Suva Reka town, with approximately 10,000 inhabitants (90 percent ethnic Albanian), and its surrounding villages were continuous areas of conflict in 1998 and 1999. A KLA presence in the hills around the town made the region a regular target of police and army actions. Many villages suffered killings and the destruction of civilian property at the hands of the police before the NATO intervention.
– Human Rights Watch. 2001. Under Orders, War Crimes in Kosovo.
Under the threat of NATO bombing in Fall 1998, Milosevic in the eleventh hour agreed to the presence of OSCE (Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe) verifiers in Kosovo to ensure Yugoslav Army and Serb military’s compliance with the cease-fire agreement (UN resolution 1199). OSCE presence in Suva Reka from November 1998 to March 1999 helped provide a sense of security for Kosovo Albanians in the surrounding towns. This was where Xheva found herself when the Kosovo War broke out.
6:15pm, I still remember, she says. I had left my five children, aged 14, 13, 12, 9, and 5, home in the village of Krushic near Suva Reka.
She was 37 at the time and happened to be with her father in the village of Vraniq when the first offensive struck on July 2, 1998.
Everything, I remember everything about the war, Xheva says.
We were watching a football game on television when my uncle came back from buying cigarettes and told us to move, her daughter, Valbona, fourteen at the time, recounts. We heard sounds of bombing and fled to the forest. We walked from woods to woods for months, finding shelter in basements. All the men were in standby position to alert people to move to another place whenever they heard gunfire.
Not knowing what to do, one of my sons went on his own way to protect our cows, Xheva adds. But nothing could be saved. Our house was burnt down and I don’t even have a single picture. All our animals died. Chickens, cows, bees…
By the second offensive on September 27, over 8,000 refugees from the surrounding villages had gathered in Vraniq, she continues. My husband was taken and stripped down before being sent to jail in Prizren where he was beaten unconscious. Two of my brothers were also taken at the same time, one of which didn’t return till a year late. My uncle’s supermarket was looted by the Serbian military who was all drunk. We saw them licking people’s blood on their knives. When sober, they would cry: how could we do this? We have a family back home…
Valbona brings out a plate of baklava prepared by Xheva earlier today. Before the war, there was no tension in our daily life, she explains. My father was a teacher at a local school attended by Serbian students. Everything seemed calm.
Xheva’s husband, Gani, was the village primary school Albanian language teacher. After Milosevic revoked the autonomy of Kosovo in 1989, many Albanian teachers, police, and civil servants were sacked from their jobs. Gani kept teaching but received no pay for many years (1992-1998). He started selling produce and goods in the bazaars, making rounds to as far as Greece to source cigarettes and clothes. During the summers, he would take the train to Munich to work in order to earn some deutsche marks. Schnell, schnell/fast, fast! he still remembers his boss hurrying everyone. He was a kind man. He treated me well and asked me to stay, Gani says.
Did you? I ask.
No, he replies. Our five children were really young then and we had land. My brothers went though to Germany as refugees. At that time, in the 1990s, given the situation Albanians faced, it was easy to obtain asylum.
So on September 27, 1998, Gani continues, over 8,000 villagers gathered near a river in Vraniq. We were surrounded by Serbian police who separated the men from the women and children. The men were made to kneel for two hours before we were taken to jail in Prizren in a truck. There were at least 100 men in each room and there were many rooms. The police asked me, Who do you work for? Where is the KLA? Tell me how many Serbs were killed? I was beaten badly till I fell unconscious.
After three days, Gani was released, thanks to his Serb neighbour police officer who intervened. He returned to his village but could not get medical treatment as the doctor was too scared. His neighbour helped tender his wounds with salt and onions wrapped in a cloth and exclaimed, It’s better that your mother does not see you in this state! Six months later, her son would be killed and his body dumped by the roadside.
Scared of being caught by Serbian military and sent to jail again, Gani hid in the woods for seven months before crossing into Macedonia in May 1999 and stayed in a refugee camp in Stankovec till the end of the war.
For safety reasons, the OSCE verifiers withdrew from Kosovo on the eve of the NATO bombing in March 1999. Most of the abuses in Suva Reka and the surrounding villages took place in the first week when residents were expelled. On April 24, 1999, Serbian soldiers arrived and ordered everyone to leave. Xheva and her children crossed over to Albania in a tractor and stayed in makeshift plastic tents in the mountains near Kukes till the end of the war. As part of the war crime trials, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) exhumed three grave sites in Suva Reka town containing 103 bodies. Thankfully, Xheva’s family survived.
Every time I go through this part of my family’s past, I feel PTSD, Valbona sighs. After being a pastry chef for eight years, Valbona is now a special education teacher in Pristina while her husband works in Florence, Italy. Their fifteen-year-old son, Dalin, attends high school and aspires to be an architect. He thinks grandma Xheva’s cooking is the best!
When the war in Ukraine started, Xheva says, I imagined how they must feel, especially the women. I can really relate to them. Every time I hear the news about the war, I remember my own experience which continues to traumatize me.
Gardening and cooking must have been healing for Xheva. Her house is filled with blooming flowers and plants, and she enjoys treating her family and friends mouth-watering home-made treats. Gani has since retired and relishes meeting up with his pals in the neighbourhood for coffee. They are happy grandparents to eight beautiful grandchildren in Italy and Kosovo.
The only miracle we can perform is to go on living.
– Jose Saramago
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