the time, recounts.
I was with my husband’s family when the war broke. Our house got burnt down and we moved to Pristina. I was six-month pregnant then and was terribly scared. My baby died in childbirth and was given away. I never learn where his body is. For safety, I had to walk for days and nights from village to village around Pristina immediately after labor. It was so hard…
Her sister, Elfetja, recalls passing out while waiting in line for flour. It’s Zadja, Avni’s youngest sister, who finds it the hardest to speak about the war.
I cannot talk about the war, I have nightmares, Zadja says.
Maybe this is what we call trauma, Iliriana adds.
About 20,000 women were raped during the Kosovo War, Iliriana continues. Fortunately, that did not happen to our family. Only recently have women begun to speak about it. One of our MPs, Vasfije Krasniqi, who was raped during the war came out in public and broke the culture of silence.
A Family Movie
Malsor, meaning man of the mountains in Albanian, was born during the Kosovo War.
I was raised by a family that always had stories to tell about the war. Each time someone told a story, a movie would be playing in the back of my mind. For example, mom and grandma used to say, “You were crying all the time when the bullets were flying around.”
We normally didn’t talk too much about the war, because whenever we did, half of the family would be in tears, and grandma would say: Please don’t send us back to the war! Whenever grandma herself did talk, it was always about Dad being far away [fighting in the hills], her fears about our safety, and concern for my uncle, Shpetim, the only one who left for the US from Macedonia right after the war. And each time the story of Uncle Elbasan was mentioned – he was the only who survived by pretending to be dead for three days – there would be silence in the room because everyone thought that should have never happened to a child of thirteen. Usually these war discussions happened when the TV was off or during blackouts that were frequent in my teenage years. As there was no distraction, family talks would be surrounding where we were and where we’re going, and somehow the conversation would always go back to the war…
When I was a kid, all those stories were hard to understand, but I never felt them as a burden. I was always interested in knowing more. Over time, that movie in the back of my mind gained more purpose and meaning as it allowed me to understand and remember what my family went through. For example, Dad was in the KLA at my age. Now, thanks to people like you, I would like to know even more…
Every time I cross the border to go to Albania – in my comfortable car, coming in and out as a free person, not having to look over my shoulders for my safety – I would have goose bumps. In the back of my mind, in my movie, I would see my father walking in these surrounding mountains in total darkness, as he did these ammunition runs across the border. For other people, crossing the border might be a routine experience. For me, it is my family history.
And whenever I go through the mountains of Drenica, I feel the strength of my mom and a close connection to my family. How could a woman who had just given birth walk with her infant son and toddler daughter? I can never thank my mom enough for her strength.
It’s really hard to find strength and freedom with a family with such sad war memories. But I saw how my parents – despite their grief – gathered their strength so that we could have freedom. I feel it’s my duty to gather all the resources I have to find strength. I show my parents: Thank you, you did all this for my freedom.
I must have been a scared child from infancy on. The emotional impact might always be there, and perhaps even in my future child. But I don’t feel I am traumatized. I have my family stories and for that I am thankful. I have a movie, a collage of all of the stories of my family…
The Long Shadow of War
I know that life after the war can sometimes be even more difficult than it was during the war. The enemy is more cunning, and a man wants to relax after he has exerted so much effort to survive. But you cannot.
– Kénizé Mourad
Life in post-war Kosovo is anything but easy. High unemployment, low salaries, and limited mobility due to restrictive visas make life difficult for most Kosovars. Above all, age-old tensions between Serbs and Albanians continue to simmer. During my visit, ethnic tension threatens once again to boil over due to a protracted licence plate deadlock. A new licence plate, introduced in 2010, two years after independence, bearing the letters RKS (Republic of Kosovo) and the coat of arms, has been refused by some 50,000 ethnic Serb living in Northern Kosovo who continue to use those issued by the Serbian government. To avoid trouble with the authorities, most Kosovo Serbs just use a tape to mask the letters SRB and the Serbia flag. In August 2022, when the rule finally came into effect, ethnic Serbs in the north barricaded roads and fired shots in protest. Three months later, Serb policemen and members of parliament resigned en masse on the day when penalty warning was due to be issued. A few days after my visit, Kosovo police advised foreigners to stay away from the Serb side of Mitrovica for fear of unrest. If licence plates can ignite such deep seated distrust, what is next? Serbia – with Russia behind – has never forgotten NATO’s 1999 intervention that ended the Kosovo War. Unfortunately, Kosovo’s tragedy lies in its being used as a small pawn by the big powers…
Ethnic tensions are artificial, Avni insists. It is a great pity that we missed the opportunity to reform Serbia – through de-Milosevication – post-1999.
Is peace possible? I ask.
Yes! Avni is affirmative. We have no choice.
We want to believe that peace is a choice. After such a horrific war and its long shadow, everyday is a blessing from God, in the words of Avni.
Twenty-five members of the Bunjaku-Shehu family perished in the Kosovo War. What saddens me the most, sighs Avni, is to have lost all our family photos. How to remember when everything is gone?
Being the eldest in a big family with their fathers killed, both Taibe and Avni shouldered the burden to provide for everyone. Taibe finally completed law school at the age of 40 but could not find work as a lawyer. Avni, after finishing two bachelor’s and one master’s degrees, joined the Kosovo Security Forces. Zyla and Zadja work at a supermarket while Elfetja is a full time homemaker. Avni’s three brothers – Milaim, Shpetim, and Elbasan – all work for the same construction company in Maryland, USA. Iliriana joined the military and received one of the most coveted honours of being the International Sword Winner in the UK. In 2012, Avni relocated the family to the capital city and took out a big loan to purchase a house which was turned into a hostel in 2022. After graduating from the Rochester Institute of Technology in 2021, Malsor now manages the bustling GOT hostel and moonlights as a cryptocurrency trader.
pulsates in memories
consciously and subconsciously
and together with it, we walk
seeing the world as it never learns its lesson.
– Nora Prekazi, War
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 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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