A photo-journalist’s personal account of documenting a poignant issue.
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.
The future grave of a person who is still missing clearly marked in the cemetery of war victims in the village of Meja, close to Gjakova. Photo: Ferdi Limani, 2005.
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.
A cardboard box in the missing persons transfer tent in Merdare, containing personal belongings of a person who was found in a mass grave in Serbia. Photo: Ferdi Limani, 2006.
A member of the Kosovo Protection Corps guards plastic bags that contain the mortal remains of missing persons from Kosovo. Photo: Ferdi Limani, 2006.
Plastic bags containing mortal remains of missing persons from Kosovo displayed in the missing persons transfer tent at the Merdare border crossing point. Photo: Ferdi Limani, 2006.
A UN Office of Missing Persons and Forensics officer holds a plastic bag containing the mortal remains of missing persons from Kosovo. Photo: Ferdi Limani, 2006.
A UN OMPF officer collects the flowers that had been thrown over plastic bags containing the mortal remains of missing persons from Kosovo. Photo: Ferdi Limani, 2006.
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.
A family member of a missing person holds a framed photograph of his relative during the handover ceremony of mortal remains at the Merdare border crossing point. Photo: Ferdi Limani, 2006.
A family member of a missing person sits waiting during the handover ceremony of mortal remains at Merdare. Photo: Ferdi Limani, 2006.
Family members of missing persons pay their respects to the victims during the handover ceremony of mortal remains at Merdare. Photo: Ferdi Limani, 2006.
The mother of a missing person holds a photograph of her son while looking at the plastic bags containing mortal remains of war victims found in Serbian mass graves during a handover ceremony at Merdare. Photo: Ferdi Limani, 2006.
After losing consciousness, a relative of a missing person is escorted out of the tent where mortal remains of Kosovo Serb war victims found in Kosovo are being handed over to Serbian authorities. Photo: Ferdi Limani, 2006.
A young girl stands by a poster with photographs of missing persons at the Merdare border crossing point during the handover ceremony of 110 bags containing mortal remains of war victims. Photo: Ferdi Limani, 2006.
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.
A forensics officer opens a plastic bag containing bones belonging to Kosovar Albanian war victims found in mass graves at the Batajnica military facility close to Belgrade. Photo: Ferdi Limani, 2006.
The examination room at the UN Office of Missing Persons and Forensics in Prishtina. Photo: Ferdi Limani, 2006.
A UN OMPF officer attempts to match the bones of Kosovar Albanian war victims that had been found in a mass grave at the Batajnica military facility in Serbia. Photo: Ferdi Limani, 2006.
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.
A UN OMPF officer shows clear evidence of the execution of a Kosovar Albanian war victim brought from a mass grave at the Batajnica military facility. Photo: Ferdi Limani, 2006.
The mortal remains of a Kosovar Albanian war victim lie on a table in a UN OMPF examination room in Prishtina. Photo: Ferdi Limani, 2006.
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.
A KFOR bulldozer digs at a possible mass grave site in the village of Saradan, near Istog. Photo: Ferdi Limani, 2006.
A UN OMPF officer digs at the possible mass grave site in Saradan, near Istog. Photo: Ferdi Limani, 2006.
UN OMPF officers wait to start digging at the possible mass grave site in Saradan, near Istog. Photo: Ferdi Limani, 2006.
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.
All that was left behind at the house of Hysen and Mihane Behluli, who together with daughters Hana and Huma, and sons Lulzim and Muhamet, were taken by Serbian forces on March 26, 1999. Photo: Ferdi Limani, 2006.
The six Behluli family members were taken from their Fushë Kosova house to an unknown location. After being listed as missing for years, their bodies were later found in two mass graves. Photo: Ferdi Limani, 2006.
Hysen and Mihane Behluli’s granddaughter stands close to the photographs of her close family members in the garden of her house in Fushë Kosova. Photo: Ferdi Limani, 2006.
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.
Relatives of war victims at the reburial ceremony of 21 war victims in the village of Krusha e Madhe, near Prizren. Photo: Ferdi Limani, 2007.
A young girl holds flowers as members of the Kosovo Protection Corps bury the coffin of a war victim at the reburial ceremony of 21 war victims in Krusha e Madhe. Photo: Ferdi Limani, 2007.
Relatives of war victims bury their loved ones in the reburial ceremony of 21 war victims in Krusha e Madhe. Photo: Ferdi Limani, 2007.
Local people from the village of Izbicë in Drenica bury three war victims from the village that were found in mass graves in Serbia. Photo: Ferdi Limani, 2007.
Mothers of missing persons in Gjakova find plaques bearing the names of their loved ones on the ‘wall of pain,’ which contains the names of missing persons. Photo: Ferdi Limani, 2008.
Villagers walk to the cemetery for war victims in the village of Meja, near Gjakova. Photo: Ferdi Limani, 2008.
A mother with a portrait of her missing son in her garden in the village of Krusha e Vogël, near Prizren. Photo: Ferdi Limani, 2008.
A young girl is transported to an ambulance as she loses consciousness at the reburial ceremony of 21 war victims in Krusha e Madhe, near Prizren. Photo: Ferdi Limani, 2007.
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.
During the reburial ceremony at Krusha e Madhe, a young boy holds a photograph of his father, who he had lost before he was born. Photo: Ferdi Limani, 2007.