In-depth | The past, now | Missing persons

Missing Persons — my confrontation with pain and uncertainty

A photo-journalist’s personal account of documenting a poignant issue.

By - 28.09.2018

It was all by accident when, in 2005, I was assigned by the daily newspaper that I used to work for at the time to team up with a writer and go to a village near Gjakova.

Once there, I travelled back in time. It was in the village of Meja, which I had visited many times during the first days after NATO forces had entered Kosovo in June 1999.

Back then, groups of foreign photographers would drive to one house that had surprisingly remained normal from the outside, but inside there was a crime scene where fire had left the outlines of a human body after it had been carbonized, and the wind had taken away the ashes.

September 13, 2005, the day I shot the picture of the marked grave in the war victims’ cemetery in Meja, I had no idea that this picture would be the first in a long term project that I was about to start, and that would keep me engaged in the issue of missing persons for the coming years.

It was only after returning to the office and had finished editing the photographs that I understood the importance of the story. There was other work that had been done on the same subject, but this was mainly concentrated on the forensic aspect, not the suffering and years of waiting for the families who cannot mourn the deaths of their loved ones.

In this way I found myself engaged in the issue and started following all relevant events that were related to missing persons.

Hundreds of family members regularly gathered outside a plastic tent at the Merdare border crossing in north east Kosovo to pay their respects and hoping they would be there when the remains of their loved ones were brought back home. During this period, there were regular transfers of mortal remains found in mass graves in Serbia.

On one of many visits to the Merdare border crossing point, despite the fact that I was supposed to go back to the office and file the photographs for the newspaper, I remained there on the spot after the ceremony had ended and witnessed the work of the UN’s Office of Missing Persons and Forensics (UN OMPF).

A surreal scene followed when I was alone in the enormous tent with hundreds of plastic bags with unclear markings. It was as though I had invited myself to witness this process, and no one was even trying to stop a photographer during a very sensitive process.

On this occasion I had the chance to get closer to the UN OMPF, who immediately understood and accepted my dedication to documenting the subject with a profound and respectful approach.

After the initial work at Merdare, there was still a lot to do in order to identify the remains.

The next phase was the role of detailed forensic analysis in a purpose-built building in Prishtina’s hospital compound. It was here that I had a meeting with the head of the UN OMPF. At first sight the place looked like any other UN office, rooms with clear blue painted walls and desks covered with paper and staff all wearing ID badges.

After presenting myself to the rest of the staff I was taken to the basement where the real work was being done.

Thousands of pieces of bone were scattered all over many metallic tables, shelves filled with the same plastic bags that I had seen days before in Merdare, all waiting to be identified, matched, reconstructed and identified. The smell still remains fresh in my memory. A tremendous work done by men and women, all coming from different countries.

It was here that I got to understand the difficulty of the procedure of identifying remains. In this case, not all of the plastic bags were clean, and they didn’t only contain human remains.

Unfortunately, while being covered with soil, the bodies of the victims were often buried with animal carcasses. This added another time-consuming element to the already difficult procedure.

First the remains from one bag were placed together and tested for potential skeletal reconstruction. In many cases, pieces of unknown origins had their DNA extracted to identify whether they were of human or animal origin.

After months and months of tests, bone matching and reconstruction, the families of those who had been successfully identified were invited to collect the bodies of their loved ones.

After a few days of regular visits to the institute, I was invited to join a group on a visit to the site of a possible mass grave in the small village of Saradan, close to Istog in western Kosovo.

A few hours via bumpy ride in a UN vehicle took us to the spot in the bushes outside the village where the available intel suggested there might possibly be a mass grave site. Police had secured the area, and troops from NATO’s Kosovo Force (KFOR) provided a small bulldozer to dig the area, which was the size of a small garden.

It was only when they reached the last layer of rocks a few meters beneath the surface that the signal was given to the team to stop the digging and pack up. There was no mass grave here.

Returning to Mardare, I had the chance to get closer to the families and to really feel their pain and uncertainty.

Almost all of the Behluli family had gone missing during the war. Parents, two sisters and two brothers remained only in the photographs on display in the family house of the sole survivor, the third daughter who is married in Fushë Kosova.

Nearby was the Behluli family house. I could never have imagined that a bathroom filled with vegetation in a burned house would be so meaningful and reflect the time that had passed since its inhabitants had gone.

The final chapter to document, for those whose loved ones had been found and identified, was the burials.

As a staff photographer at a daily newspaper, I spread the word to the local correspondents in small towns around Kosovo to inform me about the funeral burials of all war victims who had previously been declared missing.

In the following months I documented funerals in muddy fields, where I would come across family members who I had previously met in Merdare, or during the many protests in Prishtina demanding more actions to find their loved ones.

In particular I remember a funeral in Krusha e Madhe, where a young girl lost consciousness and had to be taken to an ambulance, and a young boy found courage by holding a photograph of his father who he had never seen before in his life.

I still do not accept that I have finished documenting the issue of missing persons, as there are still more than 1,500 people missing.