In the years following the end of the war, the identification of the bodies was conducted through traditional methods, using what the victims might have been wearing or had on them when they were killed. In 2003, after an agreement was signed between the International Committee on Missing Persons and the UN Mission in Kosovo, this method was replaced with DNA matching, which was conducted using blood samples from relatives who survived.
Due to the failure to find all mortal remains and cases of misidentifications in the first years after the war, family members were often forced to go through the pain of successive reopening of graves by the EU Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo (EULEX) in cooperation with local agencies. Occasionally, individuals — both Albanian and Serb — took money from those missing loved ones, with the promise that their family members would be found; there were also cases when family members heard what turned out to be false reports in the media about the missing being found alive.
This has all contributed to reducing family members’ trust in the work of relevant institutions to find their loved ones.
In Krusha e Vogël, on the early spring day of March 26, 1999 — the day before Eid — Ajshe lost her husband Salih and four sons: Sahit (27), Xhavit (25), Driton (20) and Nait (18). On the same day, a few kilometers away from Ajshe, in Krusha e Madhe, Ferdija lost her 20-year-old son Driton and her husband Muhamet.
Before moving to Krusha, the two friends had grown up in Pirana, Prizren, in houses separated only by a fence. This is their conversation when they met again after 21 years.
The pain of loss, disappointment and suffering had now built another wall between them, but it had not touched the memory of their past. The references to their childhood playing together were there between the lines; now the most important event of their stories is mixed with pain, weariness and despair.
The conversation below is not an ordinary catch-up between friends who haven’t seen each other in many moons. They discuss the exact opposite of what such reunions would normally cover — their unceasing longing and pain.
Ajshe: How are you holding up, do you get tired or sad?
Ferdije: You can fix tiredness with rest you know Ajshe, but I do get quite sad. What about you? How are your sons?
Ajshe: They’re well.
Ferdije: Do you get tired or sad, or…?
Ajshe: I really do get very sad. I didn’t want to come, you know, I’m fed up.
Ferdije: Here, look what’s happened to me [shows the cold sores on her lips]. I didn’t sleep a wink last night.
Ajshe: I didn’t get a full hour of sleep…
Ferdije: I was going back over it, going back over it… how they disappeared, why they didn’t escape, why they didn’t stay with me…
Do you visit [your family in] Pirana at all?
Ajshe: Very little really. I really don’t feel like going out at all, Ferdije; I don’t feel like going at all.
Ferdije: I feel the same.
Ajshe: You know, my youngest brother is ill, I don’t believe he’ll get back on his feet but… it may be shameful to say this but it seems like nothing to me. Compared to my suffering, it seems like nothing.
Ferdije: I had three sons. The second one disappeared alongside his father; I still have the older one and the younger one. I have two sons; I never had a daughter.
Ajshe: I have two sons and a daughter. I had seven sons. Four of them [are missing from] the war, with my husband. And here we are! God, life is hard; life is very difficult.
Ferdije: You can’t compare anything with [the loss of] children. People can say what they want. When I think about it I say to myself, “How are we even still alive? How are we alive?” While my son was growing up, he would say, “Mom, what’s going on with the havoc of this war? How will I go to school in Prishtina?” He wanted to go to school in Prishtina.
I pity the mothers who are still alive, and the newly-wed women left behind — it’s terrible.
Ajshe: My son was also in Prishtina [working] at a bakery [during the ’90s], but somehow it was in God’s plan for him to come back.
When I saw him I said, “Xhavit, son, why did you return?”
“Well, I miss you too sometimes!”
“Oh now you’ve come,” I said to him, “what should I do with you now?”
“Oh Mom, I’ll do what everybody else does.”
The other one went to school in Prizren: He worked in logging… they all left! All of them left: My household has withered away… The yard used to be busy with the comings and goings of my men and my boys, and now there’s no-one… my younger son is now in Germany. The other one is on dialysis.
Ferdije: My son wanted to go to Prishtina… first he wanted to go to university, but he put it off for a year and stayed at home because of the war. First the war started around Ratkovc, Drenica… then in the end… in the end it came to us.
Ajshe: I grieve for my sons; I don’t grieve for my husband at all.
Ferdije: Well yes, I grieve for my son because he was younger, but my husband…
Ajshe: My husband lived his life, but my sons were young and didn’t get to enjoy life, they didn’t… Not at all! How did the war gather them up like that? My son had come back from Prizren, [the other one] had come back from Prishtina…
Ferdije: Kymet [Ferdije’s sister-in-law]’s son had come back from Switzerland…
Ajshe: And now we’re left without sons… let alone husbands for God’s sake.
Ferdije: Oh God, my husband… sometimes when I get angry I say he brought it upon himself.
I would tell him, “Just don’t go out!”
And he would say, “We’re protecting the village…”
“Just stay,” I would say. “Don’t go out!”
Ajshe: Because my husband would say, “Kuku you’re petrifying the children.” I fixed them food before they left.
Ferdije: Yes, but they [the Serb forces] betrayed you: They told you, “Stay here and bring all your family here because we won’t touch you…” And then they did what they did.
Ajshe: When I woke up in the morning I looked at the boys: the older one, the second one, the third; they and my brother-in-law’s [children] were inseparable. The older one, this one here [she shows his picture on her cell phone case] said… “Mom, you didn’t leave?”
I said, “No, I didn’t leave!”
“Quick,” he said, “go up to Uncle Haki’s.”
I said, “Why?”
He said, “Everybody’s gone up there!”
I said, “I’ll go up. You [go] to the other side of the Drin.”
“OK,” he said.
I thought I sorted it out for them: I said to myself that he’d take the other youngsters and go along the Drin…
Ferdije: It would have been better if they’d gone along the Drin rather than heading down.
Ajshe: That night, the men were drinking tea in the oda. The boys said, “Oh, get going because they’re coming!”
[But the men replied:] “Come on, they won’t do anything to us!”
The boys went up the slope. They [Serbian forces] were shooting, and couldn’t [hit] them all… Then I saw that they’d come back.
“Oh Sahit, my son!” I said to my oldest boy. “Why didn’t you go to the other side of the Drin, love? What have you done?”
He said, “Mother, we stayed at the Batushas’. We plan to move on to Pagarusha [a nearby village].”
“And when are you going to go, since you didn’t make it during the night?” I asked. “Just stop, son, and tell the men to go.”
But there was really no place for them to go. The surrounding vineyards, Randobrava, Pirana were all surrounded by tanks and artillery. There was nowhere to go: They were trapped! “Oh God…” I said. “What are you going to do, son?”
[An armed Serbian official] said, “Gather in one place.” Women, children, men, boys, everybody… two boys were holding onto my knees, oh God…
I said, “What on earth should we do?”
The doors opened and he said, “Children should go in one place, men should go in another, women in another… No,” he said, “the women shouldn’t be separated from the children: Let them stay with the children.”
They separated the men, oh God they separated us: They took the young boys, the men, all of them. They’d rounded them up. My son was the same age as my sister-in-law’s son. Oh God, when I saw them, I didn’t dare look at them at first: [their] tears tak, tak, tak…
Ajshe Shehu lost her husband and four sons on March 26, 1999 when Serbian forces attacked Krusha e Madhe. From left to right: Sahit, Milit (who survived the war but has since died), Xhavit, Nait and Driton. Photo: Aurela Kadriu / K2.0.
Ferdije: They knew what would happen to them at his hands…
Ajshe: I was in a bad way… they took them and shoved them into Drag’s house, the guy they called Drag Tapalli. They stuck them in there. It was a one-storey house. And then they blazed away…
When I went to the [nearby] tyrbe (shrine) I heard an “a-a-a-a-a-a-a-arrrr” [imitates the sound of an automatic gun].
I said to the other women, “They killed them!”
The next morning I went out in the yard in [nearby village] Has. I put my hands like this [she puts her hands on her hips]; the stream was nearby.
“Oh God,” I said to the other women. “Look: The smoke from our sons who they’ve set on fire…” If only I had been there.
When Qamil [her cousin] came, he said, “They burned and killed them all!” He had been buried beneath the corpses so he survived. What good is it to him to have survived?
“My son,” he said. “They cut him in half at my feet. He was foaming at the mouth,” he said. “I fell down and they covered me with corpses.”
“Oh God,” I told the neighbor’s wife. “Serbeze, they’re burning our sons!”
Smoke plumed from that place for four days.
When we came back from Albania [where they stayed for the remainder of the war as refugees] there were so many burned shoes, so many cast-off jackets, belts, pants, coats that they had thrown off as they tried to save themselves. I swear to God, everything was reduced to ashes. Then they carried them [mortal remains and clothing] away on a truck and took them to the Drin, I saw it with my own eyes. The truck came alongside the Drin; it was from Krusha e Madhe — it was from here. They unloaded them into the Drin and set them on fire there once again…
Ferdije: As if they were actually scared of anyone back then.
Ajshe: When I came back from Albania I said, “I want to go to the Drin!”
When I went to the Drin, so many of the ruined houses were covered in blood. Oh God, there were so many necklaces, so many shoes… I held my head in my hands, but a person doesn’t die [that way], you know. I had made it to the Drin and I hadn’t died. I told my daughter, “Let’s go back, love, nothing we’ve seen has been good. There’s no hope!”
Ferdije: They surrounded us before sunrise. I told my son, who is now missing:
“Zog sweetheart, hide under this table.” His name was Driton but we called him Zog (bird).
“Mom,” he said, “I’m not a baby! I’m big. How can I fit under the table?”
When he stood up, he was taller than the policeman.
[The policeman] said, “Daj mi ličnu kartu! [Give me your ID!]”
I said in Albanian, “He doesn’t have one!” because I could understand [Serbian] but I didn’t know [how to reply]. He took him out: He took [my son].
Ajshe: But they didn’t kill us: We were left behind to suffer.
Ferdije: That’s when they took my son and we never saw him again. When I went out to the yard, they’d all been handed over — my husband and two [other] sons. My older son ran away at night and then they released the younger one. We didn’t see my middle son or my husband from that day on.
Ferdije Hoti last saw her husband Muhamet and son Driton on March 26, 1999. She knows nothing of their fate since then. Photo: Aurela Kadriu / K2.0.
Ajshe: Did you bury them?
Ferdije: No, no. They weren’t found, or buried.
Ajshe: I told my sons, “Just get away and stay at your uncle’s in Pirana!” [His family] all survived.
Ferdije: One of our nephews from [nearby village] Mamusha told us, “Get away and come to Mamusha!”
[I said] “No, they won’t harm us…”
All we found was a pair of my son’s sneakers. I keep them in a bag in the living room.
Ajshe: This one here [shows a picture of her son on her cell phone cover], he ran away via the balcony [and left behind] one shoe on the balcony and another one in the yard. My [other] son, the older one, hasn’t seen his second daughter [shows a picture of her son on her cell phone cover] because his wife was pregnant when we lost him.
Ferdije: How many children did your older son leave behind?
Ajshe: Two daughters, two daughters…
Ferdije: Poor Hyra Mavriqi, [they also] took her two sons, her husband… She’s from Pirana, from our village. She told her son, “Go on son, go with your father because they won’t harm you: They won’t do anything to you!” And now she says, “I want to squeeze my brains out. How could I have told my son, ‘Go with your father?’” I don’t know how old her youngest was: 12 or something?
Ferdije: Yes, because she had her sons after her daughters: She had daughters first and then the boys were born. “Go on, son, go with your father because they won’t harm you!” She said, “It feels like it was me who sent him to his death!”
Ajshe: Even before they [the Serbian forces] came to our yard, I wanted to get my sons ready.
“Join the columns [of refugees heading] toward Albania!”
“No Mom, you’re too afraid!”
He [my husband] said, “You’re scaring my sons.”
Ferdije: My son who’s missing would say, “Oh Mom, I’m worried about you.” Because my mother-in-law was old I’d say, “It’s Grandma Ide who won’t be able to run: Don’t worry about me — I can run away fast.” He grew two meters tall. But oh God, I didn’t see him from that day on: I only saw the tears running down my husband’s face. They tore us apart.
My sister-in-law is raising my older son’s younger daughter, and she asked her, “Mom, what did my father’s hair look like: Was it black or blonde?” He left her when she was three months old… She said, “No darling, he had black hair!”
Ferdije: They did so much in Krusha e Vogël and Krusha e Madhe…
Ajshe: Krusha e Vogël: It’s small…
Ferdije: A hundred men…
Ajshe: A hundred-and-five grown men…
Ferdije: In Krusha e Madhe it was over 200.
The government doesn’t care about anything. They only care about themselves. They’re not dealing with this at all… I mean, it’s been 21 years and we still don’t know.
Ajshe: I worry because I have to pay for electricity, and God knows there are other bills too. Bills come and I say I’ll take care of them one of these days. It’s too much… Can you believe that I didn’t even have money to buy flowers for the graveyard? A journalist came on the anniversary. My son was ill; I’d run out of money. [The journalist] came to get information, and I really didn’t want to talk. I felt ashamed that I said, “What on earth can I call this day? I didn’t have money for a single flower to lay at the graveyard!” Then he gave me 50 euros; I went to buy flowers! What can I say? I don’t know… that’s life.
Ferdije: When I’d go to Pirana my mother would say, “Hey, love, did you get your salary?” It felt like my lungs were on fire!
I would say, “How can you say that? What salary?”
“Well, I got it.”
“You receive it due to old age; mine’s because of my grief.”
Ajshe: She didn’t understand.
Ferdije: Every time I go to pick up that money, I get sick: I collapse on my bed — do you believe me?
Ajshe: I can believe it. My cupboards are empty, my house is empty. What can I say: I wake up in the morning and God, I don’t know where to start! It’s hard to do anything when you haven’t got the means. “What are you thinking about, mother?” What is there to think about! You have to have money. I need to buy groceries for the house; the children need clothing, we need food.
Sometimes I yell at my daughter-in-law, “Don’t ask me what I’m thinking, I have plenty to think about!”
“OK Mom, I was just asking.”
Ferdije: After the war, this “Radio Vatikani” reported that Hysen Muhadri, Nysret Hoti and Driton Hoti [her son] were found in a certain place. But they weren’t there: They only said so on the radio. My brother in Switzerland also heard about it and called me on the phone saying, “Dije, thank God they found Driton!” But they didn’t find him: They just made me stop breathing for a while.
Ajshe: Even if that were the case [that they survived], it’s been 20 years now…
Ferdije: The radio mentioned the name and surname, but he would have come immediately, because he would have known exactly where I was.
Ajshe: He wasn’t a child: He would have known how to find the house himself.
Twenty-one years later, Ferdije Hoti is still waiting for any information as to the whereabouts of her husband and son. Photo: Aurela Kadriu / K2.0.
Ferdije: We were in Elbasan in Albania and they said, “Muhamet [her husband] is in Durrës.” Muhamet isn’t a baby and he’d know how to look for his family.
Ajshe: If your son had been found he would have come. My son for instance, he was a soldier; he came to Albania and found me after the war ended. We were still in Albania. When I saw him, “Oh Milit,” I said, “you came?” I didn’t look for him at all, I was saying, “They probably got killed, him too.” There’s nothing you can do Ferdije…
Ferdije: No, there was nothing for us to do: nothing… crying, sitting, eating, drinking, washing, cleaning, cooking, getting through the jobs.
Ajshe: I can say I was slightly relieved.
“Milit,” I said, “do you know anything about the others?”
“No Mom, this was a war.” He knew all too well.
They say in Prishtina that they’ve found my older son, but as for the others…
Ferdije: None of them?
Ajshe: None at all. I think it’s been a year since they found him. I think that’s right, but without finding all of them… if they find them, OK we’ll bury them … I can’t afford a funeral every day… I didn’t bury him, he’s still there. They had a meeting and we said if they find at least another one, if they find another one that’s when we’ll bury them… people are tired; one burial today, one tomorrow, one the day after: This thing is being drawn out. All that people have left is to die, to lie down and die. We have sorrow, constant sorrow.
What can I say dear? They’re just putting their names there — I don’t believe it. My husband… I’m talking a lot… First of all we buried a piece of my husband’s jacket and some small bones. A year later they brought a bag full of bones: “Sali Shehu [her husband’s name]!”
“Come on,” I said, “I had one husband, not two.”
“In a plastic bag like that; do you think you’re bringing me grapes?” I said. “You know what? Wherever you found them and wherever you plan to take them, do what you like. Dig a hole and chuck them in.”
Ferdije: Did you say, “I buried my husband already”?
Ajshe: My dear, they’re out of their minds; they’re just playing around with bones.
Ferdije: My older son left at midnight: “Look Mother,” he said, “this is what I’m doing. I want to leave, I’ll go wherever I can see a way. They may kill me from a distance,” he said, “but I won’t fall into their hands.” To Retijë [village] and then from Retijë they went as a group to Mamusha…
Ajshe: No way! He survived.
Ferdije: He survived. Maybe it was his destiny, but he survived.
I told my husband, “Muhamet,” I said, “don’t stay here. Take the boys and go.”
He said, “Yes, yes. I don’t want to stay.”
When we left the room we were in, Muhamet was the first to exit; they [the Serbian police] took their wallets and IDs and put them on top of a car. They took all the documents they had — everything, everything, everything: The men gave everything to them.
But my son didn’t have an ID because he was born in Prizren and they sent all of his documents to Peja. My son disappeared without an ID, with nothing on him.
Ajshe: Yes. This one [the older son, Sahit] wore a gold chain around his neck and the policemen said, “Take off whatever you have round your necks!”
Ferdije: Yes, they took everything.
Ajshe: Yes. He removed the chain and gave it to my [other] son who is on dialysis; he placed it in his hands [and said], “Take care of it!” As soon as we were able to come back from Albania, I went to Krusha for about two months — no, not that long, about five weeks — and he had to be put on dialysis.
Ferdije: He was put on dialysis after the war?
Ajshe: After the war… God, oh God I sent him to [the hospital in] Prizren where he stayed for two weeks. He was put on dialysis and they said, “Take him to Prishtina!” They took him in there. I went that day to see my son; he was on the third floor.
At midnight he woke up, thank goodness.
“Mom, are you here?”
I said, “Yes, love, I came yesterday morning. You didn’t speak to me.”
He started crying. He just sat there and then he said, “Is there anything I could eat?”
“Oh my son,” I said, “if I go out in Prishtina I’ll get lost: I won’t find my way back!”
Oh God, I went out and got him some food: I got him grapes. I grabbed him like this and he leaned back on his bed, I put a towel in front of him and I gave him the food; then he ate. He saw that I was out of it.
As he took a mouthful, he said, “Who took Driton’s chain off me?” [meaning] the one that my [other] son gave him.
I said, “It fell off your bed, love: Here you are.”
“Take care of it for me! When they find Driton he said to give it back.”
“Don’t worry about it,” I said. I put it around his neck.
That’s my story. Suffering…
Ferdije: There’s no hope now…
Ajshe Shehu has had no information on the whereabouts of three of her missing sons since 1999. Photo: Aurela Kadriu / K2.0.
Ajshe: No, no. There’s nothing.
Ferdije: No, nothing. I think it was seven years after the war when they buried 42 of them. They brought them to the school and took them straight to the graveyard. There were also whole bodies that they found in Krusha. I think there are 65 or 62 from Krusha who are still missing.
Ajshe: When the body is whole it’s easier. It’s not easier but… it’s whole: You know what I mean.
Ferdije: Some of the Hoti family who were killed — they, for instance, were whole. Doctor Fahredin with his son: His son was hit by… No, they killed his son and Fahredin was hit by a grenade.
Ajshe: No darling, they were all washed away by the Drin: I have no hopes there.
“They are somewhere: We saw them,” [people told us]. They kept our hopes up: Did I say that earlier? “Yes, we saw them in the truck at Krusha e Vogël.” We told them, “Calm down!” Sometimes we would calm down, at other times we would go crazy, and at other times…
Ferdije: We were at the mosque and then they told us, “You have to leave!” Then when we left they took the rings off my daughter-in-law who had been married for nine months. They took all her rings — whatever she had; they took my ring… they took all the gold that the newly-married women had on them: all of their money… My mother-in-law gave [a policeman] 500 marks. She said, “Let my sons go!”
After a while, she said, “I gave you the money: Let my sons go!”
Then he kicked my mother-in-law, “Hajde, brže [Come on; move faster]!”
When I saw him kick her I knew it was over for us; when we went down from the mosque the whole village was in flames: The houses were burning… it was apocalyptic!
Ajshe: Really, really, really apocalyptic!
Ferdije: There were only women and young children there: There were no men. When we went to [the village of] Celina, my younger son caught up; they had let some of the younger ones go. They kept the others there. But my son was very afraid: He was terrified. He said, “Mom, after we left, the rifles started firing.”
Ajshe: Just like me…
Ferdije: I wonder if they killed them then… while my son was there he said, “They told us to lie face down and not raise our heads.”
One of the Beqaliu family… have you heard of the Beqalius? [The Serbian forces] asked them, “Who wants water?”
The guy [from the Beqaliu family] wasn’t feeling well: He was ill and said, “I want water!”
When he got up to drink water, they beat him with rifles and covered him in blood. My younger son told us about it. Also, the man from the neighborhood who bought the car, the Mercedes…
He [the younger son] told us: “The policeman took out his lighter from his pocket and gave it to him. ‘Take the lighter and go and burn the car!’ He burned his car with his own hands!”
Up there, by the mosque.
They beat up the guy who asked for water until he was covered in blood. And they told the head of that household, “Here, take the lighter and go burn the car!”
Ajshe: I was so afraid for the young women…
Ferdije: The sister-in-law then said, “Oh God,” she said, “I’ve forgotten my sons now. What about their young wives, my older daughter!” The older daughter-in-law placed all of her jewelry in a handkerchief, tied it up and put it in her son’s pocket. [The policeman] checked the pocket and took all of the jewelry.
This war wasn’t only fought between soldiers: This horrible war also took away the innocent.
Ajshe: There was no way to run from them: It was inevitable that you’d end up falling into their hands.
Ferdije: There’s nothing we can do, but it’s so hard for the mothers. When they go on television: “The family members of the missing!” “The mothers of the missing!” It’s so difficult for us; so difficult for mothers when the bones of their children are mentioned, to figure out where they are and where they’re not. We’re worn out by it.
Many family members of the missing have felt neglected by successive governments since the war. Photo: Aurela Kadriu / K2.0.
Ajshe: As for me, what can I say? No-one can say that if I had a chance I’d kill myself; let no-one ever say that!
Ferdije: So many years have passed; what else can I think about? What can I hope for? It’s been 21 years; I’ve only dreamt of my son once, and never again. After the war when we came back: It was about six or seven months [after] and he was asking for water to wash himself.
I said, “Oh darling, we don’t have water in the bathroom now: We’re ruined. But I’ll heat it up on the wood stove.” I was fumbling to build a fire and heat up the water, and oh, when I woke up in the morning, only God knows how I felt! I said, “Oh God, it was just a dream!” I sort of felt happy: I wanted to heat up the water for him, but what was there? Nothing…
Ajshe: When I get sad my daughter-in-law talks to me.
I tell her, “You know what, leave me alone!”
“Alright, alright I’ll leave you alone.”
She knows I think about them: I think about how it would be to have them. How did they pass away? Did they ask for help? How did they burn them? Maybe they burned them alive…
Ferdije: I say that you have to live: You have to talk and laugh a bit for the sake of those left alive.
Ajshe: I told you: I force myself to laugh.
Ferdije: For the sake of those left alive, because now we’re just like outward forms who come and go, who eat and drink, who work a little, like the outward shape of a person. Because, for me, there’s no point in living anymore.
Ajshe: My mind, my heart and my brain lie with my sons. I don’t even attend the anniversaries: I faint immediately.
Ferdije: I actually go and spend time with the neighbors. When there were a few small graves, they made them small for some [mortal remains] that they sent, then they took them back…
Ajshe: They’re playing around with those bones: They’re having a laugh…
Ferdije: Back then I would touch them [the gravestones] one by one and say, “Oh my boy, maybe you’re here, maybe here, or maybe here.”
I would cry and feel sad… there’s nothing! Now I have to support myself against the wall — it would be better to know where he rests: to have a sign for him… to send him a flower with my friends… but there’s nothing!
Ajshe: If it were actually them, yes. My heart would heal.
Ferdije: Maybe they’ll bring somebody else’s bones, who knows… K
Feature image: Aurela Kadriu / K2.0.
This conversation took place in Albanian. It has been edited for length and clarity.
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